They Play House in a 90-Room Ducal Disneyland

“Do you realize that when we grow up,” exclaimed 15-year-old Robin Russell, “you will be my wife and this will be our home?” He meant the 90-room Woburn Abbey in which his family has lived for centuries. Henrietta Tiarks, also 15, was speechless. But she thought to herself—”Never!”—and that applied both to potential husband and the crumbling 224-year-old mausoleum where he intended to install her.

Henrietta was two hundred percent wrong. This spring, 19 years later, Robin, the Marquess of Tavistock, and Henrietta, his marchioness, moved their two children in and became lord and lady of Woburn Abbey, since refurbished into one of England’s most grandiose homes. Along with all those rooms and 3,000 acres, Henrietta and Robin have also taken over something neither of them wanted: management of the merchandising operations that have turned Woburn into a ducal Disneyland, one of the top-drawing tourist wonders of the world.

Twenty years ago, Woburn Abbey was little more than a deteriorating warehouse for the Russell family’s $4 million art collection that had been gathering dust since the days of Henry VIII. When Robin’s father, John Robert Russell, the 13th Duke of Bedford, inherited both the property and a $14 million tax bill in 1953, he figured that the only salvation was tourism. Despite the outcries of traditionalists, he ran rubberneck tours of the estate, which he equipped with imported slot machines, jukeboxes and trading stamps. Through a 40-acre Wild Animal Kingdom on the property, he hawked everything from suede jerkins to safaris. The star attraction was the eccentric duke himself, who personally sold souvenirs and charged nobility-struck Americans $150 a night to imbibe and dine with him and the duchess.

Though the direct heir to his father’s title, Robin had no taste for the Barnum-type business at Woburn. Shy and studious, he fled to Harvard to study economics. There he renewed his friendship with Henrietta. The glamorous daughter of an English banker and a onetime deb-of-the-year in London, she was having widely publicized flings at study at Briarcliff College, $100-an-hour modeling jobs in New York and dates with the Aga Khan.

The gossip columnists had already pronounced Henrietta a flippant snob, “the most beautiful snub-nosed girl in the world,” and even she concedes that sometimes “I don’t think before I speak.” Her reputation did not faze Robin, who had known Henrietta since they were 2-year-olds sharing rides to toddler parties. “Since I was an only child,” she recalls, “Robin was like a brother. We could discuss each other’s dates.” Eventually, they were dating each other and, despite opposition from the duke, who professed alarm at Henrietta’s cafe society life-style, they became marquess and marchioness in 1961. Robin settled into the investment business in London, and Henrietta watched over their two sons, Andrew and Robin, now 12 and 10. Woburn, they anticipated, would pass to young Andrew in a decade or two.

This year, however, the 57-year-old duke pulled yet another unexpected caper. He and the duchess suddenly packed up and whisked away to their other homes (in France, Portugal and Switzerland) amidst sporadic rumors that their marriage was kaput. The French-born, cigar-smoking duchess had just published Nicole Nobody, a best-selling autobiographical shocker in which she detailed a three-day sexual marathon in 1946 with a stranger who forced his way into her hotel room and gave her “an awakening that every woman should experience.”

Henrietta tried frantically to change her father-in-law’s mind. “To put the burden on my husband’s back at this stage,” she argued, “was an act of selfishness.” Robin, nonplussed too, laments, “I never believed Father would leave until he actually did it.”

Robin arrived back at Woburn Abbey without so much as directions to the fuse box. “To throw me in at the deep end was deliberate on Father’s part,” he says. “He knew I’d find my own way.” Now, after only three months the duke’s strategem has apparently succeeded and the young marquess seems well in command. He has proscribed such flamboyant traffic as nudist conclaves and hippie love-ins that his father once happily hosted. He is contemplating a leisure center with drive-in movie theater and artificial ski slope. Lord Tavistock is also considering shutting down for a month to give the place “a good clean.”

As mistress of the sprawling household and “his first assistant, the veep,” Henrietta shares a leather-topped partner’s desk in her husband’s office, as well as the 12-to 14-hour work day.

She’s adjusted to sleeping in the baronial master bedroom, but only after replacing a Canaletto on the wall, because she found a Gainsborough from elsewhere in the house easier on the eyes in the morning.

Yet even with her own touches, Lady Tavistock feels that “this is a man’s home. If Robin died or left me, I would have to leave. If we had only a daughter, it would pass to the nearest male relation. Woburn cannot be mine. I’m just passing through.” In the meantime though, she has gamely carried on the family custom of lending a hand in the souvenir shops. “I’ve sold soap down there, and I’m all for it,” she says. “It helps to keep a roof on the house.”

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