Summer 2013

A countess on campus

Special Collections discovers a "Downton Abbey" love story

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Binghamton University Special Collections
Tilly Losch was a dancer, choreographer and artist, in addition to being Lady Carnarvon at Highclere Castle. This picture was taken by famous photographer Cecil Beaton.

The countess finished dictating her letter and peered out the hotel window at the snow swirling onto Fifth Avenue. Highclere Castle seemed a world away from Manhattan, and yet she wanted to be kept apprised of all that was going on in her new husband’s life. With Britain just months into the war, the estate was going through another big jolt. Would this one spell the end of aristocratic life?

“What will happen to poor Frederick?” she asked. “Did you get another butler, or is George or Robert doing it all? Who is looking after you — George or Robert? Has Marcus joined the Welsh Guards? And who is looking after the estate?”

This isn’t an early summary of Downton Abbey Season 9. It’s drawn from the real-life correspondence of Tilly Losch, an Austrian dancer and artist who married Lord Porchester, the sixth earl of Carnarvon, just before war broke out in 1939. Her letters, photographs and other personal memorabilia are part of the Binghamton University Libraries’ Special Collections.

A Downton connection

Highclere Castle, which is still home to the Carnarvon family, serves as the setting for the wildly popular British TV drama. Beth Kilmarx, curator of rare books at the University, is the one who recently made a connection between Losch’s papers and the show. She and a colleague were speculating on whether the collection contained some hidden treasures when she stuck her hand into a box of correspondence and came up with a letter addressed to Lady Carnarvon at Highclere Castle.

There are many parallels between reality and the events that have unfolded on screen. To place Losch and her husband, whom she called “Porchey,” in context of the fictional Crawley family, consider that he was born in 1898, which would make him just a few years younger than Sybil, the youngest of the three daughters on the TV show.

On television, the Crawleys have struggled with modern life, including whether to install a telephone and how to get by with fewer servants. But the 1930s and ’40s seem to find the Carnarvon family still dependent on their household staff and capable of putting immense care into details of parties and fashion.

WWII comes to the castle

After Britain entered the war against Germany in the fall of 1939, the Carnarvon family made plans to open Highclere Castle to children who were evacuated from London. (As on the TV show, the castle served as a hospital during World War I.) By December, the school was up and running, and the household staff faced the logistics of providing sufficient food, teachers and medical care for the children. A woman named Nan Stirling oversaw Curzon Crescent Nursery School at Highclere.

Losch and C.I. Stubbings, a sort of secretary/head of staff at Highclere (think of a female version of Downton’s butler, Carson), had agreed on details of the children’s Christmas gifts and meals. The “tiny tots” received stockings that contained a ball, a toy, some sweets, an orange and a penny.

Stirling wrote to the earl after the holiday to express her thanks. “I wonder if you remember the poor miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin who had to make gold out of straw,” she began. “I feel that her task was a light one in comparison to mine. We owe you so many thanks and there seems such a very small supply of words with which to do it. … If you could only have been with us on Christmas Day and seen and heard for yourself just what a real Christmas can mean to slum children, I feel sure that you would have experienced that most perfect happiness, the giving of complete joy to a little child.”

Domestic staff concerns

“The servant problem has become acute!” Stubbings wrote to Losch in December 1939. “At the moment we are reduced to Catherine (who has also given notice) and two very indifferent temporary housemaids. By accounts from all the domestic agencies it appears that the girls all want daily work so that they can have their evenings free. This seems to be a direct consequence of war conditions.”

Later in the month, things were not looking any brighter. “There is still a serious shortage of servants, but a second housemaid comes in on Thursday,” Stubbings wrote.

By 1941, the situation had improved — and Catherine had been persuaded to stay on. “All is quiet and peaceful here, and even the servant problem has eased considerably,” Stubbings wrote. “We now have three housemaids — Catherine, a second, and an excellent daily woman. … They manage very well.”

Medical crisis at Highclere

A member of the household staff, Mrs. Sanderson, fell ill after Losch’s marriage to the earl. (On the TV show, the countess at Downton learns that the head housekeeper might have cancer.) Stubbings passed along details to the Countess of Carnarvon as the housemaid sought treatment.

“Mrs. Sanderson’s neck is still not normal, and as Dr. Bevan Jones does not seem to be doing anything definite about it, she is going to see Dr. Simmons (her own doctor) with a view to seeing a specialist,” Stubbings wrote.

Soon, doctors diagnosed Mrs. Sanderson with Hodgkin’s disease. She was losing weight and was very weak. “I don’t think she realises how serious a complaint it is,” Stubbings wrote. “She is having deep X-ray treatment at the hospital, and will have to go to London each week to continue it.”

A dramatic love affair

When Losch met Lord Carnarvon, the petite young dancer had already won fame across Europe and in the United States as a choreographer and movie star. She had also parted from the British financier Edward James in a scandalous and highly publicized divorce in which each accused the other of adultery.

The earl’s letters to her are full of sweet nicknames — she is “my adored wifie” or “pink pearl” — and fashionable places, from the Ritz Hotel in London to Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill. In a letter that’s addressed “Beloved Pink Pearl,” the earl wrote: “Marcus and I have been trudging round for miles in a freezing north east wind and have shot about 100 head of game. We talked a lot about you and as always I think of you the whole time. I doubt if you are out of my mind for more than 5 mins: in any of the hours I’m awake, I mean.”

Losch, in turn, wrote to him as “Porchey” or even “Porchey Poo.” At times, the separation seemed to affect her mood as well. Writing to him from the RMS Queen Mary on one of her trips between Britain and the United States, she said, “The journey is dreary, the people are dreary and so is the weather.” But at other times, Losch seems to have been caught up in the bustle of New York. “There is a sort of boom spirit about this place,” she wrote in 1944. “Everybody seems to be making money and giving parties.”

A telegram sent to Losch in New York demonstrates the earl’s urgent desire to see her: “POSITIVELY PINING FOR PINK PEARL YOUR RETURN TICKET POSTED BY CUNARD HOPE MY LETTER RECEIVED MILLION KISSES. POO.”

Even Stubbings was moved to remark on the depth of the earl’s affection when she wrote to Losch in July 1941. “It will be no news to tell you how much his Lordship is longing for your return,” she wrote. “… He misses you terribly, and seems more lonely every day. … I don’t know what will happen to him if you do not come soon! Please forgive me if this seems presumptuous, but I thought you should know how he is feeling.”

The marriage (the second for each of them) didn’t survive their wartime separation, and Losch’s letters to the Carnarvon Estates Company provide an interesting view of her situation as a wealthy socialite in post-war America. At one point in 1947, she sent a four-page list of her wardrobe to Highclere in hopes that Stubbings would pack things up and ship them to her. The detailed list includes a Jaeger camel coat, five evening dresses, 11 pairs of gloves and “all French high heel shoes.”

Losch and the earl remained friendly throughout their lives. Even after the divorce, he continued to write to her as “My beloved Tillykins.”

Neither ever remarried.


Curator Beth Kilmarx talks about the Tilly Losch collection. Video.

See a slideshow of photos and correspondence from Special Collections.