Tuesday 16 July 2019

Liam Collins: 'Tycoon heiress's Aston Martin is star of the show'

A vintage James Bond-style Aston Martin is all that's left to remind us of Anne Bullitt's glamorous life, writes Liam Collins

Socialite Anne Bullitt
Socialite Anne Bullitt
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Her mansion was sold to the Mansfields, her gowns - by Dior and Givenchy - auctioned off by Adam's, her Picasso paintings stolen and her treasure trove of papers (including personal letters to her father from distinguished figures such as US President Franklin Roosevelt and Sigmund Freud) went to Harvard.

To celebrate her marriage to the Irish blue-blood Roderic More O'Ferrall in 1955, the third-time bride commissioned Cartier to design and make a diamond necklace in Paris which, it was said, "perfectly matched her society lifestyle" and was sold after her death in Bonhams for £602,500.

But the air of mystery and glamour that surrounded the wealthy and American heiress Anne Bullitt - who was made a 'ward of court' in Dublin in her declining years before dying alone and largely forgotten on August 18, 2007 at the age of 83 - remains to this day.

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For one thing, the reward for the recovery of her pair of antique duelling pistols - once the property of George Washington, the first president of the US - which went missing while she was living in stately Palmerstown House, near Naas, Co Kildare, has never been claimed.

But those intrigued by the life and times and lonely death of 'Little Annie' Bullitt will be able to see the last remaining artefact of her stylish life next week when her Aston Martin DB5, which she bought from Crawford's Garage in Hatch Street, Dublin goes on show. The DB5 is a car with a long history among automobile enthusiasts, winning worldwide attention when Sean Connery drove it to international stardom as James Bond in Goldfinger.

Suddenly those with means and style wanted a DB5, and the first owner in Ireland was the four-times married Anne Bullitt, then a successful horse trainer living on the 700-acre estate near Naas which was built for the Earl of Mayo.

Anne Bullitt's Aston Martin DB5
Anne Bullitt's Aston Martin DB5

She traded in her hand-built Bristol 406 for the new 'king of the road'.

Next Sunday, the Kildare registered car, DIO 633, will be one of more than 20 DB5s on display at the Irish Classic & Vintage Motor Show in Terenure College, Dublin, where they will take pride of place among the hundreds of classic cars from the early days of motoring to the present day.

"She held on to the Aston Martin right up until she was forced to move into a nursing home," says one of the show organisers, Brendan McCoy, "fortunately it was bought by a local enthusiast - one of those small boys of the 1960s - who restored the car to its former glory."

Anne was the only daughter of William Christian Bullitt, a patrician US diplomat and friend of presidents, who was the first US ambassador to Moscow and later its ambassador in Paris. As a young woman in New York, Anne's mother, Louise Bryant, was known as 'The Queen of Bohemia', who ended up as a sad alcoholic in Paris after losing custody of her only child.

William C Bullitt
William C Bullitt

After disposing of two husbands, Anne Bullitt married the aristocratic Roderic More O'Ferrall, of Kildangan Stud, now owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai.

But that too was a troubled union and when she left him she became involved in a court case with her horse-owning partner Paddy 'Darkie' Prendergast, which scandalised Irish society in the 1950s.

She moved to Palmerstown House, becoming the first woman to take out a training licence in Ireland and operating the biggest stud farm in the country as well as seeing her home-bred horses win more than 100 races before she suddenly quit the sport.

As her eyesight deteriorated, Mrs Bullitt, who had acquired and disposed of a fourth husband, gradually retreated to three dimly-lit rooms in Palmerstown House.

When she defied her trustees and sold it behind their backs to Citywest tycoon Jim Mansfield for a reported €12.7m, they sent a psychiatrist to Ireland in July, 1998, to assess her mental state.

"To say she was uncooperative is an understatement," her New York lawyer and estate planner Robert M Pennoyer reported. "Mrs Bullitt told the psychiatrist in her best French and in most undiplomatic terms what to do with himself."

Mansfield believed that he was not only buying Palmerstown House but also her treasures, which included two Picassos, a Ming vase, a valuable Japanese screen, a vast collection of vintage clothes and the mysterious pair of duelling pistols presented to George Washington by one of his generals, the Marquis de Lafayette.

On Thursday, February 19, 2009 when these matters were aired in the High Court in Dublin, Mr Pennoyer sought a declaration that much of this collection was part of Anne Bullitt's estate, and not the property of Mr Mansfield. The case was opened and quickly adjourned, and the following day Justice Mary Laffoy stuck it out "with a little note of sadness" saying she would have liked to have heard more about the Bullitt family treasures.

Then a small but intriguing advertisement appeared in the personal columns of The Irish Times on January 26, 2018:

'Collector seeks information: Antique duelling pistols of historic interest to the USA. Once the property of the late Anne Bullitt, Palmerstown House, Co Kildare. We are anxious to establish the present whereabouts of the pistols and will pay a reward for any information which assists in the same.

How did the pistols, said to be valued at €2m, come in to the possession of Anne Bullitt and disappear from her home in Ireland?

A few days before the Germans entered Paris in 1941, a prominent French political figure appeared at the US Embassy and told her father, then the US Ambassador to Paris, that his wife, who was now dead, always kept a pair of 18th Century pocket pistols, which George Washington had given to Marquis Lafayette after the Battle of Yorktown, in thanks for his services to the cause of American independence. In 1962, Ambassador Bullitt gave the pistols to his daughter Anne, along with an account of how he acquired them.

"They are now on the mantel over the fireplace in my bedroom at my daughter's stud in Palmerstown, Co Kildare, Ireland," he wrote.

In his memoirs, his solicitor Robert M Pennoyer, claims that the American ambassador in Dublin intervened with the Irish Government in an attempt to recover the missing pistols which disappeared at some point from Palmerstown House.

In Garda raids in 2015, a Picasso drawing of a boy's head, a number of valuable Degas and Dufy drawings that once belonged to Anne Bullitt were recovered.

But the Lafayette pistols and a second Picasso titled White Clown are still missing.

With the economic recession and the dissolution of the Mansfield empire, Palmerstown House was acquired in 2013 for €8m by the acquisitive Mayo brothers Luke and Brian Comer, who now operate a golf club there.

Now all that remains of Anne Bullitt's Irish life are the missing treasures and her green Aston Martin DB5.

Master of margaritas

Anne's father William C  Bullitt was a top level diplomat - but he also knew how to throw a party. On April 24, 1935 while serving as US ambassador to the USSR, he hosted a Spring Festival at his Moscow residence and instructed his staff to create an event that would surpass every other embassy party in Moscow's history.

The decorations included a forest of 10 real birch trees in the chandelier room; a dining room table covered with Finnish tulips; a lawn made of chicory grown on wet felt; an aviary made from fishnet filled with pheasants, parakeets, and 100 zebra finches (on loan from Moscow Zoo). There was also a menagerie of several mountain goats, a dozen white roosters - and a baby bear.

The 400 guests included the Foreign Commissar, the Defence Commissar; various communist party luminaries; Soviet marshals - and the writer Mikhail Bulgakov.

The festival lasted until the early hours of the morning. The bear became drunk on Champagne given to him by a Soviet general, and in the early hours of the morning the zebra finches escaped from the aviary and flew around the house.

In short, bedlam.

Bulgakov described the party as 'The Spring Ball of the Full Moon' in his novel The Master and Margarita and to this day it is celebrated in Moscow - like a Soviet Bloomsday. But with bears.

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