An American House in London

February 22, 2012 By

It is shameful to admit, but I’ve always wanted to slip into a conversation that I’d “popped in to see the Ambassador and his wife” during a visit to a foreign country.

Serendipity and well-placed in-law connections helped make that unlikely scenario a reality for this undeserving soul on a recent trip to London.

Louis Susman is the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom and one of my late father-in-law’s closest friends.[1]  Ambassador Susman and his wife Marjorie moved to London from Chicago in 2009 when he was appointed to the post by President Obama.

It would be a criminal understatement to call the job of representing our country in the land of our closest ally anything less than one of the most prestigious and important in our government.  Future presidents, president’s sons, governors, captains of industry and fundraisers extraordinaire have filled the role: John Adams, James Monroe, Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, Robert Todd Lincoln, Andrew W. Mellon, Joseph P. Kennedy, Averell Harriman and Walter Annenberg to name a few.

It is a big deal.

(Incidentally, our Delaware has enjoyed its share of connections to this esteemed group; First-Stater Thomas F. Bayard served as Ambassador from 1893-1897 and Raymond G.H. Seitz (1991-1994) – who was both extremely popular among the Brits as well as the only career-diplomat to be appointed to the post – hailed from a Delaware family and spent a school year in Wilmington.[2])

Since 1953, these fortunate diplomats and their families have made their London home at Winfield House, a red brick Georgian masterpiece that sits in the northwest corner of beautiful Regent’s Park.  The home and gardens must be one of the finest places in that remarkable city.  Indeed, the 12 acre setting is said to be the largest private garden in the center of London – second only to Buckingham Palace.

Winfield House was built in 1936-37 by Barbara Hutton, an heiress twice gifted (or cursed?[3]) with massive inherited riches – her maternal grandfather was Frank Winfield Woolworth, founder of the dry-goods fortune, and her father and his brother built the E.F. Hutton brokerage empire.

Hutton was living in London and recently married to the Danish Count Haugwitz-Reventlow when she gave birth in 1936 to her only child, Lance.  Following the infamous Lindbergh kidnapping a few years before, Hutton greatly feared for her child’s safety and found in Regent’s Park a property that “offered the privacy and seclusion of the Crown Estate… at night it was quiet and patrolled by the Royal Parks police.”[4]

The land was acquired, an old villa on the property was raised and up went the magnificent Winfield House, named in honor of Hutton’s grandfather.

Unfortunately, Ms. Hutton’s marriage did not last long and nor did her time in Winfield House.  In 1939, she closed the home and headed to the United States leaving both an impending war and her husband the Count behind.

For the next six years the house was used by the Royal Air Force (RAF) for various war-time purposes, narrowly avoiding on more than one occasion the German bombs that savaged the city of London throughout the war.

In December of 1945, having recently returned from a visit to London that found Winfield House in declining repair, Hutton wrote to President Harry S. Truman from the Plaza Hotel in New York:

I am writing to ask if the American Government would care to accept, as a gift, my house in London.  It would make a magnificent embassy[sic] – I do not exaggerate by saying, undoubtedly, it is the most beautiful house in the city…I would be much happier not to sell it if you could use it as an embassy, as it is an American house, having been built with American money.

Winthrop W. Aldrich, brother-in-law of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was the first ambassador to use Winfield House as his official residence.  Later, when publishing magnate Walter Annenberg was appointed ambassador by Richard Nixon, he and his wife funded significant renovations and redecorations of the house, which was by 1969 in need of major upgrades.

Today, the Susmans have made the home an extraordinary showcase for contemporary American art.  As an extension of the State Department’s Art in Embassies Program, the Susmans have assembled a combination of works from their own collection, as well as art on loan from generous American and British collectors and galleries that amounts to a pretty stunning collection of 20th Century American art.  Works from Jasper Johns, Warhol, De Kooning, Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Reinhardt, Roy Lichtenstein and many more fill the walls of this remarkable, historic and uniquely American home in the middle of London.

 

 


[1] Technically speaking, Mr. Susman’s full title is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James.  St. James being St. James Palace, the traditional “official” home of the British Monarchy.

[2] In his brilliant memoir, “Over Here,” Seitz recounts his Senate confirmation hearing: “The Senate hearing to confirm my nomination took place in April 1991 in the great, echoing chamber of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joseph Biden, Democrat of Delaware, presiding.  Because my father was from Delaware and because I attended eighth grade in Wilmington, Biden regarded me as a native son of the Blue Rooster State and I did nothing to disabuse him.”

[3] Known in the media as the “poor little rich girl,” at the age of five, Hutton discovered her mother’s dead body after she’d done herself in.  At twenty-one, she was one of the wealthiest women in the world and entered into the first of a string of seven failed marriages (number three was Cary Grant).  Count Reventlow, her second husband, treated her with great cruelty, and her only child, Lance, predeceased her in an airplane accident (he had earlier been married to the actress Jill St. John).  Hutton died in near penury in California in 1979.

[4] Winfield House by Maria Tuttle, 2008, Thames and Hudson, p. 26.

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    Wilmington resident Michael Fleming is a marketing and communications executive.

    4 Responses to An American House in London

    1. avatar

      K Waldheim Reply

      February 22, 2012 at 11:13 am

      Rothko’s a piker. 

    2. avatar

      Pcalistro Reply

      February 22, 2012 at 11:48 am

      Thanks for sharing. You never cease to amaze me

    3. avatar

      Guest Reply

      February 22, 2012 at 4:19 pm

      I hope he was grilled for skipping the unveiling of the wonderful Reagan statue last year.  Did you ask how Michelle Obama’s ski vacation was coming along?  Reagan and Thatcher kept NATO strong, and now we have this guy skipping an important Reagan event?

    4. avatar

      Brian DiSabatino Reply

      February 26, 2012 at 3:07 pm

      Michael:  I found this very interesting. Thanks for taking the time to share.  I learned a little bit about the Delaware connection and was reminded about what an important post this is.  Keep it coming!

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