Anna Wintour to Downton Abbey: The Country House Weekend
A country house. Sunny days with friends. The epitome of summer.
The east end of Long Island, near unprepossessing Mastic, well shy of the copy cat Hamptons, will always be that place for me. Many are the dappled hours I’ve spent there. A edenic world of wild flowers and meadow grass. A double fronted, mid 19th-century American white clapboard house with a great settled sense of history, old by Long Island standards. Competitive games of cricket, baseball and tennis for those who “can” – and utter peace for those who “can’t”. Children everywhere. Welcome to Anna Wintour’s very private world.
Women have always made homes. In Elizabethan England Bess of Hardwick made Chatsworth the grandest house in England, a 70 bedroom pile fit for the grandest Dukes to hold sway; in the early 20thcentury Vita Sackville-West made Sissinghurst into a true castle, fashioning its fabled garden with only white flowers; in the 20s Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell painted her country house, Charleston, all over the inside and made it the meeting place for a brilliant bunch of painters, writers and thinkers. Likewise, Anna Wintour has made Mastic unmistakably hers.
An indoor-outdoor place filled with light, the grounds on a few dozen acres have been shaped – sculpted – down the years by Anna’s collaborator in creation, the highly talented landscape artist Miranda Brooks. They conceived a 30-foot wide allee leading from the tall tulip oak on the front lawn down to the water’s edge. Beside the house they created an enclosed square perennial flower garden filled with phlox, echinacea and eupatorium – a perfect mix of pink, lavender and white. The wider garden beyond, with its hornbeam hedges and crab apple trees is mostly mottled green, save patches of mauve wisteria covering some of the shaded pergolas.
The inside is kaleidoscope of color too – mostly pale-painted wood floors, walls of dusty blue, with scatterings of hand woven rugs, hand-colored lamp shades, antique Gustavian secretaires and demilune tables, Suzy Cooper sponge pottery, many books. In two words, “very Anna”.
The many outhouses, storage sheds and barns on her property have been gradually turned into guestrooms of pitch-perfect taste. Mastic-sur-Mer is a work in progress.
Each year between Memorial and Labor Day, Anna throws open this astonishing estate to family and a handful of friends, to do there of a weekend what they wish. She is the most gracious of hosts – generous, solicitous and tolerant of any guest’s unwillingness or inability to play ping pong or practice with the tennis pro at dawn. And each August her entire extended family – two brothers and their wives and children from London, her sister from Switzerland, with her offspring, plus her own two children and their friends and lovers, not to speak of assorted step sons – descend on her “little village” as she calls it, for weeks.
And what does this perfect retreat most resemble? Though Anna is indeed half English, the grand daughter of an English general, and life at her country house does indeed resemble something out of the quintessentially English literary world of Bloomsbury, it is reminiscent of something else as well, something more comfortable, more welcoming than many an English or American country house. On lazy summer afternoons when everyone lingers at the long table under the vines to gossip and giggle after lunch, Anna’s world rather resembles the fictional world of the Russian writer Anton Chekov with all the characters gathered in an informal comforting way under one remote rural roof.
Chekhov not only had friends to stay in the country, he was a countryman at heart. He wrote his very first plays, “The Seagull” and “Uncle Vanya”, at Melikhovo, his estate forty miles from Moscow, surrounded by visiting actors and writers, mixed with family and local friends. Like Anna Wintour, Anton Chekhov was an avid gardener. He enveloped his picturesque wooden house and many barns with ponds and flowers – peonies, heliotrope, delphiniums and chrysanthemums mostly – and carved out an allee. Later he added rows of apple and linden trees – some of the same types found at Mastic. Indeed, just as Anna does, he would sometimes take visitors on walks to show off his latest plantings.
Before Anna’s lush magic kingdom there was Moyns Park – and James Bond.
“I have taken your dinner jacket to be pressed, sir. Shall I draw you a bath?”
It was a Friday afternoon, thirty years ago, and I had just driven up from London. Timothy, the gentleman’s valet was at my service. Soon it was Jenkins the butler’s turn to enquire about “a pot of tea perhaps, sir, with some egg and cucumber sandwiches to fill the long gap before cocktails in the library at seven, and dinner at eight?” At Downton it would have been Carson.
