And the Last of Chicago’s British Aristocracy
By Megan McKinney
While Levi’s other heirs continued living in luxury abroad on income from the Leiter Trust, Nancy Campbell and Joe Leiter had begun the decade of the 1930s doing the same in America. Nancy poured her energies into adhering to her late husband’s plans for building on the Santa Barbara property.
Before his death, Colin had designed the grounds, planted cypress and eucalyptus trees, and overseen construction of a road that meandered for more than a mile toward the site designated for the house. To supply the estate with potable water, Colonel Campbell had acquired an additional 317 acres, and, when well drillers struck oil instead, he ordered them to cap the oil well in favor of continuing the search for pure drinking water. Views of the rambling house follow.
When the house was completed, and elegantly furnished with the antiques, silver and imported objets d’art from the couple’s castle in Kent, Nancy began entertaining lavishly. Her visitors’ book included the society of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and much of England. A portable dance floor was regularly erected in the patio for dancing under stars during such grand parties as the 1926 gala she gave in honor of Baba’s admirer, Prince George of England. It was a vivid, however, tragically brief, era.
On a trip to her beloved England in 1930, Nancy died suddenly, and her remains were returned for burial next to her husband’s in a cypress grove overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Their son, Colin Leiter Campbell, and his family lived on the estate for the next decade, continuing its reputation for grandeur in a community not unaccustomed to great wealth and show. In 1941, when Colin Jr. closed the property, the massive auction of its furnishings drew Hollywood celebrities, including Cary Grant and Charlie Chaplin. The latter successfully bid on the Colonel’s personal collection of English silver from the 1600s, which bore the appropriate C.C. monogram.
Colin Campbell’s monogramed flatware was perfect for the young Charlie Chaplin.
Joe survived Nancy by only two years. One of his most passionate interests continued to be horse racing; he had assembled a string of 50 thoroughbreds, estimated to have cost a half million dollars, financed through the sale of Levi’s fine collection of first editions. By 1932, Joe’s racing stable included the Kentucky Derby-eligible Prince Hotspur and the equally well-known Princess Camelia. In March of that year, Joe caught cold while attending the races in New Orleans.
Thoroughbreds at Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans.
Although the cold worsened, his turf interests were so compelling that he continued to return to the track to follow his horses from a wheelchair for several days until doctors ordered him to bed. His condition deteriorated, and, on the first of April, he was transported to Chicago and his house in the city’s Gold Coast. On April 9, his condition became critical, and two days later he died of pneumonia and heart disease.
Joe’s obituary describes the extended court battle that tarnished the last years of the dynasty’s second generation.
In September 1939, following the outbreak of active war between “the two countries I love,” Unity Mitford walked alone to the English Garden in Munich, sat down on a bench and, with the pearl-handled Walther pistol Hitler had given her for protection, shot herself in the head. She survived the impact but was an invalid until her death eight years later.
On June 30, Diana Mosley was arrested at her country house and transported to Holloway Prison in London, leaving her two-year-old son, Alexander, and 11-week-old Max, whom she was nursing, to spend the duration in the care of relatives. Jonathan and Desmond, her sons by Bryan Guinness, were at boarding school. In November 1941, through the intervention of Winston Churchill, Oswald Mosley was moved from Brixton Prison to Holloway, where he and Diana lived in a cottage on prison grounds until their highly controversial release in 1943.
A continuing quasi-legend of World War II London — the sort of romantic tradition that pops up from time to time in such publications as Vanity Fair magazine — is of the ongoing party that was conducted during those years at The Dorchester.
A staple of these stories is Curzon’s eldest daughter, Lady Irene, who spent much of the war’s duration in one of its luxurious suites after the hotel became a glorified bomb shelter for the English aristocracy and London’s International smart set.
Completed in 1931, the hotel was constructed of reinforced concrete, and soundproofed with seaweed and cork, making it not only the safest hotel in London but also the quietest. Wartime regulars at “The Dorch” included Sibyl Colefax, Emerald Cunard, the Duff Coopers, Lord Halifax and his wife, Dorothy, Loelia Duchess of Westminster and, for a time, Averell Harriman and his daughter, Kathy.
Scarcely a bomb could be heard from The Dorchester Promenade.
It was a steady round of dinner parties, bridge games and other amusements that neutralized the effects of war. During the Blitz, residents would rise from the dinner table with the drop of the first bomb and move the party down to Turkish baths beneath the building. The underground hideaway, buffered by 12 feet of concrete, provided individual cubicles for those who wished to stay the night.
After the war, Irene devoted herself to charity work, particularly Aid to Greece. In October 1958, she was made a life peer, Baroness Ravensdale of Kedleston, allowing her to sit in the House of Lords. She died on February 9, 1966.
