Lady Olive Baillie – The English Great Gatsby.
The subject of BBC4’s excellent Woman’s Hour this week was the experiences of women in Britain after the First World War and on into the 1920’s. Women’s role in employment, politics and in the family were discussed. But it was the arrival of former Labour MP Shirley Williams to discuss the life of a certain Lady Olive Baillie, an Anglo- American heiress, whose glamorous and breathtakingly extravagant parties at her home in Leeds Castle in Kent – proved that Britain in the Roaring Twenties had their own version of Scott Fitzgerald s Great Gatsby. Lady Baillie upon purchasing the castle in 1926, set about restoring and modernizing in true 1920s art deco form, and followed on by hosting house parties that drew the best of the best from society, royalty and the world of stage and film. Hollywood’s elite, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin were amongst the guests. The parties in the 1920s and even on in to the 1930s were famous for their lavishness. Lady Olive Baillie truly was the embodiment of Britain’s Bright Young Things, the name given to the bohemian young aristocrats and socialites of the 1920’s.
Like many society folks in the 1930’s, the Baillie’s entertained prominent fascists including German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop. While this might have been explained away as diplomacy, there is some evidence that Olive’s husband ( her second husband since obtaining Leeds Castle) certainly was an active mover in fascist circles, certainly in the early 1930’s, when many gullible people were taken in by the huge impact of Adolf Hitler.
They divorced after the war. Many society people unwittingly became involved in fascism through their belief that it was all part of the war on communism. The Baillie’s are not unique in this sense.
Lady Olive adhered in most respects to the social rules of the time and did not fraternize too often with the staff, but she had her moments. New Years Eve every year was a party for both upstairs and downstairs, when Lady Baillie could be seen dancing the Charleston with the butler and housekeeper! Leeds castle in Kent is very much the inspiration for the great costume dramas from Upstairs Downstairs to Downton Abbey. The castle was turned in to a hospital for servicemen during the Second World War. Lady Baillie herself had experienced the horrors of the First World war as a Red Cross nurse.