Growing up Downton: Anthony Russell on living in Leeds Castle

Imagine if a woman such as the Dowager Countess from “Downton Abbey” was one of your grandmothers. And if the other -- the Hon. Olive, Lady Baillie -- owned the incredibly posh Leeds Castle, where Anthony Russell grew up. “I seldom saw her because she was always traveling or fox hunting or both,” Russell writes in his memoir, “Outrageous Fortune” (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99).

Russell came of age listening to the Rolling Stones and learned to play guitar; when he moved to New York at age 24, he immediately fell in with Andy Warhol’s crowd as he pursued his dreams of becoming a rock star.

Russell’s unique upbringing in the fairy tale castle was filled with a constant flow of glamorous guests and luxury on a grand scale. His poignant and vivid stories provide great insight into the life of English nobility in the 1950s and '60s -- along with the consequences that come with being handed every material good on a silver plate. Russell is now an Angeleno, when he’s not living in France; he talked to the Los Angeles Times by phone.

The details of the people and the environment in Leeds Castle are very vivid in the book -- as a child, did you keep a journal?

I never kept a journal. It’s basically as I remember my childhood. Everything comes from my memory. Except for the details about my grandparents, their parents and the family going back several generations. I certainly did some research to make sure I got the historical facts right. But otherwise, no. These are the stories I remember, only too vividly.

During your time living at Leeds Castle, you interacted with a range of interesting characters, from Hollywood stars to political figures. Who was the most intriguing person you came across?

I was too young and was kept a little bit too removed from the guests of the castle in order to know them -- even meet them, on many occasions. They were there on the horizon. I was aware of the fact that the guestbook was full of all these extraordinary names. But the people who did come to the castle on a regular basis -- the ones who were very important people in the government during World War II, and for quite a long period after the war -- these are the important folks who I did know quite well as a child. People like Lord Geoffrey Lloyd  and Lord Margesson -- two central figures to my grandmother, Lady Baillie’s, circle of friends.

Most of the very important guests drifted in and out of my existence, on the periphery. Whether they were the movie folks from Hollywood -- Lady Baillie was a huge fan of movies -- or ambassadors, to me they were just figures who might give me a little pat on the head from time to time. But there were a few who I did get to know quite well as a child and they did have an influence on what I thought about life.

What was it like to be pulled in different directions by your heritage, the cultural and social changes of the 1960s and music?

It was very exciting for me. Very exciting indeed. I was deeply enthralled by pop music as a little lad, age 6 and onward. But when the '60s came and I was old enough to understand what was getting on, even feeling a little bit caught up in it, it did become very apparent to me that life at Leeds Castle, and everything associated with the “Castle Way,” was so different to this world of rock stars, football stars, photographers, models, television stars and Labor politicians. All these people were taking over the airwaves and taking over literally life as we knew it in England -- and I found that absolutely breathtaking and exciting.

I did feel like I had a foot in both camps. And I did feel like this “new aristocracy” and the “old aristocracy” were all joining together. They were all having these glorious parties with heeled boots and velvet suits and hair down to the floor. It was hard to tell them apart! It was almost a blending.

What was it like to leave the bubble and move to New York at the age of 24 to pursue your dream of becoming a rock star?

It was a wild and crazy idea, from my parents’ perspective. And made perfect sense, from mine. I was lucky enough to have an audition with Ahmet Ertegun, [president of Atlantic Records], back in the early '70s. Ahmet Ertegun was a friend of my father’s and I got to know him too. Ahmet thought I was quite good and permitted me to record in Atlantic’s studios in London. Unfortunately, Atlantic in New York said no... but I did end up playing with some great musicians in Woodstock. ...

New York was a whole new ballgame because people in New York behaved completely differently to what I had been used to in England. I found New York in the '70s so wild and crazy; I met more people in the span of a week than I had met in my entire life practically. And they were fun people. They were amazing people. Like Andy Warhol and his people down at The Factory.    

Do you feel like your upper-class upbringing of fortune was ultimately a blessing or a curse?

I’m very well aware of what result this incredible good fortune I had at birth had [on my later life]. The fact that I was brought up in this incredible luxury, with everything done for me, meant that I was drinking from “the luxury brew,” as I call it. Which, in a way, was a curse. It totally obscured reality.

By the time I was in my early 20s, I had drunk so much of this luxury brew. And one of the sad things was that I was never really informed: “You better watch out. You better take care.” As a result, the downside of this spectacular childhood soon began to take shape in my 20s. It came as a slightly rude shock.   

As a society, where do you think our obsession with peering into the aristocratic lifestyle comes from?

These stories and this period, especially when done so glamorously on television, are fascinating to people because it’s a life that so few lead -- or did lead. It’s a world of great elegance. Though it’s something that people may or may not aspire to, I would think it’s a world that most people would really like to know about.

The latest royal wedding is a good example of that. More people probably watched that than any other program on television that year. Similar to “Downton Abbey” on TV, these stories are historically important. They are a way of finding out not just what it’s like for a small section of people, they are a way of finding out how all the other folks who lived in the house got on. This is living history. And it’s very unique to a special part of Britain.

Are you a fan of “Downton Abbey”?

I love it, yes. I absolutely love it. It brings me great amusement that the Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith, is spectacularly like my Granny A, [my paternal grandmother]. My Granny A Christabel, who was an absolute whirlwind of activity, glamour and good looks, had that wit and tossed those one-liners out just like Maggie Smith’s character does so beautifully. I do get great enjoyment from watching that and thinking to myself, “Hmmm, Granny A at work.”

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