Baba continued engaging in a series of affairs, the most intense of which — if it was in fact an affair — was with the married Lord Halifax. The British foreign secretary had been Viceroy of India and, during much of World War II, served as British ambassador to the United States. As close as they were over a period of years, it may have been a platonic, quasi-father and daughter, relationship. In 1952, with her marriage to Fruity beyond salvaging, she went abroad for a fiscal year to save enough money in taxes to provide him with a flat in St. James’ Court, within close walking distance of his favorite club, White’s.
Their divorce took place during a newspaper strike in 1955, and Fruity died at 70 in November 1957. Baba spent the rest of her life dedicated to the Save the Children Fund, which led to her being awarded a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1975; she died on August 27, 1995, at 91.
Daisy, the survivor in her generation of Leiters, had been witness to the changes that began to sweep through her rarified world early in the century and were continuing to ravage the life she and her family had known.
When her eldest son married in 1934, Daisy became the Dowager Countess of Suffolk and cheerfully vacated Charlton Park House to make way for her successor. The distinguished estate she bought for herself was Redlynch Park near Bruton, Somerset, a property with gardens designed by the eminent architect Edwin Lutyens.
The speed-loving “dowager” soon began acquiring a series of airplanes that were housed next to a small airfield on the estate. Redlynch, which required a staff of 50 to maintain, would be her principal English residence for the remainder of her long life.
Daisy, who had entered the modern world with assurance, continued to adapt to it well. Two years later, she purchased a large citrus grove near her Arizona winter base, Tucson, and commissioned a Bauhaus-influenced local architect, Richard A. Morse, to design a five-bedroom house. Her desert escape of poured concrete could not have been more unlike her English estates. With its immense windows — predating the ubiquitous “picture window” of post-World War II America — the ultra-modern house was devoid of ornamentation and the first in the Tucson area to be air conditioned. Its interior was stark — with white or off-white walls and floors — so that nothing in the light palette and nondescript cube-shaped furnishings was allowed to distract from the view of surrounding desert and mountains.
The story of Daisy’s eldest son, the 20th Earl of Suffolk, was also told in Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 best-selling novel
The second of the great wars of the 20th century brought Daisy’s most devastating heartbreak since the death of her husband during the first. Their eldest son, the 20th Earl of Suffolk, had become a renowned expert in defusing unexploded bombs. With his confidential secretary, Miss Beryl Morden, and his chauffeur, Fred Hards — together known as “the Holy Trinity” — Lord Suffolk gained fame by successfully attacking an amazing total of 34 bombs. On May 12, 1941—in their attempt to defuse a 35th explosive at Erith Marshes, Kent — the bomb detonated. The powerful blast rocked the countryside, blowing up the bodies of Daisy’s courageous eldest son and his two equally daring employees. Their heroic story, with real names preserved, is woven into the plot of Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 best-selling novel The English Patient.
The valiant earl’s mother would survive him for more than a quarter century. In 1957, when the expansion of Tucson began encroaching, Daisy sold Forest Lodge and built Casa del Oro, another estate further out in the desert. There, she was known for keeping an ever-ready “airplane in her front yard and a Bentley in her garage.” Then 78, she was described as “a tall, angular woman with a slightly stooped posture, yet with a most remarkable regality to her bearing … her hat was from Paris, her jewelry from Cartier” and her delicate scent, Red Rose, from Floris of London. Daisy’s English driver, a man known as Stone, was formerly of the RAF. Stone served as her pilot as well as chauffeur and frequently flew her around the west — often to Nevada or to Los Angeles to visit her son, Hon. Greville Howard — in her Cessna 180. They also flew together as far as from San Francisco to the Amazon.
On March 5, 1968, Stone was at the controls of one of Daisy’s airplanes, flying his adventurous passenger from Tucson to Los Angeles to visit her son Greville. Daisy, the last of Levi Leiter’s was then six months short of her 89th birthday.
As the aircraft was en route to its destination and a holiday with her son, Daisy died suddenly, abruptly ending the golden Leiter era of which she had been the youngest participant.
It had been 114 years since Levi Leiter arrived in Chicago and moved into The Sherman House, the city’s newest and smartest hotel to begin his pursuit of great wealth and influence. His intangible legacy had survived in the blood of his and Mary Theresa’s children as long as they lived. And the material wealth he amassed supported their ambition and that of those they married. With the end of Daisy’s life came liquidation of the Leiter Trust and the dispersal of its riches to tertiary heirs, bringing a close to the remarkable Leiter epoch.
Robert F. Carl