Lady Ursula d’Abo
Spirited socialite who was a trainbearer at the 1937 British Coronation and later a girlfriend of Paul Getty
LADY Ursula d’Abo, who has died a few days before her 101st birthday, was the last surviving Maid of Honour to Queen Elizabeth (later the British Queen Mother) at the 1937 Coronation, and one of the last living people to have attended that ceremony.
She was the first of six girls, with Lady Diana Legge, carrying the train, and was prominent and actively engaged throughout the ceremony whenever Queen Elizabeth moved from one position to another. The Maids of Honour were dressed by couturier Norman Hartnell.
She was photographed behind and between the Queen and Princess Elizabeth on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, which propelled her to a certain fame at the time, and caused jealousy among the girls in her set. An American called Laurence McKinney became fascinated by her appearance on the balcony and dashed off a poem including the lines: “Here is royalty cheek to cheek… But who is that girl with the widow’s peak?”
Born to a life of privilege, Lady Ursula lived life to the full, marrying twice and exciting the interest of several “squillionaires”, most notably Paul Getty.
She was born in London as Lady Ursula Isabel Manners on November 8, 1916, the eldest child of the Marquess of Granby, later 9th Duke of Rutland, and his wife, Kathleen (“Kakoo”) Tennant, niece of Margot Asquith. Her early life was spent at Wood Farm, her parents’ home in Derbyshire, and in London, and with her grandfather in the feudal atmosphere of Belvoir Castle, run as a self-supporting empire, with 20 people working in the kitchens.
The family expanded with Lady Isabel (who married Loel Guinness and later Sir Robert Throckmorton); Charles, later 10th Duke of Rutland; and then her two younger brothers, Lord John, and Lord Roger (who died on October 1, aged 92).
Ursula adored her grandfather, the 8th Duke, but the person to whom she was closest was her father. When he succeeded to the dukedom in 1925, he set about restoring the family’s second home, Haddon Hall, and she spent many hours alongside him, aged only eight, helping him work on the mullion windows and pick whitewash off medieval frescoes in the chapel with a knife.
In London she had dancing lessons with the ballerina Tamara Karsavina. Her education, which started with a governess, was completed by a visit to Paris and nine months in Florence.
In 1934, back in England, she underwent the season of a debutante, attending society balls, the most magnificent being that given by the Duchess of Northumberland at Syon House on June 29.
She was presented at court to King George V and Queen Mary on May 15, 1934, attended the Derby in a pink crepe coat patterned with navy blue, and the opening night of the opera season at Covent Garden, dressed in a gold sequin dress with gardenias in her hair. The parties continued throughout the year, and her mother gave a ball at Belvoir for her and her sister Isabel on January 11, 1935. The band, Colombo’s, played.
Isabel was married soon afterwards to Loel Guinness, until 1951, but Ursula did not marry then, though she was aware that she was expected to find a husband within the peerage in the traditional way. Rex Whistler was an early admirer and she had trouble from some men of her parents’ generation. Then came the 1937 Coronation at which, besides her role as trainbearer, the Duke of Rutland carried the Sceptre with the Cross, attended by his son Roger as page, and Ursula’s mother was one of the four Duchesses to hold the canopy over Queen Elizabeth at her anointing.
The Duke of Rutland died in 1940, leaving Ursula’s mother to cope with Belvoir, and the worries of having three sons serving overseas. Ursula became a Voluntary Aid Detachment worker, living in Audley Square in London, cleaning railway carriages and nursing at St George’s Hospital. Later she worked at a factory in Grantham, overseeing 2,000 women making bullets.
In June 1943 she became engaged to Lieutenant Anthony Marreco, RNVR, who pressed her to marry him by threatening to kill himself if she turned him down. Lady Ursula described him as “brilliantly clever, conceited and sure of himself” and added: “I was fascinated by him… I shared his love for the arts and felt very sensually aroused by him in all senses.” The marriage was set to take place at Belvoir on July 3, but was suddenly postponed, finally taking place on July 29.
According to her memoirs, the groom departed to serve in the Far East two days later. They did not meet again or have any communication until 1946, by which time she considered him a stranger. He then served as a counsel at the Nuremberg Trials.
Extremely attractive to women, he was the lover of Lali Horstmann and Louise de Vilmorin, and later Loelia, Duchess of Westminster. He and Ursula divorced in 1948 and he married twice more.
In 1946 she spent some weeks with the Maharaja of Jaipur in India, which gave her a deep love for the country. On her return she was courted by the Earl of Dalkeith (later 9th Duke of Buccleuch) and Erland d’Abo, a successful stockbroker and noted lady-killer. She survived a serious car accident and the surgeon Rainsford Mowlem successfully re-set her face. Of the two suitors, she chose d’Abo and they were married on November 22 1951.
Later d’Abo was pursued by Penelope Kitson, a mistress of that meanest of millionaires, Paul Getty, but the d’Abos did not divorce. D’Abo died of a heart attack in 1970, aged 58, and soon afterwards Paul Getty, already married five times, came into the picture (though Ursula was also pursued by Baron Heini Thyssen).
Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, claimed that she had introduced Ursula to Getty at the 80th birthday party she hosted for him at the Dorchester in 1972, but Getty’s interest had already been fired.
Ursula d’Abo became one of his close girlfriends, and was soon driving him to meetings and ferrying him back to Sutton Place, the estate near Guildford he had bought from the Duke of Sutherland. There she could be found holding cubs born to a lioness he kept in an enclosure.
Getty once declared his philosophy in respect of women: “The majority of very wealthy single men will tell you sadly that most, though not all, women can be divided into two types, those that you pay to stay with you and those that you pay to stay away.”
Ursula revealed that she was his lover in an indiscreet article in the National Enquirer in 1973. In her memoirs she declared: “We lived there [Sutton Place] as though married for five years until he died.”
Despite being an astute businessman, however, Getty was also susceptible to the pronouncements of fortune tellers, one of whom warned him that he would die if he married for a sixth time.
Towards the end, Getty’s doctor accused her of endangering the millionaire’s health and told her she had to go. Then a member of staff came to her room and informed her: “Lady Ursula, you must go.” As she came downstairs, minded to object, a young detective told her she was trespassing. Since he carried a gun, she was terrified and left.
Thereafter, as Getty’s health declined, she was not allowed to see him. But one day she banged on the window of the downstairs room in which he was lying.
She was allowed to see him one last time, his diary of June 2, 1976 recording: “U here for two hours.” Four days later he died.
In 1973 he had named Ursula, in a codicil in his will, as the recipient of 1,000 shares in Getty Oil; she had hoped to inherit more. But despite Getty’s many faults, she concluded: “He made you feel like the only person in the world when you were with him. He had a great sense of fun.”
She bought a racehorse in 1989, continued to live in Kensington Square until 1999, celebrated her 90th birthday with a party at the Ritz in 2006 and lived to celebrate her 100th a decade later.
In 2014 she produced an entertaining book of memoirs, The Girl With the Widow’s Peak, which was more atmospheric than accurate. She continued to be out and about on the London scene, arriving alone at lectures and dinners well into her late 90s.
As a friend, Sir Claude Hankes, put it: “She was a grand lady of an ilk of positive, pragmatic common sense with an inquiring mind and a wicked sense of humour and a flirt until she died.”
Lady Ursula, who died on November 2, is survived by her two sons and her daughter and by several grandchildren.
SOCIETY BELLE: Lady Ursula Manners (back, right) on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with the Queen and Princess Elizabeth after George VI’s coronation on May 12, 1937. An American admirer wrote: ‘Who is that girl with the widow’s peak?’