Churchill was in good spirits, and his conversation was scintillating. When the
ladies had gone, he began to sing, waving his cigar in time to the tune:
'I went in to pay
But, instead, I took the till.
My wife and kids were starving.'
brandy came round I refused it. Churchill turned to me and said, 'Ah, you are
one of those abstemious fellows, are you? Well, I can only tell you that I have
always found liquor of the greatest assistance to me—all my life.'
"The Duke of
Marlborough joined us after dinner with some other men who were staying at
Blenheim and at other houses in the neighbourhood. When we went to join the
ladies Churchill insisted on the Duke preceding him as we walked out, saying,
"The head of the family must go before the Prime Minister.'
"I had not
been to a party on such a splendid scale for a long time. It was delightful,
and the war seemed very remote."
In the logical
course of events—that is, if the British electorate had renewed the Churchill
government's mandate in the postwar election—Ronald Tree surely would have
risen in politics; and Sandy Lane would not exist. In the early war years, Tree
had served his government as a specialist in American affairs for the Ministry
of Information, making good use of his American contacts and his low-voltage
but effective charm. When the war ended he was Parliamentary Secretary to the
Ministry of Town and Country Planning, a job that promised vast opportunities
for him to rearrange the English landscape more attractively. However, he went
down in the general Conservative debacle, losing his parliamentary seat by a
breathtaking 204 votes. Suddenly he had been cut adrift: a hapless Tory
millionaire in an angry Laborite sea. Looking back on that shocking severance,
he remembers: "I felt my life shattered. I was frightfully depressed, and
It was while in
this state of mind that he first encountered the island of Barbados. Business
and personal affairs required him to visit the U.S. The flying boat route went
by way of Trinidad, where, as fortune had it, the aide-de-camp to the Crown
Governor was Sir Edward Cunard (of the Cunard Line Cunards), an old
acquaintance. Cunard urged Tree to stop off at his Barbadian home, Glitter Bay,
for a restorative spell in the sunshine. "I came for six weeks," Tree
recalls, "and quite simply I fell in love with the place." Much
revived, he proceeded to the U.S. and there renewed his friendship with
Marietta (the name she prefers—a contraction of Mary and Endicott) Fitzgerald,
whom he had known during the war when she was a research assistant at LIFE.
Subsequently, each having obtained a divorce, in 1947, they were married. They
went to live at Ditchley, and that same year Tree began the construction of a
winter home on Barbados—a dreamlike confection he named Heron Bay, set in
gardens facing the sea, built all of soft-hued native limestone and designed,
from his own sketches, in his favorite Palladian style.
At Ditchley, life
resumed its gracious course. But soon there was an ugly intrusion. Tree had had
his problems, but money had never been one. Now, however, he found himself
squeezed between the oppressive taxes the Labor government levied on the landed
gentry and the heavy U.S. taxes on income from Grandfather Tree's trust fund.
He had no alternative but to sell Ditchley, and in 1949, with great sadness, he
did so. In a last, magnificent gesture to the house and all it stood for, he
gave a dinner and a ball for 500 guests, among whom were Princess (now Queen)
Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Princess Margaret, the Duke and Duchess of
Marlborough and others of the genre. There were fireworks, and the dancing went
on until dawn.
Trees divided their time between New York, in a town house furnished with
treasures from Ditchley, and Heron Bay. As before, they entertained often, and
with style. But soon their life began to show the effects of a peculiar sea
change. By the move to America, Ronald Tree had given up hope of renewing his
political career, whereas Marietta, whose prior interest in politics had been
amateur, became increasingly addicted to it. By 1952 she had entered into a
romance with the Stevensonian wing of the Democratic Party, and evenings at
Little Ditchley—as Vogue christened the New York town house—began to resemble
political rallies. But, being a British subject, Ronald Tree could be only an
interested bystander amidst these portentous doings; and as time went on he
found life increasingly congenial at Barbados.
island had a great many qualities with which he could feel at home. Not only is
it British, but it is Britain in cameo, complete with a rugged northern area
called Scotland, towering sea cliffs reminiscent of Dover, and green fields and
woodsy dells that could have been lifted intact from an English summer. It is
overlaid with a sense of the past: its parliament was formed in 1639; its
lands, divided into large estates, produced a wealthy "plantocracy" who
erected "great houses" similar in style and furnishings, though reduced
in scale, to those in England. A good many of these miniature stately homes
still exist, and so also do quite a number of the old family names: that of Sir
James Drax, for instance, a 17th century pioneer of the island's sugar cane
industry, is kept green by the present squire of Drax Hall, Admiral the
Honorable Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax (known to his
friends as Plunk). Families who can afford it still send their children off to
English schools; and even though a Barbadian may never have been near England,
he is likely to refer to a trip there as "going home."