Philanderer: The 6th Earl of Carnarvon with first wife Catherine Wendell
Reclining in his favourite armchair, a lit pipe clamped between his teeth, the 6th Earl of Carnarvon is talking into a tape recorder.
On the table in front of him a Grundig reel-to-reel machine whirrs away. Sometimes there is silence as he considers a question or pauses to refill the bowl of the briar pipe.
Mostly he talks without a break, pouring out his story as well as his hopes, dreams, disappointments and setbacks. They are the reflections of a life lived well from a man cushioned by wealth and privilege at the upper reaches of society.
At times, it is a boastful monologue, one which an aristocrat might, in another age, have carefully inscribed in a private diary and locked away for all time.
But, as Lord Carnarvon congenially chats, there are no such reservations. He wants the world to know the truth about his childhood; how it was far from happy, with cold and distant parents who showed little interest in him.
His father, the 5th earl, was the famous Egyptologist who perished, according to legend, as a victim of the curse of Tutankhamun in 1923. Lord Carnarvon recalls being summoned to his dying father’s bedside in Cairo and how, at the very moment he expired, all the lights in the city went out.
He also speaks of his Army days and his claim to be the last man alive to command a firing squad to shoot a spy; and of his intimacy with the Royal Family — Edward VIII was his son’s godfather.
Nothing was off-limits, least of all his womanising. He was proud of his reputation as a ladies’ man — legend has it that he used to knock on women’s bedroom doors with a most unusual part of his anatomy. It was said that he had once revived a female guest, who had passed out after a particularly vigorous ravishing, with a pitcher of iced water.
Unburdening himself, he recalls his first sexual experience, with actress Modesta Daly, a well-known star of the London stage, who, he says, seduced him on a polar bearskin rug in a flat opposite the British Museum.
But he also talks with pride of his triumph in ‘saving’ the family home, Highclere Castle, the setting for Downton Abbey, when death duties following his father’s demise threatened to destroy his inheritance.
Ravishing beauties: Actresses Jeanne Stewart and Modesta Daly were both linked with the earl
For the interviewer on the other side of the table, the stories were vivid and thrilling. Barry Wynne had been invited by the peer to write his memoirs and, armed with a tape recorder, for the best part of a year had been making regular trips to Highclere, in Berkshire, where a 150,000-word manuscript was taking shape.
But, just weeks before the book was due to appear, Carnarvon abruptly withdrew co-operation and obtained an injunction preventing publication. After taking legal action, Wynne eventually received £5,000 in compensation — having rejected the earl’s humiliating offer of £50 in used £1 notes — and wrote the whole episode off to experience.
Sometime later, however, Carnarvon quietly published an autobiography, No Regrets, followed by a second volume, Ermine Tales. They were much less racy than the book planned with Wynne, a former TV executive, though his vanity still shone through.
As for the tapes he recorded, for years they were under lock and key — only to vanish. But for a chance find in a Lincolnshire hotel that was closing down, the 30 reels of tapes packed into a cardboard box would have ended up in a landfill site, their secrets lost for ever.
And, last year, Wynne, now 90, was reunited with them. To his amazement, they were in reasonable condition and the sound quality was almost as good as he remembered.
Wynne’s cache of tapes is an extraordinary record of a golden history of one of our most popular country houses — particularly in the context of a big-screen version of Downton Abbey, due later this year.
The storyline of the film sees Downton preparing for a royal visit by George V and Queen Mary in 1927. Intriguingly, this fictional visit is set just four years after Carnarvon had inherited the earldom and with it Highclere Castle. With fact and fiction so aligned, the history of the tapes adds significance.
The story begins in 1973, when Barry Wynne, who helped launch Thames Television, received a phone call from the then 75-year-old Lord Carnarvon. A year earlier, Wynne had written a well-received book about one of the great archaeological finds of the 20th century, the tomb of Tutankhamun. It was a subject close to Carnarvon, whose father had funded the expedition.
But the peer did not want to talk about his father. Encouraged by the publisher Lord Weidenfeld, who wanted ‘all the dirt’ on a man reputed to be one of the great rakes of the 20th century, Wynne and Carnarvon set to work.
The dancer and Prochy’s second wife Tilly Losch
‘Here he was in his mid-70s and he wanted to put down a record of his life,’ says Wynne. ‘He was great raconteur.’
But, having signed his acceptance of the manuscript, the peer, under pressure from his advisors about the frank reminiscences, had second thoughts. Baffled when Carnarvon pulled the plug on the enterprise, Wynne’s shock only increased when he was summoned to the office of the earl’s London solicitors.
‘From a drawer, his lawyer pulled out a wad of £1 notes and counted out 50 of them,’ Wynne recalls. ‘I particularly remember that they were used notes, that seemed deliberate.’ It was the act of a crashing snob. ‘Of course, I walked out on the spot.’
