Lady Astor: 'With enough love you can deal with anything’
Money and privilege certainly help cushion the life of a carer, admits Lady Astor of Hever – but it’s family bonds that ultimately get you through the difficulties of nursing a loved one
Wife, mother, model, secretary, teacher and charity patron – Liz has lived through many guises and this month she adds novelist to her list of accomplishments
Like most mothers, Lady Astor of Hever is inordinately proud of her children. She has two daughters and a son as well as three stepdaughters, and it is their images that are given prominence in the silver frames dotted around her elegant drawing room. But step beyond into a small lobby and different photos give a glimpse of her alter ego. One, a faded newspaper clipping from the late 1960s, captures her as a young Chelsea model; another reveals her to be the anonymous ‘Liz’, gamely posing in a sleeveless top with arms raised for a Dove deodorant ad that was splashed across the women’s glossies a year ago. ‘They didn’t want me to get too big-headed, so they made me the armpit of Dove, rather than the face,’ she quips.
Liz was scouted for a Dove ad last year
Svelte, blonde and lightly tanned, Liz Astor is, if anything, more glamorous at 62 than she was as
a 19-year-old 60s chick. She didn’t set out to be a mature model – a casting agent, oblivious to her identity, scouted her for the Dove campaign while she was shopping with one of her daughters. Liz was happy to oblige and also flattered. ‘They pay peanuts, but I thought that maybe, like Twiggy, I could have a revival,’ she says. ‘But then I thought, actually, I’m more interested in writing.’
Wife, mother, model, secretary, teacher and charity patron – Liz has lived through many guises and this month she adds novelist to her list of accomplishments. Her debut offering Since You Went Away is a poignant story of family ties told through correspondence between two estranged sisters, Ruth and Maisie, who are coming to terms with their mother’s death from Parkinson’s disease. ‘I wanted to write about complex and messy relationships,’ Liz says. ‘Because no matter how fabulous anyone’s life may look on the surface, it is usually full of complications underneath.’
As someone who has always enjoyed wealth and privilege, but has also endured divorce, single motherhood, the blending of families through remarriage and the relentless struggle of raising an autistic daughter, no one is perhaps better qualified to know this than Liz herself.
‘The infuriating truth is that you only learn deep, meaningful lessons through deep, meaningful pain’
Today, as the wife of Johnnie Astor, the 3rd Baron Astor of Hever and parliamentary under-secretary of state for the Ministry of Defence, she belongs to one of our most formidable dynasties, but she started life in another notable clan – as a Mackintosh, the family that created Quality Street chocolates. Liz learned early how to navigate family diplomacy, because by the time she was three her parents had split up. Her mother, a secretary at Mackintosh’s who’d married the boss’s son, moved from the family seat in Norfolk to Newcastle upon Tyne, where she remarried a coat manufacturer. Meanwhile, Liz’s father, a director in the family firm, also remarried and Liz and her elder sister Diana gained a stepsister and in due course three half-brothers. ‘It could have been difficult,’ Liz acknowledges, ‘but I was lucky. I loved my stepfather and stepmother and instead of having one stable home, I had two.’
Liz in her modelling days, 1968
She went to boarding school in Harrogate, finishing school in Switzerland, ‘and then I moved to London at 19’. She didn’t bother with university: ‘Back then, if you had five O-levels, clean fingernails and spoke nicely, you could walk into any job,’ she recalls. Nor did she bother with ‘the debutante thing’ – in 1969 that was no longer cool. Instead, she shared a house in Fulham with a gaggle of like-minded girls and found work as a model and office girl. Her early 20s were a blast: ‘I travelled and got up to all sorts of wacky things.’ But eventually she tired of partying and took herself back to Newcastle where she worked in a school for the disabled before training to work in Montessori nurseries. ‘I adored working with disabled children,’ she says, ‘although I never imagined that I would eventually have one of my own.’
Her 30s, she admits, ‘were what I call my period noir’. After two short-lived marriages, she found herself, at 32, alone with her 19-month-old daughter Natalya. For seven years, she was a single mother living in a small flat in West Hampstead. ‘It was tough financially and I was terribly lonely,’ she says. ‘Thank God I had my daughter because she gave me a reason to get up in the morning.’
Looking at Liz now, fizzing with energy, it is hard to imagine her downbeat. ‘But everybody has to deal with difficulties,’ she says. ‘And the infuriating truth is that you only learn deep, meaningful lessons through deep, meaningful pain.’ At 39, a mutual friend introduced her to Johnnie, and overnight her life turned around. ‘There is a huge element of timing and good fortune with relationships,’ she says. ‘You don’t have to be rich, clever or pretty. You just have to be lucky.’ Liz is all those things, but she is also someone who understands that by enhancing the lives of others, you enhance your own.
Johnnie, a former Life Guards officer and businessman, was separated with three daughters, and the youngest, Violet, was the same age as Natalya. The two girls struck up a friendship, and on the strength of that Johnnie invited Natalya and Liz to his holiday flat in the South of France. The week was a huge success: Johnnie proposed soon afterwards and they were married within the year.
