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Countess Spencer

The dazzling English aristocrat who loves to work

Text by David Vincent
Portraits by Alasdair McLellan
Issue n° 11, Spring & Summer 2015

On certain evenings, a lady in a fur coat with elaborately coiffed hair leaves Harrods department store by the staff entrance and climbs into a waiting car. This is Raine, Countess Spencer, who at 85 years old is the unstoppable director of Harrods International and Harrods Estates.

Raine, who’s collected five fabulous aristocratic titles down the years, is best known as the stepmother of Diana, Princess of Wales. Renowned as a society beauty in her younger years, she still pops on the diamonds and steps out for a spot of dancing at Lou Lou’s when the right escort comes around.

“The one thing you can go a bit mad with is nail polish. I love the colours – I’ve got a mauve, a purple, a dark red with gold flecks in it. This turquoise one I always use with the jewellery because I think it goes so well.” Raine Spencer is sipping tea, and it is not just the dazzling colour of her long nails that attracts attention but the dramatic effect of the perfect unpainted V shape she leaves at her cuticles. “I always do a little V. I think it’s rather pretty. Some young girls now, they do each nail a different colour, my dear; you’ve probably noticed. But that would be too tiring for me, take hours. You see, I always do my own. When I was a little girl, Mummy had a manicurist who taught me.”

There are unexpected conversations, and there are unexpected conversations with an 85-year-old English countess. This is the latter. Raine Spencer isn’t much in the British press now, but for years, as the stepmother of Diana Spencer, who went on to become the Princess of Wales, she was rather conspicuously in the public eye. Sometimes she was called Acid Raine, apparently a nickname the adolescent Diana had dreamed up. At other times, she was making headlines for complaining about the hygiene standards at Heathrow Airport.

Raine Spencer has held a dazzling array of titles acquired from a series of upper-class marriages, from Viscountess Lewisham to the Comtesse Pineton de Chambrun, but the name she chooses to use is Raine, Countess Spencer (which is how she’s listed in Debrett’s, the authoritative British publication on the country’s aristocracy). Her second husband was Earl Spencer, Diana’s father and quite possibly the love of Raine’s life. Her mother was Dame Barbara Cartland, a sort of early 20th-century E.L. James who dressed in frothy pink dresses and made her thick sticky eyelashes out of boot polish mascara and whose heroines palpitated and blushed their way through her romantic tales but never kissed their tall, dark, dashing heroes until the very last page. For years, Dame Barbara dictated one heart-stopping story a fortnight to a secretary who also dressed in pink (more cardigan, less lace), leaving 165 stories still unpublished at the time of her death in 2000 at the age of 98.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Raine is a character of some complexity: an unapologetic admirer of men, though she surrounds herself with women; slightly camp (the hair is a marvel); fiercely intelligent. “She is wonderful fun, with huge, trilling charm,” says Nicky Haslam, the seventy-something London interior designer and Zelig-like socialite of the aristocratic world. “Always covered in furs.” Raine talks of bygone times when people had sufficiently spacious London houses to accommodate parties and balls and clothes were made in Paris by Balmain and in London by Hardy Amies; she pronounces the word “gone” as gawwn, in the proper old-fashioned way. And then she whips out a BlackBerry and starts tapping away. She enjoys the odd night out at Lou Lou’s – a rather exotic nightclub in Mayfair beloved by high society and hedge funders but also a favourite of Kate Moss. “Robin Birley,” Raine says of the owner, “is a cousin of ours, and he has done a fantastic job there, really fantastic. It is enchanting.”

Several times a month, for 19 years now, she has put on a Lachasse outfit (“I love colour; I’ve got lots of dresses in coral and purple”), climbed into her chauffeur-driven car, and travelled the four-minute journey from her Chelsea townhouse to Harrods, where she is a director of Harrods International and Harrods Estates. For the past 11 years, she’s acted as a sort of roving ambassador, and she spends some time at the company’s airport properties too. There are lots of trips to China, Russia and any place with new money and people looking for that London bolthole. “She’s accompanied me on many memorable trips to Kazakhstan, India and Kuwait,” says Shirley Humphrey, director of Harrods Estates, “and she’s truly an inspiration – with a wicked sense of humour.” The company’s byword is, of course, discretion. A lot of people, Raine explains, “want to buy a house and do it privately…without their own relations knowing, or neighbours, or whoever.” The agency’s territory is Knightsbridge, Mayfair and South Kensington – London’s most desirable areas, where an apartment costs £3m and a stucco-fronted house £20m. The properties on its books appeal in particular to the sort of wealthy foreigners who like to park their money in the capital even if they leave the lights off for 11 months of the year.

