The name “Sheila”, as any Australian can tell you, is used as a generic term for a woman – once applied plainly, now rarely without an ironising overtone. But the Australian who shares her name with a new biography by Robert Wainwright was far from an everywoman. Her life was exemplary neither of her background nor of the between-the-wars beau monde in which she later found herself. However the unlikely conjunction of the two offers a valuable view of a vanished milieu from one who was at once insider and outsider.
Sheila Chisholm was born on a New South Wales estate in 1895, her father a grazier, her great-grandfather having arrived (a free man) in the first years of white settlement. This pedigree meant the Chisholms were as close to aristocracy as colonial society could offer. But the pull of what many still referred to as “the Old Country” didn’t magically dissipate when Australia became an independent country in 1901. Once World War One began it was this pull which sent many young men to distant battlegrounds to fight alongside the British, Sheila’s brother Jack among them.
In 1915 he joined the great stunned caravanserai of casualties streaming from Ottoman theatres of war into Cairo where, after a brief taster of London life, Sheila and her mother also arrived. In staging morale boosting functions for the troops, Sheila discovered a gift for organising events and generating excitement for them. She also discovered a certain Lord Loughborough, wounded at Gallipoli, in the hospital bed adjacent to her brother’s. Before the year was out the British peer would be Sheila’s husband.
To the union she provided two boys, he little but trouble. Once described as “the wildest man in London”, Loughborough was an incorrigible gambler. His father Earl Rosslyn, himself a high roller in his day, understood the force of the addiction only too well and took out an advertisement in The Times warning potential moneylenders that he would not honour his son’s debts, which continued to mount nonetheless.
But Sheila wasn’t just drumming her fingers at home while she waited up for “Luffy”. Beautiful, game for a laugh, undemanding and sufficiently apprised of etiquette to assure her hosts that she wouldn’t mistakenly bayonet her gooseberry fool with her mullion fork, she marshalled these qualities and – with no great evident ambition – found herself at the peak of society. She formed part of a foursome along with her friend Freda Dudley Ward and their respective beaux, who just happened to be the princes Albert and David (the Prince of Wales), second and first in line to the British throne. Sheila’s activities were exhaustively documented by society columns, and she was a sought-after hostess of charity events.
Sheila arrived in capital “S” Society at the point when the generation brought to premature maturity by the First World War returned to childish things with renewed vigour. The Bright Young People (with whom Sheila crossed paths) toddled, babbled and gurgled their way across London’s clubland. Though largely at arm’s length from their revels, their spiritual leader was the emotionally stunted Prince of Wales. Wainwright makes extensive use of his correspondence throughout the book; at one stage the prince enquires of Freda if she isn’t “thulky” because his letter has dwelt too long on another woman (this marked the point, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, at which Stwange Fwowers fwowed up).
A photo reproduced in the book shows Sheila slouching, smoking, exhibiting a socially permissible level of ennui between the two future kings. It was a long way from Wollogorang, but Sheila’s unpublished memoirs, which are quoted throughout the book, betray little of the clamour around her. There is nothing to indicate, for instance, that she was famous enough to promote beauty products – a very modern exploitation of a nebulous type of fame (in fact she was so sought-after that her cook appeared in an advertisement for ovens.) She shared this new world of renown with notables from across the Atlantic; Sheila club-hopped in London with the likes of Rudolph Valentino, Charles Lindbergh and Sophie Tucker and visited the US frequently.
Curiously there was little apparent disapproval of Sheila’s intimacy with her princely paramour; it was in fact Luffy’s gambling which finally wrecked the marriage. A brilliant vignette has Sheila arriving for divorce proceedings in 1926 wearing her dowdiest outfit, a picture of put-upon woe, before peeling off a glove to swear on the Bible only to recoil as she spies the red nailpolish she had neglected to remove. Her next marriage would prove more successful. Sir John Milbanke may have been another peer (a baronet) but it seems unlikely that Sheila was trophy hunting; she certainly rejected far wealthier suitors. Milbanke, however, died in a car accident in 1947 (Sheila also lost a son in the first days of the Second World War). She assuaged her anguish with a personal motto of “head high, walk very tall” and turned her hand to a successful travel business, exhibiting the same skill for throwing together a good time as she had at her pre-war social peak.
The gentle summation of all this public glitter and private sorrow came with Sheila’s third marriage, to Prince Dimitri – nephew of the last Tsar – in 1954. They had met years earlier at the London home of the prince’s brother-in-law, cross-dressing assassin Felix Yusupov, but it was only well after the Second World War, and at the urging of their mutual friend the Duchess of Windsor, that they joined forces. Sheila and Dimitri were survivors of a vanished world, coming together like a pair of long-forgotten synth acts on the bill of an ’80s revival concert. Sheila Chisholm died in London, as Princess Dimitri Romanoff, in 1969.
Wainwright largely eschews the narrative reconstruction style common to this type of biography (“Sheila put out her 14th cigarette of the day and inspected her freshly curled hair in the mirror. Why hadn’t the prince called?”…that kind of thing). Which is all for the best, but our Sheila sometimes gets lost in the crowd, an elusive presence at a seemingly limitless list of parties; “all that succession and repetition of massed humanity” in the words of Evelyn Waugh (who in fact was a friend of Sheila’s; she inspired him to write about Forest Lawn Cemetery in The Loved One). She is difficult to either like or dislike, but in the end that’s probably not the point; the reader is invited to look out over a sparkling moment of heedless high society high living, marvel at it and, like the book’s subject, move on.
Sheila: The Australian ingenue who bewitched British society | Robert Wainwright | Allen & Unwin | on Amazon