Listen free for 30 days

The Sphinx

The Life of Gladys Deacon - Duchess of Marlborough
Narrated by: Hugo Vickers
Length: 11 hrs and 51 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (10 ratings)

£7.99/month after 30 days. Cancel anytime

Summary

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 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.'

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying PDF will be available in your Audible Library along with the audio.

©2020 Hugo Vickers (P)2020 Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

More from the same

What members say

Average customer ratings

Overall

  • 4.5 out of 5 stars
  • 5 Stars
    6
  • 4 Stars
    1
  • 3 Stars
    3
  • 2 Stars
    0
  • 1 Stars
    0

Performance

  • 4.5 out of 5 stars
  • 5 Stars
    6
  • 4 Stars
    0
  • 3 Stars
    2
  • 2 Stars
    0
  • 1 Stars
    0

Story

  • 4.5 out of 5 stars
  • 5 Stars
    7
  • 4 Stars
    0
  • 3 Stars
    2
  • 2 Stars
    0
  • 1 Stars
    0

Reviews - Please select the tabs below to change the source of reviews.

Sort by:
Filter by:
  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Pretty extraordinary story.

About an exceptionally capable, forgiving and privileged yet abused person. A true survivor who lived to triumph over her life. A sort of unusual role model for people stuck in very strange relationships with someone they love.

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Revealing portrait of an interesting and misunderstood woman.

From a previous review, I started this book fully expecting to dislike the main protagonist - how wrong I was!

Hugo Vickers takes us on a fascinating journey into the lives of those in the upper echelons of society from the late Victorian era to the mid twentieth century. The focus of our attention is Gladys Deacon, born to wealthy US parents leading a life of luxurious leisure in Europe. The marriage of the parents implodes in infidelity and murder... and that's just the beginning of Gladys' story.

The portrait, lovingly painted by the author, is that of a prodigiously intelligent woman and a born survivor, who struggles to fit in and conform to society's expectations of her. Today she would perhaps be diagnosed with high functioning Autistic Spectrum Condition - unheard of at the time, it presents differently in girls.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story of this remarkable woman, made even better by the fact it is narrated by Hugo Vicars. It gives it a very authentic feeling.

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

All that glitters is not gold

American Gladys (pronounced the American way Glay-diss) Deacon was the bright star of the social scene of the Belle Epoque & beyond. Her childhood was chaotic and troubled, her father having shot and killed her mother's long-term lover (his wealth and social standing enabling him to escape prison), and being batted across continents along with her sisters in acrimonious custody battles.

Gladys was prodigiously clever & intellectual and a linguist and was able to dazzle more brightly than any man in conversation. Her apparently astounding luminous beauty coupled with charm cast devastating spells over helpless men who worshipped her & wrote copious letters conveying the depths of their lovesick insanity.She gave herself to none of them, thereby fanning the flames of their absurd passions.

It was a life of unimaginable wealth & hedonism played out in luxury hotels in Paris or Nice in which Gladys indulged her love of art and books (by the end of her life her collection of paintings and sculptures was in today's money priceless). Her beauty was as striking as her quarrels & her spite. She never thought of anyone but herself and severed all ties with her mother, her sisters and many offending 'friends' along the way. She ruined her looks in vain pursuit of further perfection by having wax injected into the bridge of her nose which melted and slid around her face. She committed not a single act of kindness or usefulness as she moved through a society of remarkable emptiness. Gladys's mother rattled around a 200-room Italian villa whilst the pass-time of another wealthy lady epitomised the aching vacuum at the heart of this society: she had trained one of her pet frogs to jump into her mouth on command.

At the age of 14 Gladys had set her heart on becoming a Duchess by marrying the married Duke of Marlborough, a feat she finally achieved at the age of 40 in 1921. It was of course a disaster for them both. She hated Blenheim with its gardens full of snakes; she had 4 miscarriages (possibly intentional), and had nothing to say to the sporty hunting Duke who was so very far below her intellectually. It took him 13 years to evict her.

Her final years as a wildly eccentric & aggressive, toothless old woman in wellies surrounded by hordes of dogs is grotesque. Finally incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital (where author Hugo Vickers visited her for 2 years as a young man), she lived to be 96, outrageously difficult & cantankerous, always fervently wanting to live but with nothing to live for.

The book is all very rivetting and scrupulously researched (if a tad too detailed at times) and it is nicely read by Hugo Vickers himself. I think during all the year of his research (his 1st book on Gladys was published in 1979), he has fallen under her spell. Yes she was a glittering being, but ultimately with all that wealth, brains and beauty her 96 years brought no real happiness to anyone, least of all herself. Her whole story is not a glittering biography but a classical tragedy.
A good story, nevertheless!

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars

An indepth account

Hugo Vickers writes well and gives us a comprehensive and detailed account of the Duchesses' life. The strange pronunciation of her name 'Glay-dis' as opposed to the usual 'Glad-is' is irksome. In her youth she may have been a beauty but this book recounts a wasted, selfish life peppered with episodes of mental ill health. The main characters all appear to exhibit abnormal behaviour of one form or another. A sad slow decline which required her removal to psychiatric hospital concludes her long life. Hugo does a brilliant job of the narration.

Sort by:
Filter by:
  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for Gudrun D Whitehead
  • Gudrun D Whitehead
  • 25-03-20

Lovely and compelling.

After a visit to Blenheim Palace I felt compelled to buy this book and find out more about Gladys. Such a well researched and well written account it turned out to be. Well read by the author and it was an enjoyable bonus to hear a recording of Gladys’s voice in the first section of the book.