Sheila Chisholm led a remarkable life, which I think is done justice by this biography from Robert Wainwright.
Born into a well-t0-do family outside of Sydney, she went to England in 1914 to make her debut. When war broke out she and her mother ended up in Cairo, helping to care for injured soldiers there… and while there she married a young Scottish lord. He ended up being a drunk gambler, so after two children and quite a long time in a fairly unpleasant marriage (not a violent one, though, it seems), they divorced. By this time she was firmly established as one of the Beautiful People, with friends in the highest echelons of society and she herself becoming a trend setter. Being friends with the English princes may well have helped with that. Eventually she remarried, this time an English lord (lower in the ranks that the Scottish one). One of her sons died at the very outset of World War 2. Her second husband died soon after. After some time, she married for a third time, this time to a prince: Dimitri Romanoff. Yes. Romanoff.
Life wasn’t all love and dresses and travel (frequently to America!), although there was a great deal of that, and it does Sheila a great disservice to only think about her in terms of who she married and who she might (or might not) have had an affair with. Sheila started an interior design business with her second husband; she was deeply involved in a variety of charities, including organising a ball to raise money for one of the biggest hospitals in London. She also, in 1948, started Milbanke Travel (John Milbanke was the English lord). Two decades later, when she sold it to a British hotel and restaurant company, it had eight branches in Britain and 200 staff, as well as operations in the US and Australia – and “it had generated a turnover of £5 million.”
Additionally, Sheila had an amazing set of female friends, many of whom were influential in their own way. In fashion – Sheila was one of the first women to have really short hair in London – and in the parties they threw, and attended, and therefore had the chance to influence important people. Sheila knew Winston Churchill and Joseph Kennedy, Rudolph Valentino and Evelyn Waugh. And of course two kings of England were, for a time, close friends. I think that, in a way, the parties Sheila and her ton went to may have had some similarities to the salons of eighteenth-century France. Perhaps they were mostly about gossip, but real discussions can and do happen around gossip.
Robert Wainwright has written a really interesting biography. As with so many biographies of women I think it has to be accepted that there’s no way to be certain about some parts of Sheila’s life. Wainwright is relying heavily on memoirs, diaries, and letters for some parts of his reconstruction. That said, she was such a powerful and famous woman that she did get mentioned a lot in newspapers, and interviewed for the Women’s Weekly a few times, so there’s more about her than for many of her peers.
Reading this biography is a bit like reading a regency romance (… except there are three different kings mentioned…): there’s a lot of dressing and partying, and there are names like “Buffles” for Lord John Milbanke; Anthony Hugh Francis Harry St Clair-Erskine; Count Court Haugwitz-Reventlow; and Viscount Marmaduke Furness. I will never again accuse those romance writers of making up ludicrous names.
The other awesome thing is that Wainwright has managed to write an intensely readable biography. This is a truly page-turn-y experience. I’m not sure I will read many more biographies of this era – I’m not that interested in your average dude from this period – but I have zero regrets about reading this.