THE POWER & THE GLORY What might the 21st century hold for ruling dynasties, from the Windsors to the Trumps?
From the Romanovs to the Rockefellers, the Windsors to the Kennedys, the world has long been ruled by great dynasties and their scions – but they must move with the times to survive. Laura Thompson considers how these clans can retain their pre-eminence, and whether domineering newcomers such as the Trumps will usurp the old guard to reign in their place
The concept of a ‘dynasty’ may be at odds with the modern world, but it still holds the capacity for reinvention. Not just with the current reboot of the 1980s television series Dynasty – which swaps big shoulders for body-con – but within our very own Royal family. Just a few months ago, the doors of the Windsor museum opened wide to receive a divorced, mixed-race American actress, three years older than her fifth-in-line-to-the-throne fiancé, groomed and glossy and with a gleaming chat-show charm that the Royals have never yet encountered within their ranks.
Meghan Markle, who marries Prince Harry in May, represents something seismic for the Windsors. While the middle-class graduate Kate Middleton has been recast in the role of Silent Duchess, obedient supplier of a dynastic future, the wife of a second son has more freedom; and the gloriously adult, sexy, clued-up Meghan is a member of the here-and-now in a way that Kate never had the chance (or possibly inclination) to be. Meghan is not a personality to be absorbed into the waxwork museum. How she will express herself, for example, in the matter of her in-laws’ propensity to dress up and hunt animals is anybody’s guess. Yet the family who shuddered at Wallis Simpson, shook its head regretfully at Peter Townsend and regarded Koo Stark as a non-starter even for a second son – Prince Andrew – has apparently recognised that Meghan Markle might, just, represent the way forward.
After the Diana debacle, the Windsors were forced to relearn the dynasty’s first lesson: that survival is all. They knew it already, of course – it is not so very long ago that the Queen’s uncle, Edward VIII, caused the edifice to rock with his abdication in 1936 – but contemporary society requires ever greater agility from those who do not really fit into it. And the latest, boldest example of the Royal family’s willingness to reinvent is the acceptance of the former star of Suits, who even republicans seem – in turn – to accept. It is a risk, joining hands with one’s critics in this way, but it may yet pay off.
Of course, the Windsors are a very particular kind of dynasty, one that lives not just in the public view but by grace of public support, and whose members are figureheads only: symbols of what a dynasty represents, rather than the thing itself. In derivation, the term relates to the concept of power, of which the Windsors have very little. In fact, the tagline for the rebooted Dynasty – ‘They have money; they have power; they have everything; and they want more’ – is not so far off the mark when it comes to the ruling families of old, whether these be Bourbons or Astors, Romanovs or Rockefellers.
At the same time, something more subtle and resonant lies within that simple seven-letter word. It conjures many shades of meaning, rich and multifarious images from the House of Atreus to a Ming vase to a photograph of the Kennedy clan, smiling into the sun outside their clapboard house on Cape Cod. It encompasses a row of Velázquez paintings of the Spanish Habsburgs, or a Holbein of Henry VIII, designed to make the Tudors seem immutable and eternal, which no dynasty can be; as nothing makes clearer than the evanescent black and white photographs of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, with his wife and five children.
Then there are images of places, not just the defiantly dynastic stately homes and castles, but – for instance – the legendary 17-storey building at 740 Park Avenue, built by Jackie Onassis’ grandfather, whose apartments have housed the scions of modern US dynasties: notably John D Rockefeller Jnr, who from 1937 owned the fabulous 40-room triplex called ‘the throne of New York society’. And there are the vanished places, the ones that must be
dreamt into life, such as Grosvenor House on Park Lane – now the hotel, formerly the London home of the Dukes of Westminster – where, at a garden party for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, the first Duke paraded his 1886 Derby winner Ormonde.
On which subject: what image could be more supremely dynastic than that of the Darley Arabian, a bay horse through whose blood coursed such potential, such riches, that he became the most dominant of the three foundation stallions from which all thoroughbred racehorses descend? Foaled in around 1700, the Darley Arabian leads directly to Galileo, who won the Derby 300 years later and is the omnipotent sire of the modern era. This, indeed, is the essence of a dynasty: a gleaming line of princelings and princesses, gloriously fulfilling their destiny.
Of course, people are neither so pure nor so predictable. Not even racing people, who – like Galileo’s trainer, Aidan O’brien, whose children have all successfully entered the sport – tend to form little dynasties of their own. Nevertheless there is a fascinating echo of that thoroughbred quality – the sense of exalted predestination – within the lives of those who belong to a dynasty.
When Rachel Kempson gave birth to her first child, Vanessa, in 1937, Laurence Olivier – then performing in Hamlet with Vanessa’s father, Michael Redgrave – announced to the Old Vic audience at the curtain call: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, tonight a great actress has been born.’ The Redgrave dynasty was not long-established, but Michael’s parents had both been actors, so too was his wife, and the expectation was clearly that the line would continue. As, indeed, it has. Vanessa was followed by her siblings Lynn and Corin, her daughters Natasha and Joely, her niece Jemma and her granddaughter Daisy. The Redgraves are like the Foxes, that other splendid homegrown dynasty, which on the female side descends from Ellen Terry and now comprises Edward, James, Emilia, Freddie, Laurence, Lydia and Jack.
