Marjorie Wallace has never let age stand in the way
My first white wedding at 78! From Lord Snowdon to a Polish count, a TV boss and now a tycoon, writer Marjorie Wallace has never let age stand in the way of a riotous love life, as she admits on her latest honeymoon
Marjorie Wallace, Countess Skarbek, is a broadcaster and founder of SANE
The 78-year-old married tycoon John Mills at Pond Square Chapel in Highgate
Reflects on her love life before they met at a mutual friend’s party in June 2012
When hugely wealthy business tycoon John Mills began dating the irrepressible Marjorie Wallace, Countess Skarbek, nine years ago his four grown-up children weren’t exactly cock-a-hoop.
At the time Marjorie, now 78, was living with her ‘one really big love’ broadcaster Tom Margerison, who was suffering with Parkinson’s, while lunching with her on-off lover Lord Snowdon. There were, she confesses, many other boyfriends.
‘My phrase was “walking out with”, ’ says Marjorie who, throughout it all, remained close to the husband she had left 30 years before but never divorced, Count Skarbek, until his death in November 2011.
‘I had my three,’ she continues. ‘I had Snowdon [who first became her lover in 2003] because he was quite lonely towards the end of his life. We’d go for lunch at Le Caprice, where I’d entertain him. His attention span wasn’t always very long so I’d sing and dance for him. He liked me to sing Noel Coward.
Marjorie Wallace, Countess Skarbek, married business tycoon John Mills in an extravagant Venetian-themed wedding at Pond Square Chapel in Highgate a week ago (pictured)
‘Then I’d visit the count in his basement [in Belsize Park, North London] where he’d have opera on. He was pretty incapacitated but laughing — always laughing. Then I would go home to Tom. That was harder. Then I met John.’
John, 83, an entrepreneur who made a fortune in manufacturing, lost it and made a fortune again largely in television shopping with his company JML, was grieving the sudden death of his wife from his days at Oxford University, Dame Barbara Mills, Britain’s first female Director of Public Prosecutions, when he was introduced to Marjorie at a mutual friend’s party in East London in June 2012.
‘I was on my own. Tom was terribly ill. There was thunder and lightning,’ says Marjorie, a broadcaster, founder of the mental health charity SANE and unapologetic bon viveur. ‘A dear friend said, “You see that man over there on his own? Well, he’s a very well-known entrepreneur and tycoon. He’s also a pilot with his own private jet but, much more importantly, he has a car and he’s driving to North London.”
‘So I go up and say, “Will you dance?” He drove me home and asked me out to dinner and . . .’ (John shoots her an indulgent smile) ‘. . . we’ve been more or less inseparable ever since.’
Was it a coup de foudre? ‘More a coup de lift,’ says Marjorie. ‘It was very much a dinner date. I had other people I was involved with like Ray Davies (of The Kinks) who came to stay for six weeks.
‘The extraordinary thing is John and I had probably known each other for half a century because we were going to the same mutual friends’ parties, but we hadn’t noticed each other. I was leading a slightly more chequered life with my Polish count and Tom and various other people. I would have looked at him and Dame Barbara and thought, “a little bit Establishment”. I’d have probably run away. He probably looked at me and said, “a little bit risqué”.
‘I’ve walked out with a lot of people. [Renowned journalist] Bernard Levin was a boyfriend. I like looks — although Bernard might be an exception. With Tom it was this wonderful brain and looks. John’s rather elegant.’ She turns to him. ‘And since I’ve been giving you designer clothes you’ve improved greatly.’
Again, John looks in fond amusement at the colourful creature beside him. ‘I think that’s probably true. Even my family say that, although I think I probably always noticed Marjorie. I thought she was an extraordinarily exciting figure right from the very beginning.
Marjorie said Lord Snowdon, who first became her lover in 2003, was quite lonely towards the end of his life. Pictured: With Lord Snowdon in 2008
‘And it wasn’t so casual as all that. I seem to remember dinners being fairly regular right from the beginning.’
