Longleat loses its Lord of lust: He acquired a harem of 75 ‘wifelets’ and adorned his stately home with erotic art. But as he dies from coronavirus at 87, how the Marquess of Bath found loving his family far harder
The Marquess of Bath, the eccentric owner of Longleat Safari Park, has died aged 87 after testing positive for coronavirus.
In a statement, Alexander Thynn’s family thanked the medical team at Royal United Hospital in Bath which ‘cared so professionally and compassionately’ for him in his final days.
Here, Richard Kay looks back at the life of the aristocrat, author, artist and flamboyant showman…
Like a precious hothouse flower, the 7th Marquess of Bath spent his 87 years sheltering from the chill winds of modern life behind an exquisite Elizabethan facade while dressed as a superannuated hippy and surrounded by an ever-changing court of nubile young women.
While his father, a pioneer of the stately home business, collected Nazi memorabilia including Himmler’s spectacles and some of Hitler’s watercolours, he adopted the ideals of the flower-power generation and covered the walls of Longleat, his ancestral seat, with his own paintings of his 75 ‘wifelets’ and erotic murals.
This was the louche and eccentric world of Britain’s most colourful aristocrat, whose death from the coronavirus was announced yesterday.
The Marquess of Bath, the eccentric owner of Longleat Safari Park, has died aged 87 after testing positive for coronavirus. Pictured: Lord Bath at a millennium party with then girlfriend Trudie Juggernauth-Sharma
That a man who for all his life defied convention should ultimately fall to the pandemic sweeping the country was a chilling a reminder of a disease that cares nothing for lineage and breeding.
In a statement, Lord Bath’s family paid tribute to the selfless dedication of the ‘nurses, doctors and other staff who cared so professionally and compassionately’ for him in his final days.
He died on Saturday at the Royal United Hospital in Bath, where he had been admitted on March 28.
Tributes flooded in for the peer who was more than unconventional: a complete one-off. Ben Fogle, who filmed TV series Animal Park at the Longleat estate, was ‘devastated’, while the show’s presenter Kate Humble said she was ‘very sad’.
She tweeted: ‘Everyone will describe him as eccentric – and he was, gloriously so – but he was also kind and fun – and we all need a bit of kindness and fun in our lives.’
His family thanked the medical team at Royal United Hospital in Bath which ‘cared so professionally and compassionately’ for him in his final days. Pictured: The 13-year-old Alexander Thynn at Eton
To the public at large, Alexander Thynn cultivated the image of the pony-tailed polygamist living the life of a libertine with scores of lovers while cushioned by great wealth, privilege and the security of a 10,000-acre estate.
He revelled in the tabloid headlines that chronicled his shenanigans, such as ‘the lustful lord’ and his favourite ‘the loins of Longleat’ – a gentle pun on the safari park attached to the Wiltshire pile.
But he was also a model of correctness, unfailingly polite and with impeccable manners, modestly describing himself in Debrett’s, the bible of the blue-bloods, as an artist, composer and author.
Significantly, however, he was a shrewd businessman who built on his father’s achievements to make the house and estate consistently one of the most visited attractions in the country.
Beyond the flamboyant outfits of fez, kaftan, Indian silk shirts, purple trousers and carpet slippers was a figure who hankered after a gentler age and tradition.
He remained not just married to Anna, the wife he so grievously betrayed, but devoted to her, describing the former French film star as ‘the sexiest actress of all time’.
Beyond the flamboyant outfits of fez, kaftan, Indian silk shirts, purple trousers and carpet slippers was a figure who hankered after a gentler age and tradition. Pictured: The Marquess of Bath at Longleat in 1997 where he decorated the interior with erotic murals and portraits of his wifelets
Alexander Thynn cultivated the image of the pony-tailed polygamist living the life of a libertine with scores of lovers. Pictured: With one of the Longleat chimps
For most of their long-distance marriage, which endured for more than half a century, she was based in Paris from where, after boring of acting, she reported on the Vietnam War, the Northern Ireland Troubles and other hotspots.
