Guinness, Oonagh (1910–95), socialite, was born 22 February 1910 in London, third daughter of Ernest Guinness (1876–1949), second son of the 1st earl of Iveagh (qv), and a chairman of the board of Guinness, and his wife, Marie Clotilde (1880–1953), daughter of Sir George Russell, 4th baronet, of Swallowfield. She was brought up with her sisters at Glenmaroon, a luxurious Edwardian house near Chapelizod, Co. Dublin, which had its own cinema and an indoor pool. In 1919 the family moved to England because of the Troubles, and lived in their Holmbury estate in Surrey, and at 17 Grosvenor Place, London (later the Irish embassy). Their father's passion was yachting and in 1923 he took his family round the world on a year-long cruise, but his daughters later complained that their upbringing, though privileged, was loveless. Oonagh was the third of the sisters to be launched into society, where their looks, wealth, and mischievous charm made them media darlings. Before his death their father settled £1 million on each of his daughters, while the Guinness Trust, set up by her grandfather for his descendants, was reportedly worth £200 million in 1945. Petite, blonde, and elfin, they were known collectively as the ‘Fabulous [or ‘Golden'] Guinness girls’. The director John Huston (qv), who knew them later, wrote: ‘The sisters are all witches – lovely ones to be sure. They are all transparent-skinned, with pale hair and light blue eyes. You can very nearly see through them. They are quite capable of changing swinish folk into real swine before your very own eyes’ (Huston, 248). All three were noted hostesses but restless in love; between them they clocked up eight marriages.
Oonagh married first (24 June 1929) the Hon. Philip Kindersley (1907–95), second son of 1st Baron Kindersley. They had two children but divorced seven years later; she immediately married (29 April 1936) Dominick Geoffrey Browne, 4th Baron Oranmore and Browne (1901–2002). His estate was Castle McGarrett in Co. Mayo, but Oonagh preferred to spend her time in Luggala, the Co. Wicklow house which was a present from her father. Built in 1790 as a ‘cottage mansion’ in a style described as gingerbread Gothic, Luggala, complete with trefoil and quatrefoil windows and miniature battlements, was tucked into the mountains near Roundwood, with a lake before it and a waterfall behind. Huston credited the enchanting view with persuading him to move to Ireland. For two decades, from the 1940s through to the 1960s, it saw some of the most glamorous house parties in Ireland. Oonagh delighted in artists and bohemians, and Sean O'Casey (qv), Claud Cockburn, Lord Dunsany (qv), Robert Kee, and John Hurt were all guests while Brendan Behan (qv) was an habitué from 1955 until his death. Oonagh chronicled his successes in the large leather-bound albums where she kept press cuttings of her family. He regularly boasted of this connection, remarking that the ‘Guinnesses have been good to the people of Dublin but then the people of Dublin have been good to the Guinnesses’ (O'Sullivan, 196). The parties were high-spirited and informal, attended by Oonagh's children and presided over by the shy, ethereal hostess. At them, according to Behan, ‘You may say whatever you like so long as you don't take too long about it and it's said wittily’ (ibid., 197). The butler, Patrick Cummins, was an unflappable, idiosyncratic character, likened to Jeeves. He would apparently invite those guests he preferred without informing his tolerant mistress.
Her second marriage ended in 1950 and seven years later she married, thirdly, Miguel Ferraras, a Cuban couturier, who managed to run through a large amount of her considerable wealth. She had a jet-setting lifestyle, dividing her time between Ireland, London, Paris, and Venice, but Christmases were always spent at Luggala. In Paris she ran a couture business with Ferraras, befriended Samuel Beckett (qv), and directed a theatre company. Ferraras was possibly gay, certainly extravagant, and an impostor. When Oonagh discovered that he was José Marias Ozores Laredo, a former Spanish fascist who had served with the German SS and had taken the name of a friend's deceased brother, she had her marriage dissolved in 1965 on the grounds that ‘Ferraras’ was legally dead, and reverted to the title Lady Oranmore and Browne .
