Heiress Patricia Cavendish O’Neill on her childhood, the loves of her life and losing her fortune
The sign outside the old Cape Dutch house in Somerset West reads: ‘Danger. Giant apes, fierce dogs, wild agapanthus. All these and other species may be loose on the estate. Enter at your own risk. Close all windows.’ It’s not an exaggeration: Broadlands is home to baboons, vervet moneys, 10 dogs, hundreds of feral cats, and a multitude of ducks and geese. (Not sure about the agapanthus.) ‘The stink in my bedroom is beyond belief, because all the cats and ducks and geese come in to be fed,’ laughs Pat, who has lived there for more than 30 years. ‘And I’ve still got my beloved chimp, Kalu. She was also a rescue. I got her in 1990, when she was about 10 years old. They live as long as people – they are not even one gene removed from being human.’
Pat – or The Honourable Patricia Cavendish O’Neill, which is her formal title – grew up surrounded by animals of all species and sizes. She is the daughter of the late Brigadier General Frederick ‘Caviar’ Cavendish and Enid, Countess of Kenmare, who loved animals just as much as her daughter does.
‘She had over a hundred dogs at one point,’ says Pat. ‘And she had two tame silver foxes that slept on her bed. Just to lie beside her, I’d have to chase away the foxes and the dogs. She had a pet cheetah too; I used to be so jealous of the bloody cheetah. We had a Rolls Royce at the time, and they had two little seats in front in those days, and I’d have to sit in one of the seats while the cheetah lay on Mummy’s lap. And we’d have to walk the cheetah in Hyde Park every day. Everybody used to stare, and I couldn’t bear it. I didn’t want to be part of this terrible spectacle.’
Pat mentions her mother Enid often, and with clear affection. ‘I adored my mother. When she was
‘She had over a hundred dogs at one point. And she had two tame silver foxes that slept on her bed. Just to lie beside her, I’d have to chase away the foxes and the dogs.’
travelling, I used to sleep with her photograph. I had the most fantastic childhood, because I had the most wonderful mother. She was Australian, and one of the most beautiful women in the world. People used to wait outside their houses to catch a glimpse of her. She was also very loving; she gave so much of herself to us children, and to her animals. And obviously to the men in her life.’
Having married four wealthy men and outlived them all, Lady Kenmare had cheekily been nicknamed ‘Lady Killmore’ in the press, a rumour fuelled by a glib comment she made to reporters about murder being preferable to divorce, as it was much less messy. This comment, ‘an obvious joke’, according to Pat, got her into quite a bit of trouble, but ‘Mummy thought it was funny,’ says Pat. Enid had no sense of danger, and encouraged her children to be just as fearless. Pat even recalls watching bombs drop on London from their balcony without ever knowing there was any risk.
Pat’s father died when she was six, but he shared her mother’s belief about fearlessness. ‘I could ride before I could walk,’ she says. ‘When I was six, my father let me go on a steeplechase. My legs were too short to fit into the stirrups, so I had my feet in the leathers, and it was absolutely wonderful, going over all these jumps at top speed. He was quite cuckoo, but it was fantastic. And this is why I could live with wild animals; they can pick up on your feelings, and if you’re afraid they know about it. I was never afraid.’
Pat was educated at home, following the curriculum her half-brother Rory Cameron (who she doted on) had come up with. It involved ‘a lot of ancient history and not a lot of arithmetic,’ she says. She also spent most of her childhood travelling the world. ‘My mother had a house in the South of France, the Bahamas, in London, in Kenya, in Egypt… anywhere with a hot climate. She didn’t like cold weather.’
Pat and her mother also regularly travelled to Australia via cruise liner to visit Enid’s family. On one such journey, 23-year-old Pat met Olympic swimmer Frank O’Neill. ‘I was coming down the staircase with my mother – in full evening dress – and he saw me and made a bet with his friends that he’d be engaged to me by the end of the voyage.’ True to his word, the two were betrothed by the end of the trip, and wed a year later. ‘We didn’t get married in a church,’ says Pat. ‘I never wanted to feel tied down.’
The marriage lasted just three years. ‘I divorced Frank because I fell in love with Ayman,’ she says. That’s Count Ayman de Roussy de Sales – who she met in a nightclub. ‘Frank had so many girlfriends that I couldn’t see that it really mattered,’ she laughs. ‘I was brought up by my mother never to be jealous, which was lucky because my husband slept with everyone. But it never bothered me.’
Pat’s parents taught her three things. ‘Never be afraid, never be jealous, and never complain when you are ill.’ The first two have served her well enough, but the third nearly cost her her life. ‘It nearly killed me, because I had an ectopic pregnancy and never did anything about it,’ she says. ‘I didn’t realise there was something wrong until it was nearly too late.’ Pat and her then-husband Ayman were staying with friends in London when she woke up in the middle of the night and discovered she was bleeding. ‘I was in such pain, I had to crawl on my hands and knees to the toilet. I finally thought to call Mummy, and she told me to phone Dr Goldman.’
By the time the doctor arrived, Pat had collapsed. ‘I could hear them saying, “She’s bleeding to death!” They saved my life but I could never have children after that. But I think it was meant to be because I would never have been able to live the life I have if I had children.’
