Bedford’s three-ring dukedom
Fashion plate, disk jockey, TV-pitchman, ringmaster of the liveliest carnival on the stately homes circuit: this is the thirteenth Duke of Bedford. Here’s how he panics the peerage and packs in the crowds
Traditionally the noble dukes of England are a self-effacing lot. There are twenty-six of them, excluding members of the Royal family, and usually they arc content to hide behind their escutcheons, shooting on their moors, tramping in their forests, or sitting in their long galleries among the fading portraits of their ancestors. They shun publicity.
To this fairly consistent rule there is one shining exception; John Robert Russell, the thirteenth Duke of Bedford, who stands out from run-of-the-mill dukes as a hot piano stands out from a harpsichord or a Phineas T. Barnum might have been expected to stand out behind the doily stall at a church bazaar.
In most respects Bedford is an English nobleman of almost fictional perfection. A tall, thin, flawlessly tailored, faultlessly mannered social anachronism, he seems as rare as the Mortlake tapestries that hang in his ancestral halls, as out of place in the twentieth century as the individual gold teapots that once enriched the snowy expanse of the family breakfast table. But he is more than he seems.
Many British peers, Bedford included, have inherited huge estates and fabulous treasure-filled mansions costing fortunes to maintain even in an earlier, more graceful age. Today, under pressure of reduced incomes, heavy taxes and high costs, they have reluctantly lowered their drawbridges to allow the common man to tread softly around the antique Aubusson carpets and marvel at the ducal condition—in exchange íor a small fee which helps to maintain that condition. Naturally base commerce is not stressed. It is here that Bedford falls afoul of his class.
He stresses it with all the gusto of a knight in a tiltyard. volunteering full details of life on a princely shoestring and even issuing statements of profit and loss. He boosts his Woburn Abbey, which has been in his family for more than four hundred years, with the most flamboyant publicity campaign that ever chilled the collective heart of the aristocracy. He makes frequent appearances on popular television programs. He is a disk jockey on the radio. He endorses atls. He appears on do-it-yourself TV commercials laying floor tiles. He writes magazine articles on such unrelated subjects as sex, the perils of being a duke and the faults of modern women. Two years ago he invited Marilyn Monroe to visit Woburn and sleep in the bed Queen Victoria slept in. Last April during the dairy festival he permitted his priz.e jersey cows to be milked on the steps of the Royal Exchange and then took one, Woburn Ethelync, to a cocktail party at Grosvenor House after first insuring the carpets with Lloyds.
His most spectacular stunt was to invite the Sixth World Naturist ( ongress to meet last August in a secluded corner of Wo burn's three-thousand-acre park.
"It the weather is bad I can't bear to think what the nudists will look like carrying umbrellas and wearing plastic raincoats,” he said when he announced that he had accepted their invitation to open the congress. He added that for the opening everybody would be clothed out ol deference to him, to forestall any suggestion that he might become, as he put it. "the first ducal stripper-off.”
"After all,” he explained. “I could hardly turn out in the nude and retain my position as Britain’s best-dressed duke.”
Since 1955 these romps in promotion have turned Bedford trom a greenhorn operator with a dud property into undisputed king of the stately homes industry. I must say. extremely modestly, that I am the most successful person in my business," he says, proving it by the use of facts and terminology that drain the blue blood from noble cheeks more sensitive than his.
"Takings in 1956 were up twenty-two percent on 1955,” says a recent public statement. "Takings in 1957 were up eighty percent on 1956. Estimated gross for 1958 is eighty-five thousand pounds which should take the operation of Woburn Abbey, as a business, into the black." Actually during the 1958 season continued on page 43
Bedford’s three-ring dukedom
Continued from page 17
“I never wear my robes,” says the Duke. “It would be like wearing a bathing suit at a ball”
expectations were slightly exceeded with a total of four hundred and fifty thousand visitors, twice as many as inspected the Duke of Devonshire’s runner-up, Chatsworth House.
"Livens the old place up no end," says Bedford happily. He hopes, as a result of his latest move, to have an even better gate in 1959. In October he took seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of family pictures to an exhibition in Morgan's store in Montreal, bucking government opposition to do so because the pictures are national treasures not supposed to leave the country except under unusual circumstances. He then took them to a similar exhibition at Nieman Marcus Inc. in Dallas, Texas. On the way there and back he did some jolly drum beating for the stately homes industry in general and Woburn Abbey in particular, although, even now. for most American tourists a visit to Woburn has become almost as much a ritual as a pilgrimage to Stratford-on-Avon.
A Jiving anachronism
Bedford, who is forty-one and whose blue eyes are framed with horn-rimmed glasses, finds that Canadians and Americans tend to be disappointed in him. "They seem to expect me to wear a coronet in the streets or have heraldic strawberry leaves growing out of my hair," he complains. I never wear my robes. It would be like wearing a bathing suit at a ball."
