The rest is history…
Book fairs crop up everywhere, but none is so glamorous, or highbrow, as Natalie Livingstone’s new Cliveden Literary Festival. By Sally Williams. Photographs by Tobias Harvey
Af er a chequered past, Cliveden House enters a new chapter, as the venue of a smart-set literary festival. Sally Williams meets its founder
Odd to do an interview in a shower c ubicle . But then Natalie Livingstone is full of surprises. She came into the public eye when her husband, Ian, a billionaire property developer, bought Cliveden House, the country hotel in Berkshire, for £30 million in 2012. He and his brother, Richard, had been quietly building up a global property empire worth more than £4 billion since setting up business in the early 1990s. But Cliveden, backdrop to the Profumo Affair, propelled the couple on to the diary pages.
Three years later Livingstone was in the news again with her book The Mistresses of Cliveden: Three Centuries of Scandal,
Power and Intrigue. It revealed the house as a site of ‘scandals, parties, fun and excitement’ long before that chance meeting in 1961 between John Profumo, then Secretary of State for War, and Christine Keeler, 19 years old and naked in the pool.
The sexual appetite of Anna Maria Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, for whom Cliveden was originally built in the 1660s; the dramatic duel to the death between the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, who built it, and her husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury; the severe squint of Elizabeth Villiers, Cliveden’s second mistress – Livingstone writes about it all. Even the low sex drive of Nancy Astor, Britain’s first female MP and Cliveden’s final mistress. She was revolted by sex, says Livingstone, despite having six children, and would ‘bite into an apple to distract her from the distasteful business’.
And now Livingstone is further spreading the word with the launch of the Cliveden Literary Festival – at which speakers will include Robert Harris and Michael Gove. On top of this, Livingstone, 40, has also spearheaded the creation of two fragrances for Cliveden’s revamped spa. No 1 is inspired by Nancy Astor (‘fresh and crisp’); while the Anna Maria-influenced No 2 range is ‘strong and sensuous’.
‘It ’s really delicious,’ Livingstone says, as we stand in a shower (clothes on) in the spa’s treatment rooms, smelling Anna Maria-scented shampoo. She has hit a rich vein, and yet Livingstone does not rate herself as a businesswoman: ‘Entrepreneurial? I have no discernible entrepreneurial side at all!’ She prefers to be considered a historian. But Cliveden, she says, ‘has inspired me in so many ways’.
Cliveden House is set in 376 acres, complete with walled gardens, statues, winding paths and a maze. We had arranged to meet in the Great Hall, a magnificent dark-panelled room with 18thcentury tapestries, but when I arrive the place is heaving with people having afternoon tea. The property became a luxury hotel in the 1980s and the gardens are owned by the National Trust.
I eventually find Livingstone there with a plate of smoked salmon. She jumps up; slim, blonde, courteous and warm. She wants to give me a guided tour – she loves pointing out the ‘pushing stick’ used by servants to help an ailing Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, walk around the grounds in the 1860s; the French Dining Room, the contents of which were transplanted from Madame de Pompadour’s dining room in the Château d’asnières, Paris, by William Waldorf Astor in the 1890s; and of course the swimming pool in the walled garden.
When you first swam in the pool, I ask, did you think about what happened? ‘Of course,’ Livingstone replies, ‘everyone does.’ The Profumo scandal, she points out, ‘embedded Cliveden in the national consciousness. But actually the story of Cliveden is much richer and more interesting than just that of a 19-year-old call girl stepping out of a pool naked and into the eyes of a politician.’
Livingstone says she immediately felt the house’s allure the day her husband brought her to lunch after buying it. ‘ We drove up the driveway and it was almost like a spell had been cast on me.’
In 1942, Waldorf Astor, son of William Waldorf Astor, gave the house and gardens to the National Trust under the proviso that after the Astors no one family could ever live in the house. ‘So it had to be operated as some kind of commercial venture,’ she explains. It has had many incarnations since, including as an outpost for Stanford University from 1969 to 1983.
