Today (February 21) in London History – let’s meet a great London eccentric

This Today in London History podcast marks the birthday of a great Anglo-American eccentric, Mayfair-born Miss Dorothy Paget.


London does a lot of things better than anywhere else.

Including eccentricity and eccentrics.

So this one’s the start of a two-day crash course in London eccentrics.

It’s their birthday.

First one is Dorothy Paget. She was born on this day – February 21st – 1905. She was born in Mayfair, at 32 Green Street. 

And instanta we come to one of those London Walks pain au chocolate moments. The chocolate is our main subject, Dorothy Paget and her eccentricities. But the pain is almost equally good. The pain is Dorothy’s address: 32 Green Street. If I were out guiding this – and Green Street does get guided on a couple of London Walks – I’d stop before the house, say something like, “and just here, this house, No. 32, was the birthplace of one of the most extraordinary characters in the London hit parade. And that’s just for starters. You’re off to the races with the whole street. For example, Ian Fleming, James Bond’s creator, was born just over there, a couple of doors along, at No. 27. Justin brings people here on his “Bond, James Bond”– the London of 007 and Ian Fleming walk.

Dorothy and Ian Fleming were near contemporaries – Dorothy was born in 1905, Ian Fleming in 1908. You can’t help but wonder did they meet in their prams? Easy to imagine four-year-old Dorothy Paget giving 1-year-old Ian Fleming the evil eye.

And then, further along – at Number 57 Green Street – we’ve got the Beatles. They lived there, the four of them, in the summer of 1963. That was the only time they all lived together under the same roof. Richard talks about it on one of his Beatles Virtual Tours.

Nor does Dorothy Paget 32 Green Street all to herself. The house was built for Thomas Lister, the 4th Baron Ribblesdale. His magnificent – and deservedly famous – portrait by John Singer Sargent doesn’t just epitomise the British aristocrat – it captures the spirit of the age. It’s one of the National Gallery’s great treasures. The casual elegance of Ribblesdale exudes the confidence of the English aristocracy in its heyday before the Great War. Were I guiding the walk at this point I’d whip out my poster-large reproduction of the portrait and say, “as long as we’re in front of his house, here’s the man himself.” And wheels within wheels, because our main subject – Dorothy Paget – her thing was horse racing. And while the Baron was a politician, it was riding rather than politics that dominated his life. He was best known to his contemporaries as a great huntsman. And indeed, in the portrait, he’s wearing his hunting clothes. It ran in the family, riding to the hounds. Ribblesdale’s father had been a devotee of the turf and in straitened circumstances – the turf’s an expensive hobby – had taken his family to live in France. That’s where the fourth Baron was born. The Baron himself said a spell abroad was “a method of reconstruction often adopted in those days by families and single gentlemen who had outrun the constable.” Or as Robert Burton put it, “galloped themselves out of their fortunes.”

Anyway, so much for No. 32’s previous occupant. What about the house itself? On the other side of that door: 27 rooms! That’s how the super-rich lived. It’s how they still live.

That’s where our main subject Dorothy Paget – the shockingly wealthy London eccentric Miss Dorothy Paget – got her start.

The meat and potatoes stuff about Dorothy is that she was one of British horse racing’s wealthiest owners. She was an owner-breeder. Had her own stud farm. When she died she had over 30 horses in training for the flat, 10 jumpers and nearly 100 horses including mares and young stock in Ireland. Pretty well sums it up, doesn’t it – especially when you consider how expensive it is to keep just one horse. 

Dorothy Paget was the daughter of one of the wealthiest American families – the Whitneys – and of an English peer, Lord Queensborough. And in case you’re wondering, yes, you put two and two together – the Whitney Museum in New York is the right connection. The famous museum was founded by the fabulously wealthy Gloria Vanderbilt who married into the fabulously wealthy Whitney family. Dorothy Paget’s particular interests in life – first, motor racing and then the turf – were enabled, shall we say, by that same Whitney mother lode.

But let’s get to the good gossipy stuff – the eccentric stuff.

It’ll come as no surprise that Dorothy Paget was spoiled rotten as a child. And since the child is usually the mother of the woman, she was domineering and abominably rude as an adult. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. One consequence of Dorothy Paget the child being spoiled rotten was that she regularly came a cropper academically. She was expelled from six schools. Finished her formal education in Paris at an establishment run by Princess Meshchersky, a Russian emigree.

Not that academic success mattered in the least given the Atlas-size financial booster rockets the accident of birth had fitted Dorothy with.

Large fortune, large appetites.

Before she was done Miss Paget – as she was always referred to – weighed twenty stone. And here we go, here’s the eccentricity checklist. Miss Paget had an aversion to the colour green – as one does. She also had an aversion to men. That’s been known to happen as well. She claimed she was sometimes physically sick in the presence of men. Guess what – Miss Paget never married.

That said, she wasn’t physically sick in the presence of males when they were on four legs and won the Grand National. As her horse Golden Miller – the most brilliant chaser of all time – did in 1934. She kissed him in the Winner’s Circle. Golden Miller was the first male she’d ever kissed. Though people were quick to point out that he was a gelding. 

What else? She had a staff of 14. She referred to them by a colour code. Communicated with them by memoranda.

She said she hated meeting people and hated being alone. Oh dear.

Anyway, there was never any danger of Miss Paget meeting people when she took a railway journey. 

Every train journey she took she hired a whole compartment to insure her privacy. She always took two seats at Wimbledon or at the theatre – one for herself and one for her handbag. Given her marked aversion to the colour green you have to wonder how she coped with Wimbledon. She smoked a hundred cigarettes a day. She spent a fortune on horses and another fortune on gambling on horses. Basically, she bet – and mostly lost – huge sums every day. She once wagered £160,000 to win £20,000. That one was a successful bet – most of them weren’t. The gambling losses were on top of the £3 million her sojourn on the turf cost her. She was superstitious. That’s par for the course for a lot of gamblers.

She was domineering. She was abominably rude. 

Finally, her politics. She described herself as an ardent Conservative “because I dislike being ruled by the lower classes.”

She died in her sleep at age 54. Was hers a fortune well spent? A life well spent? Well, I leave that to you to mull over. All I know is what I think.

Ok, time’s up for standing in front of the portrait of Mayfair-born Miss Dorothy Paget, London eccentric. We’ve got another portrait of a London eccentric to look at tomorrow. A very different kettle of fish, Stanley is.

Isn’t it fun, meeting people. Poor Miss Paget – she didn’t know what she was missing – “I hate meeting people.” Though actually she did know what she was missing – “I hate being alone.”

Anyway, That’s all from London. See you tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *