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  • Hodder & Stoughton
  • Hodder & Stoughton
  • Hodder & Stoughton

The Sphinx: The Life of Gladys Deacon Duchess of Marlborough

Hugo Vickers

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Biography: historical, political & military

The fiercely intelligent beauty at the centre of the Belle Epoque, Hugo Vickers unmasks the truth of Gladys Deacon, the Duchess of Marlborough's, mysterious life.

One of the most beautiful and brilliant women of her time, Gladys Deacon dazzled, as much as she puzzled, the glittering social circles in which she moved.

Born in Paris to American parents in 1881, she suffered a traumatic childhood after her father shot her mother's lover dead. Educated in America, she returned to Europe, where she captivated and inspired some of the greatest literary and artistic names of the Belle Epoque. Marcel Proust wrote of her 'I never saw a girl with such beauty, such magnificent intelligence, such goodness and charm.' Berenson considered marrying her, Rodin and Monet befriended her, Boldini painted her and Epstein sculpted her. She inspired love from diverse Dukes and Princes, and the interest of women such as the Comtesse Greffulhe and Gertrude Stein.

It wasn't until she was 40 that she achieved the wish she had held since the age of 14 to marry the 9th Duke of Marlborough. Divorced from fellow American Consuelo Vanderbilt in 1921 she became his second wife. Now her circle included Lady Ottoline Morrell, Lytton Strachey and Winston Churchill, who described her as 'a strange, glittering being'. But life at Blenheim was not a success. When the Duke evicted her in 1933, the only remaining signs of Gladys were two sphinxes bearing her features on the west terraces and mysterious blue eyes in the grand portico.

Gladys became a recluse. The wax injections she'd had to straighten her nose when she was 22 had by now ravaged her beauty. She was to spend her last 15 years in the psycho-geriatric ward of a mental hospital. There she was discovered by a young Hugo Vickers, who visited her for two years - intrigued and compelled to unmask the truth of her mysterious life.

In his fascinating and revealing biography, drawing on Gladys's personal archive and his own research all over Europe and America, Hugo Vickers uncovers a beguiling, clever, independent woman who was the brightest star of her age. He once asked her, 'Where is Gladys Deacon?' She answered him slowly: 'Gladys Deacon? ... She never existed.'

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Hugo Vickers

Hugo Vickers is the literary trustee to the Cecil Beaton estate. Hugo Vickers is the biographer of Cecil Beaton, Vivien Leigh, Princess Andrew of Greece (mother of the Duke of Edinburgh), Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough. His book The Biss won the Stern Silver Pen for Non-Fiction in 1996. He edited the first volume of Cecil Beaton's Diaries, The Unexpurgated Beaton, in 2002.

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