Puis-je vous aider?” Regularly spotted on the shop floor of Harrods, Countess Spencer wears a staff badge indicating she’s a fluent speaker of French, among other languages. In the opening image, the Countess is photographed at her desk at Harrods Estates with her Lady Dior; the iconic bag design was also a favourite of her stepdaughter Diana, Princess of Wales.

Raine also spends many Saturdays on the shop floor; her appearances there began because Mohamed Al-Fayed, who owned Harrods until 2010 and is her close friend (and whose son Dodi met his end with Diana in a car crash in Paris in 1997), liked everyone to pitch in during the biannual sales. “I started off in ladies’ cashmeres, you know, and that wasn’t me at all. It was full of rather plump ladies trying to get into garments that were much too small. And I thought, no, no. It made me giggle, and I’ve got to keep a straight face.” She segued through cosmetics (too much theft) and finally settled in menswear. “Shirts and ties, since you ask, where I have been very, very happy – carpet on the floor, handsome men, and people not picking up and putting shirts and ties down again. Of course, now all the money has gone to the Middle East and poor Europe is struggling. The clientele has changed, but everyone is still human beings, and they still have weddings and funerals and investitures and outings.”

She had thought Al-Fayed was pulling her leg when he agreed to offer her a job at lunch with her stepdaughter Diana (they’d reconciled around the time of Diana’s divorce from Prince Charles, which was finally settled in 1995). “I thought he was joking,” she says. “Happily, he wasn’t. Suddenly, I had a one-year contract, I must tell you, but I’m still here.” The managing director who questioned the appointment – “He said, ‘Well, it is all very well Mohamed giving you a job, but I don’t know what to do with you.’ It was quite welcoming. I don’t think” – had clearly not done his homework on the countess. As the museum director Sir Roy Strong put in his diaries when recalling how Raine got the National Portrait Gallery listed as a historic building to protect it from demolition where others had failed: “I couldn’t at the time reconcile this diamond-bespangled fashion plate with anyone remotely effective. In that, I was to be proved immediately wrong.”

Most people stop working long before their 85th birthday; Raine Spencer, like her mother, appears to have no desire to retire. But then, unlike many of her titled friends, she has always kept busy. At 23, she became the youngest ever councillor for the borough of Westminster. And since then she has been part of countless quangos: the British Tourist Authority, London’s historic buildings board, the Covent Garden Joint Development Committee. A lifelong Tory – “I couldn’t not be. I’m wedded to the Conservative Party” – she has been active on its behalf in Richmond and Westminster boroughs over the years. “In 1996, I was doing voluntary work for stroke victims, but it was only once a week,” she says of Al-Fayed’s timing. “So aren’t I lucky?”

Raine, Countess Spencer, was born Raine McCorquodale in 1929, the only child of a short union between the army officer and printing heir Alexander McCorquodale and Barbara Cartland. After a few years, the marriage fell apart, and Cartland, rather scandalously, married her ex-husband’s cousin Hugh McCorquodale in 1936. Raine remembers at the time being mollified with “lots of sweets, which were suddenly snatched away because they gave me spots.”

She grew up in Mayfair, subjected to the Barbara Cartland school of parenting. “She was trying to make me the perfect person and didn’t have very good material to work with,” laughs Raine. “Ponies, learning to swim, governesses. It was a lost cause. Mother was determined I should be a sporting girl and had me taught riding, but I was terrified. I’m an indoor girl. I was always last in the local gymkhana.”

They spent the war years (1939 to 1945) outside London, initially in Montreal, where Raine went to school for the first time. “Here I was aged 9 or 10 being squashed into a uniform!” Then they returned to England and a book-filled cottage in Great Barford, Bedfordshire. Raine was allowed to read all the volumes but two: Candide by Voltaire and Dark Island by Vita Sackville-West. “Well, Dark Island we can understand, which is about ladies liking each other,” says Raine in a matter-of-fact manner. “But Candide is a rather moral book. Anyway, never mind, by 12 I’d read everything else: Jung, Freud, Shakespeare and Dickens. Whether I understood it or not… I read Karl Marx, all 600 pages. It was incredibly boring.” Her current reading matter is Roger Bootle’s The Trouble with Europe. “I do recommend it – he writes extremely well,” she says. ”And I love James Patterson thrillers, so I rip through them. And then Schopenhauer in French is always by my bed. He was German, but it’s a French translation.”

