Antonia and Samantha Leslie for Guardian Family Section copyright Victoria Mary Clarke 2009
When Antonia Leslie was a little girl, she was well aware that her father had mistresses.
It wasn’t that Agnes, Antonia’s mother liked the idea of a man having mistresses. Indeed, she was a passionate woman who complained angrily and often about the situation. It was just that she had grown up with the belief that all intelligent and interesting men would inevitably want more than one woman. Agnes’s own mother had been a young governess in Berlin, who had fallen for her boss, a leading theatrical impresario. After his wife died, he married the governess, but continued to have a string of young mistresses and this had been accepted as his right.
Agnes Bernelle had been born in Berlin, but being Jewish had escaped to London during the war, to avoid Nazi persecution. If you look at the Leslie family album, you can see that Agnes resembled the young Ava Gardner when she met Desmond Leslie at a cocktail party in London. Desmond, in the family photos, also appears to have been an extra-ordinarily handsome man. Indeed, as I look at the pictures with Antonia I am aware that we are both drooling. It is strange, Antonia admits, to fancy your father, but it is understandable. Desmond came from an aristocratic Irish family and was an RAF Spitfire pilot.
Agnes was working in counter-intelligence, broadcasting a fake radio show to the Nazis, when they met. By all accounts they made a glamorous and exciting couple who both attracted plenty of attention from other men and women. Even their wedding was exceptional, partly because Desmond was a first cousin of Winston Churchill, and Churchill can be seen waving to the enormous, cheering crowds from the balcony of a London hotel, after the ceremony. The Leslie children, when they saw the film footage of the event were convinced that all the VE Day celebrations were in honour of their parents.
After the war, Agnes became an actress. She also sang, performing her first Brechtian cabaret in the Establishment club. When Bernard Levin criticised her, Desmond famously got on ‘That Was The Week That Was’ and punched him, live on television.
Desmond might have been madly in love with his wife. But Agnes never expected fidelity. From the start, her husband would disappear for days on end with other women. Sometimes he would even do this while the couple were on holidays, leaving her in the hotel.
‘Once, when he did that,’ Antonia says ‘Mum had to stay in the hotel for a month, because she couldn’t afford to pay the bill.’
But this kind of situation, which might have been hopeless for another woman, was turned into the stuff of drama by Agnes.
‘In Monte Carlo, when Desmond abandoned her, she met King Farouk of Egypt’ Antonia tells me. ‘She was wearing a diamond brooch, but most of the diamonds had fallen out. King Farouk said to her ‘You have no diamonds in your brooch.’ She said ‘If every lover I have in my life were to give me one diamond, by the end of my life it would be full.’
And so, according to Agnes, King Farouk took the brooch, and arrived back later with it full of diamonds.
Agnes had plenty of admirers.
‘I know, because she would tell me about them. She was very friendly with Claus Von Bulow, and I suspect she had an affair with him!”
Her mother may have had other relationships, her ‘good friends,’ she used to call them, but she was not happy in her ‘open marriage.’ And things came to a head when Desmond met and fell in love with a woman called Helen.
‘Desmond was on holidays with his long term mistress Sally when he met Helen,’ Antonia says.
‘Helen just walked into the room and fell madly in love with him instantly. She asked her friends who he was and she was told to back off, because he already had a two thousand volt wife and a very exotic mistress!’
But that was a challenge for Helen. And pretty soon she was not only Desmond’s lover, but also Agnes’s friend. Antonia is convinced that Agnes never suspected what was happening.
‘She truly did not believe that Helen was his type,’ she claims.
In 1964 Desmond inherited Castle Leslie, the family seat in Ireland, and wanted to go and live there. Agnes had just started a career as an actress, and was reluctant to leave London immediately. He suggested that he take their mutual friend Helen, for company, until she was ready, and Agnes agreed. Six months later, when she decided to bring the three children and move to Ireland, Desmond simply moved Helen to a flat in Dublin and carried on his relationship with her. Helen got pregnant, and had two children by Desmond, first Samantha and then Camilla.
Antonia knew that she had two older brothers, Sean and Mark. But she did not know that she also had these two little sisters.
One day, when Antonia was about four year’s old, Agnes decided to see a fortune-teller. She had discovered the affair, and she had decided that she wanted Desmond to make up his mind and choose between herself and Helen, who he was openly visiting at her flat in Dublin. It was one thing to have a mistress, but quite another to have a separate family.
She took Antonia with her, and told her to wait in the corner of the room, while the fortune-teller decided if Desmond would choose her or Helen.
As Agnes spoke of her situation, she happened to mention that her husband’s mistress had two daughters.
‘Oh yes, two little girls. I can see them now,’ said the fortune-teller, gazing into her crystal ball.
‘Where? Where are they? Let me see them!” Antonia rushed over to the crystal ball to get a glimpse of her little sisters. And was hugely disappointed not to see anything at all, except her own reflection looking back.
