Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough (1871-1934), was born in the Northern Indian city of Simla and educated at Winchester and Trinity College, Cambridge. ‘Sunny’, so named for the title he was born to (the Earl of Sunderland), was only twelve-years old when his parents the 8th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough divorced. The scandal of the 8th Duke and his brother Lord Randolph Churchill’s notorious philandering may have had a hand in the future 9th Duke’s decision to follow his head rather than his heart when choosing a Duchess.
When the 8th Duke died in 1892, the 9th Duke followed the precedent of his peers and went in search of an American heiress to restore the fortunes of the Dukedom. He chose Consuelo Vanderbilt whose mother Alva lobbied furiously to secure her daughter one of the senior titles in the British aristocracy. Consulo’s godmother and namesake Consuelo Yznaga had married Viscount Mandeville and became the Duchess of Manchester. As Duchess of Marlborough, Consuelo Vanderbilt would eclipse all other American beauties married into the British aristocracy including the 9th Duke’s aunt Lady Randolph Churchill.
As Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan wrote in her 1953 memoir The Glitter & the Gold, ‘I thought him (the Duke) good looking and intelligent. He had a small aristocratic face with a large nose and rather prominent blue eyes’. She said little as complimentary about the 9th Duke’s character. When they married in 1895 it was said that Consuelo wept behind her wedding veil and many years later Alva Vanderbilt admitted ‘I forced my daughter to marry the duke’. Consuelo’s dowry included $4.2 million worth of railway stocks and the 9th Duke lost little time in spending this fortune on extensively restoring Blenheim Palace, the formal gardens and the library.
Duchess Consuelo bore the Duke two sons Lord John and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill and famously coined the phrase ‘the heir and the spare’. The Duchess was a great beauty immortalised by artists such as Sargent, Helleu and Boldini and though she and the 9th Duke became celebrated members of the Prince of Wales’s Marlborough House Set, their unhappy marriage ended after eleven years in 1906. The Duchess left Blenheim and took up residence at Sunderland House; the Mayfair palace on Curzon Street that her father had built for the Marlboroughs. Of the separation, Duchess Consuelo wrote ‘life together had not brought us closer. Time had but accentuated our differences. The nervous tension that tends to grow between people of different temperament condemned to live together had reached its highest peak’.
The Duke had since the late 1890s been having an affair with American beauty Gladys Deacon of whom author Marcel Proust wrote ‘I never saw a girl with such beauty, such magnificent intelligence, such goodness and charm’. Gladys was invited to Blenheim Palace by the Duchess and the women remained friends despite Gladys’s relationship with the Duke. Society hadn’t seen such a seemingly happy menage since the 5th Duke of Devonshire, his wife Duchess Georgiana and mistress Elizabeth Foster. Though separated since 1906, the Duke and Duchess didn’t divorce until 1921. The 9th Duke subsequently married Gladys in Paris.
While Duchess Consuelo found happiness with dashing aviator Jacques Balsan, the Duke and his new Duchess soon became estranged to the point where Duchess Gladys declared that she slept with a pistol under her pillow to repel the Duke’s advances. The 9th Duke abandoned Blenheim and only smoked Duchess Gladys out when he cut off the electricity. In an echo of Brideshead Revisited, the Duke converted to Catholicism towards the end of his life and died in 1934 while in the process of divorcing his second wife. The 9th Duke, Duchess Consuelo, Lord John and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill kept accounts with Henry Poole & Co as did Duchess Consuelo’s second husband Jacques Balsan.