Marquess of Londonderry
Unconventional aristocrat, with Irish roots, who suffered more than his fair share of heartbreak and misfortune
Alistair londonderry inherited his title and family estate in Co Durham on the death of his father in 1955, when he was just 18. But after devoting much effort to renovating the huge family mansion, Wynyard Park, the costs became overwhelming and in 1987 he was forced to sell the house and its 6,800-acre estate to the property developer Sir John Hall -- later Chairman of Newcastle United football club.
Inheriting the family titles in late adolescence had denied Alistair Londonderry a university life, so he created one for himself, becoming proficient in French, Italian and German, and knowledgeable about European literature. An authority on Franz Liszt, he became an accomplished pianist, studying in America under Egon Petri, and was an early patron of John Ogdon and Leslie Howard.
Lord Londonderry was entertaining company, with a penchant for dreadful puns, but he also suffered from bouts of depression. Yet though his life was scarred by tragedy, he never succumbed to self-pity.
Alexander Charles Robert Vane-Tempest-Stewart, always known as Alistair, was born on September 7, 1937, the son of Robin Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, heir to the Londonderry title and Unionist MP for Co Down between 1931 and 1945. His mother, Romaine, was a brewer's daughter. 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.
An ancestor, Sir Piers Tempest, fought alongside Henry V at Agincourt. However the marquessate, a title in the peerage of Ireland, was created in 1816 for Robert Stewart, who had represented Co Down in the Irish House of Commons. Stewart had already been created Baron Londonderry in 1789, Viscount Castlereagh in 1795, and Earl of Londonderry in 1796, to which the 3rd Marquess would add the (English) titles of Earl Vane and Viscount Seaham.
The second Marquess, better known as Lord Castlereagh, was the man who secured the passing of the Act of Union between England and Ireland and who, as British foreign secretary, played a major role in the reconstruction of Europe after the Napoleonic wars. He later became insane and cut his throat with a penknife, obsessed by the fear that his enemies were plotting to accuse him of sodomy.
Of Alistair Londonderry's more recent forebears, the most colourful was his grandfather, the seventh Marquess, minister of education at Stormont in 1923 and a man 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 Edith (also known as Circe), a famous socialite.
At Londonderry House in Park Lane, the Londonderrys hosted glittering receptions and in 1931 the Marquess achieved cabinet office as Secretary of State for Air (allegedly because of the Marchioness's ascendancy over the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, who proclaimed himself her "attendant ghillie"). In the mid -Thirties, however, the Marquess put himself beyond the pale 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 contemplate. Pilloried as "The Londonderry Herr", he died in a gliding accident in 1949 and was succeeded by his son, Alistair's father.
Lady Annabel Goldsmith recalled an idyllic, privileged childhood spent at the family's Irish seat, Mount Stewart, by Strangford Lough in Co Down, and at Wynyard, in the care of fleets of nannies and under-butlers. Young Alistair, who suffered from a stutter as a child, was educated at Eton, where he founded a jazz band called the Eton Five. But in 1951, when he was 14, his mother succumbed to mouth cancer and his father embarked on a rapid descent into chronic alcoholism, eventually succumbing to liver failure in 1955.
The Londonderrys had been immensely rich, owning more than 50,000 acres, a colliery empire and three other houses in addition to Wynyard, Mount Stewart and Londonderry House.
But by the time Alistair inherited the title, mismanagement, taxation and the nationalisation of the coal mines had taken their toll. Londonderry House was sold to Hilton Hotels and later demolished, while Mount Stewart, which had been bequeathed by the 7th Marquess to his daughter, Lady Mairi Bury, Alistair's aunt, was subsequently handed over to the National Trust.
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, "and I find her voice a pain in the neck." This immature tirade brought a stern reprimand from his grandmother, the Dowager Marchioness, who expressed herself horrified by her grandson's "vulgar, silly, and childish" outburst. Days later Lord Londonderry issued a grovelling apology for his "bad manners".
The same year he became secretly engaged to a 16-year-old blonde beauty called Nicolette Harrison, the daughter of a stockbroker. When they married in 1958, he and Nicolette, a vision in her Norman Hartnell satin gown, were hailed as an example of the new unstuffy aristocracy. The bride was barely 17 and the groom not quite 21.
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 not, in fact, Lord Londonderry's, but the son of Georgie Fame, a Lancastrian weaver's apprentice-turned-pop star whose hits included The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde. Nicolette had fallen in love with him after spotting him on Top of the Pops in 1964 and had begun an affair.
The story featured on newspaper front pages for days. 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 Clifton Suspension Bridge.
In 1972 Lord Londonderry married Doreen Wells, former principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, but happiness continued to elude him. After 17 years his second marriage, too, ended in divorce and more discomfort was to follow when Lady Cosima Somerset, whom Lord Londonderry publicly accepted as 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 and a close friend of Princess Margaret who had killed himself with an overdose of pills in the Sixties.
In the Sitxties Alistair Londonderry bought a house in Tuscany, which he renovated and where he did enjoy great happiness. After the sale of Wynyard Park, he moved to 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 (where his coat-hook in the cloakroom bore his English title Earl Vane), and nothing gave him greater satisfaction than to be told that he did not "look like a lord".
Lord Londonderry is survived by the two daughters of his first marriage and two sons by his second. His eldest son, Frederick Aubrey Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, born in 1972, succeeds to the title.