‘It was the first time that I had heard that I had two sisters,’ she says. ‘I was really excited and curious. But now, looking back, I think how inappropriate! To have your four year old find out like that!’
Upon the advice of the fortune-teller, Agnes attempted an ultimatum. She took the children and moved back to London. It seemed to work. Desmond announced that he had made up his mind. He wanted Agnes, and he would stop seeing Helen. So she came back. But she told him ‘If I come back, I am never leaving again. So make your mind up, it’s Helen or me.’
A few weeks after her return, Desmond said he had changed his mind and he wanted her to leave, after all.
‘Never!’ Agnes told him. ‘You can leave. I am never leaving this castle, this is my home.’
A difficult situation ensued. Desmond attempted to force Agnes out. He hired the castle out for a month, as a corporate let.
‘We had to live in a little flat on the top floor and go up and down the back stairs to school, pretending we didn’t exist,’ Antonia remembers. ‘But that didn’t work. So Dad sent us on a holiday and when we came back he had changed all the locks and had been to Mexico and gotten a divorce, and married Helen totally illegally.’
When they returned from the holiday and got out of the car, Agnes tried unsuccessfully to open the front door.
‘ Mark, my brother was there and Sean. Mark was sixteen and Sean was about twenty, and they all tried the key. Then they knocked on the door. An American cousin of Dad’s came to the door and said ‘You don’t live here anymore, Agnes. Desmond has given the place to me.’ Desmond himself did not appear.
As a small child, Antonia’s reaction to this situation was not one of anger, it was one of shame.
‘I felt that I had been thrown away. I felt ashamed of myself. My father didn’t want me. I just remember the shame and the feel of the gravel under my feet, as I scrunched my toes.’
There followed six months of moving around, staying with different friends and relatives, including Desmond’s sister.
‘I really have very little memory of that time,’ Antonia says. ‘Because of that, I know it was a very painful time. There are six months that I can’t remember, except for the shame.’
Instead of returning to London, Agnes got a council house in the village of Glaslough, next to the castle.
‘I think she wanted to be near him to piss him off and make him feel bad,’ Antonia says. ‘I used to hear his car driving through the village, it had a unique sound, and when I heard it, I would hide because I was so horrified that I was still there. I felt that I had no right to be there and that if he saw me, it would be even more shameful.’
Agnes, being an actress was dramatic about her feelings.
‘She cried all over the place, and I minded her, so I never showed my own feelings. I didn’t want to burden her with my pain, when she was dealing with her own.’
In spite of the situation, Antonia remembers having had a real yearning to meet her sisters.
‘At a distance one day, I saw the girls. I saw Sammy walking along with my dolls pram. And I thought ‘Oh, that used to be my dolls pram!”
She claims that there were no feelings of anger or resentment, however.
‘ I never felt that I had been replaced by these girls, in my mind I had been replaced by Helen.’
A friend of Antonia’s was also friendly with Samantha, who was by now four, and was attending the village school.
‘ Carina took me to the village school for a day, and I was so excited because I knew that Sammy went to the village school. And as promised, she walked through the door, and Carina called her to sit beside us and whispered in her ear ‘That’s your sister’. Sam took it so calmly, even though no-one had told her! We waited for the break and then we ran straight into the yard and I said ‘I’m Antonia Leslie’ and she said ‘I’m Sammy Leslie!” And we grabbed each other’s hands and we wouldn’t let go.’
After school, Antonia took Samantha home with her.
‘ I didn’t want to let go of her. So I arrived back at the cottage and said to my mum ‘Look! I have Sammy my sister!’ And we played all afternoon.’
Agnes hadn’t spoken to Desmond or Helen since the break-up. But a call came from Desmond, saying that Sammy was missing. The conversation was frosty, but civil.
The next day Antonia was allowed to go to the castle to play with her sisters. She was shown her own bedroom, which was now Sammy’s bedroom, and her own toys.
‘She had no idea that I had ever lived there, and I never said a word,’ Antonia says, when I ask why she didn’t protest. ‘I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable, or ruin her illusion. I absolutely fell in love with her. I don’t know what a psychologist would make of it! But my brothers were grown up, so I had always been a lonely child. And I think that little girls always want sisters. And now I had two!’
Helen warmed to Antonia immediately.
‘I thought Helen was fabulous, and she was lovely to me. But she would tell people that every time she drove past my mother her hands would shake so badly she nearly went off the road!”
Agnes did not immediately forgive Helen, and would refer to her only as ‘That woman’. But Antonia and her father resumed their relationship where they had left off, without ever mentioning his having evicted her from her own home.
‘I was always trying to please him. I went over the top with love and adoration for him to try to win back his affection. And he did the same to me. We over compensated.’
Much later, when Antonia was twenty four, she broached the subject of the rejection.
‘I was drinking an awful lot and having issues with my boy friend at the time and he told me that I needed to have it out with my father, rather than punishing him. So I grabbed the phone and rang him, and screamed at him, and really let him know how badly he had hurt me.’
Desmond admitted that he had messed up.
