For decades, the question puzzled and intrigued: why would the Marchioness of Bath, in her prime a woman of considerable, if haughty, beauty, choose to remain married to a libidinous husband who could never stay faithful to one woman?
The answer, of course, was complicated. There were the two children of the marriage to consider, and there was her career: first as an actress and later as a brave war reporter which, involving inevitable separation from her husband, helped embody that old adage about absence making the heart grow fonder.
Above all there was Longleat, the shimmering stately home of which she was an uncomplaining, if often absentee, chatelaine for more than half a century.
The Elizabethan pile near Warminster, Wiltshire, with its safari park of lions, giraffes and zebras, was the real mistress of the marriage — not any of Lord Bath’s 75 concubines, or ‘wifelets’, as he called them.
Richard Kay: ‘For decades, the question puzzled and intrigued: why would the Marchioness of Bath, in her prime a woman of considerable, if haughty, beauty, choose to remain married to a libidinous husband who could never stay faithful to one woman?’
Publicly, Anna Gael, the dowager Marchioness who has died at the age of 78, tolerated her husband’s polygamous eccentricity with an amused detachment. Never once did she believe that any of the women who came and went — not even the ones he semi-permanently installed in grace-and-favour houses on the estate — would do anything more than share his bedroom, and certainly not his life.
Whatever her private thoughts, she kept them to herself. She rarely gave interviews, and on the few occasions she did, it was mainly to talk about her career as a journalist and writer.
But she did let one thing slip over the years.
‘I married my husband for love, not money,’ she declared, adding that he was very clear, ‘he wanted a career woman who earned her living, who paid her taxes’.
How convenient for the man who had seduced her at the age of 15, only to delay marrying her for another ten years.
Richard Kay: ‘Publicly, Anna Gael, the dowager Marchioness who has died at the age of 78, tolerated her husband’s polygamous eccentricity with an amused detachment’
At the time of his own death at 87 two years ago — from pneumonia after contracting Covid-19 — the priapic Alexander Bath was known mainly for the witty headlines his lifestyle had spawned, such as ‘the lord of lust’ and the ‘loins of Longleat’, and his proudest boast was that he had no need of Viagra.
Even in louche, aristocratic circles the open marriage practised by Lord and Lady Bath was unconventional. She had her home in Paris, where she also had a lover, and he had the pleasure palace of Longleat with its infamous Kama Sutra room, where two wifelets would be on call so he could indulge in his favourite activity of a ‘threesome’.
In her rakish biography, The Marquess Of Bath: Lord Of Love, Nesta Wyn Ellis relates how the peer was ‘positively swarming with women who are queuing up to share his bed’. At the height of his womanising, a young lady on either side of him in bed every night was a basic requirement. When Anna was provoked to respond to stories of her husband’s womanising, she would dismiss them as fiction and invention with an imperious wave.
Even their son Ceawlin (an old Wessex name pronounced See-aw-lin), with whom Anna was to spectacularly fall out, defended his bohemian parents.
He had his own take on whether they embarked on a marriage of convenience merely to provide the dynasty with a male heir.
Ceawlin Thynn, Viscount Weymouth and Emma McQuiston marry at the Longleat Estate. In 2015 Lady Bath denied a claim that, in 2015, she had suggested to her son that marrying his half-Nigerian wife would damage the aristocratic family’s bloodline. She was subsequently banned from their wedding
‘It’s not that cut-and-dried,’ he said. ‘It was a love-match at the beginning. She fell for Dad first and Longleat was an added bonus.’ But he added: ‘She found being the Lady of Longleat fun for seven months and then realised it was not that great.’
He said that his mother felt ‘owned’ by the house.
The marriage still worked in its own way, however. ‘It was never quite as easy and harmonious as an ‘open marriage’, but that’s the general gist,’ said Ceawlin.
Shortly after Alexander’s death, I wrote about his free-spirited life. The article provoked Lady Bath to contact me.
