A Duke's Dilemma

updated 04/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Shortly after 1 a.m. last February 16 the peace of the sleepy Pimlico section in central London was shattered by the sound of breaking glass. The police were summoned, and they arrested a gangly young man just outside a pharmacy. After he was charged with burglary, authorities announced they were examining a variety of "substances" found in his possession. A month later he appeared at the Horseferry Road Magistrates' Court and, in a barely audible voice, pleaded guilty to possession of 121 milligrams of heroin and breaking and entering. Sentencing was postponed to April 15.

As all present were aware, this was no ordinary felony case. The accused was Charles James Spencer-Churchill, 29, the Marquess of Blandford, heir to the illustrious Duke of Marlborough and future master of 200-room Blenheim Palace. In the pecking order of the British peerage Jamie, as he is called by family and friends, is about as blue-blooded as they come.

He is also a heroin addict.

Outside royalty itself, no family has been so prominent in modern British history as the Spencer-Churchills. Sir Winston Churchill was among its most celebrated progeny in recent times; Diana, the Princess of Wales, is descended from the family's Spencer branch. For nearly three centuries Blenheim Palace has been the family seat, a rock-ribbed symbol of greatness and continuity. The estate's 11,500 well-groomed acres 62 miles from London once was a royal hunting spread dating from pre-Norman times. John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, received the land and nearly a quarter of a million pounds to build the palace from Queen Anne and her government as a gift to mark his brilliant victory over French and Bavarian forces on the banks of the Danube in 1704. "Marlborough had set his heart upon this mighty house in a strange manner," his descendant and biographer Winston Churchill later recorded. "It was as a monument, not as a dwelling, that he so earnestly desired it."

Yet, for all of the first Duke's passionate wish to "leave a good name to history," in the words of the Blenheim-born Sir Winston, time, neglect and soaring costs took their toll. Only in the past dozen or so years has Blenheim been put fully on its economic feet. It is a task that has consumed the attention and energy of the 11th and current Duke of Marlborough, John George Vanderbilt Henry Spencer-Churchill, 58, nicknamed "Sunny" (from the Earl of Sunderland, his title at birth). With the help of his third wife, Rosita, he has made Blenheim once again the grandest of England's stately homes.

But now the travails of Jamie, the Duke's senior surviving son, have cast a pall. The father and his addicted heir have grown estranged. Much of Blenheim has been open to the public since 1950 (last year 362,000 visitors paid about $3.50 a head to ogle the gilded staterooms awash in tapestries, French antiques and family portraits), but Jamie is barred from the property that one day will be his. Shortly before his son's arrest in February, Marlborough was asked if he knew Jamie's whereabouts. The Duke stiffened, stared straight ahead and replied, "I do not know."

Marlborough hardly denies that in his own younger days his was a checkered record as well. He admits he "didn't excel" academically or in sports at Eton. At 17 he enlisted in the elite Life Guards regiment of the Royal Household Cavalry and served in occupied Germany and the Middle East before leaving the army as a captain in 1953. He prepared for his future role by taking an agriculture and forestry course and farming 460 acres given him by his father. "I'd been a typical Churchill," he says. "On the whole we are late developers. I learned the hard way, by one's own mistakes."

Indeed, to the delight of the Fleet Street tabloids, Sunny had developed a raffish reputation, running with Princess Margaret's set as her occasional escort; one story had it that he dared to spurn King George VI's suggestion that he marry Meg. Instead Sunny's first bride was Susan Hornby, the daughter of a prominent businessman. The 1951 event was London society's Wedding of the Year, replete with eight bridesmaids, four pages and a guest list headed by Queen Elizabeth (now the Queen Mother).

The marriage produced three children: John, Jamie and Henrietta. John, however, died from a kidney ailment when he was 2 years old. And in 1960 Sunny and Susan divorced, after a clamorous suit in which he cited her adultery with a stockbroker.

Sunny's next wedding came in Paris the following year, when he married Tina Onassis, the divorced wife of Aristotle Onassis and the mother of the shipping magnate's children, Alexander and Christina. The British press was ecstatic over the prospect that Tina might one day be the chatelaine of Blenheim, but it was not to be. Sunny and Tina divorced in 1971, the year before he became duke.

In the meantime he had met Rosita Douglas, the daughter of a Swedish count and diplomat. A seasoned traveler since childhood, including a five-year span in Washington, D.C. that left her with a trace of an American accent, Rosita had attended art schools in Stockholm and Paris and had done a year's stint at the Ungaro fashion house before moving to London as a free-lance sportswear designer. Her family, Rosita admits, were "pretty horrified that I was going to marry someone 17 years older who'd been married twice before, but they were won over after meeting him."