And Laurence Olivier had it right with his announcement – there is arguably no greater actress alive than Vanessa Redgrave – but at the same time his words express the dilemma of the dynasty. What if the young Vanessa had wanted to be a chef, or a mathematician? How great, in fact, is the pressure to succumb to one’s dynastic bidding?
The offspring of the stallion Galileo have no say in the matter. They are bred to do one thing and can hardly voice a preference for doing something else. But a person has free will, or at least a belief in it. So it must be strange to feel oneself a part of something inescapable, something that is more than merely ‘a family’. Something that is liable to shape one’s future, even if one rebels against it: as most famously did Edward VIII, and – more creatively – did Nica de Rothschild, the ‘jazz baroness’ patron of Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, who was disinherited after she walked out on her marriage and moved to the liberation of New York. Such people never quite leave their names behind, of course. Perhaps they do not entirely want to do so. Nevertheless they are, in choosing their destiny, refusing the life that they were supposed to have lived.
A somewhat dramatic view? Well, perhaps. Many scions of dynasties have simply recognised their luck and enjoyed the comfortable ride, together with the Mayfair mansion and the collections of Lelys – definitely worth an existential lack of freedom. And one can, yes, describe the dynasty in the most straightforward terms as an upmarket family job with an unusual degree of security. Even for the lesser members of a clan, the ones for whom there is no lurking trust fund or handy spare flat on the Zattere, the name surely comes in handy; it is unlikely that a Rockefeller ever gets the table next to the kitchen in a restaurant.
Also, although dynasties have an air of romance, this quality has accumulated with the passage of time. However long ago, they must have begun prosaically. Somebody in the past was good at fighting, or at business, or at striding across the stage with their face streaked in greasepaint. Or somebody married well. Take the Grosvenors, the richest of British aristocrats. The 7th Duke of Westminster, Hugh, owns 300 acres of Mayfair and Belgravia: this is the heart of the family’s inheritance, which came to them in 1677 with the marriage of Sir Thomas Grosvenor to 12-year-old Mary Davies, a scrivener’s daughter, also heiress to a vast chunk of meadow and marshland just west of central London. The land was first built upon in earnest in the early 18th century – Grosvenor Square began to be laid
IS IT POSSIBLE TO CREATE A NEW DYNASTY? THE TRUMPS WOULD CONSIDER THEMSELVES ONE. AND WHY NOT?
out in 1725 – by which time few people remembered that it had been acquired by Mary’s great-uncle, Hugh Audley, a moneylender to both sides in the English Civil War.
The venerable American dynasties are, perforce, more openly mercantile in their origins. John Pierpont Morgan, born in 1837, was a financier who died in 1913 worth around $80 million; a sum that led his contemporary, John D Rockefeller Snr, to say: ‘And to think, he wasn’t even a rich man.’ Rockefeller, son of a semi-crook, who made his fortune through oil, was indeed far richer: the first American billionaire. The legacy of such men is part of the purposeful silhouette of their nation, most particularly of New York City, with its Morgan Library, its Rockefeller Center, its Carnegie Hall, its Metropolitan Museum filled with art collections that once hung on the walls of 5th Avenue mansions, its towering art deco temples to philanthropic wealth. These dynasties, indeed, are modern America, and none more so than the one that has been directly likened to the House of Atreus: the Kennedys.
It was Jackie Onassis, formerly the wife of Jack Kennedy, who first saw the parallel. She had previously compared her husband’s tenure at the White House with the world of Arthurian legend; in an interview with Life magazine, given just a few days after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, she said: ‘There will be great Presidents again. But there will never be another Camelot.’ Not long afterwards Jackie read Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way, which told of the ‘ill-fated house’ whose members included Agamemnon, Electra and Orestes, and whose generations expiated yet repeated the sins of the past. When Jackie lent the book to her brother-in-law Bobby, he was instantly persuaded by the comparison with his own family. In 1968 he, too, was assassinated.
In the 1940s, his brother Joseph and sister Kathleen, Marchioness of Hartington, had been killed in air crashes, while his sister Rosemary was institutionalised after a botched lobotomy. In 1969, his brother Teddy drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick, fatally trapping the car’s passenger Mary Jo Kopechne. At the inquiry into this incident, Teddy asked outright whether ‘some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys’. Thirty years later, John F Kennedy Jnr lost control of the plane that he was piloting and plummeted, with his wife and sister-in-law, into the Atlantic Ocean close to Martha’s Vineyard.
It was – as first perceived by Jackie Kennedy – as though a kind of hubris hovered over the family, because they had flown too high and symbolised too much. And it is what makes the Kennedys the supreme example of the dynasty: a group of individuals in which the meritocratic starting point has been absorbed, transmuted, into something antique and ineffable.
The events that befell the family can be explained away naturally, of course.
Vanessa Redgrave with her daughters Joely (left) and Natasha in 1968
Above: Jackie Kennedy with Caroline, John Jnr and Bobby (behind) at the funeral of John F Kennedy in 1963. Right: John Jnr with his wife Carolyn Bessettekennedy in 1997
Left: the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh with Jackie, Caroline and John Jnr in 1965. Below: Tsar Nicholas II and family in 1913