Angel Dorothy

By Jane Brown

A new biography of the woman behind Dartington Hall, American heiress Dorothy Elmhirst

The newly-weds landed on 29th May to be met by Leonard’s sister Irene Rachael, and another brother, Richard who took them to Exeter and the Royal Clarence Hotel. The following day they drove to Totnes and then to Dartington where they spent the morning – ‘too heavenly’ was Dorothy’s verdict. As Leonard had written ‘a fairy land’ or at least other worldly, for what they were looking at was an ivy-covered ruin with roofless Great Hall and agricultural squalor predominant in all the surroundings. After lunch at the Seymour Hotel in Totnes they returned for a second inspection, ‘interior difficult’ noted Dorothy, presumably referring to the abandoned rabbit-warren that might one day be her home. There was nowhere for them to live in the foreseeable future. Her old life crumbling behind her, her prospect only ruins. Next morning they went to ‘a lovely service’ in Exeter Cathedral, and afterwards she broke down and ‘wept idiotically’.

...This might be the moment to introduce Susie Hammond’s considered reflections on her friend’s second marriage as, ‘self-denying, filled with generosity and consideration for others, serious [and] creative’. This was never going to be a marriage as before, that Dorothy could not be given again as she no longer existed. She did not love Leonard but she liked him and his values, and her loyalty to their ‘great project’ would be unshakeable. She would find the money, he would make it work, that was their agreement. She paid for the Dartington estate and everything they did for the first four years, though thanks to her, or Harry Whitney’s, clever lawyers and accountants comparatively little of her wealth fell into the hands of the British government as Herbert Croly had feared. She remained an American citizen for more than twenty years though she did call herself ‘Mrs Dorothy Elmhirst’. She was also generous to herself, and to Leonard, in that they would continue to live in the high style to which she was accustomed. Herbert Croly was right about the difficulties of living in two countries and here her ‘consideration’ verged on the courageous; as she gazed out into the Atlantic from the deck of the Majestic carrying her to England she made a silent pact with the great ocean that she was destined to cross, not for pleasure or at will but for love and duty, at beck and call, for the rest of her life. The great liners became part of her life, her trans-Atlantic crossings became her ‘decompression chambers’, with always her own cabin and often a sitting-room, where she could read and think and calm her fears.

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