Opulence, Ancestry, and a Dash of Grit






Chicago-born author and journalist James Reginato. Photo by Gasper Tringale, courtesy of Rizzoli.

Chicago-born author and journalist James Reginato. Photo by Gasper Tringale, courtesy of Rizzoli.

“Would you like your luggage sent to your usual room, sir?”

Years after looking out at the grand structure with wide eyes from his school bus window, James Reginato, author of the magnificent new book Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats, returned to Blenheim Palace as a guest of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. As his well-traveled luggage was carted off to his “usual” quarters, the writer thought: “Not bad for a kid from the South Side of Chicago.”

Reginato first saw the palace—seven acres under one roof—as a University of Chicago Laboratory School graduate soon to enter Columbia University to study English Literature.

“I’ve adored England since high school and, as part of the Experiment in International Living program, we were taken through seemingly every cathedral, minster, museum, and great house from Cornwall to the Lake District. 

“I won’t ever forget the awe I felt pulling up to Blenheim Palace in our school bus. I like to think that it was not dissimilar to King George III’s reaction upon his first sight of it: ‘We have nothing to equal this,’ he gasped to Queen Charlotte in 1786 as their carriage approached.”

Just as the Malboroughs so graciously hosted him in Blenheim, friends, family, and guests of the Royal Oak Foundation will be welcoming Reginato—one of Vanity Fair’s most popular and prolific writers—back to Chicago October 6. The crowd will be toasting the author on the first stop of a national tour promoting his triumphant tome, which captures some of the leading families of Great Britain and Ireland and their 16 splendid residences. Many of the interiors so gloriously and vividly showcased in Great Houses are shown for the first time on these pages. His lecture at the Golden Triangle will be followed by wine and hors d’oeuvres.


The splendid cover of Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats. Photo courtesy of Rizzoli.

The splendid cover of Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats. Photo courtesy of Rizzoli.

Rizzoli International will release Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats in October, filled with opulent photos by Jonathan Becker and a fine introduction by Reginato’s friend of twenty years, Viscount Linley. The book focuses on leading aristocratic dynasties and includes marvelous profiles on the gentry.

One of our favorites at Classic Chicago is the chapter devoted to the Old Vicarage in Derbyshire, the last residence of the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (née Deborah Mitford), whom he visited before her death at 94.

“The Stupendous Duchess of Devonshire was truly the most modern lady. She rolled up her sleeves and helped save Chatsworth, even as she collected the work of great contemporary artists of her time, such as Lucian Freud, while she worshipped Elvis, to whom she dedicated a powder room in her dower cottage. Like the other people I write about in my book, she upheld ancient customs while she moved with the times.”

Royal Oak Foundation supporters will be pleased to read about Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, who became the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury at the age of 26, and has magnificently restored his 400-year old family seat, St. Giles House in Dorset. Earl Shaftesbury spoke to an enthusiastic audience at a Royal Oak dinner last year about the variety of events he and his young family host.

Reginato writes:

“Nick, as he is generally known, decided at a young age he needed to get away if he was going to make anything of his life. In the spring of 2002, he moved to a walk-up on Second Avenue and 12th Street in New York’s East Village, where he began to thrive as a techno disc jockey—going by the handle of DJ Nick AC. By then he had the first of his impressive tattoos—a striking image based on the Piccadilly Circus memorial statue to his ancestor inked on his left biceps. The mysterious death of his father and then that of his 27-year-old brother changed everything. A position he had never expected was thrust upon Nick.”

As those who attended his Royal Oak program would attest, the earl rose to this position beautifully. Realizing that he needed to learn managerial skills, he was accepted to an MBA program at the prestigious London Business School. He soon embarked on an extensive renovation of the family house, built in 1650, on property occupied by his ancestors since the 1400s.

He now lives with his young family in a private wing he designed and offers the public spaces and grounds for weddings, festivals, and fun.


Rooftop statuary striking an elegant pose against the sky. Photo courtesy of Rizzoli.

Rooftop statuary striking an elegant pose against the sky. Photo courtesy of Rizzoli.

Any author would be envious of the access that Reginato was allowed within these seemingly impenetrable walls. Writing the book was easy compared to getting permission to enter, he admits.

“I worked for years to open some of these places up, for these kind of visits and this photographing of private family areas. Photography could take two days. But one thing leads to another, and it is a very connected world where many are interrelated and all know one another. We were invited to stay at several of these beautiful properties during the interviews and photo shoots.”


A glittering interior in shades of cream, gold, and green.

A glittering interior in shades of cream, gold, and green. Photo courtesy of Rizzoli.

Reginato soon found that the aristocratic families he interviewed had much more in common than their blue blood.

“All are creative and really very resourceful. They are extremely hardworking and have taken on a tremendous responsibility to save their property. These properties were huge drains on income but now the tides are turning and many are bringing in money. The 10th Duke of March has created a car mecca at Goodwood House, which features Goodwood’s Festival of Speed, one of the most popular automotive race events of the year.  

“Lord Burlington has created an arts center at Lismore Castle in County Waterford, Ireland, attracting cultural tourists each summer. While the art on display may seem avant-garde, Burlington is actually following in family tradition. Most of the articles in the Devonshire collection—which includes pictures by Holbein, Rembrandt, and Veronese—were fresh goods when they were purchased.”


Incredible skill in woodworking and masonry on display. Photo courtesy of Rizzoli.

Incredible skill in woodworking and masonry on display. Photo courtesy of Rizzoli.

Although Reginato considers himself a journalist rather than a historian, he weaves in the great wars, economic upheavals, and the scandals and tragedies that these great houses witnessed.

“These families are living history, witnesses to how the past connects to the present. They are a line that connects momentous events from England’s past.”


A dazzling array of crimson fabrics.

A dazzling array of crimson fabrics. Photo courtesy of Rizzoli.

It is also in this blending of history and fine reporting both for W (where he served as Features Director) and as writer-at-large at Vanity Fair, that Reginato lets us bear witness and play at the role of insider.

In the September issue of Vanity Fair, he welcomes us into the world of French interior designer Francois Catroux, and his wife Betty, both holding court for almost five decades as favorites of the very rich and very chic. Earlier this year, we were treated to a profile of the inimitable and formidable Texan, Lynn Wyatt—Reginato described her international impact better than any other writer could. Currently, he is finishing up a story on an aristocratic family in Venice for an upcoming issue of the magazine.

“Vanity Fair is one of the last great magazines with terrific photographers and a phenomenal staff. The print world has shrunk so much and it is wonderful to have this magazine which publishes properly.”

When it comes to publishing, Reginato has a full schedule. After his talk for Royal Oak, he will lecture in San Francisco at the Fall Antiques Show, address the Palm Beach Preservation Society, and present Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats at programs in Atlanta, New York, and Philadelphia.

We are so very pleased to welcome back this “kid from the South Side” and raise a glass to his prodigious talent.


To attend Mr. Reginato’s lecture and for more information, contact The Royal Oak Foundation: www.royal-oak.org/lectures or call 800-913-6565, ext. 201.