I FINISHED, OR SO I THOUGHT, my formal education around my seventeenth birthday. A year had to be filled, so through the nuns an au pair job was arranged with a family in Sicily. I was to improve the English of twin girls aged sixteen and their ten-year-old sister and also generally make myself useful.
Senora Proto was well-upholstered and elegant, her husband shorter, moustached, kind and a business man. Their main house was a seventeenth century palazzo in the small port town of Milazzo. A house of much beauty but few luxuries other than an excellent cook.
Of course I had no Italian but at least Church Latin which was some help in learning rudimentary Italian. They also had two other houses, one high above the sea with views of both Mount Etna and Stromboli and the Aeolian Islands, the other inland in a large garden with vines and a wood of about a hundred Camellia trees. There were family gatherings which always included small and very elderly aunts dressed in black. I was encouraged to draw and paint watercolours, read aloud and do needlework. I was extremely happy.
Before the year was up I received a summons from my mother to return immediately to Ireland. I was to pay my own fare and travel overland via Paris where we had a cousin, but if I needed to contact him I was to be very careful as he had a mistress. My route was via Rome where, thanks to the nuns again, I had somewhere to stay and a public audience with the then Pope.
Of course I missed my connection in Paris. I did not want to be a debutante either in London or America.
My beloved cousin Victor Coates lived in a beautiful apartment on Avenue Georges Mandel in the 16th arrondissement. He had a business which made furnishing fabrics and employed the best designers. He was married to Germaine who, though not conventionally pretty or beautiful, was a jolie laide and dressed when possible by Dior.
Enter the spirit of my great grandmother Belinda. She had married again, after my great-grandfather died, to Maurice Coates who was hugely wealthy. Belinda was a small woman, witty, very kind and also both elegant and very beautiful. She was part of the circle of Edward VII. She took the young Victor Coates under her wing. He told me that when the King was being entertained at Rackheath, the vast country house in Norfolk (the town house was in Mayfair), the children were all confined to the stables to keep them from observing anything unsuitable.
Entering the apartment was almost the bravest thing I had ever done. I was terrified but it was to change my life.
I was given an omelette and a quarter bottle of champagne and settled into the tiny maid’s room at the top of the building and asked to stay as long as I wanted. Germaine took my appearance in hand – a good coiffeuse and very smart clothes, Victor my eyes and my soul.
I was put in a taxi every morning to go to a gallery or museum and report back at lunchtime or sometimes the evening on what I had seen and understood. The Musée d’Art Moderne was within walking distance as was the Musée de l’Homme. Remember I knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about contemporary art so it was the sun emerging from a bank of cloud…
Mattisse’s great cut outs – Pollock’s canvases, tiny Schwitters collages made from bus tickets, Bonnard and Vuillard’s tender interiors and of course Monet’s great water lillies.
Of course there was also the Louvre – Rubens great Marie de Medici series, the 14th century Avignon Pietà which moved me to tears, the windows of the Sainte-Chapelle seen by snow light – March was still cold – more beauty than I could ever dream of, more happiness than I thought was possible, but good things end too quickly, Ireland was waiting and then unwillingly to America.
I travelled from Cobh to New York, Holland America Line, suitably equipped with frocks from Switzers and deep feelings of total inadequacy. My aunt Catherine met me and we travelled to Richmond Virginia.
My father’s older brother Murray was married to Catherine, a somewhat difficult heiress. They had two sons, Murray and John Temple, who was my age. Catherine wanted a borrowed daughter to put through the debutante season.
My uncle Murray (the Major) was a pleasantly contented man helped by the mastership of a pack of hounds (the Deep Run Hunt), the ownership and editorship of a weekly paper (the Goochland Gazette), a 60-foot yacht kept on the Chesapeake, and enough whisky to ensure continual conviviality. Their house was outside Richmond, substantial but not beautiful.
My aunt reiterated that it was most important for me to be popular. I think the general idea was to find a suitable husband.
The social mores were very different for an American adolescent girl, especially a Southerner, to the norm for a European. That America for girls was strictly non-intellectual and age segregated. Racial segregation was still the norm. This horrified me. My father had insisted rightly that ‘you treat the prince like the pauper and the pauper like the prince’. He was right.
So parties, parties, parties. No books, no paints, no adult or intellectual conversation, though I admit that John Temple would sometimes disappear at parties with me to play chess. Some of the dance bands were wonderful – black of course. Sailing was good fun and I was allowed to act as whipper-in to my uncle’s hounds.
He was a big man and fine horseman. The horses were usually ex-steeplechasers imported from Ireland and at least I rode reasonably well.
I had other cousins in New York. My great-grandmother Belinda’s eldest daughter Norah, who was not a beauty, had unexpectedly married Robert Lion Gardiner whose family had always owned a great deal of Long Island and land that was to become New York. The original family house Sagtikos Manor was built in 1576. Alexandra, Norah’s daughter, was mother to Alexandra who was my exact contemporary. They had a vast penthouse on 720 Park Avenue and a lavish country house at Oyster Bay.
Cousin Alex was sympathetic, museums encouraged, music encouraged, books and conversation encouraged; in general all the things I craved. Alexandra was beautiful with auburn hair and a strong resemblance to our great-grandmother. I loved visiting them. Alex was passionate about ecology, nature, horses and conservation and in adult life has done important work in those fields. We liked each other then and I suppose we had in common determination to follow our dreams.
Bob Gardiner Alex’s uncle was at once both fabulously wealthy and extremely close fisted. He showed me his collection of precious jewels which were kept in a vault in The Trust and National Bank N.Y., pearls, huge emeralds in a necklace, diamond tiaras – all locked up and unworn.
My time in America ended with the news that my mother, aged 50, was pregnant with a baby due in March 1959 – “Come home at once.”