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 Époque. 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 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.’