Known in her twenties as ‘London's oldest teenager’ because of her childish manner, Oonagh had a fondness for children that amounted to an addiction, possibly because of the tragedies that befell her own. During the war she lost custody of her son Gay Kindersley to his paternal grandfather. Her only daughter, Tessa Kindersley, died in 1946 aged 14, after a diphtheria injection. Her youngest son from her second marriage, Tara Browne, good-looking, charismatic, and a noted figure in Sixties London, was killed in a car crash in 1966, aged 21, and commemorated in the Beatles song ‘A day in the life’. Custody of his two children from a failed marriage was awarded to Oonagh despite their mother's well publicised attempts to get them back. With Ferraras she adopted two Mexican children, for whose custody she had also to fight. After her third divorce she spent most of her time in Antibes, where she bought a villa and surrounded herself with her children, dogs, and continuing streams of guests. Later she moved to Switzerland. After settling much of her fortune on her children, she became a tax exile in Guernsey. Eventually at the end of her life she returned to Wicklow, where she died on 2 August 1995. Gay Kindersley became a noted amateur jockey and trainer, while her other son, Garech Browne, renamed himself Garech de Brún, took over Luggala, was a promoter of Irish language and poetry and owned the record label that launched the Chieftains.
Her elder sister, Maureen Constance Guinness (1907–98), countess of Dufferin and Ava , socialite and charity worker, was born on 31 January 1907. After finishing school in Paris, she was launched in society in 1925 and was the most flamboyant, extrovert, and photographed of the sisters. Five years later, on 3 July 1930, she married Basil Sheridan Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood (1909–45), eldest son of the 3rd marquess of Dufferin and Ava and, in the Guinness tradition of internecine marriages, her cousin. While the couple were on honeymoon in Burma, Basil's father died in a plane crash, leaving him to inherit, at the age of 21, the title and estate of Clandeboye, near Belfast. He and Maureen divided their time between Clandeboye and London, where they acquired a house at 4 Hans Crescent, Knightsbridge. Maureen far preferred town but, like her sisters, enjoyed acting as hostess for large parties in her country house, where guests were treated to her practical jokes. These included dressing up as a slatternly maid and getting a young policeman to dress up as a girl and challenge American guests to tennis. The poet John Betjeman, a good friend of her husband, complained that these parties were ‘pretty good hell’ (Betjeman, Letters, 76).
Her husband was a brilliant politician who was successively secretary of state for war (1935), lord privy seal (1935–6), and parliamentary under-secretary for the colonies (1937–40), but whose career was blighted by alcoholism. He signed up for service during the second world war and was killed in 1945 in the campaign to drive the Japanese from Burma, leaving three children. His death seemed painfully ironic since his grandfather, the 1st marquess of Dufferin and Ava (qv), had, as viceroy of India, declared war on Burma and annexed it for Britain. He left an estate heavily mortgaged to pay off gambling debts, which Maureen's money redeemed. Always financially shrewd, she bought the estate for £192,000 and created the Clandeboye estate company along the lines of the Iveagh trust, which had been set up by her grandfather to protect the Guinness fortune. Three years after her first husband's death she married (14 September 1948) the much younger Maj. Desmond Buchanan , an antiques dealer and former army officer. The marriage was short-lived and childless, ending in divorce in 1954, after which she married (20 August 1955) Judge John Cyril Maude (1901–86). This marriage survived, though after a number of years husband and wife lived largely apart. She continued to use her title from her first marriage.
Sporting her diamanté-encrusted horn-rimmed glasses, Maureen was known for her idiosyncratic sense of fashion, and apparently provided the inspiration for Osbert Lancaster's creation ‘Maudie Littlehampton’ in the Daily Express and for the comedian Barry Humphries’ character, ‘Dame Edna Everage’. However she had interests beyond fashion and society: in 1949, on the death of her father, she and a cousin became the first women ever to sit on the board of the brewery. Later she devoted herself to charitable works. Between 1958 and 1965 she raised £50,000 for building the Horder centre for arthritics, for which she donated thirty acres of land in Sussex as a site. A disagreement subsequently caused her to stand down from this committee, but she later opened a holiday home for arthritics on her Kent estate, known as Maureen's Oast House.
Her time in Clandeboye came to an end in 1966 when she presented the house and estate to her only son, Sheridan, on his marriage to his cousin, Serena Guinness. Her settlements on her children were generous – including an annuity of £17,000 when they came of age – but, unlike Oonagh, she was not maternal. Her youngest daughter, the writer Caroline Blackwood (qv) once said her childhood was too painful to talk of, while her eldest, Perdita, observed that her mother's conversation was all about her glory years as the toast of London society. Others outside her family characterised her as vain and difficult. The art critic John Richardson called her ‘grotesque and amazing and rather fascinating’ (Schoenberger, 40). In 1995 her efforts to pass assets worth £15 million directly to her two grandchildren were contested by her daughters and daughter-in-law but upheld by the court, after protracted litigation. She died in London on 3 May 1998.
