The tale of a Baron's court
He was the bisexual son of a London bookie and taxi driver, she was a stunning thrice-married Finn. They met, married and became the Baron and Baroness de Breffny. Glamorous, exotic and charming, Brian and Ulli held court in their Palladian home Castletown Cox, legendary hosts on the glittering social scene of Ireland in the Seventies and Eighties. He made valuable contributions to Irish art and heritage until his death in 1989; Ulli moved to Malta where she died last month, bringing down the curtain on a bygone era. Emily Hourican tells their tale
'Always favour large jewels in big, claw settings. Easier to remove if the peasants revolt".
No, not Marie Antoinette. Nor was it one of our extravagant Celtic Tiger wives. Actually it was said, with only a shred of irony, in the Eighties by one of the great hostesses of the age. She was Ulli de Breffny, who died in Malta last month, a fascinating woman with a remarkable life, of which the most remarkable aspect was probably her fourth husband, baron Brian de Breffny.
Jay Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald's quixotic, doomed hero, started life as a young man with talent and ambition far beyond the scope of his birth. Uninspired by his natural lot, he simply invented a better version of himself, and sent this projection out into the world to lead the kind of life he dreamed of -- glamorous, daring, magnificent. He "sprang from his Platonic conception of himself", inventing "just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a 17-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end".
Ever since, Gatsby has been a byword for this kind of daring self-invention, something that would be plain fraud were it not also, somehow, rather touching. But he is far from alone. The desire to imagine a better self is the prerogative of aspirational discontented youth everywhere, even though very few have the ability to pull it off.
Brian de Breffny, self-styled baron, born simply Brian Michael Lees, was one such, able to take the image he held of himself and project it large. The son of a London bookie and taxi driver (his own father went from Moses Leese to Maurice Lees, in a more minor piece of self-invention), he ended his days as Baron de Breffny, in his glorious house, Castletown Cox, a well-loved if not perfectly credible member of the glittering social scene of Ireland in the Seventies and Eighties.
This was a scene held together by a few great aristocratic families and their estates -- Anne and Michael Rosse at Birr Castle, Sheila Dunsany at Dunsany Castle, Eileen Plunkett at Luttrellstown, the Beits at Russborough -- but also included artists, musicians, intellectuals, the odd actor, even a politician or two.
In the end, more important than birth or fortune were intelligence, erudition and charm. These, de Breffny had in spades. Handsome, brilliant and witty, his title may have been fraudulent, but his charisma was totally genuine. So much so that he married, first an Indian princess, with whom he had one daughter, and then Lady Sands, Finnish-born widow of Sir Stafford Lofthouse Sands. Very beautiful and very rich, she was a much-sought-after woman. That she chose Brian, who was bisexual, poor by her standards, and without credible lineage, is clear proof of his immense personal appeal.
Ultimately, de Breffny made a go of it in his chosen guise, even though his pretensions were always his Achilles heel -- a piece of absurdity that was completely unnecessary. For all the rumours surrounding his origins -- mostly good-natured gossip, the odd snide remark -- it was only after his death in 1989 that the real story emerged. Until then, even the highly sceptical were happy to keep reasonably quiet, pitch up to Castletown Cox and enjoy the legendary generosity of Brian and Ulli. The stories of their lavish parties -- often lasting three days, starting with a "quiet kitchen supper" for 14 on the Friday, through to the black-tie dinner on Saturday night and formal luncheon on Sunday morning, complete with "buckets of Champagne and vast gobbets of caviar", as one guest recalled it -- are still arresting, even compared with the years of Celtic Tiger excess since.
De Breffny's contributions to Irish history, art, architecture and genealogy are equally indisputable. He wrote more than 10 books on various aspects of Irish heritage, and started the Irish Arts Review with publisher Ann Reihill, who recalls him as "a wonderful friend and an extraordinarily brilliant man. He was also very kind". He probably saved Castletown Cox, one of Ireland's great Palladian mansions and perhaps the country's most elegant house, with its facade of dressed sandstone and unpolished Kilkenny marble, from ruin.
At a time when most of the country was indifferent, even slightly vindictive, about the destruction of these landmarks of the colonial era, de Breffny joined Desmond Guinness, Desmond FitzGerald, Knight of Glin, who sadly also died recently, and a small handful of dedicated enthusiasts in celebrating and protecting this heritage. "He was ahead of his time," says Suzanne McDougald, a frequent visitor to Castletown Cox. "He was the most marvellous promoter of Ireland." Brian's hard work and faultless taste in the end saved him from the ridicule that could have been his lot, and he won respect and admiration. His gregariousness, generosity and erudition, along with Ulli's statuesque beauty and rather impassive charm, made them both popular figures.
So where did de Breffny's story begin? Factually, it began in Isleworth, London, in January 1931, when Brian Michael was born to an English-Jewish father and English-Irish mother (she was an O'Dell). The family had some money, thanks to the taxi firm and bookies run by Maurice, and at intervals during Brian's early life his parents were able to give him the kind of capital he needed to start his real journey, the creation of the figure he longed to be.
