Friday, March 7, 2008


Ten miles away from the “dreaming spires” of Oxford, is the town of Woodstock, made famous by its Churchilian connections.
Set among 2100 acres of greenery with a landscaped garden and terraced waterfalls, is Blenheim Palace, where Sir Winston Churchill was born prematurely on November 30th, 1874. Blenheim was never his home, though he visited there frequently. He even brought his fiancée Clementina Hozier here in 1900, and proposed to her in the Temple of Diana which overlooks a lake on the property, and has a romantic ambience.

In 1965, he was laid to rest alongside his parents’ grave, in the churchyard at Bladon.
But the story that lingers in my mind is not of Churchill but of Consuelo Vanderbilt, the 9th Duchess of Marlborough, whose enormous dowry saved Blenheim palace from disintegration.
This 17-year old American beauty was forced into a loveless marriage with the 9th Duke – Charles, Richard. John Spencer. She was deeply in love with another young man, but was wrenched away from him by her “socially climbing vulture of a mother.”

In those days, Americans greatly coveted British titles and aristocracy, and were more than willing to part with their millions, for entry into these elite circles. The English dukes and counts were notorious for their high living, philandering ways and sporting pursuits, which left them teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. They welcomed American girls both for their wealth and their charming personalities. Unlike the British women with their Victorian pruderies, these girls were witty, vivacious and attractive.

Consuelo and the Duke were married at St. Thomas Church, New York on 6th November, 1895. They were mismatched from the word ‘Go.’ She was beautiful, elegant and a good six feet tall to his five feet and seven inches. Though he went by the pet name ‘Sunny’ he was apathetic and brooding by nature. Just 23 years old, he too was very much in love with another girl. But due to financial exigencies, he was forced into this marriage.

And so the “dollar princess” crossed the Atlantic in a luxury liner, carrying with her a dowry of 2.5 million dollars for the repair of Blenheim Palace. Her father William K Vanderbilt was one of the wealthiest business magnates in USA. During her stay at the palace, Consuelo spent many more millions to renovate the “decrepit heap” that was Blenheim.

Though they stayed married for many years, it was a loveless existence. Consuelo made her dislike quite apparent in many ways, even to the extent of placing a massive centerpiece of Louis XIV on their dinner table, so that the Duke’s face would be blocked from her sight at mealtimes.
By her estimate, he was an inferior husband. She blamed it on his loveless upbringing first by nannies, and then by strict boarding school masters.
Consuelo’s son was born in 1897, two years after her marriage. Her second son came soon after, and with this, she considered her obligations complete.
“I have borne my husband an heir and a spare,” she said.
They were separated for 12 years from 1907 to 1919, but reunited briefly again, only to start divorce proceedings. The marriage was dissolved in 1921.
Blenheim Palace today owes its splendour to Consuelo, who lived the best years of her life in a ‘gilded cage.’
Though her contribution is rarely spoken about, people who knew her said she was kind and compassionate, and devoted her time and money to worthy causes.

She found true love in her second marriage to Lt. Col. Jacques Balsan, a French aviator, and lived for many years in Normandy. But the last few years of her life were spent in New York. She lived to a ripe old age of 87, during which time she penned her autobiography, “The Glitter and the Gold.”

Consuelo was interred in Bladon churchyard on the Blenheim Estate in 1964, as befitting the 9th Duchess of Marlborough. Forced arranged marriages do have the potential for misery especially when they hinge on the amount of dowry brought in by the brides.


Along the Schwabian Alp highway, we drove towards Nordilingen, through fertile fruit growing villages and luscious green forests. Ruined castles and rich monasteries added to the serene beauty of the countryside. It was surely a favourite holiday route signposted by little boards showing a silver thimble on a green background.
We stopped briefly at a small town called Gingen on the river Brenz. The people here spoke a dialect called Frisian. A traveller once wrote about a ginger bread church in a bakery window, and we drove around to locate it.
But what was of more interest to me was the story of a woman called Margarita Steiff, who became a rich entrepreneur through her brand of soft animal toys.
Margarita was born in Gingen in1847, and lived there till her death in 1909. In her early childhood she contracted Polio, and spent the rest of her life in a wheel chair. But she was not to be discouraged. Her legs might have failed her. But she had two perfectly normal hands and an agile brain.
“I must go to school,” she told her reluctant parents, and wore down their objections through her persistence.
After her basic education, she learnt tailoring. Now she wanted to become economically independent. She considered her disability not an impediment but a mere inconvenience to be surmounted.
“You are a woman, you are disabled and running a business is not a woman’s job,” said her father.
“My determination will help me leap over these obstacles. You wait and see Papa,” she told her father.
She began to make soft animal toys. Her first bear was christened Teddy Bear after President Theodore Roosevelt, who once went on a bear hunt and rescued a bear cub from being shot. Hence ‘Teddy Bear.”
The soft animals she made were cuddly and attractive, and the first batch was sold out at a Christmas Market in Heidenheim on Brenz. This gave her the idea of manufacturing them on a large scale. She founded her business in 1886, giving employment to many disabled people like herself, living in and around that area. Margarita worked till the end of her life.
Worldwide success came to her when an American ordered 3000 animals at the Frankfurt Fair. Someone even made a film about her life called “Against All Odds.”
Margarita’s toys bear her trade mark – a button in one ear. Hence they are called Knopf toys.
Though she died in 1909, the manufacture of her toys continues to be big business even today. They are sold in major toy shops in Germany and all over the world. Many toy museums exhibit some of her earliest toys. However, they have always been expensive. Even today, they sell at comparatively higher rates than other toys.
Next time you hold a teddy bear with a button in his ear in your hand, think of a feisty woman in a wheel chair, who looked ‘disability’ in the eye and turned it into an opportunity to excel.