He does wear other, unmistakable stamps of aristocracy: the manner that is so casual and assured, the modesty that is so genuine, the politeness so practiced it fits like skin and the humor that so often bailies. "Americans tend to look on me as an anachronism." he said recently. "They find that interesting. Most of them have never seen a living anachronism before.”
Canadians and Americans are quick to sympathize with his financial problems and occasionally, on his travels, pity has moved one of them to press a comradely five-dollar bill into his hand. His problems date from October 1953, when his father was killed in a shooting accident. "At one moment I was happily growing peaches and apricots on a farm in Africa." he says. "At the next I found myself pitchforked into the peerage, heir to thousands of acres of England, a family seat and a load of worry." The worst worry was a bill for approximately fifteen million dollars in death duties. Next in line came Woburn Abbey, a seventeenthcentury mansion set in three thousand acres of beautiful parkland populated by thousands of odd creatures which Bedford's whimsical forbears had collected from all over the world, including some llamas, two thousand deer, a herd of buffalo and a lake full of carp. The mansion, built on the foundations of the original Cistercian abbey, was minus one wing und the kitchens. Most of the remaining ninety rooms were papered in moldering cighty-year-old blue damask and stuffed to the gold-leaf cornices with furniture und knickknacks — a Rembrandt here,
a Murillo there—from nine Russell mansions. On the urgent list were such miscellaneous expenditures as twenty-five thousand dollars to touch up the stonework. one hundred thousand dollars to repair the roof and fifteen thousand dollars to restore the old masters, not to mention the wages of sixty men employed to look after the park’s timber and feed the carp.
Plainly if he wished to keep Woburn desperate measures were called for and Bedford, whose motto is Che Sara Sara (what will be will be) took them. With his duchess and their five children—two by his former marriage, two by hers, and their small son—he set up housekeeping at the mansion in an upstairs room, furnished for the emergency with seven camp beds, two dressers, a gas cooking ring and an electric kettle.
The duchess, whose Dresden fragility looks as though it could be defeated by a spilled cup of tea, took charge of rearranging the furniture in ninety rooms where French marquetry. Georgian Chippendale. Sèvres, Ming and old masters were jumbled together with mattresses, kitchen stoves, frying pans and bathroom fixtures.
"For six months we shifted furniture from six o'clock in the morning until two o'clock the following morning, taking out meals in the local pub." recalls the duke. "We found the Sèvres on the floor of the stable.” l ouis XV gave a Sèvres dining service to the fourth duchess in 1764 at a cost to the French treasury of sixty thousand dollars. Now priceless and considered the most magnificent service of its kind in existence, it is on display in the state dining room.
Then another problem had to be faced: how to persuade people to visit a house they had never heard of. that was not near a big city or on a main highway, and was owned by a little-known duke. The twelfth duke had been more of a recluse than most of his class and nobody in recent years had heard of him.
Bedford, however, was soon on the lips of every tripper with no place to go on a fine Sunday. The duke had once worked as a general reporter on the Daily Express (he’s still a member of the National Union of Journalists) and there he learned the value of publicity. "My father was always cutting me off for some reason or other so one day 1 went to l ord Beaverbrook and asked for a job. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. 1 used to be terribly shy. 1 still am but I like people and 1 know that if you want to convince them you have to keep telling them."
Coupled with Bedford's flair for propaganda is a strong sense of obligation to give value as advertised. Ibis combination has made Woburn popular so quickly that rival dukes are said to occasionally invest a crafty two-and-six to study the Bedford technique and inspect Woburn's amenities. 1 hese include titles through the park in a coach-and-four. picnic privileges under the soothing old trees, boating and swimming in the park's fourteen lakes, a children's zoo and playground, souvenir stands, tea rooms, a
juke box, a model railway and a discreet amusement arcade. The house is beautifully maintained (“A stately home should look stately") and over and above everything is the alluring prospect of seeing the noble owner. ("After all, one is part of the show.”)
During the week the duke is usually too busy promoting Woburn to show himself often. In one week in June, he kept nineteen appointments between Monday and Friday, all of a promotional nature and most of them forty-three miles away in London. On weekends he is always on deck; occasionally he acts as a guide. “T his,” he tells his customers with a wave of an elegant hand in the direction of a dark portrait, “is Lord William Russell who got mixed up in the Rye House plot. As an apology for chopping off his head in 1683 they made his father a duke. That's how we got the dukedom.”
Fortunately for the cause of art, guiding is not the duke’s regular stint. “He can usually be found at weekends at the Pets’ Corner kiosk selling souvenirs like mad,” says his secretary.
During sales, which arc brisk to the point of frenzy, the duke chats amiably with his customers who often show a sympathetic interest in his tax problems. “Terribly sorry about the death duties, duke," one of them is apt to say. “How arc things getting on?”