Her eldest sister Aileen Sibell Mary Guinness (1904–99), socialite, was born on 16 May 1904. After being the toast of London for a few seasons, she married (16 November 1927) the Hon. Brinsley Sheridan Bushe Plunket (1903–41), second son of the 5th Baron Plunket and, in Guinness tradition, her cousin. As a younger son, he had no property so Aileen's father presented them with Luttrellstown Castle, Clonsilla, Co. Dublin, an estate bordering the Iveagh family seat of Farmleigh. The large crenellated eighteenth-century castle, in 600 acres of parkland, had been acquired from Henry Luttrell (qv), 2nd Earl Carhampton, and rebuilt in 1799 by the millionaire bookseller Luke White (qv). Under Aileen it became one of the most beautiful and luxurious houses in Ireland. She hired the designer Felix de Wit, who replaced a nineteenth-century Tudor banqueting hall with a dining room in eighteenth-century style, and created an Adamesque drawing room with paintings by Peter de Gree. He transformed the staircase hall with a painted ceiling by Sir James Thornhill (1675/6–1734). The beautiful pictures, tapestries, carpets, and furniture that Aileen bought included paintings by Stubbs and Vernet and a commode from Louis XV's bedroom at Fontainebleau. Her collector's foible was not owls like Maureen, nor china figurines like Oonagh, but frogs in every form: china, crystal, fabric. Like her sisters, Aileen used her house as a setting for large, informal, high-spirited parties. Her taste in guests ran to glamorous international jet-setters, rather than the bohemian Irish artists favoured by Oonagh. The Aga Khan, Ursula Andress, Jean Paul Belmondo, Douglas Fairbanks, Lord Beaverbrook, and the maharanee of Jaipur were all visitors. The duchess of Windsor was a close friend. The unconventional gatherings included fancy dress parties, swimming parties, drag parties, and a floor party (in which everyone sat and ate on the floor); in the 1960s she invited a black American dance instructor to teach her guests how to twist. A nightclub was fitted out in the basement. An exacting hostess, she objected to anyone retiring early (before 5 a.m.). She herself was indefatigable despite having only one kidney. Guests were also subject to her prankish sense of humour, a trait she shared with Maureen. These jokes included bowls of artificial vomit placed by beds and a realistic stuffed dummy ‘asleep’ between the sheets. However, at 11 next morning a footman in livery would appear in the guests’ bedrooms with a ‘pink special’ (Aileen's name for a Bloody Mary) to aid recovery. At the behest of the Irish government, she presided over more formal gatherings, helping to entertain official visitors, as Luttrellstown was both suitably lavish and conveniently situated. Deeply fashion-conscious, she was known for her cupboards of shoes and for flying to Paris from Dublin to have her hair done. Finding it impossible to get flowers in Ireland, she had bouquets flown in from Paris for her Luttrellstown parties.
Her first marriage ended in divorce in 1940 and her former husband was killed the following year in the war. They had three daughters; one died aged three and the other two were largely brought up by her sisters, as Aileen spent increasing amounts of time in New York. She married secondly (19 December 1956) Valerian Stux-Rybar (c.1918–1990), a Yugoslavian interior decorator who, like Oonagh's third husband, was homosexual and extravagant and ran through a large amount of his wife's wealth before they divorced in 1965. Like her sisters, Aileen then resumed her title from her first marriage. Later in life she became worried about money; Luttrellstown had eighteen indoor staff and was expensive to run. In 1983 she was prevailed on by the Guinness Trust to sell it, along with its contents. This three-day sale, arranged by Christie's, poignantly marked the end of an era. Everything was sold, including the picnic baskets. The Louis XV commode fetched £64,000. Thereafter Aileen lived in London, at Bishop's Stortford in Hertfordshire, and at Ballyconneely in Connemara, where she continued to entertain from her ‘cottage’ (which slept twenty). Her butler, Jerry Higgins, who had been with her for forty-six years, looked after her until her death on 31 March 1999.