In 1947, at the age of 18, Raine came out. “It means something so different now!” she hoots. “Then it meant being presented to society at Queen Charlotte’s Ball. It was such fun. I suppose I was pretty. I had this beautiful dress, like something out of Winterhalter, with a big tiered skirt. It was made by Worth, a copy of one for Empress Eugénie: all tulle and lace and run through with blue ribbons.” She was named debutante of the year and became engaged to Gerald Legge, heir to the earldom of Dartmouth. When she married less than a year later, she wore the same dress, the blue ribbons replaced with white.

“The one thing you can go a bit mad with is nail polish. I always do my own. When I was a girl, mummy had a manicurist who taught me.”

More than a decade later, her husband inherited the title of Viscount Lewisham; four years after that, he became Earl of Dartmouth, and Raine a countess. They were happily married for 28 years and had four children. “William is a UKIP MEP, owns the estate in Yorkshire and is an accountant,” she says. (“It is so…interesting” is her only comment on his involvement in the right-of-centre party, which has recently become a focus of British politics.) “Rupert trained as a barrister and works part time as an art consultant, Charlotte designs jewellery in Murano glass, and Henry is the brains. He is a QC,” she says, as proudly as any mother could. Henry specialises in art law and was recently involved in a high-profile case concerning the attribution of a Caravaggio. Nicky Haslam remembers the first time he met the Countess, at her daughter Charlotte’s christening. “She invited me to her house at 40a Hill Street in Mayfair,” he says. “And there was this wonderful table with all the christening presents, silver trays and so on, with labels that said things like ‘From the staff’.”

In 1971, Raine met Johnnie Spencer, then Viscount Althorp, soon to be Earl Spencer. “Sometimes you just meet people and you can’t explain it,” she says of the coup de foudre that followed. Five years later, she divorced and remarried. “He was wonderful. He was funny, sweet, affectionate. Gerald was the most wonderful man, a fantastic father, an amazing person. I never thought in a million years I would ever leave. But Johnnie was like a whirlwind, a force of nature.”

Raine, with a distinctly upper-class concern for manners over emotional fallout, says, “Separations happen, and why should they be so unpleasant? I’m so shocked when I read in the papers the dreadful things that go on, and how people are so greedy. They want this, they want that, they want the next thing. It was horrid to leave anyway, but I don’t mind saying I just walked out with my clothes. And the very valuable jewellery Gerald had given me, I gave back. I loved him, and we were always ‘darling Raine’ and ‘darling Gerald’ for the rest of our lives.”

Raine, the city girl, moved to Althorp, the Spencer seat that consumes 550 acres of Northamptonshire. “The house is so beautiful inside, and I would pretend it was Versailles,” she says. “You could never bother to go out.” She set about vigorously restoring the 500-year-old pile. “It’s Elizabethan, but refaced, so it looks Georgian,” she explains. Out went decrepit Persian rugs and disintegrating Victorian lampshades. In came central heating, new bathrooms and carpeting. It was said that she replaced the grand portrait of Robert, the first Baron Spencer, that had hung over the main staircase with a life-size oil painting of herself in her prime. “There’s a limit to how many of those serious-looking men in wigs you can have looking down on you,” she says, “however well painted.” She filled the house with more personal pieces. “I have a passion for decorative arts, and my husband collected Edward Seago, the Norfolk painter – he would stand in the queue to buy them. Now, of course, he’s terribly popular. And though the house was dripping in van Dycks, what you’ve collected yourself is what you love the most. We had all the Seagos in our private sitting room.”

She also tried to make Althorp pay its way. “We realised we had to earn up to half a million a year, which we did, to keep the show on the road.” Car launches, open days, dinner dances and concerts ensued. Family heirlooms were sold: some of those van Dycks, Marlborough wine coolers, furniture. “Oh, I got flak,” she says, “but it was what John wanted to do.” Some of the disapproval came from Diana and her brother Charles and sister Sarah, and rumour still has it that upon Johnnie’s death, Charles put Raine’s clothes in bin liners and kicked them down the stairs. It is true that she was not allowed to remove a single item from Althorp, though Johnnie left her a grand Mayfair house and a reported £4 million in his will.

