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A VISCOUNT AND HIS VICES Michael Pearson’s love of fast cars, faster women, flying machines and gambling lit up London in the 1970s. But then he found Buddha, reformed his life and retired to the country. So why, despite his vast fortune, has he now put the family pile up for sale? Christopher Silvester investigates the Cowdray conundrum


ast year, the news that Lord Cowdray had decided to downsize by selling off his family seat of Cowdray Park, while retaining the bulk of the 17,000-acre West Sussex estate in which it lies, came as a shock to many observers of the lifestyles of the super-rich. After all, Lord Cowdray and the Pearson family still own a ten per cent stake in Pearson, the media conglomerate, as well as other assets that amount to a fortune of £850 million and gave them a ranking of 68th in this year’s Sunday Times Rich List. But when Cowdray Park finally went on the block at the beginning of August, with a price tag of £25 million, the reality began to sink in. The Pearson family’s direct line are abandoning their home of a hundred years. ‘It’s a huge decision,’ says former gossip columnist Richard Compton Miller. ‘It must be as big a wrench for Lord Cowdray as it was for Lord Hesketh when he decided to sell Easton Neston.’ Now, it must be said that Cowdray Park is decidedly not one of the great stately homes of England. Although the parkland dates back to medieval times and contains the ruins of an older manorial residence, the house is a lifestyle E S M AGA Z I N E

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Clockwise from right: Michael Pearson with his girlfriend, the model Barbara Ray, on board The Hedonist in 1970; Pearson assists a model trying on a shirt designed by his friend Patrick Lichfield in 1968; a scene from his hit film Vanishing Point (1971); the Cowdray family crest


From left: Dai Llewellyn at The Berkeley Square Ball in 1979; Minah Bird in 1976; Weetman John Churchill Pearson, 3rd Viscount Cowdray, at Cowdray Park in 1952

The Pearson family fortune initially derived from a Yorkshire brick-making business. The 1st Viscount, Weetman Pearson, expanded into engineering and built the first Blackwall Tunnel, tunnels under the East River in New York, and Dover harbour. same team as Prince Philip. Known in the City In Mexico he developed coal and oil fields, as the one-armed bandit because he had lost drained the capital, and crisscrossed the an arm at Dunkirk – after having the limb country with oil interests. As a Liberal MP, amputated, he is reputed to have said, ‘Thank before being made a peer, he was referred to as God, now I won’t have to play golf any more’ – hen Michael Pearson, the the Member for Mexico. By the time Michael’s John Pearson doughtily continued to play polo 4th Viscount Cowdray, father John inherited the title in 1933, his estate, (with reins tied to a hook), shoot game with and his wife Marina after death duties, included land in Scotland specially rebalanced guns, and cast and reel in moved to Cowdray Park and Rhodesia as well as the Cowdray estate. a fishing line with his one good arm. Although he went on to become a business in 1995, following the Over the next 60 years, the 3rd Viscount death of Michael’s father, the bill for rewiring acquired an 805,000-head cattle ranch in Texas titan, John Pearson had not done a stroke of the house came to £1 million. ‘A house this size and Château Latour in Bordeaux. At the same work until he was 28, so he can’t have been too is a hell of a responsibility,’ Michael has said of time, the Pearson family business moved into dismayed by his son’s antics. By the age of his decision to sell, one with which he does not merchant banking through Lazard Brothers, 24, Michael had served as a trooper in the Life wish to burden his son and heir Peregrine, 15. book publishing with Longman and Penguin, Guards, done a stint in the family business, and ‘In the years we have been here, I have worried and media via the Financial Times, the a spot of farming on the Cowdray estate, but whether I will be leaving Perry with a wonder- Westminster Press local newspaper group, he was more interested in making money ful asset or a noose around his neck. I fear it is and stakes in The Economist and Investors from business ventures that dovetailed with likely to be the latter.’ Freed from responsibility, Chronicle. S Pearson and Son was floated as his pleasure-loving lifestyle. He started backwill Peregrine be able to enjoy a similarly a public company in 1969, midway through ing films, putting up £500,000 for a couple of hedonistic lifestyle to that which his father led John’s tenure as chairman. forgettable releases. Noting that it was costing His other notable achievement was the post- him £10,000 a year to eat out in London, his in the 1960s before settling down or will he be war revival of British polo at the a more driven figure like his grandfather? financial advisers told him it Michael was educated at Gordonstoun, Cowdray Park Polo Club, which Inheriting would be cheaper to buy a which another old boy of the school, Anthony is separate from, though adjacent restaurant, so that’s what he Haden-Guest, recalls as being ‘sort of an upper- to, the property that is for sale. £7 million aged did, paying £15,000 for a French class Borstal’. Having inherited £7 million on Although Michael never sought 21, he acquired a bistro in Belgravia, Le Coq au his 21st birthday, Michael acquired a Ferrari, a polo glory after a fall from a horse Ferrari, a white Vin, in 1968. He had an interest white Rolls-Royce and a helicopter, in which at the age of 13, his father was in a New York boutique, an he would whisk girls off to Bardsey, his private always a keen player, having won Rolls-Royce and apartment development in the island off the Welsh coast. He also had an 84ft an Oxford Blue and played on the a helicopter Bahamas, and within a couple of yacht, worth £100,000 according years he had a hit film on his to a 1969 estimate, which he called Cowdray Hall hands – a cult road movie called The Hedonist. In its day, it was the Vanishing Point, from a screenheight of chic, sleeping eight plus a play by the Cuban-born novelist crew of four, with air conditioning, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, in a deep freeze, and a stereophonic which a delivery driver speeds sound system. He later acquired a across the country in under 15 house in The Boltons, Chelsea, hours for a bet, in defiance of which, in addition to its six traffic cops and guided by ‘Super bedrooms, boasted a swimming Soul’, a blind black DJ with a pool, disco, private cinema, and a police radio scanner. shooting range. On one occasion in Resolutely bearded from the 1960s he won £32,000 off Lord his early twenties onwards, Lucan in a game of backgammon. Michael’s face fungus was no

