Standing on the steps of the Bedford, Ohio Historical Society, John Robert Russell, England’s 13th Duke of Bedford, delicately flicked away a drop of perspiration from his brow. “I thought your independence involved chucking out the British,” he said, reviewing a parade of costumed schoolchildren. “But I am touched we were invited.”
The duke and his French-born duchess, Nicole, were in the Cleveland suburb to participate in its Bicentennial celebration. The town was named in honor of Bedford, England, the ancestral home of some of its founders.
The duke and duchess were promised a taste of Middle American life, and did they ever get it. For five days, while townsfolk addressed them as “Your Graces” (correct) and “Sir John and Lady Russell” (a boo-boo), the couple attended 35 teas, tours and parades. One evening the duke put on a dark suit and starched white shirt, and the duchess appeared in the family pearls and an elegant silk-and-lace evening gown. They were escorted to a dinner of fried chicken and potato salad at Das Gast Haus, a former bowling alley where customers can eat all they want for $2.25. Later they took in a PTA meeting.
Bedford decided it wanted to celebrate the nation’s birthday differently. After it inquired in Bedford, England about an exchange of dignitaries, the duke and duchess were prevailed upon to visit—for a $3,500 fee. The town raised the money with bingo, bake sales and quilting parties. (The duchess got the quilt.)
“Think of it this way,” one civic booster explained. “Celebrities don’t come cheap. Frank Sinatra would have cost us $10,000.” In any event, Bedford found the noble visitors charming and approachable, and they reciprocated. “They are being so nice,” the duke marveled. “Everywhere I go in this country I meet the same 200 people,” the duchess added, “just other me’s. Here I am meeting the people who live in these lovely, little white houses and have these wonderful little gardens. It is fascinating, just fascinating.”
An around-the-clock schedule is nothing new to the Bedfords. “I work 18 hours a day,” Nicole, 55, says. “There are no unions for duchesses.” A few years ago the duke transformed his 3,000-acre, 120-room Woburn Abbey into an amusement park which draws two million visitors each year. But since 1974, when he turned the estate over to his son, the duke, 58, has been somewhat at loose ends. “I’m looking for work,” he admitted, “something in travel, PR, oh, I don’t know. The grass is always greener elsewhere.”
“Leaving Woburn was like jumping out of a fairy tale,” the duchess said. “First we went to Portugal, but they had a revolution,” the duke explained. “Then we moved to Rome, but with all that kidnapping…so we went to Paris.” For the past year they have been traveling (always without servants) to plug her autobiography, Nicole Nobody.
Money has been a problem since their departure from Woburn. “You Americans have this lovely notion about English royalty,” the duke said. “You think the prince marries the princess and they go off to live happily ever after in a beautiful castle. In reality the prince is trying to get that lovely 300-year-old roof to stop leaking.”