SI Vault
 
CONVERSATION PIECE: LADY LIZ OF LLANGOLLEN
Whitney Tower
June 09, 1958
An amazing sportswoman talks about the greatest love of her lively life—horses
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
June 09, 1958

Conversation Piece: Lady Liz Of Llangollen

An amazing sportswoman talks about the greatest love of her lively life—horses

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

In the vast expanse of the world of sport, Mrs. Richard Lunn stands out—and has stood out for more than 25 years—as one of those rare persons whose identity and activities are, oddly enough, as well known to people not ordinarily interested in her sport as to the thousands who are Mrs. Lunn's preoccupation is horses, and her personality—whether at trackside, in a sales pavilion, in the show ring, in the drawing room or at an overcrowded nightclub table—has always been so overwhelmingly dynamic that no other woman in her field has quite approached the impact she has made on both the sport's insiders and outsiders.

Mrs. Lunn's range of acquaintances and experiences is as extensive as that of any enterprising explorer, and her strong personal magnetism—a wonderful carry-over from her early life in Philadelphia, where she will always be remembered as one of the dazzling beauties of this or any other age—is as familiar to any backstretch "hot walker" as to visiting royalty. Mrs. Lunn has bought horses, bred horses, shown them with unrivaled success in the leading rings, raced them at every major U.S. course (her Gone Fishin' was a respectable third in the Preakness), and even—on rare occasions—sold them. She has, in her outspoken and controversial way, been a lot of things to a lot of people: a devoted best friend, for example, to Prince Aly Khan; an equally passionate bongo-drum partner for Eddie Arcaro; and a hard-hitting conversationalist on the theories of Thoroughbred breeding with such old pros at the game as Leslie Combs and Bull Hancock. She has done many things too: once she was crowned queen of an apple blossom festival; once she went up the Hudson River in a yacht manned by a crew that had never been afloat before, armed with only the navigational aids that could be deciphered from an outdated Esso road map. She has survived all these adventures with a remarkable consistency of energy, fortitude and, here and there, a little luck.

Mary Elizabeth Altemus Whitney Person Lunn—she is rarely called anything but Liz—is also a fluent and dynamic talker. "I am perfectly horrible on dates, names and places," she told me when I visited her at her Virginia estate shortly before the spring racing campaign began. "I think I was born on June 18, 1908 in a house that William Penn built in Wynnewood, Pa. But then again it could have been June 19th—but, you see, I never somehow got a birth certificate. Anyway, who cares—18th or 19th? My father, Lemuel Altemus, had something to do with a mineral company, I think, but my mother, Bessie Dobson Altemus, had always taken a real interest in horses until she gave it up to devote most of her time to looking after my brother Jimmy and me."

Much of Liz's childhood was passed in the English country home of her grandparents, James and Mary Dobson. "It might have been from them that I really inherited a love for animals. There were always dogs and horses around, and I learned to be with animals, get along with them and love them. I sort of adopted one bitch as my very own. Things were going along fine until she had 13 puppies in the middle of the front hall. Gramps pretended to get furious. He never fooled me for a minute, because I knew that secretly he wanted me to feel the same affection for animals that he did."

Liz Lunn's disinterest in dates is carried to such extremes that she claims inability to name the years in which she was married—and, in fact, for precisely how long—to each of her three husbands, first John Hay Whitney, then the late Dr. E. Cooper Person Jr. and currently Richard Lunn. Similarly, there is a pronounced uncertainty in recalling and associating certain people with specific past events. But anyone who hasn't known Liz Lunn for a long time is expected to get hurriedly over any wounded pride if he sees her looking curiously at him and then hears her exclaim: "Hey, you there, didn't I see you at that crazy woman's house outside of a town called something-or-other?" And, actually, Liz has a perfectly logical point. "This may sound crazy or something, but I really think people are a lot like animals. If they think you want to be nice to them, they'll lean over backwards to be nice to you. And I'm interested in people, interested in what makes them tick. So I always speak to everybody—at the race track or anyplace else. The whole idea of having to be introduced is so crazy. You can never remember all the people's names, and I think you should talk to anybody. Things would work better if it was that way all over the world—maybe because a little conversation can stop a lot of trouble."

Today Liz Lunn is owner, mistress, general manager, overseer, part-time trainer and full-time No. 1 admirer of Llangollen Farm, a vast 4,000-acre establishment, which is situated some 50 miles from Washington in Virginia's Piedmont Valley and which also gives its name to one of America's great racing stables. Horses carrying Llangollen (a Welsh name meaning "land's end") silks have accounted for many of the country's leading events in recent years. In 1956 and again last year the stable was third in the nation in money won—on the first occasion trailing only Calumet and Rex Ellsworth and on the second, Calumet and the Kerr Stable, and at the same time outearning other such equally renowned racing establishments as Wheatley Stable, Maine Chance Farm, Claiborne Farm, Hasty House Farm, Greentree Stable and the King Ranch. Even in a racing world which today is peopled more than ever before by women owners (for example: Mrs. Isabel Dodge Sloane, Mrs. Gene Markey, Mrs. Elizabeth Arden Graham, Mrs. Ada Rice, Mrs. Henry C. Phipps and Mrs. Allie Reuben), Liz Lunn must stand quite firmly apart. For on at least one point both her detractors and fervent admirers are in absolute agreement: her uncurbable vitality and her passion for horses have made her one of the world's greatest horsewomen.

As a person so closely allied to the turf, Liz Lunn is—or so it seems—almost always on the move. True to the tradition of the wandering horseman, she puts in an annual appearance at the leading sales and at such Thoroughbred racing centers as Belmont Park, Saratoga, Hialeah, Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Arlington, Washington Park, Laurel and Pimlico. When she is at none of these public spots the best way to find her is to look in on her Florida yacht, her ranch in California or—better yet—Llangollen Farm.

The musty interior of the Georgian mansion at Llangollen, whether full of laughing house guests or left to the care of an easygoing staff of caretakers, is home for Liz. Around the grounds are horses—hundreds of them—as well as purebred Herefords, Guernseys, dozens of dogs and a staff of about 30 men and women who regard Liz not only as the mistress of this entire ménage but as a sort of unpredictable monarch of all she surveys. An order countermanded 10 minutes after it is given is as routine, for example, as the sight of the mistress returning late in the afternoon followed by a retinue of 10 "best friends" suddenly urged to come for dinner.

As may be imagined, the confusion can at times be somewhat nerve-shattering. It would be considerably more so were it not for the presence of Liz Lunn's unruffled first lieutenant, a sort of Llangollen ambassador-at-large named Dabney Simpson. Mr. Simpson, as he is called by the other employees, is not quite the prototype of Noël Coward's "master of the back hall" but, nonetheless, as he stalks the house in gray flannels and a sports shirt, he manages a variety of jobs that in any given day might include the morning marketing, issuing orders pertaining to the location of post-holes for a new fence, driving up to the Washington airport to pick up an incoming house guest, assisting at the delivery of a litter of great Danes, walking a "discouraged" kitchen maid around the garden to remind her that life could be worse, informing his mistress of latest local gossip during the afternoon cocktail hour, issuing new orders pertaining to the location of postholes (after the first ones have already been dug) and, finally, the serving of dinner.

Dabney Simpson has been with Liz Lunn for more than 20 years, and it is his knowing face that usually greets a visitor stepping into Llangollen's great front hall. If it is morning and if Liz has not been up early working with the horses or gone hunting, Dabney will lead the guest into a lovely large paneled living room and announce politely, "Mrs. Lunn will be down soon." This usually means one o'clock.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6