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July 22, 1976: Portrait of a Lady

In Hollywood, there are acting dynasties, such as the Barrymores and the Hustons. Fashion has the de la Falaises.

In Hollywood, there are acting dynasties, such as the Barrymores, the Hustons, the Redgraves and Fondas. Fashion has the de la Falaises, which was once headed by matriarch Lady Rhoda Birley. In 1976, WWD interviewed the celebrated beauty, her daughter Maxime de la Falaise and grandchildren Alexis and Loulou. This week, WWD looks back at “A Family With Style,” starting with the Lady herself.

“She’s heavenly,” Lady Diana Cooper said to our London correspondent about Birley, “full of goodness and absolutely guileless. Splendid at potent food for people and flowers. But I believe she’s rather forgetful nowadays.” If that was the case, Birley was certainly on point when WWD visited her Charleston Manor home in Sussex, England. She recalled how she once cooked lobster thermidor for her roses — “Roses enjoy all sorts of things we enjoy ourselves” — and recounted her childhood growing up in Ireland. “Her father was a blustery, red-haired Irishman called Pike,” wrote WWD. “She was rather terrorized by her parents and made friends with her governess, whom she adored.” Birley, who eventually married English painter Sir Oswald Birley at age 19, also told of her gift for mixing people at parties. “Everybody should be on the same level of good manners and affection and understanding,” she said. “High society is for people who are not professionals.”

Whether the Manor was haunted, as rumored, Birley said absolutely not. Granddaughter Loulou de la Falaise, however, noted otherwise. “Lady Birley had it exorcised,” she said. “Everyone except her is a bit nervous there.” And everyone included Loulou’s mother Maxime, who grew up there and told WWD, “I was miserable. Aside from the house being spooky, it’s set in a pocket in the hill and has no air.” But Maxime did add that mom Birley had “a wonderful solution for teenage children at parties. I would wear the dress she had chosen until she said goodnight to me, and then I would go upstairs, change my clothes and for the rest of the night she wouldn’t officially recognize me.”

As for her current relationship with family, Birley remarked, “I’m always happy to hear what my children and grandchildren are doing, but I don’t interfere with their lives, because mothers are a great bore, don’t you think?”

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