Vickers was spellbound. The Sphinx, narrated with an admirable balance of sympathy and wit, unveils the bizarre life and eventually ruined features of an American heiress who dreamt of being a duchess. It concludes with the extraordinary story of how a persevering young biographer tracked down the nonagenarian Gladys (Glay-dis, should you wish to sound authoritative) in an asylum and became — after being subjected to humiliations that would have most of us running for the exit — her last true friend.
The story of how Hugo Vickers eventually tracked down the former Gladys Deacon, Duchess of Marlborough is almost as fascinating as how Gladys nailed her duke. Both were obsessions that began young, that of the 16-year-old Vickers when he read of ‘The love of Proust, the belle amie of Anatole France’, and was so taken that he wrote his first biography of her 40 years ago, and that of Gladys when at 14 she wrote (of the Duke) ‘O dear if only I was a little older I might “catch” him yet’.’
Vickers tells Gladys’s tale with brio and wit, but is nevertheless respectful of a life which could easily be presented as farce. “She paid a high price for her coronet,” he concludes. “Her marriage failed as many of those Anglo-American matches failed. The British establishment can be witheringly unkind to those they do not understand and they were remorselessly unforgiving of her.” There’s a lesson there, perhaps.
This is a pitiful, jaw-dropping story, brilliantly told. To one of her premarital lovers before the First World War, Count Hermann von Keyserling, Gladys had written: “I recall having long asked myself what the sadness could be which is at the bottom of all joy.” During her long life, she had ample time to explore the many facets of that sadness.
This introduction is a masterpiece of storytelling: edge-of-the-seat stuff, unputdownable. Vickers has written many excellent books, but this new version of an old one has a character all of its own: he is in it, at the beginning and at the end, attributing his entire subsequent career to that chance encounter with Channon’s diary, an event that provoked in him the strange itch that drives biographers on in their compulsion to release their subjects’ secrets from within. With Deacon he has succeeded triumphantly, managing with consummate narrative skill and dazzling quotation to give breathing, alarming life to a woman who puzzled and thrilled her contemporaries in equal measure.