At 31, with two marriages behind her, Pat went to Nairobi to visit her brother Caryll and received an unexpected gift. ‘We were greeted by this man who used to take us around while we were in Kenya, and in the palm of his hand he had a tiny little lion cub. He said: “I know you love animals – this is for you. Its mother was shot on the Tana river.” So I called her Tana. But I couldn’t go back to Mummy and live
in the South of France with a lion. So she bought me a place in Kenya, which was an hour’s drive to the nearest village.’
Even though Kenya was in political turmoil, Pat never felt threatened. ‘I was totally safe, because, according to the local Masai, I was supposed to be the biggest witch doctor in Kenya. I was the only person in the area with Western medicine and I was able to help people when they were ill. And I had a tame lion that slept in my bed – they all thought it was magic. When people had a curse on them, they used to bring them to me, and I would get Tana to walk around them while I mumbled words and then I’d say, “Now you’re fine” and they would get up and walk away. So we used to “undo” the curses, Tana and I.’
Her boyfriend at the time, however, convinced her to have a security fence put up around her home. She agreed, but as they were erecting it, she was struck by an uneasy feeling. ‘I was in the bathroom, washing the chimpanzee – it was a hot day – and I could feel Tana’s rage. I rushed out and spotted her on the roof, just about to leap on one of the men building the security fence. So I screamed and that stopped her, and I told the men to leave the fence, that I didn’t need it.’
‘Ten days later, in the middle of the night, Tana starts pacing next to the window. I could see she was trying to tell me something.’ Pat drove to the nearest police station, an hour away. When she got back later with a police escort, there was a huge uproar. ‘The Mau Mau had just arrived. My lioness had picked up on their feelings and she was able to warn me that they were coming. And the leader of the gang was the man who’d been putting up my fence – the one Tana had been about to jump on.’
Pat’s mother, meanwhile, had been persuaded by her doctors that the altitude in Cape Town was better for her heart, and Pat followed her in 1968, leaving her beloved lioness behind – a decision she regrets to this day. ‘If I could have done things differently, I would have stayed with Tana,’ she says. ‘It was the happiest time of my life. I never knew what happened to her in the end, because she’s really a people’s lion, not a lion’s lion. She grew up in bed with me, with my dogs and my chimpanzee, Joseph.’ [This particular chimp, says Pat, was the first one Jane Goodall ever came into contact with.] But at the time, I just couldn’t let Mummy be at the other end of Africa. I never left my mother, even when I married. Husbands and lovers, they had to stay with Mummy. I only left her when Tana came into my life, and even then she’d spend half the year with me in Kenya.’
Pat and her mother moved to Broadlands, the farm where Pat lives to this day. ‘I trained racehorses for my mother and husband.’ Pat remarried Frank in 1974, but they are now separated. ‘We’re still married but he’s living with his girlfriend in Australia now,’ she says.
When Enid passed away in 1972, she left her daughter a vast fortune. ‘She left me £66 million when she died,’ says Pat. Today, there is nothing left. ‘I am literally penniless. The accountant and so-called friends took it all,’ she says. ‘My mother wasn’t good with money – she just dealt it out, really. If I wanted anything, I just had to ask. But I wasn’t the kind of person who wanted a lot of things. I just wanted to be with my animals.’
‘If you’ve never handled money, you don’t suspect people. So they took all my money. But that was my own fault for not realising.’ When pressed about why she hadn’t pursued legal action, Pat responds vaguely, that ‘nothing could be done about it’. Fortunately for Pat, her friends came to her aid. She was forced to sell Broadlands, but a lawyer friend of hers negotiated a deal that allowed her to stay in the house. ‘I’m very lucky. I have wonderful friends who give me an allowance, and Abe organised it so I could live here for the rest of my life, with my animals.’ The thought of dying does not seem to faze her. ‘Chris Barnard was a great friend of mine, and he said, “One of the loneliest times in life is death, because there is nobody to go with you.” But I’m sure there is an afterlife, because I’ve had the most incredible experiences of that.’
The first was with her beloved half-brother, Rory. ‘He was terribly ill, so I went over to France and helped the nurses and lay beside him. He was getting weaker and weaker, but I was forced to leave because I needed to attend to the breeding on the farm.
‘We had booked the tickets to go back two weeks later, and I was planning to bring a heart specialist with me, in the hope that he could do something for Rory. Then one morning I came back into my room and found Rory sitting at my dressing table. He had always been very good-looking, but he had looked terrible when I’d left him. On that morning, he looked marvellous. He was wearing a blue shirt, and I noticed the whites of his eyes were that bluey-white, like children’s eyes. I said, “My gosh Rory, you look wonderful,” and he said, “Yes, Pat, I feel wonderful.” When he got up to leave, he said, “By the way, you can cancel your trip, I feel fantastic now, you don’t need to come.” And then he kissed me and said, “I love you,” and closed the door.’
Pat phoned the doctor to tell him there was no longer any need to go to France. ‘His wife, who had taken the call, phoned her husband and said, “Sydney, you’d better rush over to Pat, she’s gone cuckoo.” But he just said, “This means Rory’s died; it’s happened with one other person.”
‘The same thing happened with my mother. I was desperate without her when she died, but she appeared to me one day and she was laughing and said, “Oh Pat, I’m having the most wonderful time up here with husbands and lovers.”’ She smiles. ‘So I know there is an afterlife.’
Right: A younger, very beautiful Pat, at 20 This pic: Still beautiful at 92
Above right: The entrance to Broadlands Above: Pat’s father, General Frederick Cavendish
Pat and Frank
Pat with her lioness, Tana Pat and Kalu