Moyns is an idyll, a perfectly preserved English Elizabethan country manor in the county of Essex, home to, among others, a minor branch of the British royal family and their rich American Hartford relatives by marriage – not unlike the set up at Downton where the half-Jewish Cora, daughter of mid-western dry goods king Isidore Levinson, became the Countess of Grantham, and brought with her, by way of Cincinnati and Saratoga, the stash that saved the estate.
Moyns was, to say the least, an eccentric and complicated ménage. I had been weekending there for years.
My host, the current master of these broad and beautiful acres complete with stud farm, was Ivar Bryce, “the man who was James Bond”. Anglo-Peruvian, “pointlessly good looking” as a jealous rival once remarked, a bold wartime British spy famous for acts of derring do – and known as “Burglar” Bryce on account of the ease with which he borrowed and bedded other men’s wives – Ivar Bryce had been best friends from their Eton schooldays onwards with Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator. Indeed Fleming’s best book, From Russia With Love, was written at Moyns – and it was widely known that Ivar was Fleming’s inspiration when he set out to create Bond in the 50s.
Moyns had been bought for Ivar by his American wife Josephine Hartford, the A & P heiress, as a wedding present. Since then he’d had it to himself, because they mainly lived apart, he in England and the Bahamas, she in Palm Springs.
After cocktails by the massive library fireplace – the stiffest martinis in the land, shaken not stirred – the twenty of us staying overnight repaired to dinner, men in black tie, ladies in long dresses, and seated according to Ivar’s placement in the long sixteenth-century hammer-beamed dining room. We were served by Jenkins, and an army of footmen and maids.
On my right sat Janet Mountbatten, the cougar-like 40-year old Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven, widow of the Queen’s cousin, who happened to be Ivar’s niece. Further up the table were her two teenage sons, George, the 4th Marquess of Milford Haven, and Lord Ivar. The former Janet Mercedes Bryce turned out be a witty, charming Bermudan beauty.
“Who are you? What’s your story? Describe a typical day in your life” she enquired not at all impolitely.
“I get up each day around seven, drive to BBC Television Center, and spend the rest of the day either in my office or in the studio” I told her truthfully. “Similar to lots of people”.
At that, the Dowager Marchioness reached for a fork, and banged it lightly on a wine glass to bring the table to order, announcing in a tone of excited wonderment, “I say everybody! Listen. We’ve got a doer down this end. He goes to work!”
Early on in the wildy successful PBS television series, Downton Abbey, Violet Crawley, the crusty snobbish Dowager Countess of Grantham, played to exquisite perfection by Maggie Smith, enquires, “What is a weekend?” The answer, of course, is that for the English upper class every day used to be a weekend.
In sense the old harridan had a point.
Before the eclipse of the horse – “in the good old days” – there was no such thing as the “country house weekend”. Up until the mid 19th century landowners spent half the year in the country – and if they had dinner guests those tended to be local. It was only with coming of the rails and later the car that the weekend house party was born.
In a plutocratic age of new wealth many of the great houses became places to entertain and impress rather than estates to husband and tend. Many became little more than extensions of London drawing rooms. Such was the fate of Highclere Castle, Downton Abbey’s film location in the verdant Berkshire hills. With six thousand acres planned and planted by “Capability” Brown, and a house half Tudor, half Italianate, it was – and is – the family seat of the Earls of Carnarvon. In the twenty years preceding World War One, though by no means an arriviste, himself, the 5th Earl followed the increasingly vulgar tide of his time arranging “show off” weekends of hunting, shooting and idling for his aviator and military chums as well as a dusty bunch of Egyptologists (an amateur Egyptologist himself he is noted for having discovered King Tut’s tomb).
With an indoor and outdoor staff of sixty, and with his stupendously rich and stunningly pretty young countess, Almina, by his side, he could accommodate his not quite socially acceptable guests in great style. “Bertie”, the concupiscent Prince of Wales, and future King, once came calling, preferring the company of sketchy tycoons and loose ladies to the stuffed shirts one was forced to endure in the houses of the old order. He requested and was naturally given the discreet charms of Carnarvon’s master bed.
If Highclere, Downton Abbey and Moyns seem to us stiff and stone-aged with dress codes and rules – in our casual age all Anna demands of her guests (and for that matter all Chekhov hoped for a hundred years ago) is a clean shirt, a vaguely pressed pair of pants, and brilliant conversation punctuated by laughter loud and long.