He went to Italy, where he lived in Capri, then Ischia, then Rome. In Ischia, he became friendly with the composer Sir William Walton, who wrote the score for Laurence Olivier's Henry V, and was then married to Susana, an Argentinian almost 25 years younger than him. The couple lived at La Mortella, a hilltop villa where they created a glorious garden from, literally, a quarry, and entertained a smart set including Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Clearly charmed by the young Brian, Walton and his wife took him under their wing, becoming the first in a line of influential patrons who would promote his interests. Later, Sir William became godfather to Brian's daughter Sita, in one of the carefully considered moves Brian made to consolidate his social advancement.
Brian was undoubtedly bi-sexual -- William Walton once wrote an account of a homosexual orgy at a friend's villa on Ischia in which Brian appears -- and throughout his life formed strong, advantageous friendships with both men and women. One such was with the honourable Guy Strutt, son of Baron Rayleigh, and some years older than Brian, who is credited with moulding him into the captivating, erudite man he became. It may also have been Guy who pointed him in the direction of the extinct title, Baron de Breffny. Breifne was an Irish kingdom led by the O'Rourke family up until the 17th Century, while the Viscountcy of Breffney was created in 1727 and granted to Owen O'Rourke. Brian may well have had a great-grandmother O'Rourke, hence his fixing on this particular title. However, the last genuine baron -- Nicholas Nicolaievich O'Rourke -- apparently died in Nice in the Thirties, ending the line. Until Brian Lees resurrected it, that is. The title, therefore, was perfectly genuine; it was just Brian's claim to it that was bogus.
By this time Brian had acquired a little money, buying property and selling it on. He cut a convincing figure, with his good looks, perfect Italian and, by this stage, oddly-accented English (he took the Russian dimension to the title very seriously). With his usual knack for friendship, he had by then a collection of rather dazzling acquaintances, including the Princess del Drago, known as "Mimosa" for her love of yellow gowns and huge yellow diamonds, and her sister Princess Carla of Orleans-Bourbon.
Brian married Princess Jyotsna, the daughter of His Highness Sir Uday Chand Mahtab, KCIE, Maharajadhiraja Bahadur of Burdwan, although the marriage lasted just long enough to produce a daughter, Sita, before being dissolved. It was, from the outset, a match largely of convenience -- the Princess needed a way out of India, he needed the settlement, and credibility, she brought with her. Unusually, Sita-Maria remained with her father, eventually coming with him to Ireland where she married Viscount de Vesci, and had three children.
Princess Jyotsna is a slightly insubstantial figure, but Brian's second wife, Ulli, Lady Sands, was more than vivid, in compensation. Born in Finland, Ulli was magnificent, a kind of super-size Greta Garbo with a quality of inner stillness that was quite mesmerising.
She was the widow of Sir Stafford Lofthouse Sands, former finance minister of the Bahamas and one of the notorious "Bay Street Boys" -- the white businessmen-politicians who controlled the Bahamas at the time. He died in 1972, after becoming embroiled in a scandal relating to $1,800,000 paid to him by the operators of two large local casinos. The money arrived in the guise of consultancy and legal fees, and the payments were hardly unusual by the standards of the Bahamas at the time, but it was nevertheless an embarrassment for Sir Stafford, who left for Italy, where he bought the glorious 16th-Century, 37-room Villa Corner Della Regina in the Veneto.
Whatever about his politics, Sir Stafford was devoted to his wife, Ulli, leaving her virtually everything in a curious will that stipulated she be paid a certain fixed income, linked to inflation, even were it to exhaust the estate. He also adopted her four daughters, all by her first marriage to a Finnish lawyer. Stafford Sands was Ulli's third husband (about husband Number Two very little seems to be known, beyond that the marriage barely lasted a wet weekend). After his death, Ulli, now an immensely rich, glamorous and beautiful widow, seemingly had a number of high-profile affairs, including with Peter Rawlinson, British attorney general 1970-74, and a prime minister of Finland. But it was Brian she married, and with Brian she came to live, in Ireland, in the Seventies.
What Ulli thought of Brian's bisexuality is unclear -- although she apparently gave lump sums to at least two of his lovers when the affairs had run their course -- but they clearly adored each other. About his embarrassing quirk of snobbery, she was cheerfully indifferent. "People tell me Brian's father was a taxi- driver," she once said to a friend of the couple. "I say, 'what's wrong with taxi-drivers?'" However, while she may have been perfectly indulgent here in Ireland, she was known to revert to her own, more prestigious title, 'Lady Sands', just as soon as she left for England or further afield.