Fast forward nine years. Margerison and Lord Snowdon are dead and Marjorie is taking tea in the gardens of the exclusive Park House Hotel in the South Downs with a wedding band on her finger. She and John married a week ago in an extravagant Venetian-themed wedding a stone’s throw from where Boris Johnson was secretly exchanging vows with Carrie Symonds.
‘We didn’t know we were going to be outshone by Boris, although I should have guessed,’ says Marjorie. ‘I asked Boris’s father Stanley as one of our guests. He read a beautiful thing at Tom’s funeral. He said he’d love to come but was doing something else . . . I could tell he was being a bit shifty.’
Marjorie glittered at the ceremony at Pond Square Chapel in Highgate in a bejewelled mask flown in from Venice and above-the-knee white lace dress by British designer Caroline Charles that revealed the sort of legs a woman two decades younger would happily flaunt. Her son, songwriter Sacha Skarbek, walked her down the aisle while John’s daughter Sarah McTavish gave him away.
‘I think children is always a tricky area when you marry again and it did take a while to settle down,’ says John. ‘Recently, they’ve been very supportive but there were some wobbles. The family’s always been very close. They looked after me and kept inviting me round all the time when Barbara died.’ John was away on business in the U.S. in May 2011 when his wife collapsed with an aneurysm at the age of 70. It had been a deeply happy, thoroughly supportive marriage as they both raised their children together and pursued their careers.
Marjorie said she was leading a slightly more chequered life with her Polish count and Tom and various other people, before meeting John. Pictured: With Tom Margerison in 2002
‘I did perhaps do more childcare than the average husband,’ he says. ‘If you’re a barrister you have to be there in court. I used to look after the children if they were ill or I’d go round to the school if they fell down. At weekends I’d look after the children in the afternoon and Barbara looked after them in the morning but we’d always eat together in the evening.
‘We used to have wonderful holidays together, too. Our lives were very well organised. They had to be, but it worked. We were expecting to go on for another 20 years together but it never happened.’
John was returning to London on an overnight flight when the gardener discovered Barbara at their North London home. ‘She rang me up and said she’d found her on the floor just sort of panting. It was a terrible experience,’ says John. ‘I knew from that second that my life was going to change and, indeed, it did. I’ve been very lucky that I had my business to fall back on. It was a terrible blow but I sank myself into work and the family got me through it. I’m kind of a very stable person with a relatively small emotional band, unlike some who have a rather wider one.’ He looks benevolently at his bride.
This is the longest John, a kindly, good-humoured man, has spoken without interruption from his talkative wife, who has been sighing theatrically throughout. She is, you sense, a woman who enjoys the spotlight. ‘She’s addicted to it,’ says John cheerily.
Marjorie said she and John (pictured) are polar opposites, admitting she’s a little bit more volatile and a little bit more fragile
‘We are polar opposites,’ says Marjorie. ‘John likes to have calm seas, rules — a steady, progressing journey through life. No what he calls rumpuses. I am a little bit more volatile, a little bit more fragile.
His lifestyle with Barbara is as far away from my experiences as reading a fairy tale in Russian. The count never changed a single nappy. We had no holidays. No weekends. Tom was marvellous but he didn’t have any money after LWT went down.’ (Margerison was chairman and chief executive of London Week- end Television.)
‘Now I want to resolve a difficult life. Let’s bring all the tangled threads of the past together and make it an Indian summer. We’re not just going to be winding down or downsizing like all my friends — so many are dying or getting ill.
‘We’re denying and defying what’s expected of old age. Anyway, I’ve never been properly married before, so a white wedding was on my bucket list.’
Marjorie was 19 and a student in psychotherapy at University College London when she met her first husband Count Andrew Skarbek, who was nearly 20 years older and a pioneering psychotherapist.
‘He was paying £3 a day to students as guinea pigs giving them anti-psychotic drugs and LSD to see the effects on that person’s speech, breathing patterns and sense of humour. He taped all my babblings. One day I was pretty out of my mind and he said, “You’d better come home with me.”