‘He told me that he used to drive past the cottage and want to run in and grab me, but he thought it was better to leave me alone.’
His apology was a crucial point in her relationship with her father.
‘That allowed me to move on. And we had a great relationship after that.’
Agnes moved to Dublin and opened a boutique. While she was there she met a man called Maurice Craig, and fell in love with him. There followed a reconciliation with Helen.
‘It happened one day in the street, as Helen was dropping me off. She just saw Agnes and said ‘Hello Aggie.’ And my mother said ‘Hello Helen.’ And that was it. She was happy with Maurice, who turned out to be the love of her life, and Dad had bought her a house. She forgave them both, and eventually they got to the stage where Dad and Helen would come and stay with us in Dublin, and even go on holidays with us. It was wonderful to see my mum and dad in the same room, speaking normally!”
Antonia says that her relationships with men have definitely been affected by her relationship with her father.
‘I have always fallen in love with charming, fabulous, womanising men! But I think history repeats itself, because I later found out that Desmond’s mother had left his father for a time, because of his womanising. And when that happened, Desmond had been abandoned by his nanny, who was left behind. So he was traumatised, because she was the parent figure for him, as a child. They eventually got the nanny back, but it must have been too late.’
Our conversation today is taking place in Dublin where Antonia lives with her daughter Lola, and works as a journalist. We are joined by Sammy who lives in Castle Leslie, and has turned it into a highly popular hotel, which hosted Paul Mc Cartney’s wedding to Heather Mills. Both women have been married, and are now divorced and happily single. They are also still extremely close.
Sammy remembers having a good relationship with Desmond, as a child, in spite of the fact that he didn’t live with her mother. Neither did she.
‘We lived in a little flat, Nanny and me and Mummy lived next door. It was very civilised! Dad would come and see us.’
Her memories of him are of laughing and playing games and having fun, and she was always aware of him as ‘Dad’.
She tells her mother’s version of how she met Desmond in almost exactly the same way as Antonia tells hers.
‘She was at a cocktail party when she spotted him. But she was warned that he had a thousand volt mistress and a ten thousand volt wife!’
Sammy believes that she and Camilla were the luckier of the children, having grown up blissfully unaware of any conflict.
‘We moved into the castle, which was wonderful and then I met Antonia at school, which was very exciting. The great thing about being a kid is that you are very accepting of situations.’
‘Children live in the now,’ Antonia adds.
‘It is only when you get older and start having your own relationships that you realise how difficult it must have been for your parents,’ Sammy says. ‘But in those days people had no emotional vocabulary. No ability to separate the hurt and the emotions from what is happening.’
Sammy insists that she always felt absolutely secure in her relationship with her parents.
‘Mum and Dad were there and that was it.’
‘We knew we were loved,’ Antonia interjects. ‘Except for me, for that one year. I doubted it for that time. And that has left scars. But there were incredibly good times!’
I ask the sisters if they ever resented each other, even for a moment.
‘I don’t think we have ever had a fight or even shouted at each other.’
‘But we didn’t live together, so our time together was precious’, Antonia says.
They later discovered that Desmond had fathered another sister, Wendy for them, in New York, early in his marriage to Agnes. ‘It is a family joke, is there another one out there!’ Sammy laughs.
‘He was a big shag-a-bout,’ Antonia says. ‘With a great sex drive, and not ashamed of it. I remember when I was ten, he told me about a threesome that he had. I didn’t even know what a threesome was!”
Both sisters laugh uproariously at this idea.
‘He had a healthy appetite!” Sammy says.
Did Desmond’s relationships affect their view of men? I ask.
‘I set my standards very high, as to what I would like in a man,’ Sammy says. ‘I would love a house-trained version of Dad.’
As in monogamous?
‘Monogamous, but witty, charming, sexy, slightly off the wall.’
‘Have you ever met a man that matched that description?’
‘Nah.’ She laughs.
I ask Antonia about her situation.
‘The last thing I want at the moment is a relationship!’ she says. ‘The thought of having to wake up every day with someone there! But as I say, I have always fallen in love with very complicated guys with loads of baggage. It is emotionally very draining for me, and at this point I haven’t got the energy!”
Desmond had been told by a psychic that when he was dying, all of his six children would be with him.
‘There had never been a time when all six of us were in the same room,’ Sammy says. ‘But when Desmond was dying, the entire family got together to be with him, including Wendy, who just happened to have come over from America on holidays.
‘We all spent his last day with him. And then we spent a week together, the whole family. There was an incredible bonding.’
Sammy had a vision of Desmond, just after he died.
‘He was standing at the door of the restaurant where we had all gathered, in his RAF uniform. Looking gorgeous.’ She begins to cry, as she tells the story.
‘I’ll make you laugh,’ Antonia says. ‘Do you remember when we had to carry his body up the mountain to the church, wrapped in a bin liner, because we didn’t have a coffin? And we were cracking up, laughing. They must have thought we were the most awful girls!’
‘Awful!’ Sammy agrees.