From Tory MP to Humble Agent, Lord Caithness as a Single Parent and Deb's Estate Faces Life `Mum'; TWO YEARS AFTER HER MOTHER'S SUICIDE, IONA CAITHNESS PREPARES FOR HER DEBUTANTE BALL WITH ONLY HER FATHER BY HER SIDE

Daily Mail (London), June 24, 1996 | Go to article overview

From Tory MP to Humble Agent, Lord Caithness as a Single Parent and Deb's Estate Faces Life `Mum'; TWO YEARS AFTER HER MOTHER'S SUICIDE, IONA CAITHNESS PREPARES FOR HER DEBUTANTE BALL WITH ONLY HER FATHER BY HER SIDE


Byline: GEOFFREY LEVY

FOR a moment, at the Cavalry Club in London's Piccadily, the Earl of Caithness seemed to have stumbled into the wrong lunch party as he was hit by the competitive chatter of 70 debutantes' mothers.

But there was the hostess, the widowed Lady Juliet de Chair, whose daughter Helena is among those coming out this year, hurrying across to greet him warmly with air kisses and ushering him into the twittering throng.

Lord Caithness was at the right party. But the annual debutante society ritual is dominated by mothers, and he was the only father in the room. He was there because this year he is bringing out his 18-year-old daughter, Lady Iona.

It is two-and-a-half years since the afternoon his wife Diana went upstairs at their country home in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, put one of her husband's shotguns to her head and pulled the trigger. The Earl and Iona, who were downstairs playing patience, pushed open the door of the master bedroom and were confronted by the horrific sight of the Countess's spreadeagled body.

She did not leave a note but that morning - the eve of their 19th wedding anniversary - she and her husband had rowed fiercely about their future and about the Earl's friendship with Mrs Jan Fitzalan-Howard, a divorcee.

Within hours of his wife's death, the Earl had resigned his government post as Transport Minister in the House of Lords. And soon he began to feel the lash of bitter words from the Countess's grieving parents, Major Richard Coke and his wife Molly, who blamed him for their daughter's death.

`I think my daughter's husband behaved extremely badly,' declared Major Coke, a decorated war hero, choosing his words with restraint. `There is no doubt she was very unhappy because of the breakdown of her marriage.'

To the Cokes, nothing has changed. The misery of the wretched Christmas a few days before Diana's death, when the Countess and her children - but not the Earl - stayed with them in King's Lynn, Norfolk, and she confided her troubles to her mother, will never leave them.

Despite protestations from the Earl's side of the family that he had to cope for years with Diana's depressions, the death of the Countess has carved an irreparable rift between them.

Last month, when the late countess's farmer brother Justin, to whom her son Berrie (Lord Berriedale), now 15, was particularly close, got married, neither Lord Caithness nor his two children were at the large country wedding in West Newton, Norfolk.

Friends explain that Caithness had previously accepted an invitation to the marriage of an old friend's daughter in Scotland.

But a cousin of the Countess says: `We were amazed that the children weren't at Justin's wedding, particularly Berrie, even if Malcolm (Lord Caithness) wasn't. All his life the boy has been spending days on the farm with Justin. He adored the man. We simply couldn't believe he wasn't there.

`We all still live with Diana's death. It's a shadow over the family that will never go away.'

But what about the Earl? The shadow over his life appears to be receding.

And so, it seems, has his friendship with Jan Fitzalan-Howard.

`I'm in fine fettle,' he tells me. `I am an ordinary human being bringing up two children, living a very quiet life, working to earn some money. I do the best for my children. They have been through a lot but they are very happy. That is all there is to me. End of story.'

Well, not quite. Now 47, Lord Caithness is becoming a familiar figure on the Central London property scene, having set up a small and exclusive estate agency with an old friend, Victoria Tinne, in Chelsea last September.

The 20th Earl of Caithness was spotted just the other day showing a client over a flat in Chelsea with due felicity, even deference, details of the maisonette (with terrace) pinned firmly under his arm. …

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