Marjorie said she was asked to show her legs when she was interviewed by the BBC for Nationwide. Pictured: Marjorie and John
‘He put on the lights — chandeliers — there was chilled vodka, Polish tangoes and, of course, I fell in love.’ It wasn’t until a few months later I discovered he was married with three children.’
Twelve years later they finally married when her son, Sacha, was two-and-a-half years old. It was, she remembers, a tumultuous marriage that involved numerous affairs (many of his and some hers) and a lot of plate throwing.
In between babies — they had three sons, Sacha, Stefan and Justin, together — she worked, first as a trainee on ITV’s The Frost Programme and then as a current affairs reporter for London Weekend Television, where she met the attractive, intelligent Margerison. Later she worked as an investigative journalist for The Sunday Times. ‘At one time the count emigrated to Canada leaving me with my one-year-old son Justin, two-and-a-half-year-old Stefan and seven-year-old Sacha, so I was single mother for two years and I had to earn money,’ she says. ‘I didn’t call myself a feminist. I was too busy meeting deadlines to feed the children and trying to survive.
‘I don’t feel the same kind of sympathy as maybe I should for the new generation of feminists. I remember when I was interviewed by the BBC for Nationwide, there were all these grandees there and I was asked to show my legs. I was just relieved I didn’t have to give all these political opinions and ideas.’
The count returned from Canada after two years but their marriage didn’t last. ‘We were together for a few months, but he wouldn’t get a house with a garden and I’d been seeing a lot of Tom, though he was married. We’d been seeing each other on and off since the David Frost days. He’d come and go.
Marjorie who suffered a breakdown herself as a teenager, set up the mental health charity SANE after writing a series of articles for The Times. Pictured: Marjorie and John
‘One day Tom said, finally, “Let’s live together.” We found a rented house and I ordered a removal van, took the children, my clothes and a few things and left a note — much like the Count used to leave me notes — saying, “Sorry I’m gone.” That was 1982.’
Why did they never divorce? ‘He had everything on his side. The house partly belonged to his wife. I started with lawyers, but he’d kept every receipt. I kept none. I couldn’t win.’
Marjorie had been with Margerison, with whom she has a daughter Sophia, for 15 years when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. She says it began to affect his mental health: ‘The worst part was when he started to turn on me and accused me of trying to kill him. The police got involved because he rang them. It was very, very hard.
‘Between the periods of aggression he’d leave me beautiful cards then he’d suddenly become a stranger. It was ironic because I’d been involved with mental illness all my life.’
Marjorie, who suffered a breakdown herself as a teenager, set up the mental health charity SANE after writing a series of articles for The Times called The Forgotten Illness, for which she was awarded Campaigning Journalist of the Year. She eventually gave up journalism to be chief executive of the charity and was awarded a CBE for her work in 2008.
John said he thinks Marjorie (pictured) ‘needs someone to care for her and look after her’
She was in pieces when Margerison died in 2014, although, says John, ‘Tom had been so incapacitated for so long there was part of it being a blessed release.’ ‘Not to me,’ says Marjorie and, for a moment, her sparkle dims and she looks immeasurably sad.
‘I do try to support Marjorie and help her,’ John continues. ‘I think she needs someone to care for her and look after her . . .’
Marjorie bristles. ‘I’m a fiercely independent woman,’ she says.
John gently continues ‘That’s kind of my role in life. Tom was so incapacitated when I first started seeing Marjorie I never really felt in competition with him for her. I think as you get older you get more tolerant of these kind of relationships, more willing to accept them as they are and to make the best of them.
‘I’m very fond of Marjorie and happy to put up with her foibles and be tolerant and helpful and love and care for her. That’s my life really. I would say now that she is my really great love.’
‘Gosh,’ says Marjorie, for once at a loss for words. Then she adds: ‘He’s been testing me out. That’s what he does for a living. He tests products. For nine years I’ve been undergoing a sort of test. Honestly, if I’d been one of his products my batteries would have run out years ago. Isn’t that right, sweetheart?’