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Ethel Tree, nee Field, only daughter of the great merchant, had married Arthur Tree, son of the prominent judge, only two years before. With the attraction that many rich Americans of the times felt for things English, they had leased a country house in England. Thus their child Ronald was born in England—an infant at the time his mother met Commander Beatty.
The young officer and the beautiful young heiress apparently fell in love almost at first sight. On both sides there were compelling reasons against their marriage. To take part in a triangle, to marry a divorcee in that still-Victorian era, could have meant the ruin of Beatty's career. For Ethel the alliance would mean gossip, unpleasantness and most probably the loss of her infant son. Nevertheless, the following year she separated from her husband, and in 1901 Arthur Tree divorced her on the grounds of desertion and was awarded custody of their son. Ten days later she and Beatty were married. Both the divorce and marriage were performed with maximum privacy, and the damage to Beatty's career proved minor. His great talent continued to carry him up the ladder of command to the highest rank. As commander of the Grand Fleet in World War I, he directed the sea victories at Heligoland, Dogger Bank and Jutland. After the war he was advanced to Admiral of the Fleet and made an Earl of the Realm.
But Beatty's greatest prize, the woman he idolized ("Every hour spent away from you is an absolutely wasted one"), proved increasingly willful, spoiled and demanding. In time she came to assume that his role was to be in constant attendance on her. On a luxurious yacht, she followed the fleet when he was at sea, on one occasion suggesting to the Admiralty that the movements of the Battle Cruiser Squadron be arranged in a way more convenient for her. His triumphs and consequent heavy duties inspired suspicions, complaints of neglect, a mounting sense of grievance. Neurasthenic and restless, she bought houses suddenly only to sell them, moved from one spa and cure to another on the Continent, came home to a social round that left her more nervous than ever and her husband exhausted. These years, his biographer says, were "the most trying battle of his career."
It was apparent that Ethel was emotionally unstable, although not clinically an invalid. In 1932, at the age of 58, her beauty gone and her face marked with despair, she sank into "acute melancholia" and soon afterward died of a cerebral thrombosis. Four years later Admiral Beatty—who, as a young commander, had written to her, "Unfortunately, I shall go on loving you to the bitter end"—died and was buried at her side.
Ronald, having been put in his father's custody at the age of 3, grew up in circumstances of some emotional ambiguity. To what degree was he English and to what degree American? He and his American father, Arthur Tree, lived in a country house called Ashorne, in Warwickshire, whence Arthur sometimes returned to Chicago, whence also Ronald sometimes went for visits with his fascinating but elusive mother. Not until he went away to public school, famous old Winchester, did he encounter the kind of life in which everything could be counted on to stay put. Here was order, tradition, duty; here also were lovely buildings so graceful, mellow and durable that they seemed organic with the earth. At the school he developed a sense of belonging that perhaps in a more normal boyhood would have been associated with home and family. It was there that he discovered the deep satisfaction that architectural beauty could arouse in him and which he has pursued the rest of his life.
At the age of 16 he suddenly acquired the means to gratify almost any taste he might develop. In 1910 Judge Lambert Tree had died, leaving a multimillion-dollar fortune in trust for his son Arthur and Arthur's descendants. In 1914 Arthur died and the trust passed to Ronald. However, that year also brought the beginning of World War I. When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, Ronald joined the U.S. Naval Air Arm. Newly re-Americanized in the process, he lingered in the U.S. for a while during the 1920s and married an American girl, Nancy Perkins Field, the young widow of one of his Field relatives.
Despite these reconnections with his American heritage, in the end the stronger English influences of his life prevailed. The Trees settled in England, where Ronald entered the life for which his wealth and education had suited him: a career in politics as a member of the Conservative Party. In 1933 he was elected to Parliament. And the same year he bought a splendid country house, Ditchley Park, a mansion of 24 bedrooms, 10 bathrooms and seven reception rooms, with numerous outbuildings and 30 tenant farm cottages, and with gardens, lawns, glades, woods and fields covering 3,300 acres of Oxfordshire. Built in the early 18th century by the great architect James Gibbs, Palladio's foremost English interpreter and adaptor, Ditchley is a Palladian masterpiece.
Everything about Ditchley suited Tree: aesthetically it was "heaven—absolute perfection." It was perfect, too, for weekends that soon became famous for their high quotient of talent, titles, brains and beauty—a most proper setting for a rising M.P. in the Tory hierarchy. When World War II came and Prime Minister Churchill needed a country hideaway (German bombers had already made near hits at Chequers, the official residence), it was natural that Tree should offer Ditchley—and natural that Churchill would accept, since his family ties were next door, so to speak, at Blenheim Palace, where a first cousin was the incumbent duke. Ditchley was big enough to accommodate not only the Prime Minister, his aides and secretaries and a bodyguard of troops, but the Trees and a reduced but hardy band of house guests. No Supreme Command post has ever been more charming. Major-General Sir John Kennedy, Director of Military Operations at that time, has described the scene in his memoirs:
"When I arrived at that most beautiful of houses, I found Mrs. Tree, Lady Diana Cooper, Miss Mary Churchill and Mr. Bruce, an American, all having tea together in the drawing room.
"We were to dine at 8:30, and, when we had assembled, the Prime Minister appeared, looking cheerful and fresh...we went into dinner; Lady Diana Cooper sat on the Prime Minister's right, and I next to her.