Diana, The Princess Of Wales Has Lunch With Her Stepmother Raine Spencer At The Connaught Hotel In Mayfair
My extraordinary mother, Raine, died last year aged 87, but her joie de vivre remained with her until the end. In her final months, even though she was very frail, she threw a lavish party at which she wore her most glamorous dress and her best diamonds and, during her speech, gave plaudits to every guest.
Today most people know her as the stepmother of Diana, Princess of Wales, or for the exaggerated upsweep of her coiffure, yet there was so much more to Raine than that. My mother was truly a one-off, a woman of great individuality and paradoxes: she still wore white gloves on every outing but loved going to football matches.
She was the least domestically inclined person one could ever hope to meet – when her beloved butler, Brian, was away, she would eat off paper plates rather than have to wash up – but she always changed for dinner, donning a cocktail dress and jewels, even when alone. She took real delight in beautiful things and the magnificent decoration and contents of her homes, some of which will be auctioned this week, were a reflection of her intense knowledge and individual taste.
Hers was a life shaped by the twin ideals of glamour and romance, notions inculcated into her by my grandmother, Barbara Cartland, who, at the time of Raine’s birth in 1929, was a 28-year-old journalist and budding novelist.
Barbara’s brains and verve had enabled her to cut a swathe through London society and, after more than 50 proposals, to marry Alexander McCorquodale, heir to a printing fortune. But too late she discovered that they didn’t get on, and that he drank, so in 1933 she took what was then an highly unusual step by divorcing him. Barbara and her daughter remained at the family house in Mayfair.
Countess Raine Spencer and Earl Edward Spencer at Althorp, Northampton in 1988
A Louis XVI Commode has a price tag of £90,00. It is one of Raine’s most loved items
Raine used this antique bed for her home by the sea. A price of £2,500 has been placed on the piece
A pair of Louis XVI urns are likely to be in demand
In spite of Barbara’s scandalous divorce, her aptitude for self-promotion helped her retain her position at the apex of London society. My infant mother was dressed up and dragged along in Barbara’s wake. She even sparked the interest of the young Princess Elizabeth who, seeing my mother at a children’s party, remarked to her governess, Crawfie: ‘What a pretty, fat baby, what’s her name?’ Told that it was Raine, Princess Elizabeth was much amused and exclaimed: ‘What a funny, funny name!’
Soon after, Barbara married again, this time to her former husband’s cousin, Hugh McCorquodale.
At school Raine excelled academically, but Barbara’s greater interest lay in tutoring her daughter in the social arts: how to fascinate, how to dazzle with a smile, how to look interested and be amusing – lessons that Raine was never to forget.
At the end of the war, Raine found herself catapulted into the high glamour of the London season. In 1947, aged 18, she was named Deb of the Year. Raine was bright, vivacious and extremely pretty, with fine skin and an appetite for romance. After numerous proposals, she chose my father, Gerald Legge, a war hero and the heir to an earldom. In July 1948, Barbara watched triumphantly as her daughter walked down the aisle of St Margaret’s, Westminster, followed by 16 bridesmaids. She was considered to have been the most beautiful society bride of her year.
My parents set up home in Mayfair, and Raine, despite her extreme youth and the quick-fire births of my two brothers, William and Rupert, a year later, took up work as an unofficial health visitor.
London was still recovering from the war. Horrified by the barely believable conditions in which people were forced to live, she stood for local government and, aged 23, became the youngest-ever member of Westminster City Council. She remained active in local government until the mid-1970s, when she resigned as chair of the Covent Garden redevelopment committee in protest against the proposed demolition of the historic flower market. The ensuing outcry preserved it from destruction.
Raine at the Funeral Service of Diana Princess of Wales in 1997 and when a photo of taken in 1954
Raine and Gerald were invited to stay at all the grandest houses. It was during such visits that my mother began to appreciate beautiful furniture and good paintings, and to embark on her own collection, with French art of the 18th Century a particular passion. The rococo flourishes appealed to Raine’s sense of romance.
Just before my parents’ silver wedding anniversary, they parted. They had married so young and had gradually grown to want different things. Soon after their divorce, in what my grandmother Barbara explained to me as ‘an irresistible coup de foudre, darling’, Raine married Johnny, Earl Spencer, the father of Diana, the future Princess of Wales.
She moved into Althorp, the vast stately home in Northamptonshire, and Raine and Johnny were given two years of bliss until he suffered a massive stroke. My mother used all her considerable influence to keep him alive, arranging access to drugs that hadn’t yet been officially approved in Britain. It was a gamble that paid off. Johnny’s recovery was slow but he was eventually strong enough to walk Diana down the aisle of St Paul’s when she married Prince Charles in 1981.
Lady Raine Spencer’s wedding day to Count Jean-francois De Chambrun
This painting by Leopald Boilly is one of the most valuable and cherished items up for auction
The friendship between Raine and Diana took root after Johnny’s sudden death in March 1992. While supporting each other in grief, the two women discovered a common ground. My mother could understand the pressures of a life lived in the glare of relentless publicity.
She was devastated to have lost the great love of her life. But she was just 53 and the single state was anathema to her – she had been married since the age of 18. She met Jean-Francois Pineton de Chambrun, a French count and, after a whirlwind romance, they married and went off to live in his pink chateau outside Cannes. The marriage did not survive and my mother moved back to London to reinvent herself yet again, this time as a director of Harrods. Johnny had been great friends with the then owner, Mohamed al Fayed. She adored working there.
When she died, my brothers and I decided to put a part of her collection up for auction. She would have loved the idea that her precious pieces might soon be providing their new custodians with as much pleasure as they once gave her.
l The Collection of Raine, Countess Spencer, will be auctioned at Christie’s in London on Thursday.