Those were the days when, "if you had black tie and your own car, you could go anywhere", as one enthusiastic participant recalls it. There were parties on a lavish scale -- sit-down dinners for 30, with a liveried footman behind every chair at some of the grander houses, extraordinary meals, surrounded by works of art and beautiful things. The de Breffnys had the art of mixing unusual people -- artists, writers, diplomats, a few of their jet-set friends, such as the Princess del Drago (as well as the odd White Russian emigre, usually introduced as a relative of sorts), with the country crowd. Their house was always full of fresh flowers, many cut from the gardens which they painstakingly restored. Miranda and Benjamin Guinness were regular visitors, as were Molly Keane, Eleanor Lambert, Terry Keane, Sybil Connolly and a whole cast of the witty and well-born of the day.
The scene revolved around a few key dates -- the Wexford Opera Festival, the Dublin Horse Show -- and central to it was an appreciation of beautiful things. Although he occasionally muttered about Oxford or the Sorbonne, Brian, who by now sported a massive signet ring, carefully aged and complete with Baron's coronet, was entirely self-taught, but his natural brilliance and good taste meant that his knowledge was deep and his judgments respected.
This was a prolific time for him. Along with his books on Irish architecture and history -- including The Houses of Ireland (in 1975, jointly with Rosemary Ffolliott) -- he wrote a novel, My First Naked Lady, and of course co-founded the Irish Arts Review, at a moment when no one was writing seriously about the arts in Ireland. Those early archives were recently put on-line, and more than stand the test of time as a resource for scholars, students and the simply interested.
Ulli engaged less with the intellectual side of the social scene, but, with her love of clothes and jewels, was a supporter of all the top Irish designers, including Ib Jorgensen, who recalls Ulli as "one of the most elegant women in Ireland and, in her day, the most beautiful woman in Finland. She had a very natural, modern style; she wasn't stuffy about clothes". By the standards of the time she was remarkably exotic and exciting, and even in her 60s made the cut of The 20 Most Beautiful Women in Ireland, in a supplement produced by this paper. In it, she says, "I'm passionate about clothes but don't have much time for cosmetics. I buy a lot, but don't use them. My approach to exercise and diet is as erratic as my life." At the time, she and Miranda Guinness were almost single-handedly keeping Brown Thomas and the handful of other top boutiques in business.
Brian died in 1989, of cancer, aged just 58. The tributes were many and heartfelt, and Seamus Heaney gave permission for extracts from Lightenings, then a work in progress, to be read at the funeral mass.
Brian's death devastated Ulli. Ten years older than her husband, she had naturally expected to predecease him. She stayed on in Castletown Cox for a few years, then moved to Burlington Road, where she moved away from fine art and antiques, decorating the new house in sparse, contemporary style, with huge abstract canvases on the walls, and continued to entertain in great style, but without the same heart.
Castletown Cox was sold to George Magan, a banker, who then spent a fortune fully restoring the place, even moving the 18th-Century staircase to a new location above the stables. Eventually Ulli moved to Gozo in Malta, to be closer to her daughters, where she engaged in an effort to keep Gozo from succumbing to development fever. As she wrote to The Times of Malta, "it would be very sad and, in my opinion, foolish to allow what has happened in so many other places in this part of the world, such as much of Spain, to happen here".
She kept up with many of her old friends, such as Ib Jorgensen, who visited her or met her in London where she had a flat. One man who called on her in Malta in recent years recalled the house as being "full of beautiful sculptures," and Ulli herself, then in her late 80s, as a "talented, clever woman". She died on September 5, in her 90s, mourned by her three remaining daughters -- one predeceased her -- 10 grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and three sons-in-law, one of whom is the actor Matthew Scurfield.
After Brian's death, Auberon Waugh wrote an unkind obituary in The Telegraph, in which he presented Brian as a kind of conman, a pretentious snob who lived a lie. Technically, he may have had a point, but he entirely overlooked the many very appealing sides of Brian's character. For his friends, most of whom were bright, outspoken and intelligent, unlikely to have put up with the kind of person Waugh described for a second, Brian's silly insistence on his title was the only flaw in an otherwise charming, kind and brilliant man.
"He was a great life-enhancer," is how Ann Rehill puts it, "who added to the cultural life of the country." Other friends agree, even those who secretly delighted in the "brilliant life-long impersonation," being performed in front of them, as Ciaran MacGonigal, who knew Brian well for many years and must be credited with establishing many of the actual facts of his life, as presented in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, put it. "His sense of humour failed him on this point," says MacGonigal. "He had perfected being that creation, and couldn't tolerate not being it."
Anyone brave or foolish enough to call him on his pretensions would simply be stared down until they backed away. It was as though he couldn't believe that all the rest -- all the genuine attributes of a magnetic character -- were enough without the bolstering effect of a title; that plain Brian Lees of London just wasn't good enough. Like Gatsby, he clung to his dream despite its evident absurdity, and despite it being manifestly unnecessary to those who appreciated him just exactly as he was.
Sunday Indo Living