IN EVERY SENSE OF THE WORD, CHARLES James Spencer-Churchill, the Marquess of Blandford, was to the manner—and manor—born. As heir to the 11th Duke of Marlborough, Blandford, 35, stands to acquire one of the most historic titles in the realm. He is a direct descendant of the first Duke of Marlborough, who in 1704 won the famed victory at Blenheim against Louis XIV's forces. Moreover, Blandford will also inherit the most celebrated home in Britain: the 11,500-acre Blenheim Palace Estate, the 18th-century stately home where Winston Churchill was born (it starred in PBS's The First Churchills) and where nearly 400,000 tourists visit annually. Blandford's home for the next three months, though, is less grand: a 10-foot by 6-foot cell in Oxford jail, the result of having been found guilty on Oct. 8 of driving without a license.

It was Blandford's 12th driving offense in five years and, to weary Britons who have followed his sad history, just the latest pothole on a long road to ruin. A member of one of England's most blue-blooded families (his father is the third cousin of Winston Churchill, and Princess Diana is descended from the Spencer branch of the family), Blandford has for the last decade been in seemingly perpetual trouble with the law and drugs, and his number of detox-center stints would impress even the most ardent Hollywood rehabitee. The Marquess, noted London's Daily Mail, "is a rich boy who seems to have clawed his way to the bottom."

The son of the Duke of Marlborough by his first wife, Susan Hornby, Blandford, who spent much of his adolescence at Blenheim, has never come to terms with the pressures of privilege. "I have always resented having my life mapped out for me," he told You magazine in 1985. "There has always been an inherent sense of failure lurking round the corner." Still, the perks of privilege were never shunned: An unexceptional student at Harrow School, Blandford once sniffed to a master, "You can't tell me what to do. I'm going to be the Duke of Marlborough."

In the late '70s, after failing an entrance exam for Sandhurst military college and briefly studying to become an insurance broker, Blandford moved to New York City, where his slide began in earnest. Already enamored of fast cars and daredevil stunts (he once hired a helicopter and buzzed a castle where the Queen and Queen Mum were attending a party), he found a new thrill: cocaine. "Life got pretty unmanageable," he said, adding that the drug "made me aggressive and arrogant."

He careered through a string of relationships from 1980 to 1986, including liaisons with Fergie's bridesmaid Lulu Blacker and actress Catherine Oxenberg. In 1982 he checked into his first detox hospital, the Hazelden Rehabilitation Center in Center City, Minn., only to discharge himself after a few days.

Blandford's father—who married Tina Onassis (the divorced wife of Aristotle) in 1961 and his current wife, Rosita Douglas, in 1972—tried to help. In 1983 he and Jamie's stepsister, the late Christina Onassis, forced Blandford into a clinic outside Paris, which Jamie claims to have escaped by scaling a 25-foot wall. A futile succession of clinics followed, interspersed with criminal convictions, including one in 1983 for punching a policeman in London. In 1985 Blandford, a self-confessed heroin addict, was arrested for breaking into a pharmacy in Pimlico, London, in search of painkillers. While on probation, he was arrested with four others on suspicion of supplying cocaine. The charge was dropped, but the violation of probation resulted in a three-month jail sentence.

After that Blandford made some real efforts at rehabilitation. He checked into yet another clinic, and upon his release reconciled with his family, moved into the Lince, a Georgian mansion on the Blenheim estate, and in early 1990 married Becky Few-Brown, now 28, the former girlfriend of Fergie's old flame Paddy McNally (both attended the wedding). But by last summer Blandford was rumored to be seeing an old girlfriend, Arabella Tait, and had resumed what friends called his "eccentric and unpredictable behavior." With Blandford facing more court appearances over driving offenses and allegations of unpaid bills (he lives on a $1.72 million trust he gained access to on his 30th birthday), Few-Brown moved out but is said to have reconciled with him.

Meanwhile his father, rumored to have cut Jamie from some of the family trusts but who cannot legally alter the primogeniture, lives with the sad irony that his second son, Edward, 17 (by Rosita; the two also have a daughter, Alexandra, 14), is carving a good name for himself at Eton.

So while Blandford languishes in a yellow-tiled cell with one tiny barred window, his family is left with the prayer that he will accept the mantle he spoke of in 1984, after seemingly kicking drugs for good. "One day I hope to be proud and, rather like my father, to be the custodian of our national heritage," Jamie told The Daily Mail. That day, it seems, has still not come.

TIM ALLIS
TERRY SMITH in London

  • Contributors:
  • Terry Smith.