Perhaps most intriguing of all was that Bath should have died at the same age as the father he tried so hard to live up to but couldn’t, casting a shadow that was to blight his relationship in turn with his own son.
This wildly carousing aristocrat, dedicated to wenching and revelling, might have been too large a character even for Evelyn Waugh to have contemplated. Here was a man who, within moments of his father’s death, deposed his younger brother, the 6th Marquess’s favourite.
Lord Christopher had been running the estate but Bath ordered him to clear his desk, which he did in tears. Waugh, in fact, did meet the young Alexander while a guest of his parents, Henry and Daphne, at Longleat.
In a letter to society figure Nancy Mitford, he described the experience as ‘frightfully noisy and drunken’. They stayed up late into the night while the children, Alexander and his sister Caroline rode bicycles round the house.
Might there, too, have been a key to Alexander’s future priapic direction in Waugh’s note that Lord Bath insisted on reading ‘the most disgusting pages’ from the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s The Sexual Life Of Savages to his teenage children at meal times?
After later handing over the day to day running of Longleat and the attraction at Cheddar Gorge, also owned by the family, there were clashes between father and son. Pictured: His son Ceawlin Thynn, now the 8th Marquess, and his wife Emma
Henry and Daphne, the divorced daughter of the 4th Baron Vivian, were one of the most glamorous couples of the Jazz Age.
Elected Tory MP for Frome in Somerset in 1931, the year before Alexander was born, Henry was handsome, raffish and very Right-wing, while his wife was a celebrated beauty.
After a good war – he was wounded in North Africa – he returned to make his mark on English social history by becoming, 71 years ago, the first owner of a stately home to open it permanently to the public on a commercial basis.
He did so to pay off £1.5million in death duties incurred when his father, the 5th Marquess, died in 1946.
The opening heralded the birth of a new ‘showbiz’ aristocracy, forced out from behind their wood panelling to maintain the upkeep of their homes by entertaining the public.
Alexander was as grateful for that as he was for his father’s failure to carry out another idea: turning Longleat over to the government as a weekend retreat for the Cabinet.
But while the house with its collection of arts and treasures – the inspirational safari park came in 1966 – prospered, father and son did not get along. Alexander was certainly not a disappointment.
He did well at Eton, did his National Service in the Life Guards – losing his virginity to a ‘sweet-natured’ German prostitute – and was a useful boxer.
He followed his father into the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry and went up to Oxford where he was admired for his good looks and got a good degree in PPE at Christ Church. His parents’ marriage did not last.
‘They were monogamists who learned how to cheat,’ he once said.
‘During the War, I realised my mother was having relations with various men in the Army. When my father came back from El Alamein in 1942, I told him: ‘Dad, you’ll have to get used to seeing a lot more men around the place.’
They divorced acrimoniously in 1953 when Alexander was 21. Unsure of what to do after Oxford, he went to Paris and started painting.
Soon he was throwing himself into the philosophies of the liberated Sixties: bohemian clothes, long hair and free love. His parents’ behaviour turned him against conventional marriage.
‘I wanted a wider sense of family,’ he said later.
‘I would have preferred not to marry.’
But he had to, to produce an heir. In 1966, he went through what he called an ‘anti-marriage’ with Tania Duckworth, a model from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), in a ‘deist humanist’ ceremony he largely made up himself.
This was followed by an ‘anti-divorce’ and, in 1969, a conventional register office wedding in Kensington to the Hungarian-born Anna Gael, mother of his two children, son Ceawlin, now the 8th Marquess, and daughter Lenka.
But pretty soon Anna had returned to her home in Paris.
Ceawlin has his own take on whether his parents embarked on a marriage of convenience to provide Longleat with a male heir.
‘It’s not that cut-and-dried,’ he said.
‘They just lead such very different lives. It was a love-match at the beginning. She fell for Dad first and Longleat was an added bonus.
‘She found being the Lady of Longleat fun for seven months and then realised it was not that great. Mum still feels she’s owned by the house.’ For many years she remained responsible for conserving Longleat’s treasures and returned every three weeks or so for up to ten days.
