Colin Tennant, who would prefer to be known as Lord Glenconner–a title that refers to Glen, his sprawling family seat in Scotland–sat in an elegant lime-green room on the ground floor of the 91st Street townhouse owned by his friends, fashion designer Carolina Herrera and her husband Reinaldo, who put him up whenever he comes to New York, which he does very occasionally.
Mr. Tennant is 74 years old, with a smooth, tanned face and a pair of strangely outsized dentures. He was in New York for the American premiere of The Man Who Bought Mustique , an entertaining, if not particularly flattering, documentary about his life that opens at the Film Forum on May 9. Mr. Tennant seemed not at all concerned that, as of that night, any New Yorker with $9 would be able to experience the shock of watching 78 minutes of a very, very badly behaved British aristocrat running around in white Indian pajamas like Alec Guinness in an Ealing Brothers comedy playing Lawrence of the Caribbean, attempting to enslave a film crew into making a version of his life, assaulting the director of the film with his pocketbook, insulting his closest friend and describing, with no remorse, how he blew through the equivalent of $140 million–the whole of his family’s 19th-century chemical fortune–buying, developing and throwing parties on the tiny Caribbean island of Mustique.
Mr. Tennant, once known in the British tabloids as “The Jet Set Monarch,” tried and ultimately failed to create a colony from the days when the sun never set on the British empire. These days, poor Mr. Tennant is not even made to feel particularly welcome on Mustique.
No, Mr. Tennant was not embarrassed; he was doing his best to recover from his previous night’s arrival at J.F.K. from the Caribbean, an event he referred to as a “ghastly failure” during which he’d been lost “somewhere in the back of Queens” in a car driven by “a big lout”–the cousin of his West Indian assistant, Kent Adonai. Mr. Tennant had to return to J.F.K. later in the afternoon to meet his wife and son, who were coming in from London to brave the premiere. There, Mr. Tennant handed off his 33-year-old son Christopher, who was severely handicapped in a motorcycle accident a decade ago, to Kent and his “big lout” cousin, who would be housing him in Hartford. “I couldn’t possibly impose Kent and Christopher–neither of whom can read or write; both, you know, handicapped in one way or another–on my gracious hosts,” he explained. “It’s just too much.”
His wife would not be sent to stay in Hartford, though her very presence was surprising: The morning after the film screened last year on Britain’s Channel 4, Lady Anne, who is Lady in Waiting to Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret, was offered condolences at work, as if her husband had been shown on Cops waving money at a transvestite prostitute.
“I’m very sorry, milady,” Lady Anne was told. “I never knew that Lord Glenconner was like that.”
As he was subjected to a not-particularly-polite sniffing by Hector, the Herreras’ boxer, Mr. Tennant thought about the public reaction to the film for a second. In much the same way that he might have reacted when he was forced, not that long ago, to sell off his collection of Lucian Freuds, Watteaus and Fragonards when money got particularly tight on Mustique, he showed the emotion of the ruling class. That is, Mr. Tennant showed no emotion at all.
“I was quite interested in making the film as a kind of record. They saw an opportunity to make something rather more challenging ,” he said. He punctuated the word “challenging” with an exaggerated eye roll. “Of course, the public had a wonderful time. Three and a half million people watched it in London. Taxi drivers recognize me!” Mr. Tennant seemed to think The Man Who Bought Mustique might put him back on top again.
Creating the filmed “record” wasn’t a walk in the park for the film’s producer, Vikram Jayanti, or the director, Joseph Bullman. Mr. Tennant proved to be a handful. “A nightmare” is how Mr. Bullman remembers the shoot.
In early 2000, Channel 4 sent the pair to the Caribbean in search of a documentary. Channel 4 was particularly interested in Mustique, a three-mile-long, one-and-a-half-mile-wide dot in the Grenadines, the island chain between St. Vincent and Grenada. The island has long had a reputation as a tightly guarded playground for celebrities and royals, a kind of floating reference point for British decadence, a moist refutation of the myth that the English love the desert: Mick Jagger and David Bowie had places there, Prince Andrew frolicked with porn star Koo Stark there, Princess Margaret carried on a scandalous affair with a 25-year-old gardener named Roddy Llewellyn there. As the young editor of Tatler , Tina Brown reported a scene in which Princess Margaret, her gardener friend Mr. Llewellyn and Reinaldo Herrera sang an off-key “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” for an island audience.
Even getting permission to go onto Mustique is difficult, but after Lord Patrick Litchfield, the famous royal photographer and longtime resident, learned that Mr. Jiyanti had been co-producer of the Muhammad Ali documentary When We Were Kings , Mr. Bullman and Mr. Jiyanti were welcomed. But after bumping into a vacationing Posh Spice and a departing Mick Jagger, they discovered that Mustique was not quite the place they’d imagined. And the locals weren’t keen on having cameras around. The real story, they said, was Colin Tennant, the exiled founder of Mustique, who had settled down on St. Lucia, an island 60 miles to the south, where he had a plantation, a restaurant and a pet elephant.
“Every single person on the island said that the real story was Colin Tennant,” said Mr. Jayanti, calling from a Starbucks in London. “People told us stories about his temper tantrums and his quarter-million-pound tent that he had hand-made in India and sets up whenever he’s there because they won’t let him build on Mustique.”