He couldn’t offer her a castle – the double-moated Hever, which belonged to Anne Boleyn long before it was bought by William Waldorf Astor, had been sold to professional tour operators – but he did have a farmhouse nearby which they transformed into their current sumptuously comfortable home.
Liz was 40 when she gave birth to their son Charles. Two years later, Olivia was born. Charles was a bundle of joy, but Olivia banged her head against the cot incessantly at night, was slow to walk and talk and impossible to potty train. Fearing that being an older mother had damaged her daughter’s development, Liz was racked with guilt. But when Olivia was four, Liz learned that her age was irrelevant: Olivia was autistic. ‘As a child, she was locked in her own world,’ Liz recalls. ‘She never wanted a cuddle – she hated being touched.’ Yet today, at 20, Olivia is an avid reader and film-goer and has just embarked upon her final year at a special-needs college where she is learning life skills such as shopping and cooking that will enable her to lead a semi-independent life. She also occasionally gives her mother a precious hug. ‘I have learnt so much through having Olivia, I can’t imagine who I would have been without her,’ Liz says. ‘But it has been uphill all the way.’
‘No matter how fabulous anyone’s life may look on the surface, it is usually full of complications’
Like so many parents of disabled children, Liz found herself going through stages of denial and anger before acceptance. And her connections were of little use when it came to battles with schools and health services. ‘The only difference having a title makes is that people answer your calls,’ she says. She researched countless therapies and threw herself into fundraising for autism-related charities, undertaking challenges such as the London Marathon and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
Liz is undeniably plucky, but there is another side of her that is deeply reflective – and that is where her writing comes in. ‘I enjoy being in my own head and saying those things that are unsayable in real life,’ she says. At one point in her novel, she writes: ‘Can I tell you something I am very ashamed about I’ve begun to fantasise about getting on a plane to anywhere to escape for a while. Completely alone.’ The words come from the mouth of her character Maisie, but the thoughts are straight from Liz’s heart. ‘Carers’ fatigue is a dirty secret, but I have been there, and you are not there once, you go there and you recover, then you go there again,’ she says. ‘Especially if you have several people to look after.’
For many years, as she struggled with Olivia, Liz was also dealing with the needs of an extended family, including Natalya who was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in her teens and forced to move schools several times. Liz would never have got through it all, she is convinced, without the support of her Danish-born mother Bronda. ‘We were always close, but the children brought us closer still,’ she says. ‘She was the most devoted grandmother – always on Natalya’s side when she floundered at school and always there for me whenever I would get low because of the things Olivia couldn’t do. She would say: “Darling, think where you have come from. We were told she was never going to walk, so what does it matter if she knocks her knees” and I would feel instantly better.’
With her late mother Bronda in 2006
But six years ago, while consulting a doctor about a lump in her breast, Bronda, then 78, received further bad news. The breast specialist told her that she not only had cancer, but that he was almost certain, looking at the tremor in her hand, that she also had Parkinson’s disease. An appointment with a Parkinson’s specialist confirmed the diagnosis.
‘The terrible thing about Parkinson’s is that there is no cure,’ says Liz. ‘It is a terrifying diagnosis with a slow decline.’ Bronda’s illness developed gradually at first, but she got to the point where she was unable to do anything but read and watch TV. Her condition was hampered by depression. Seeing her previously vibrant mother deteriorate was, says Liz, ‘like watching a large, firm hand crush a fragile paper bag’.
As a family, they all rallied. Liz’s sister Diana, a former nurse, did ‘a huge amount of hands-on caring’, and her brother Charles ‘sorted out paperwork’. Liz fulfilled the role of chief cheerer-upper. ‘I understood the importance of retaining dignity,’ she says. ‘Our mother had always been elegant and beautiful and couldn’t bear the idea of ending up looking a ghastly mess, so I made sure she was always well-groomed.’
Two years after her diagnosis, Bronda died at home surrounded by her loved ones. There is, of course, nothing so exceptional about an elderly woman dying of Parkinson’s disease, but there is something remarkably touching about the way Liz has recaptured the moment in her novel. ‘I did it almost subconsciously,’ she says. She had thought that she would use the book as a fundraiser for autism, but her agent Diane Banks told her: ‘It’s much more a book about Parkinson’s.’
‘And until she said that, I hadn’t realised what I had created,’ says Liz. She has decided to give 10p from every sale to the charity Parkinson’s UK.
Liz’s next hurdle is resolving Olivia’s future. She will finish college next year ‘and the worst-case scenario for her would be to have to live with her ageing parents’, Liz says. ‘It’s not easy and I did fall into a black hole worrying about it, but now we are making plans.’ Her vision involves a house for
Olivia shared with others with special needs and the setting up of a charity-shop enterprise.
Meanwhile, Liz is already mapping out her next book, which, she says, is going to be about a woman torn between what she wants to do and duty – ‘a dilemma I live with on a daily basis’. Not that she is complaining. ‘Like most families, mine is not perfect, but providing you have enough love, you can deal with anything,’ she says. ‘And life is more interesting when you just have to get on with it.’
Since You Went Away is available as an e-book, 4.99, from online book retailers. For more information on Parkinson’s disease, visit parkinsons.org.uk