neo-Gothic Victorian pile, built in the 1870s by the 7th Earl of Egmont, with various faux medieval and Tudor flourishes, which was acquired by Lord Cowdray’s great-grandfather, the 1st Viscount, at the beginning of the last century. Assuming that the property is sold in the near future, the September 2009 wedding of Cowdray’s 21-year-old daughter Eliza to Richard Branson’s 31-year-old nephew Ned Abel Smith (who had changed his name by deed poll to Ned RocknRoll) was the last great Pearson family occasion to be held at the house.



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daughter, Marina Cordle, who subsequently bore him three daughters and two sons, and who shares his ecological and spiritual interests. ‘They’re really ecominded, but then they can afford to be,’ says Seward. ‘He’s not a weirdo. He’s a very chilled person now. He From left: Ned RocknRoll and Eliza Pearson at the 2009 Veuve Clicquot doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, Gold Cup final at Cowdray Park; the Pearsons, (from left) Montague, Emily, he doesn’t do anything wild, but Peregrine, Marina, Eliza and Michael, at the same event he’s still fun. I think his gentle side has come out during his marriage to Marina.’ To celebrate impediment to his amorous pursuits. He dated fortune in an Irish sweepstake. Michael the millennium, he built a Buddhist temple in a string of debutantes, models and actresses. financed Mim to go round the world and the grounds of the estate. If the bohemian aspect of his personality His three-year relationship with English model record interesting music – to make “the world’s remains ingrained, so does his respect for his Barbara Ray yielded a son, Sebastian, born greatest album”.’ Ingrid Seward, who went on to edit Majesty father. One friend says: ‘Michael is just a reout of wedlock though proudly recorded by Michael in Debrett’s. He and Ray have a lasting magazine, first got to know Pearson when she action to his dad. His dad was driven, ambitious, friendship, with Barbara later remodelling his was fresh out of secretarial college and work- tough – the man who made Pearson the London home and Michael helping to finance ing as a PR for the Playboy casino empire: ‘I corporate beast it is today. He also resurrected her interior design business. Sebastian, now remember lunches and dinner at his home in polo in this country after the war. He was a 40, is a photographer and a keen polo player. The Boltons. There were parties every night.’ close friend of the Queen, and at one time, After Barbara, there were affairs with Emma His was a very fast-moving set that included apart from her and the Duke of Westminster, Chetwode, niece of the Earl of Minto; a Anthony Bamford of the JCB family, George de he was Britain’s wealthiest person – a massive Spanish model, Maria Perez; a Nigerian model, Vere Drummond of the banking family, the figure. So I think Michael said to himself right Minah Bird; and Miranda Quarry, ex-wife of controversial asset-stripper John Bentley and from the start, “Well, I’m not going to match up the artist Willy Fielding, famous for his erotica, to that, so I’m not even going to try.” ’ Last year Peter Sellers. who painted trompe l’oeil murals for Michael. he opened a 16-acre arboretum in honour of his father at Benbow Pond on the A272, which will e’s the last of that generation ‘They’re still his close friends,’ says Seward. While his long hair and ample beard gave not be included in the sale. Two of his children, of 1960s ravers,’ says Compton Miller. ‘Every summer that him a hippyish air, he was nonetheless serious Sebastian and Eliza, were married in open-air boat would sail around the about wanting his business ventures to suc- pagan rituals, officiated by druids, around a Mediterranean with a growing ceed. ‘I doubt if Michael would sleep rough at modern mini-henge of foot-high stones beneath list of beautiful women on board.’ Michael a rock festival in the rain,’ says Haden-Guest. Cowdray Park’s avenue of Wellingtonias. Today, Pearson remains a slightly bohemian started sporting a Hussar suit, open-neck (Michael is not the only member of the family shirts or dragon ties ‘of shrieking green’ and a to eschew the conventional. In the late 1980s his figure, with shorter, thinning hair, but still Wild West belt. Many of his gang of lotus-eater half-sister Rosie married a Rastafarian reggae sporting the beard of his youth, though it is friends are either dead, like Patrick Lichfield musician, Palma Taylor, the son of a Tube now more salt than pepper. He resembles that and Dai Llewellyn, or living extremely quietly, driver, who she had met while working as inner- other bearded aristo Prince Michael of Kent. some of them suffering from ill-health. Michael cities correspondent on The Independent.) One ‘Michael has an enquiring mind, he always still owns a portrait of himself from this period, indication of his more serious side came in wants to know more about life,’ says Seward. ‘He’s an incredibly deep-thinking painted at one of Dai Llewellyn’s nightclubs, 1974 when he declined a and kind person. I think Cowdray Wedgies. ‘Pearson is a Sixties survivor. He £10,000 wager to streak An indication of is just a very big, draughty turned over a new leaf in the mid-1970s, gave from Tramp in Jermyn Michael’s serious Park house to him.’ up being a playboy, had children, and rejoined Street to Belgravia. The He and Marina are moving back to the human race – instead of being the raver following year, when side came in 1974 the cottage where they lived before that we’d all slightly wanted to be if we’d had the Labour government when he declined his father died, on the northern the money to afford it. He certainly had a won- started to ‘soak the a £10,000 wager boundary of the Cowdray estate. It derful time auditioning future Lady Cowdrays,’ rich’, Pearson moved to California, put his yacht to streak from is a modest residence compared to continues Compton Miller. The gossip columnists in the late 1960s and and his private island up Tramp to Belgravia Cowdray Park itself, with its 16 bedrooms (excluding the attic early 1970s always referred to him as a playboy, for sale, and spent the but that isn’t strictly accurate. ‘I think the word remainder of the decade living as a tax exile, rooms). Merely insulating the house costs a playboy is putting it a bit strongly,’ says Haden- darting between an apartment in Monte Carlo king’s ransom, whereas their new old home Guest, who is several years older than Pearson and a home in Ibiza. In 1977 he married is a model of ecological sustainability, with a but a good friend. ‘A lot of rich kids of a mildly German model Ellen ‘Fritzi’ Erhardt, the biomass boiler fuelled by wood chips from hippyish disposition at that time would back a daughter of a German industrialist. The the estate, and its own water supply. The play or rock band or club or restaurant or film, dancing at their Bavarian lakeside wedding 4th Viscount Cowdray has said that he is ‘not or something of that nature. He was very much went on until 6am and an island-hopping the sort of person who feels hugely attached of that genre. Also, he had a kind of entourage. Caribbean honeymoon followed. But the to things’, but he will doubtless miss the There was a chap called Bones and Mim Scala, marriage only lasted seven years and in 1987 Wellingtonias, the pond he and Marina a young Italian hippie whose dad had won a he was married again, this time to a Tory MP’s created, and that Buddhist temple. 28

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A Viscount and His Vices  

Article from ES MAGAZINE

A Viscount and His Vices  

Article from ES MAGAZINE