Wednesday 13 December 2017

Aristocrat whose silver spoon never brought him happiness

Alexander (Alistair) Vane-Tempest-Stewart, the late 9th Marquess of Londonderry, came from a long line of maverick British aristocrats and he did his level best to carry on the family tradition.

Born in 1937, he wanted for nothing during a blissful wartime childhood, cossetted by nannies and butlers in the lavish family pile at Mount Stewart, by Strangford Lough in Co Down.

He had two older sisters, of whom the younger, Annabel, became better known as Lady Annabel Birley and later Lady Annabel Goldsmith, wife of Sir James Goldsmith and mother of Jemima Khan.

For Alistair, however, bliss was in short supply throughout an adult life pockmarked by betrayal and tragedy. He didn't always help his own cause, 'coming out' into polite society by launching a blistering attack on the royal family, for which he was forced to issue a grovelling apology.

He wed young and, it turned out, unwisely. His first marriage did not survive the front-page revelation that his apparent first son, heir to the Londonderry title, had actually been fathered by the pop star Georgie Fame.

Alexander, who preferred the name Alistair, inherited his title and estate on the death of his father in 1955 aged 18. Denied a university life, he became a self-made aristo, learning French, Italian and German, and becoming an accomplished pianist.

Blue blood, graft and madness all ran in the family. The second Marquess, better known as Lord Castlereagh, was the man who bribed Ireland's politicians on a massive scale to secure the passing of the Act of Union in 1801.

Castlereagh later became insane, obsessed by the fear that his enemies were plotting to accuse him of sodomy. He cut his own throat with a penknife, going the way of his sworn enemy Wolfe Tone, his defeated adversary in the 1798 rebellion.

Of Alistair's more recent forebears, the most colourful was his grandfather, the seventh Marquess, minister of education at Stormont in 1923 and a maverick who was once described as "the sort of grandee who makes you wonder why there was no British revolution".

Wealthy from Durham coal, he was a serial philanderer who sired three children by his mistress, as well as five by his wife.

In the mid-1930s, Alistair's grandfather put himself beyond the pale with his Establishment chums by making a series of visits to Hitler (whom he pronounced "very agreeable") in a forlorn personal crusade to extend the policy of appeasement even further than Neville Chamberlain's cabinet was prepared to.

Pilloried as 'The Londonderry Herr', he died in a gliding accident in 1949 and was succeeded by his son, Alistair's father.

Young Alistair attended Eton, where he founded a jazz band called the Eton Five. In 1951, when he was 14, his mother died of mouth cancer and his father embarked on a rapid descent into chronic alcoholism, eventually succumbing to liver failure in 1955.

The 9th Marquess launched his career somewhat unpromisingly with a letter to the New Statesman, attacking the monarchy. He criticised members of the royal family for "flashing their toothpaste smiles, displaying their latest hairdos and exhibiting their deplorable taste in clothes.

"I have met the Queen a number of times," he went on, adding: "I find her voice a pain in the neck."

His tirade brought a stern reprimand from his grandmother, the Dowager Marchioness, who decried her grandson's "vulgar, silly, and childish" outburst. Days later, he issued a grovelling apology.

The same year he became secretly engaged to a 16-year-old blonde beauty called Nicolette Harrison. When they married in 1958, he and Nicolette were hailed as an example of the new unstuffy aristocracy.

The groom had no idea of just how unstuffy his new bride would ultimately prove.

They had two daughters and a son who, as heir to the Londonderry title, was initially styled Viscount Castlereagh. When the baby was 18 months old, however, blood tests established that he was the son of the pop star Georgie Fame, whom Nicolette had pursued after spotting him performing on 'Top Of The Pops' in 1964.

The story featured on newspaper front pages for days. Mr Fame was named as co-respondent in the Londonderrys' subsequent divorce in 1971 and the following year he and Nicolette were married.

They had another son together but in 1993 Nicolette committed suicide by jumping off the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol.

In 1972, Alistair married Doreen Wells, former principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, but happiness continued to elude him. After 17 years, his second marriage also ended in divorce.

More discomfort was to follow when Lady Cosima Somerset, his daughter by his first wife, claimed that her biological father was the nightclub pianist and writer Robin Douglas-Home, nephew of the former prime minister Alec and a close friend of Princess Margaret. Robin had killed himself with an overdose in the 1960s.

In the 1960s Alistair Londonderry bought a house in Tuscany, which he renovated. He lived out his final years in Dorset.

Although he held the title of Marquess for longer than any of his eight predecessors, Lord Londonderry never took his seat in the House of Lords.

Alexander (Alistair), the 9th Marquess of Londonderry, (September 7, 1937-June 20, 2012) is survived by the two daughters of his first marriage and two sons by his second.

Indo Review

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