"Not too badly,” the duke replies with an engaging smile as he hands over another beer mug. “I sold a bit of Buckinghamshire last week and a bit of London the week before. We'll make out. It’s most kind of you to enquire.” The conversation will then move to his latest TV appearance or perhaps to skiflling. Last spring he added a fillip to Woburn’s entertainment by playing a washboard in a skdlle band, which is an ensemble composed of guitars and improvised percussion instruments. He also sang occasionally, his favorite selection being, It Takes a Worried Man to Sing a Worried Song. Last fall he was forced to take a rest from the washboard because his fingers were blistered. "I don't intend to give up skiflling though,” he assures his visitor. “The rhythm really sends me.
I shall continue to practice with my group (from the nearby town of Luton) and one day perhaps 1 may he good enough to get a permanent job.”
“They ought to charge Bedford entertainment tax,” rumbled the tenth Duke of Marlborough recently, whose motto is Faithful but Unfortunate and whose Blenheim Palace is third in the statelyhomes stakes with 150.000 visitors a season. "The fellow's always on television or something."
“Being a showman is more fun than sitting around on your dignity potting pheasants." retorted Bedford, who is quick to see the advertising value of a public controversy with another duke.
By ordinary Canadian standards Bedford is a rich man, although how rich he affects not to know. Half his death duties have been paid by property sales and until recently the trustees who control the estate under the wills of his father and grandfather were determined to pay the remainder by turning Woburn over to the National Trust, a government agency created to relieve aristocrats of costly treasures of national interest. Bedford would have been permitted (o live in it as a tenant bin because he didn’t like the idea of being a tenant in his own house he strove valiantly and successfully to make Woburn self-supporting.
Now valuable properties in Bloomsbury. acquired in the seventeenth century when Lord William Russell married Ra-
chael, daughter and heir of Lord Southampton, must go on the block. But Bedford continues on his merry way making Woburn the showplace of England and himself the all-England showman. He is presently having conversations with Canadian-horn holiday-camp king Billy Butlin about building a motel in Woburn Park. He may rent Woburn—during the off season-—to an American film company as background for a musical. His latest scheme is ihe inauguration of a men’s fashion corporation backed by twenty members of the tie, shoe, shirt and suit industries as well as several textile manufacturers and the Cotton Board. England’s best-dressed duke will, of course, be a walking, talking and performing advertisement.
By being well-dressed, Bedford is again at war with his class for, according to the inverse snobbery of dukes, to be correctly dressed is to be shabby. “It was a tradition in our family to look as dreary as possible,” he says. “My father generally wore a pair of old knickerbockers tied at the knee with elastic. But I'm in show' business and in show business you have to give a good impression.”
Who wants dignity?
Bedford’s elegant appearance is the responsibility of his butler, James Boyd. Boyd is a model of such perfection in his own sphere that an American film company recently invited him to Hollywood for a stint of playing himself. The duke and duchess saw him off and, not one to miss an opportunity, the duke was photographed trundling his butler’s luggage.
"They say I’m undignified." said Bedford a few days later, speaking at an insurance - club luncheon. “That’s quite true. I am. You can take your dignity to a pawnbroker and he won’t give you much for it.”
“His Grace,” says Boyd, w'ith the frigid finality of the perfect butler, “is a gentleman’s gentleman’s idea of a real gentleman.”
Louis B. Wright, of the Folger Shake-
speare Library in Washington, was so impressed by Bedford's sincerity when he visited Woburn last spring that he invited him to attend a conference of historians, teachers and archivists in August at the summer home of Cyrus Eaton, the Canadian-born American industrialist, in Pugwash, Nova Scotia. The purpose of the conference was to consider ways to remind Anglo-Saxon youth of the traditions of their culture. Bedford was there because this is exactly what he is doing.
Bedford believes he is performing a useful service by urging as many people as possible to spend a quiet afternoon at Woburn. There they can turn from the atomic quicksands in which their society seems to be floundering to wander among the accumulated treasures of a family that has lived in the same house for more than three centuries. There they can see and meet members of that family, among them the duke’s young son Lord Francis, who, dressed as a cowboy and armed to the teeth with rubber Colts, scouts his quarry (w'hen his father's back is turned) by bounding over the priceless red damask with his boots on. There, too. visitors can walk over ancient lawns cropped smooth as carpets by tranquil and obliging deer, or they can sit in the shade of great oaks that have stood for a thousand years and contemplate, in the wonderfully contrived landscape, how happy was the marriage between man and nature in a more leisurely age than their own.
"If I had any sense I suppose I’d have torn Woburn down,” says Bedford, his eyes suddenly sober. "But I love it so! It’s given me and my family so much pleasure to show it to others that even if I didn’t need the money I’d go on doing just what I’m doing.” With an English aristocrat it goes against the grain to expose deep feelings. After a momentary lapse Bedford’s eyes begin twinkling again behind his spectacles. “Devonshire hasn’t got anything like this at Chatsworth House,” he says. “Here we have juke boxes and milk bars, Rembrandts and old china. Who could ask for more?” ★