Mr. Tennant, residents told the filmmakers, after inheriting the whole of his family’s bleach fortune at 38, had shocked his peers by declaring what he calls “an affinity for black people.” He bought the island in 1959, long before the idea of island resorts had come into vogue. “People of my background didn’t actually work,” he likes to say.
Mr. Tennant cleared the island of scrub, built roads, killed all the mosquitoes, planted lime trees, constructed a village for the indigenous islanders, put the old and infirm islanders on pensions. In 1960 he gave Princess Margaret, with whom gossips once linked him romantically, a 10-acre peninsula on which he built a house for her. To Mr. Tennant, Princess Margaret’s happiness and comfort, it seemed, trumped just about every other of his life’s concerns. Once the Princess was installed, Mr. Tennant started selling plots of land to rock ‘n’ rollers and anybody else he deemed worthy, which at first meant no Americans.
“It was this sort of Studio 54 philosophy at that point,” said Ms. Brown, the editor of Talk . “He was the velvet rope, and you couldn’t get into Mustique unless Colin blessed you. On his island, the passport was not just money or title, but that you were amusing, you were good-looking, you were attractive, you were fascinating or outrageous. That made you part of Colin’s club.” Mr. Tennant, the filmmakers were told, was a sort of Hef-as-Prospero character on the island.
Then, after a number of bad business decisions in the 70′s, Mr. Tennant found himself in the grim financial straits he’s in today, with only 10 acres of unbuildable swamp land. He started liquidating his vast art collection.
When Mr. Bullman and Mr. Jayanti, by freak coincidence, bumped into Mr. Tennant in the St. Vincent airport after leaving Mustique, he seemed happy to have been rediscovered. Not long after, he invited the crew to accompany him to Mustique. “Princess Margaret is coming in on Friday,” Mr. Tennant told them. “We’ll travel to Mustique together.”
“We hung about on St. Lucia for about 10 days, while Colin did not arrange for us to meet Princess Margaret,” Mr. Jiyanti said. “He kept saying ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow’ and ‘On Mustique it will be easier.’ He proved irascible from the start.”
Then there were the tantrums–”the wobblies,” as the film crew referred to them. “We were going to shoot this sequence of him walking through this village,” Mr. Bullman said of Mr. Tennant. “I asked him which way we were going to be walking, because we wanted to follow him with the camera. At that, he just flipped! He started screaming and stamping on the floor. He ripped his microphone off and was stamping on it repeatedly, screaming, ‘I will not be herded like a goat! I will not be herded like a goat!’ We were all just completely stunned.”
“I’ve got many abilities , including irritability,” Mr. Tennant said.
Mr. Tennant threatened to close down the production unless the crew followed him to New York to film a meeting with Tina Brown in the midtown offices of Talk . The director told him that a New York trip was not in the budget. “Well, then you can fuck off back to England!” Mr. Bullman said Mr. Tennant told him.
The crew came to New York.
Mr. Tennant apparently began arriving on the set with a list of scenes the crew would be shooting that day. “He would tell me when to turn over, when to cut, what we could shoot and what we couldn’t shoot,” Mr. Bullman said. “He had decided that we were going to be doing like one of those 1950′s British colonial films, so he would arrange a pumpkin-picking scene and he’d get all the St. Lucians who work on the estate to pull pumpkins down from the mountain side, with him standing over them in his white robes, giving orders. As the days were going on, we were really beginning to panic, because we were getting all this desperate, you know, career-wrecking footage.”
Mr. Tennant does not dispute Mr. Bullman’s recollection.
“I did indeed suggest, direct and set up a lot of scenes for them,” he said, “because I’m quick.”
Once on Mustique, the crew felt that he was using their presence as a means of retribution on the residents who, he felt, had made it difficult for him to return. Mr. Tennant became gruff and threatening. “You wait until I tell them about you and your husband,” he growled to an American woman in one scene. “You watch out, quite frankly.”
But Mr. Bullman, Mr. Jayanti and the crew had developed a plan before they left for Mustique. “We had lost any sense of control over the film at that stage,” Mr. Bullman said. “And … Lord Glenconner was doing all the bullying and lecturing. So we took a decision that the only way to do that tactically was to be [taping] pretty much all the time. I said to the crew, ‘The moment he walks in the door, or the moment we get out of the truck, we need to be [taping].’”
They did, which made The Man Who Bought Mustique into a sort of meta-documentary: Mr. Tennant’s desires–to govern, to stay on the good side of Buckingham Palace–are made entirely transparent. And despite Mr. Tennant’s comic value, his life is essentially a tragic one: His two elder sons both died in the 90′s, one of AIDS and the other, a longtime heroin addict, of hepatitis. The British tabloids have occasionally written that, after developing on top of a West Indian holy ground, Mr. Tennant was befallen by a curse. Mr. Tennant seems to suggest that the only curse he feels is the curse of being forgotten.
Towards the end of The Man Who Bought Mustique , Mr. Tennant swings his shoulder bag violently in an apparent attempt to clobber Mr. Bullman, who hasn’t stopped rolling fast enough for Lord Glenconner.
“When I ask you to do something, just do it!” he bellows. “Is that clear?” Cowering in the frame, Mr. Bullman speaks up like a whelped school boy. “Well,” he says, “we’re making a film about you, Lord Glenconner.”