Sunny's father, the 10th Duke of Marlborough, died in March 1972. Two months later the new Duke and Rosita married secretly in a private ceremony in a London Register Office. Rosita's early impression of the palace was of a "bare and unloved house. It was like being in a dark tunnel, all very drab and dreary," she says. "It takes time to get used to the ins and outs of a place this size. It engulfs you. I was daunted. Gradually I gained confidence as I fiddled and diddled around." The Duchess had new lights installed and the plumbing overhauled. "Our aim," she says, "was to keep a certain atmosphere that was here before but to have things move into our generation and way of life."

They had hardly begun the extensive renovations when, in a painful reprise of the Duke's first marriage, their first-born, Richard, died at 5 months. The Duchess belatedly learned that her kidneys had failed during pregnancy, causing a fatal hardening of the infant's lungs. Already pregnant again when Richard died, she was plied with iron tablets and kept in the hospital for two months before son Edward was born in 1974. "We never thought we'd have another," Rosita says, but Alexandra came along three years later.

Sunny's second family is installed on two floors in Blenheim's east-wing apartments. The upper floor has 10 guest rooms plus a nursery suite with a playroom and separate bedrooms for Eddie and Alexandra. The main-floor rooms line up along a corridor and overlook a formal garden. Next to the Duke's corner study is his dressing room, which adjoins the master bedroom with its gilded ceiling and four-poster bed. Then comes the bow-windowed dining room, a smoking room with newspapers and TV, then Rosita's flower-filled sitting room and the "Grand Cabinet," a large room used for entertaining. There is also what Rosita calls "my junk room," where she stores her bric-a-brac ("I can't stay away from auctions").

The family staff includes a secretary, butler, cook, nanny, housekeeper and two cleaners. Taking care of the rest of the place is an estate staff of 80—gardeners, gatemen, gamekeepers, maintenance personnel. As many as 75 guides work on the estate during the March-through-October tourist season. The Duke has established convention and restaurant facilities at Blenheim and opened the grounds to such special events as the Barry Manilow outdoor concert two years ago, which attracted 40,000 people. Without it all, Marlborough could not finance the palace's upkeep. "The first Duke's Battle of Blenheim took a day," Sunny likes to tell visitors. "Mine is taking a lifetime."

With the difference in their personalities—she is an extrovert, he a reservoir of calm—the Duke and Duchess seem perfectly complementary. "We do have terrible discussions, not rows," says Rosita. "Good, healthy interchanges. We criticize, we compliment, we respect each other. He does the big things, I do the details. Is that right, angel?" His Grace nods benignly.

This third marriage is different. For Jamie and his sister, Henrietta, their father, during their childhood, remained a distant figure. "We lived in the nursery with Nanny and the nursery maid," recalls Henrietta, now 26, married to a German merchant banker and the mother of two. "If there were guests, Jamie and I were dressed and put on show for an hour after tea."

Home during their childhood was Lee Place, an eight-bedroom country house where the present Duke still takes refuge during the height of the tourist season at Blenheim. After his parents' divorce, Jamie was put in the custody of his father and sent off for schooling at Harrow (where his distant relative Winston Churchill was a flop). Jamie tried for an officer's career but failed to pass the British Army entrance exam. Next he enrolled in the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, but couldn't stick it out. In the press he was depicted as a spoiled brat who squired debs and models. By 1982 Jamie was addicted to heroin and his subsequent run-ins with the law (speeding, unpaid bills, assaulting policemen) made headlines. Once, when the ban against him was lifted at Blenheim, he was reported to have rifled the bedrooms of the houseguests.

His father, mother (who has since remarried, divorced and married again) and Henrietta have joined therapy sessions with Jamie, but to no lasting effect. Two years ago stepsister Christina Onassis sent her private plane to fly him to a French clinic. On his first day Jamie smashed a window, scaled a wall and fled back to England.

Last year, after a four-month outdoor rehabilitation program on a rugged Scottish isle, Jamie went public to warn others against heroin. "It's like a creature," he said. "It creeps up on you, then encircles and traps you. Your whole life goes to pieces. My only advice to anyone tempted to try drugs is—for God's sake, don't!" But Jamie could not take his own advice. "We've all tried everything—the hard way, the soft way," says Henrietta. "We're back to the hard-line, rejecting him totally until he's ready to help himself."

At the same time Marlborough knows that, by law, there is no bypassing Jamie in the order of succession. However, through family trusts and the administrative staff, Blenheim is safeguarded in ways so that the estate could survive even an addicted successor. "With bloody drugs, it's no use pretending all is fine and rosy," the Duke says. "He's my heir and, given time, I'm pretty sure that one day he'll pull himself out of it." In a family of late developers, there is always hope.

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