After finally securing a payoff, Wynne handed over a copy of the manuscript and his notes, but not the tapes. According to him, the recordings were not part of the action.
‘They were mine, not Carnarvon’s, made on my wife’s tape machine.’
Nevertheless, he sent the tapes to his sister’s home in Paris for safekeeping. They remained there for 25 years before being moved to his agent’s office in Central London for a further 15 years. In recent times, they had been looked after by his younger daughter, which was when they went missing.
After two failed marriages and a decade living on a yacht, Wynne has now settled in Cyprus. And it was there that he received the call to tell him the tapes had been found.
It came from his daughter’s ex-boyfriend, who said his father was selling a hotel in the market town of Louth, when at the back of a cupboard he found the box of tapes.
‘I didn’t know this young man but I remember it was Boxing Day and I told him he’d given me the best Christmas present ever,’ Wynne says.
The tapes are once again safe under lock and key with Wynne’s solicitors. What is on them is bound to fascinate historians and broadcasters. Few figures in the racy Twenties and Thirties were as louche and as well connected as Henry Herbert, 6th Earl of Carnarvon.
Known as Porchy after his courtesy title Lord Porchester, he was a soldier, sportsman, bloodstock breeder, exhibitionist, chat-show guest and apparently lover of half the women of Berkshire.
According to a wonderfully indiscreet obituary, he liked to tell how, as a young cavalry subaltern, he had been chased through the back gardens of Maidenhead by cuckolded husbands. It described him as a ‘most uncompromisingly direct ladies man’, a euphemism to describe a flasher.
He thought nothing of taking other men’s wives as his mistresses. One was Joan Bowes-Lyon, a noted beauty and a cousin of the Queen Mother. She was married to Frank Bellville, a fellow soldier, who attempted to blackmail Porchy by threatening to expose the affair unless he paid him £10,000.
Convinced he had been entrapped, Porchester refused to pay and broke off the affair.
Highclere Castle, which features as Downton Abbey in the hit ITV television series
As a child, he told Wynne, he lived in fear of his forbidding and dissolute father and his rich but cold mother, Almina, illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, a flamboyant member of the banking family.
He recalled how, as a ten-year-old boy, he was taken to a Christmas party at Buckingham Palace where he collided with the portly Edward VII, knocking him to the ground. He then compounded this social faux pas by spilling ice cream over the king’s granddaughter Princess Mary’s new day-dress.
For this he was beaten by his furious, social-climbing mother, who then instructed the family butler to lock him in an attic and feed him only bread and water for two days as punishment for disgracing the Carnarvon name.
It was nothing to humiliations visited on him by his father. After a bad school report, the young Porchy was ordered to undress and bend over, whereupon his father, armed with a birch rod, gave him six strokes on his bare backside.
A page at the Coronation of George V in 1911, he remembered the waxed moustaches of Germany’s Kaiser and the Russian Tsar. During World War I, when serving with the 7th Hussars in Mesopotamia, his horse was shot from under him and a bullet pierced his pith helmet. He also led a firing squad which executed a Turk spy. Afterwards, his hands shook so much he was unable to withdraw his pistol to deliver the coup de grace and threw up.
But he had no such qualms when he saw an Arab cutting off the boots of a dead brother officer. Drawing his pistol, he shot the man dead. He also helped himself to the field glasses of a dead Turk officer, which he used for racing for the rest of his life.
After the death of the 5th earl, Porchester secured the financial future of Highclere by slashing estate staff numbers and selling works of art. To raise more money, he turned his pastime for rearing racehorses and gambling on them into a profession.
During the abdication crisis, he was asked to intervene by the Royal Family. As a close friend of Edward VIII, he met the king in a Turkish bath in St James’s, and appealed to him to keep Wallis Simpson as his mistress, but not to make her his wife.
His own marital record was hardly unblemished. He married twice, first to American Catherine Wendell and then to Austrian-born dancer and Hollywood star Tilly Losch. Both ended in divorce. Catherine had abandoned the family home because of his philandering, and years later he attempted to sue Tilly for desertion after she, too, ran out on him.
Despite his reputation, he was not always successful with the opposite sex. In 1936, he was reported in New York to be engaged to society beauty Tanis Guinness, but she jilted him and eloped to Mexico with a screenwriter.
Ten years later, his name was linked with the British actress Jeanne Stewart and, in the late Fifties, he was said to be contemplating marriage to Mme Jacqueline Descamps, the blonde daughter of a Belgian baroness, who was almost half his age.
Even so, with Downton Abbey set to return to the screen later this summer, the real-life saga of the scion of Highclere and the new-found tapes reveal a story every bit as dramatic.