Much has changed since then. Raine got married again in 1994, rather quickly and briefly, to a French count, Jean-François Pineton de Chambrun. They lived in Château de Garibondy, between Cannes and Nice. “I ended up on two councils: the council of tourism and the improvement of the Promenade des Anglais,” she says. “They said if I’d stand as a councillor they’d do their best to make me head of the tourism committee. Me! Une anglaise!

And she finally became close to Diana, the stepdaughter who had reviled her for years. As Diana struggled with her in-laws’ hostility in the lead-up to her divorce from Charles, she finally turned to her stepmother, meeting her for heart-to-heart lunches at the Connaught Grill. “Diana was a lovely person,” Raine says. “She had incredibly heavy pressures put upon her, but we ended up huge friends. She used to come and sit on my sofa and tell me her troubles. I’m very happy about that. I’m so glad that my poor John, who would have been devastated, died before she did. But what was lovely was that she thanked me at the end for looking after him.” (Johnnie had a cerebellar haemorrhage in 1978 but went on to live another 14 years.) “That was something special.” Each month, visitors to Harrods can witness Raine’s continued connection to the Spencers for themselves. In a peculiar twist of fate, her till in the store’s basement is a mere 100 metres from the store’s controversial memorial to Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed.

Raine puts some of her octogenarian alacrity down to her star sign. “A Virgo, whatever you suggest, says, ‘Fantastic, let’s do it,’ and goes upstairs and packs a case, picks up a phone to order tickets,” she says. “I do believe star signs are creepily accurate. My banker friends are Virgo, and my hairdresser.” Indeed, Peter Constandinos at Figaro in Chelsea (est. 1964) has been responsible for Raine’s trademark hair for decades, since he was at the Dorchester and she lived in Mayfair with Gerald. “I go once a week, darling, and it just goes into rollers,” she says. “I don’t have it blow-dried, because it lasts longer if you have it under the dryer.” And she certainly believes in the transformative power of a good do. “When young girls have long flowing hair, they look beautiful, because youth is beautiful. They can be as untidy as you like. But from 25 to 30 on – and I’m putting it quite young – we all hate people who look like they have come through the hedge backwards. So with mine, sometimes I have it back in combs, sometimes I put it in a chignon completely, sometimes it’s swept back and up, sometimes I have a middle parting, sometimes a side parting. It’s fun. My signature is more swept back and up. When you get older, I think up is good. Droop is bad.”

Her remarkable skin she puts down to jojoba oil. “It is absolutely brilliant for the face,” she says. “I put it on three times a day. I don’t say it gets rid of all the wrinkles, but it helps. And on the hair, if you have dry hair. Once a month, I do egg and oil. Your hair eats it up. It was told me by an eminent trichologist who really understood these things. One egg to one tablespoonful of oil. And you put it on dry. Oil and water don’t mix.”

Still sportingly social, she can frequently be found at the Ritz or Le Gavroche (“Michel Roux always comes and says hello”), lunching at Poissonnerie in Sloane Avenue and dining at Lucio’s, a neighbourhood Italian on Fulham Road. “When I see her, it tends to be at grandish gallery parties,” says Nicky Haslam. “Her circle is made up of antiques dealers and the people at Phillips – she loves the antiques world and has a rather good eye for it.” Last autumn she had an 85th birthday party at Spencer House in London for 126 guests, including her ex-husband. “Jean-François said to some mutual friends of mine, ‘I really, really want to come and make a speech.’ And he came with his new wife and daughter and gave the most beautiful tribute,” she recounts. “He even had it all printed out so I could have it for afterwards.”

Even a bad back doesn’t slow her down. “Mohamed Al-Fayed heard about it and sent me round some lovely heat pads. Wasn’t that sweet? Such a thoughtful person,” she says. “In fact, I worked out with Mohamed – who now has sold Harrods to Qataris – that we’ve been to 16 different countries. I’ve learnt so much and had such an interesting time. I never imagined that I’d go to Belarus, Bahrain, Qatar, Monaco, Egypt, South Korea and a whole lot more, so it has been thrilling.”

Recently, she learned Chinese so she could deliver a short speech to visitors from China. Afterwards, she says, a businessman took her to one side and paid her a compliment. “Very, very good Mandarin. You must come to Shanghai. You will be more famous than Beckham,” he told her. And indeed, maybe she should.