Vanity Fair’s James Reginato on Britain’s ‘Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats’ and America’s Anglophilia

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Diane Clehane and James Reginato

DianeClehaneLunch_FeaturedI’ve always been obsessed with the lives of the British aristocracy (Oh, how I miss Downton Abbey!) and their great homes that have been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. If those walls could talk. Many of those stately and storied houses have survived great wars, economic upheavals, and their fair share of scandal. That’s why I was excited to get the exclusive first interview with James Reginato, writer at large for Vanity Fair and a contributing editor of Sotheby’s Magazine, whose new book, Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats (Rizzoli) comes out next week. The book chronicles the fascinating lineage and examines the amazing architecture of the houses belonging to some of the leading families of Great Britain, in a lush and very weighty tome. (If I had to guess I’d say the book weighs about four pounds.) If you’re starting your holiday shopping early, it’s the perfect gift for the PBS-obsessed and lovers of traditional interior design and English country life.

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Diane Clehane and James Reginato
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I asked James, who was born in Chicago, why he’d chosen to take on such a quintessentially British subject for his first book. “There’s so much interest in this world and there’s an amazing amount of interest right now,” he told me. “Anglophilia has always been of great interest in America. I guess it’s because we don’t have our own royals.”

I told James he was sitting in the very seat Charles Spencer occupied when he ‘Lunched’ with me a while back, while in the states promoting his latest book. It turned out we had the Earl Spencer’s acquaintance in common. “I’ve been to his cricket games,” said James. “You know about those, don’t you?” Well of course, old bean.

Over the years James has written about the lives of Britain’s titled set and has made some helpful friends along the way. “Getting into that world is a tough nut to crack, let alone getting into their homes or castles.” But charming James found that, just like with commoners, all you need is one well-connected pal, and you’re in. “You can’t cold-call these people,” he said chuckling, “One person led me to the next and so on.”

With James’ unrivaled access into this rarefied world, the book takes readers on an exhaustive armchair house tour of 16 opulent residences (“They’re such a mix of grandeur and charm”) with many of the interiors shown here for the first time. “These houses are full of stories. I wouldn’t have been interested in doing this if there weren’t great stories. These houses shaped the lives of generations.” Among the luxe look-ins: Blenheim Palace which, with its seven acres matches the splendor of any of the British royal family’s residences—and is the property of the Dukes of Marlborough; the exquisite Old Vicarage in Derbyshire, last residence of the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (née Deborah Mitford); Haddon Hall, a 900-year-old manor house christened the most romantic house in England, which belongs to the Duke of Rutland. “They have such great titles, don’t they?” enthused James.

Not surprisingly, the book’s pedigree is as upper crust as its subjects. Besides being a longtime contract writer for Vanity Fair (more on that later), James had a memorable stint as features director for W Magazine. The book’s principal photography is by Jonathan Becker, whose work regularly appears in Vogue, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Viscount Linley wrote the book’s foreword. “I first met David (Linley) when he married Serena (Linley) and was a newlywed,” said James. “We’ve been friends ever since. He’d been to every one of these houses, so I was honored that he agreed to write the foreword.”

Speaking of the royal family, I was most intrigued by the inclusion of Dumfries House, an 18th century Palladian villa in Ayrshire, Scotland with an unparalleled collection of British rococo furniture, including many pieces by Thomas Chippendale. I recognized Jonathan’s photograph of a kilt-wearing Prince Charles standing in a doorway in the house as an image that appeared on the cover of Architectural Digest. James told me he’d originally written a piece on the house for the magazine and gone back and updated it for the book.