Their marriage didn’t stop working, said Ceawlin.
‘It was never quite as easy and harmonious as an “open marriage”, but that’s the general gist.’
Unlike his father, who never lived at Longleat, Alexander moved in during the late 1950s and remained there.
Then, in 1964, when the estate was made over to him to avoid inheritance taxes, he began his great labour of love to adorn the private apartments with his paintings and allegorical murals. He considered them his greatest achievements.
There was the Kama Sutra room, his bedroom of course, which he opened to the public in 1969 – and which was closed by the police two months later because of the obscene content – the Paranoia Room, filled with unsettling images from his tormented dreams, and Bluebeard’s Staircase, which recorded his notorious sexual adventures.
Not long after marrying, the free-spirited Bath had another woman on his arm, Tara Moon: a model turned interior designer. As the Sixties made way for the Seventies, the Longleat harem began.
The women came and went. Some were given cottages on the estate, though there was no noblesse oblige – they had to pay rent. He coined the word ‘wifelet’ to describe these women. Glamour girls, actresses, singers, would-be models and some mere concubines, they were all recruited.
They included Jo Jo Laine, the former wife of Wings guitarist Denny Laine and an unashamed hedonist, Bond girl Sylvana Henriques, Chinese artist Chung Yee Chang, Sixties model-turned pub landlady Irene Barnett, the actress Cherri Gilham and Nola Fontaine, the outrageous cabaret singer.
In her splendidly rakish biography, The Marquess Of Bath: The Lord Of Love, Nesta Wyn Ellis relates how the peer was ‘positively swarming with women who are queuing up to share his bed’.
In his heyday, ‘a woman on either side of him in bed’ every night was a basic requirement.
But as Alexander aged (as did the wifelets) this free-love paradise turned out to be no bed of roses.
Bath had hoped to create a bucolic , loving commune in the Wiltshire countryside but in practice there was ‘rampant jealousy’ and even violence between the women, especially when an ex-wifelet encountered a new favourite.
According to Ellis, who witnessed wifelets stealing each other’s clothes and generally being spiteful during a stay at Bath’s summer retreat outside Saint-Tropez in the south of France, Bath was aroused by the idea of being fought over.
The phrase ‘growing old disgracefully’ could have been coined for Alexander Bath.
Boasting of his sexual prowess, he said he had no need for Viagra.
For all his new-age trappings he only ever paid lip service to meritocratic ideals about the iniquities of inherited wealth and landed gentry by ensuring he clung on to his unearned fortune and titles.
Yet he voted in favour of removing hereditary peers – himself included – from the House of Lords.
And he changed his name by deed poll form Thynne to Thynn for no other reason than he thought people would otherwise pronounce it as Thine instead of Thin. He was full of contradictions.
Though an Old Etonian, Alexander sent his son to the local comprehensive, from which the resourceful Ceawlin, now 45, managed to extract himself by using a trust fund to pay his fees for Bedales.
But after later handing over the day to day running of Longleat and the attraction at Cheddar Gorge, also owned by the family, there were clashes between father and son.
It started when Ceawlin decided to remove some of the panels of his father’s paintings. Bath was furious.
The stand-off became gripping television in a BBC documentary, All Change At Longleat, which laid bare the family friction.
Things dramatically worsened when Bath chose not to attend his son’s wedding to Emma McQuiston, daughter of a Nigerian oil tycoon and a star of last year’s Strictly Come Dancing.
The snub was matched only by the astonishing attitude of Ceawlin’s mother, who, on learning of his marriage, told her son: ‘Are you sure about what you’re doing to 400 years of bloodline?’ In his declining years, with many of the wifelets gone, that rift has been an unpleasant if sad epitaph.
In an interview, Bath once asked that people ‘are understanding of those of us who choose to lead our lives in a slightly different way. We too want to love and be loved and need a structure to enable us to do that.’
Surely he might have applied that compassion to his own family, too.
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