“It was unthinkable that Debrett’s should be allowed to go,” huffs Harold Brooks-Baker, 45. “It’s English history.” So the U.S.-born former journalist bought out the foundering London publisher of the bible of British aristocracy, and within three years blotted out its red ink. But would you believe that Debrett’s Peerage Ltd. is now publishing a series of witty books spoofing the very class it has enshrined since 1765? Or has added an ancestor-sleuthing service catering to newly roots-obsessed Americans?
Though he legally bestowed his own hyphenated name on himself (he was born just a plain Baker), Harold is in most respects unbending about Debrett’s tradition. The only way to rate an entry in Debrett’s Peerage and Bar-on-etage—unlike the U.S. Social Register—is to be born a peer, marry a peer, or be a descendant or marry a descendant. “A peer can be in jail, but he is still a peer,” says the firm’s venerable editor, Patrick Montague-Smith, adding solemnly: “The only thing that can get him out is a bill of attainder for high treason.” The pecking order is also immutable. “It’s very simple—first come, first served,” observes Brooks-Baker. “The people who came to England with William the Conqueror are the bee’s knees, whether they were thugs or not.”
An Anglophile and royalist, Brooks-Baker believes the U.S. would be more governable if it had kept such an ordered system. “The saddest thing that ever happened,” he muses, “is that George Washington didn’t accept the crown [proposed at the time by Alexander Hamilton and others]. Being President is too much to ask of one person now,” feels Brooks-Baker. “An attractive figurehead would be a good solution, but it would have to be an hereditary figurehead—elected figureheads are not successful.” Whether or not the beleaguered U.S. incumbent might half-agree, Brooks-Baker has traced Jimmy Carter’s geneology back to the British throne.
Brooks-Baker himself didn’t really need the affectation of taking a double-barreled name. His Baker ancestors arrived in the Colonies in the fashionably early 1680s. Some went to Maryland, others helped found Wilton, Conn., and they wound up in the thick of U.S. history including the Teapot Dome scandal. Harold’s father was a prominent corporation lawyer in Washington, D.C., and the boy, who contracted polio at 13 (which left him with a slight limp), graduated from Trinity College in Hartford. He dropped out of the University of Virginia law school to become a reporter for two years in Washington, D.C. on the nonprofit, now defunct American Observer. Next he was hired by an investment management corporation in Switzerland. Hobnobbing abroad with the titled paid off; at a party at Cap d’Antibes in 1962 he met his future wife, Irène de Luart, a La Rochefoucauld on her mother’s side and related to the Queen of England through both the Tudors and Mary Queen of Scots.
Brooks-Baker still professes to be untitillated by titles: “I look at it from a distance, and I’m not trapped in the nonsense.” That whimsical detachment sparked the new Debrett publications on noble foibles. The best-selling first volume, The English Gentleman, by Maj. Douglas Sutherland, informed that this endangered species lives deep in the country, carries his hankerchief in his sleeve, has two suits (one for funerals, one for London) and won’t drive a Rolls-Royce unless it is very old and smells of dogs. The English Gentleman’s Wife (“All ladies mend their own underwear”) and The English Gentleman’s Child are out, and one on mistresses is on the way. So is Salt Water Palaces (royal yachts), with a preface written by Lord Louis Mountbatten before his murder at sea by IRA terrorists.
Brooks-Baker is meanwhile doing increasing business in the U.S. with his new Debrett Ancestor Research Service which now employs four full-time geneologists plus a network of 200 part-time researchers in all the countries of Europe (except Albania). For a fee of $285 they will check out 19th-and 20th-century ancestors from four to nine generations. (Back to Adam is on a cost-plus basis.) The service has attracted 1,300 clients including the Rev. Billy Graham.
With Debrett’s safely out of financial trouble, Brooks-Baker has increased his staff fivefold to 30. That gives him more time to spend in his carelessly gracious town house in Chelsea with his wife and two daughters. He’s now contemplating An International Directory of High Achievers, which he thinks will bring petro-dollars to Debrett’s. “The jet set, of course, has no real place,” he sniffs. “They won’t pass their place on to their children. They’re like life peers.”