Livingstone’s home is in Notting Hill, a house previously owned by the PR executive Matthew Freud and his then wife, Elisabeth Murdoch. She lives there with her husband, their three daughters – Grace, 13, Alice, 11, and Elizabeth Rose, one – and a cavapoo (a cross between a cavalier King Charles spaniel and a poodle) called Tolstoy. They have a second home in Los Angeles.
She is proud of the fact that her husband is a self-made billionaire and not from the same background as Cliveden’s many aristocratic owners: he is the son of a dentist from Ealing. ‘I think it’s absolutely wonderful that a selfmade Jewish man can become involved in a prop er ty previously owned by a virulent anti-semite like Nancy Astor. In that sense, this house represents the changing face of British society. It ’s more of a meritocracy.’ Ian and Richard Livingstone own the Park Lane Hilton, the Empire Leicester Square and the fivestar Fairmont hotel in Monte Carlo, among many others.
When you frst swam in the pool, I ask, did you think about what happened?
‘The story of Cliveden is much richer than just that of a 19-year-old call girl stepping out of a pool naked and into the eyes of a politician’
Natal i e Liv i ngst o ne i s often described as the new ‘c hat el a i ne’ o f Cl i ve den, which annoys her intensely. ‘In no way am I a chatelaine,’ she says. ‘I am the wife of a hotelier. Cliveden is operated as a hotel.’
Nor, it turns out, is she a society hostess, despite looking the part with her beauty, taste in designer handbags and love of staggering heels. Does she hold big dinner parties? ‘Goodness me, no, I still can’t cook properly. We mainly have roast chicken, grilled fish; simple things that are difficult to screw up.’ I assume she is being disingenuous but then she adds that she’s rubbish at gardening too – anything, in fact, that requires her to be ‘practical’. She still can’t drive, despite having taken her test seven times, most recently at a residential course in Margate. ‘I failed for driving on the wrong side of the road.’ She thinks she might be dyspraxic.
She says that unlike Nancy Astor, say, who held dinners with as many as 64 guests, ‘we keep ourselves to ourselves. We’ve got a collection of very old, very loyal friends.’
Livingstone’s own routine includes regular jogs with her sister Laura, 35, who is studying for a psychology degree (her other sister, Caroline, 38, is an events planner in New York). Quiet writing periods (she is working on a second book, but at the moment will only say it is ‘about the women in a big family’) are interspersed with more sociable spells promoting Cliveden; the rest of the time she is a hands-on mother.
Livingstone grew up in Finchley, north London. Her father was a successful textile merchant, and her Hungarian mother a housewife. She describes herself as ‘very shy, very bookish, absolutely obsessed with history’. Educated at the City of London School for Girls and then the University of Cambridge, she has a first-class degree in the subject.
She met her husband at a fundraising event organised by Shmuel ‘Shmuley’ Boteach, the Orthodox Jewish rabbi, TV host and author of 31 books, including Kosher Sex. Livingstone was in her second year at Cambridge; Ian, 14 years her senior, was already a successful businessman having built up the David Clulow chain of opticians and started his property empire. ‘I walked across the room, bumped into my husband and that was it,’ she says. They were married four years later.
After a brief spell in advertising, she went into journalism,
with stints at Vogue and Tatler before going freelance. She says it was partly writing her book that gave her the idea for the Cliveden Literary Festival. ‘I did the whole round of literary festivals and it gave me a real taste for how wonderful it is to be able to hear your favourite writers speak about their craft. I want to know how Robert Harris structures his day. How does he get his inspiration? Does he have Post-it notes everywhere? That sort of thing fascinates me.’
And then, of course, there is Cliveden’s own literary history. ‘Jonathan Swift was a close friend of Elizabeth Villiers. He wrote in his diary that once they spoke for nine hours non-stop. Tennyson was often a guest of Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland. Nancy Astor hosted any number of famous writers, from George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill to Rudyard Kipling, so for me this festival is all about reviving that literary tradition.’
She has certainly gathered well-known names for next month’s inaugural event: Tina Brown, Ian Mcewan, Sebastian Faulks, Antonia Fraser. ‘I want to create another chapter for Cliveden with this festival,’ she says. ‘I fell in love with the house and I wanted to find out more, and the more I find out, the more exciting it becomes.’
A portrait of Nancy Astor by John Singer Sargent hangs in the house