My Portrait of a Lady: Sarah Spencer-Churchill

The lady in the front seat glanced back at my brother and I, then shot a swift glance up and

The lady in the front seat glanced back at my brother and I, then shot a swift glance up and to her right at the Fifth Avenue bus that had pulled up beside us at the red light. My father, at the wheel, was focused on the road; he had no idea what was going on. Had he seen the look in his lady friend’s eye, a chill would surely have invested his marrow, because it was a look of pure mischief: the same look with which, in the stories of P.G. Wodehouse, someone like Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright will contemplate an unwatchful policeman’s helmet, fully aware that to pinch the bobby’s hat will surely land him in the Bow Street Magistrate’s Court, but unable to help himself nonetheless.

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In a flicker, the deed was done. The lady produced a fully charged water-pistol (identical to the ones she had surreptitiously presented earlier to my brother and me, which we now gripped in tight, sweaty little hands), and as the light changed and the traffic began to move, deftly squirted the bus driver through his open window. It was a warm day in mid-October-we were on our way back from a Yale-Columbia game at the old Baker Bowl on Manhattan’s northernmost tip-and her aim was true, as one would have expected of the descendant of a long line of England’s finest shots. What my father had to say when, alerted by an outburst of near-hysterical giggling and squirming in the back seat, he realized what had happened does not bear repetition in a family newspaper.

That would have been 1947 or 1948, when I was, say, 12 and Jeffrey 10, and the lady in the front seat was, in fact, a Lady. Lady Sarah Consuelo Spencer-Churchill, to be exact, an extraordinary human being to whom, a week ago Tuesday, hundreds of her adoring friends and family gathered to pay last loving respects in St. James’ Church on Madison Avenue.

A few days earlier, she had entered a regional Connecticut hospital for a routine, minor surgical “procedure.” An artery was nicked; she bled to death. If you knew Sarah, you would be well aware that if her life’s blood coursed through her with anything like the force and vitality of the rest of her energies, there could have been no stanching the flow. Hers was the kind of death those who loved her cannot help begrudging. At least she never knew what happened; the sheer stupidity of it would have appalled her, although, knowing Sarah, she would have found something to laugh about in it as well.

This is not going to be a eulogy for Sarah Churchill. There is no way I can come up to the elegance and feeling that was brought to that task by her daughter Jacqueline Williams and her friend Dominick Dunne. Her near and dear have had our words of consolation; at the reception afterwards, none of us felt it necessary to reassure each other of our feelings for Sarah, or our mutual gratitude for what she had added to our lives when she took control of them, as was her style. Indomitable, inventive, undaunted, funny, certain, generous, curious, meddlesome-and all of these to a delicious fault. She had a spirit as large as the palace in which she was born. In our family, her nickname was “Lady Bossypants.” Well, there were worse hands than hers into which I might have entrusted my life; I only wish she had been luckier with those to whom, at her end, she entrusted her own.

In church, I sat next to my Yale classmate Peter Duchin. Not only are Peter and I old friends, but we share the added bond of having been married to the same extraordinary woman (that is, I was and Peter is). Although we didn’t say it, before and after the service, studying the congregation that had assembled to cheer on an old friend’s final rite of passage, I know that he was thinking what I was.

Namely, what an extraordinary generation is Sarah’s. How lucky we are to have had them to learn from. How much will have been lost when the last of them has joined their old friend in the hereafter.

These days, we’re fed a lot of publicity about bright young things. About who’s “It” and who’s “In.” But here are some names that should be attended to. My stepmother, Poppi Thomas. Peggy and George Cheston. Jane (Mrs. Thomas H.) Choate. Elizabeth Fondaras. Nancy and Jackie Perrepoint. Betty and Virgil Sherrill. Mardie Frost. Nancy and Eben Pyne. Brooke Astor, of course. Albert H. Gordon. Louis Auchincloss. Joe Cullman. Other names for which my own senescence, no respecter of deadlines, fumbles in vain. Many were in the church. A few couldn’t make it. Some didn’t know Sarah.

The hallmarks of this generation have been class, intelligence, circumspection-and courage under fire. They are, as Tom Brokaw has aptly put it, “the Greatest.” All you “It” girls and “In” boys out there, study these people, learn from them. Seize the opportunity, because every year there are fewer of them left to emulate. These are the people from whom you can learn what Society with a capital S really looks like, and Style-how the real thing comports itself, how it’s possible to be well-off with taste, how to make the fine distinction (once reflexive but today scarcely attainable) between noise and merit, between what can be learned, what can be bought and what some people are simply born with.

Sarah’s coming-out party in 1939, the event of what would prove to be the last “Season” before the war (and some think ever), caused the famous diarist and social-climber Henry (Chips) Channon to note at party’s end: “I have seen much, traveled far and am accustomed to splendor, but there has never been anything like tonight” (quoted in Anne de Courcy’s 1939: The Last Season ). But grandeur was never the style of that splendid evening’s debutante; she may have been swaddled in purple and ermines, but she grew up “jus’ folks.”

Blenheim Palace casts longer shadows over England’s history than those of waltzing lords and ladies. This was the part of her heritage that mattered to Sarah Churchill. Her illustrious forebear, the first Duke of Marlborough, was the victor at Blenheim; her more famous cousin, Winston … well, what’s to say about him? They epitomized the officer class, whose first thought and duty is to look out for those under their command, not to calculate and re-calculate the value of their options or ponder the quality of their invitations. These were the people who won the Battle of Britain-which made it somewhat poignant to notice that the words to the second hymn we sang for Sarah, “Lord of All Hopefulness,” were written by Jan Struther. That’s not a name that means much today, but some in the church will have recalled that Struther was also the author of Mrs. Miniver , the 1940 bestseller that epitomized “we happy few, we band of brothers” in the popular imagination. I thought that was a nice touch; so must have “Cousin Winston,” whom I expect was in the front ranks of Heaven to greet his younger relation in the same high spirits in which, 61 years ago, he attended her coming-out party.

So long then, old pal, as might have been said by another of the past fortnight’s dearly departed, P.J. Clarke’s Danny Lavezzo, a person who also hugely contributed to the special warp and woof of this city’s finest era. That’s what Sarah would have said to me if our positions had been reversed. Once again, I find myself thrown back upon the words penned by a Detroit sportswriter on the retirement of Ty Cobb: “We shall not see his like again, for the game has changed, and not for the better.” The difference, of course, is that Ty Cobb was an S.O.B. with a capital S, while Sarah Consuelo Spencer-Churchill was every inch a lady-with a small L.

My Portrait of a Lady: Sarah Spencer-Churchill