Not for nothing do we talking about ‘truth’ being ‘stranger’ than fiction. Often, fiction is easier to manage than fact. It’s tidier, more malleable.
So what happens when fact has to mingle with fiction? This is something I encountered while researching for my new novel,, which weaves reality and imagination to create a story of the early lives of the three girls — the daughters of Arthur Ernest Guinness; Aileen, Maureen and Oonagh — first in Ireland against a backdrop of the Civil War, and then in London during the Roaring Twenties.
Before I began, I had ideas about the personalities of the three girls. As if they were Spice Girls, I had one-word descriptions tagged to them: Maureen was Scary: Oonagh was Sweet, Aileen was Aloof. It was plenty to begin with, and as it turned out, I wasn’t wrong. Or not exactly.
My starting impressions were correct, but limited. Of course limited. As I researched, I found greater complexity to each of these fascinating women, who’s lives were long — Aileen lived to be 95 — and complicated: eight husbands, thirteen children, many tragedies.
Stories about the girls tend to focus on their looks. They were beautiful, it’s true, with very distinctive colouring; such that director John Huston called them “witches — lovely ones to be sure. They are all transparent-skinned, with pale hair and light blue eyes.” But equally responsible for the fascination surrounding them, frankly, was how rich they were.
Guinness money was ‘proper’ money: as solid and visible as the St James’ Gate factory embossed with the iconic golden harp. This was the frame with which Aileen, Maureen and Oonagh emerged onto London society in the early 1920s; their beauty was praised openly, but it was their wealth that was whispered about.
The girls had grown up mostly in Dublin, living at a house called Glenmaroon in Castleknock until 1923. By then, the fighting that had begun with the Irish War of Independence had intensified in the Civil War that followed. Several of their friends and relatives had been burned out of their homes, including a cousin, Henry Guinness.
Ernest decided it was time to move, and took the girls and his wife, Cloe, on a round-the- world yacht trip, and then to London, where the girls were brought out. Those were the dying days of the London Season, already beginning to look hopelessly anachronistic, although it struggled on until the late 1950s.
This was a time of huge social change, particularly where the lives of women were concerned. Trends for greater independence and opportunity — along with the right to vote — that had begun in the late 1800s were massively accelerated by the First World War. There was a new generation of female artists, photographers, and professionals, while the First World War saw women propelled into the workforce, giving them access to previously male-dominated professional and political situations.
This was the era of the ‘progressive woman’, a far cry from the demure, frail stereotype of the late Victorian woman. The new women had short hair and short skirts, they smoked, danced in public, got jobs and threw off the suffocating need to be chaperoned.
The Guinness girls might have looked progressive — the short hair, short skirts, smoking and dancing were very much their thing, and they were fixtures in the gossip columns of the time for their outrageous and novel antics. But they weren’t much interested in the battle for equal rights, or career opportunities.
Perhaps they didn’t need to be? All three inherited £1 million on their marriages, the equivalent of roughly £64 million today. Aileen was first, marrying the Hon Brinsley Sheridan Plunket in 1927. Oonagh was next — aged just 19 in 1929, she married Philip Kindersely — and Maureen, last, in 1930, to Basil Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 4th Marquess of Dufferin and Ava.
Aileen was given Luttrelstown Castle and Oonagh was given Luggala, as wedding gifts.
Maureen, through marriage to Blackwood, gained Clandeboy, a vast estate in Co Down.
None of them was much for estate management, however. Luttrelstown and Luggala are both fairly small, by the standards of such things — perfect party houses; Luttrelstown has 12 bedrooms, Luggala a boutique seven (during the party years, Oonagh’s artistic and bohemian guests were perfectly happy to sleep on sofas or mattresses) — but without the vast acreage and crumbling wings that makes owning such estates a job in itself.
In marriage — and through their subsequent marriages — the Guinness girls showed themselves to be just as anachronistic as in their single days. They were elegant and generous hostesses, but they were content to be muses, and patrons, rather than doing or creating themselves (although Maureen did ultimately become the first woman to sit on the trustees board of Guinness).
Aileen threw herself into social life in Ireland, giving parties at Luttrelstown Castle, where she gathered a jet-set crew of movie stars, society heiresses and international playboys. Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks Jnr was a guest, so was Fruity Metcalfe, best man at the marriage of the Duke of Windsor to Wallis Simpson. In the mid 1930s, Aileen had an affair with Austrian playboy Baron Hubert von Pantz, who also had an affair with Coco Chanel, and later married Yugoslavian-born American interior designer Valerian Stux-Rybar, known as the “world's most expensive decorator”.
Maureen made a virtue of snobbery, conducting a life-long obsession with royalty and in particular the Queen Mother. Unlike her sisters, she spent most of her time in London.
She was the most vigorous and energetic of the Guinness girls, with a lively if crass sense of humour and a love of practical jokes.
Maureen may have been energetic and given to amusement, but she could also be cruel — her daughter, Caroline Blackwood, once said of her childhood that it was too painful to talk about.
Oonagh was the sweetest of the three, and the most maternal. She also suffered the most tragedy. She had two children with Philip Kindersley — Gay and Tessa, who died age 14, after a diphtheria injection. Gay was the subject of a long and bitter custody battle, which Oonagh eventually lost.
After Philip, she married Dominick Browne, 4th Baron Oranmore and Browne, with whom she had three more children — one, named only as Infant Browne, died after two days. In 1966, her son Tara died aged 21 in a car crash (and was the inspiration for the Beatles song A Day In The Life). Both are buried at Luggala.
Oonagh divorced Dominic also, and then married a Cuban dress designer called Miguel Ferreras, who later turned out to be a former Spanish fascist who had served with the German SS, and had then taken the name of a friend's deceased brother and reinvented himself. The marriage was dissolved in 1965, and Oonagh reverted to the title Lady Oranmore and Browne.
All three of the Guinness girls were extravagant, and, in the case of Aileen and Oonagh, both married men who were even more so (before she divorced him, Ferreras spent heaps of Oonagh’s money on his couture business, while Aileen divorced Stux-Rybar in 1965 because he had become "an extravagance even she could not afford"). Maureen, by the end of her life, worried obsessively about money, once accusing her butler of stealing from her. What was he supposed to have stolen, she was asked? ‘Windfall apples.’
The Guinness girls were glorious fun, and, if not useful members of society, certainly ornamental ones. Trying to accommodate the full range of their personalities, rather than the one-word caricatures — Scary, Sweet, Snooty — has been one of the most interesting parts of researching and writing The Glorious Guinness Girls.
- 'The Glorious Guinness Girls' by Emily Hourican is out now published by Hachette