Obituary: Dowager Lady Killearn, diplomatic hostess

The Dowager Lady Killearn with her husband, photographed by Cecil Beaton. Picture: Wiki Commons
The Dowager Lady Killearn with her husband, photographed by Cecil Beaton. Picture: Wiki Commons
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Born: 13 January, 1910, in Ceylon. Died: 9 October, 2015, London, aged 105.

The Dowager Lady Killearn was the glamourous and vivacious wife of Britain’s wartime ambassador in Cairo, who rose to the pinnacle of society during the Second World War, entertaining the great and the good from around the world and witnessing some notable moments in 20th-century history.

With a gift of being able to talk to everyone, characteristics that never left her, during the war she hosted tea parties for 3,000 wounded British soldiers and was made an honorary colonel. She also organised charity events to fund raise for the Red Cross, St John Ambulance and the YWCA, which she founded, while securing housing and Nile boats for the convalescence of British troops from well-wishers.

Born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1910, Jacqueline Aldine Leslie Castellani was the only child of Italian doctor, Sir Aldo Castellani, who was researching tropical diseases, having made his name in Africa after discovering the parasite that causes sleeping sickness. He subsequently established a Harley St practice and founded the International Society of Dermatology.

Enjoying a privileged childhood, Jacqueline spent much time in Ceylon, London and Rome, where she was “adopted” during school holidays by British ambassador Sir Ronald Graham, one of her father’s closest friends. In term time, she lived with her mother, Josephine, in Harley St and was schooled at nearby Queen’s College.

In 1930 she was presented at Court in London, and with her vivacity and stunning looks was one of the outstanding debutantes of her year. She made a number of friends including Betty Lampson, niece of Sir Miles Lampson, Britain’s High Commissioner in Cairo and formerly Minister to Peking; he had suddenly lost his wife to meningitis.

In June 1934 the girls went on holiday to Egypt and stayed at Lampson’s residence. He was immediately smitten by Jacqueline and, despite a 30-year age gap, romance blossomed and they married in December in London, that year.

On returning to Egypt, Lampson was appointed ambassador soon after in 1936, while Jacqueline carried out her duties and slipped into the role of diplomatic hostess with aplomb, presiding over glittering social occasions on the embassy lawns. Their three children were born in Cairo.

The Lampsons entertained countless celebrities and also enjoyed invitations to Buckingham Palace with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and to Balmoral when their hosts had to return to London to learn the outcome of Neville Chamberlain’s meeting with Adolf Hitler.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Egypt, and particularly the port of Alexandria, became a focal point, lying as it did between Africa and the Middle East. As Greece and the Balkans were over-run and General Rommel made inroads in the Western Desert, tens of thousands of wounded poured into the country. In order to help, Jacqueline trained as a nurse and became president of the local Red Cross raising funds and hosting charity events.

With Italy’s entry into the war, Lampson interned all Italians, causing friction between Egypt’s teenage monarch, King Farouk, who had a number of close friends of Italian descent. In retaliation, at palace events he took to stepping on Jacqueline’s toes when they danced together. Lampson was later infuriated when, having asked Farouk to sack his Italian advisers and court favourites, the king replied: “I’ll get rid of my Italians when you get rid of yours,” in a reference to Jacqueline’s ancestry.

The Lampsons entertained Winston Churchill on four occasions. Other notable visitors during his stay were President Roosevelt’s son Kermit and Generals Alexander, de Gaulle, Montgomery, Smuts and Spears. A photograph of Churchill, in open-necked shirt, in the embassy grounds holding the Lampson’s eldest son, Victor, featured on the cover of Time magazine shortly before the battle of El Alamein, late 1942.

In 1943, Jacqueline and Sir Miles, who was raised to the peerage as Lord Killearn, made dining and accommodation preparations for the Cairo Conference attended by President Roosevelt, Churchill and Chinese leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, at which the Allies agreed the continued deployment of military force in the Far East until Japan’s unconditional surrender.

Other wartime visitors included the Shah of Iran, Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton and Noël Coward, from whom the Killearns heard the first performance of Don’t Let’s be Beastly to the Germans. Post-war, Lord Killearn spent two years as special commissioner for South-east Asia working closely with Lord Mountbatten, improving the distribution of aid and the rebuilding of infrastructure, before retiring to the House of Lords and stalking deer in Scotland.

While keeping their Harley Street home, they bought Haremere Hall, a 17th-century house with 140 acres in East Sussex, where Jacqueline failed to endear herself to neighbours by starting a duck farm and allowing sheep and ponies to amble through the rooms. She said, “You know what villagers are with their suburban attitudes…I’m ignoring the protests.”

Following the death of her husband in 1964, Lady Killearn caused some consternation when she embarked on a relationship with Robert Hay, who was several decades her junior and a former boyfriend of her daughter, Bunty. She also gained notoriety for her flamboyant annual birthday parties in London. At one, disaster was narrowly averted when Princess Aly Khan’s hair caught on fire, only to be extinguished with a glass of Champagne.

Over the years, their friendship took a more business-like footing with Hay helping Lady Killearn establish new business ventures. However, while she enjoyed the company of her daughters, this relationship caused strain with her son, culminating in him taking legal action in 2011 to prevent her selling Haremere at a knock-down price. She wanted to raise funds to enable her to “live with dignity” in her later years. The house was eventually sold earlier this year to a friend of Hay.

In 2008, Lady Killearn became embroiled in a humiliating public spat with former Italian butler, Paolo Sclarandis, who took the dowager to an employment tribunal, claiming unfair dismissal, and accused her of treating him like a “slave”. He even claimed she threw walking sticks at him. Although the panel ruled in the butler’s favour, he was only awarded £1,200.

With boundless energy, in her 80s, she learned Scottish dancing, although her true age remained a mystery until she celebrated her centenary in 2010. She is survived by her three children.