Book review: Sheila: The Australian Ingenue Who Bewitched British Society

Sheila Chisholm is captured in an early colour portrait, in 1935. Picture: Madame Yevonde
Sheila Chisholm is captured in an early colour portrait, in 1935. Picture: Madame Yevonde
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The Aussie ‘It’ girl who flirted with a future king doesn’t receive her due in a new biography, discovers Lee Randall

SHE was the gorgeous Australian commoner who married a succession of titled men, had an affair with the Queen’s father, and moved in high society. Rudolph Valentino kept her photograph of her by his bedside; Vincent Astor pursued her; and Cecil Beaton photographed her and painted her portrait. Sheila Chisholm was an enduring “It” girl in an era when personality, as much as beauty, cemented a woman’s reputation for glamour.

Born in 1895, on a sheep and horse station in southern New South Wales, she and her mother headed to Europe in 1914, arriving in London just before the outbreak of war. By December, they were in Egypt, where her brother was in an army hospital at which they became volunteer nurses. There she met Lord Loughborough, a young sub-lieutenant who was the eldest son of Earl of Rosslyn. When they married a year later, the News of the World, rejoiced, saying that it marked a new trend toward “keeping it within the Commonwealth.”

Though “Luffy”, a godson to Edward VII, was handsome and great company, his addiction to gambling and booze put the marriage in jeopardy from the start. Sheila was embraced by high society, feted for her good looks, good spirits, and good works. Friends included Diana Manners (later Diana Cooper) and Freda, Mrs Dudley Ward, whose affair with the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) lasted for 15 years. Through Freda, Sheila met Albert, Edward’s shy, stammering younger brother. The two couples became known as the “4 Dos”, attending the theatre, private dinners, and balls together. Yet despite her affair, Sheila hadn’t given up on her marriage and she and Luffy made several trips abroad in a failed attempt to rekindle it.

By 1920, the king offered to make Albert the Duke of York provided he heard no more about Sheila. Albert was soon courting Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, and it’s a testament to Sheila that she befriended the future queen while managing, somehow, to also remain close friends not only with Freda, but eventually with Wallis Simpson.

In the wings waited baronet John “Buffles” Milbanke, whom she’d known since 1923. Sheila found Milbanke annoying yet attractive, and chose to marry him rather than richer suitors such as Vincent Astor. “I married all my husbands for love,” she once said. “I certainly didn’t care about titles, and none of them had any money.”

Having won custody of her two sons, now aged seven and nine, she got married for the second time in November 1928. Throughout the 1930s her celebrity remained constant. The papers breathlessly reported on her clothes and beauty regimens, her outings and her at-homes. She sat with Cole Porter while he composed, and in the royal box for the opening of Noel Coward’s Cavalcade. She made a friend of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, and the dancing Astaire siblings were at all her parties.

Her second marriage trundled along listlessly, often in absentia. During the Second World War her husband and sons joined up while she returned to nursing, working in the maternity wing of a Sussex hospital. It was there that Buffles found her to deliver the news that her younger son Peter, just shy his 21st birthday, had been killed in a training accident. Shortly after the end of the war, Buffles himself died, aged 45, in a car crash. Her remaining son Tony commissioned a commemorative stained glass window in his stepfather’s honour.

In 1948 Sheila bought shares in a travel agency and ran it from a desk at Fortnum & Mason. Milbanke Travel thrived and in 1967 she sold her share – now worth millions – to Forte Trust.

By then, she had been married for 13 years to Prince Dmitri Romanoff, a nephew of the last tsar. It was a companionable and happy marriage. “The house always smelled like French cigarettes,” Dmitri’s niece recalled. “They were just over the top – all these glamorous people behaving… as if time had stood still and they were still in the 1920s and 30s.”

Sheila died in 1969 and her ashes were spread in the grounds at Rosslyn Chapel. Her son commissioned another stained-glass window, situated in the chapel’s baptistery. It contains a kangaroo.

What a life she had. Yet this biography lacks the stardust and shimmer that surely clung to its subject like a second skin. Lots of people spoke of her warm and personal conversational style, and ability to make friends feel cherished. While I applaud the biographer’s decision not to speculate or invent, I can’t help wishing Sheila had been commemorated with more elegance and élan.