For most of their long-distance marriage, which endured for more than half a century, she was based in Paris from where, after boring of acting, she reported on the Vietnam War, the Northern Ireland Troubles and other hotspots. Pictured, the couple in 1992
Signing off her email as ‘Anna Bath’, she told me: ‘You’ve treated me, and him, fairly.’ And added: ‘Although working and earning a living in Paris, I have been at Longleat for half a month for every one of the last 51 years.’
Over the previous eight years, with her husband’s health failing, she had increased her visits, returning to Longleat every ten days.
‘When in France I called every morning and every evening to see how [Alexander] was, what his glucose levels were [her husband was diabetic].
‘In fact, we had the best eight years in our relationship. It might be difficult to understand but we just loved each other.’
The young actress in a scene from an episode of Jason King in 1972
This appears to be the last interview she ever gave and she used it to deny a claim that, in 2015, she had suggested to her son that marrying his half-Nigerian wife would damage the aristocratic family’s bloodline.
An outraged Ceawlin had subsequently banned his mother from the wedding and from seeing his own son, John, in case the boy was ‘contaminated’ by her views.
Ceawlin, who succeeded to his father’s title, alleged that when he told his mother of his plans to marry Emma McQuiston, whose father is a Nigerian oil tycoon, she replied: ‘Are you sure about what you’re doing to 400 years of bloodline?’
However, Lady Bath told me: ‘I never said that. What I did say was, ‘Have you thought carefully about what you are doing?’ Which is normal between mother and child.’ She also spoke of the disagreements between her son and husband. ‘The rift between father and son was not of my husband’s doing. He was a nice, decent man and only did good for his son, like handing him the chairmanship of Longleat Enterprises Ltd.
The actress locks lips with George Segal in a scene in The Bridge at Remagen. Lord Bath described his wife as the ‘sexiest actress of all time’
‘He was spoiled by circumstances, like all people from that walk of life, but he had no nastiness in him at all. In fact, his fault as a father was that he didn’t lay down the law enough.
‘I am saying this for his memory and because when I’m gone, that knowledge will be gone.’
Born Anna Gyarmathy in Hungary to a mathematician father and poet mother, she moved with her family to France when she was just a child.
She met Alexander in 1959 when she bunked off from school aged 15 to see an art house film at a seedy cinema.
After moving seats to avoid a man who was pestering her, she found herself next to an unkempt Englishman in paint-spattered clothes. He was Alexander Thynn, the future Lord Bath, then 26 and a student in the city. He invited her for a coffee.
She was thrilled by the age difference. ‘A real man chasing me,’ as she put it, describing him as ‘Prince Charming in disguise’.
Within a couple of months, he had persuaded this startlingly beautiful, if impressionable, young teenager to pose nude for him in his art studio. So much for Prince Charming.
Alexander with daughter Lady Lenka Thynn, young Ceawlin Thynn and his wife Anna Gael, in 1987
In 1960, a year after meeting, they spent 12 months travelling around South America in Alexander’s Jaguar. But on their return to Europe they drifted apart.
‘He said I was too young [to marry] and I was very hurt. So I went into the acting world and we didn’t see each other. I met this nice Frenchman, a TV director. I fell in love with him and he with me. He seemed to think marriage was a good idea and I thought it might be fun.’
Now newly married, she began acting under the stage name Anna Gael — the name she later adopted — appearing in films including the lesbian drama Therese And Isabelle. It was not pornographic, she insisted.
‘The most anyone saw was two pairs of ankles touching each other. It was two schoolgirls getting a crush on each other. You never saw them sleeping or kissing.’
She claimed to have turned down far racier offers. ‘I never made a blue movie in my life. I did undress, but it was necessary. I undressed to the waist.’
She also posed for Penthouse magazine in 1970 and later threatened legal action against newspapers that republished the pictures, explaining that ‘times had changed and we aren’t there any more’.
No doubt she meant she had moved on with her second marriage. Having divorced the TV director Gilbert Pineau, she and Alexander wed in a ‘quickie’ ceremony at Kensington register office — they had continued to see each other behind Pineau’s back.
Anna was three months pregnant with their daughter and, afterwards, the wedding breakfast was a pizza.
Lord Bath and his wife Anna at home in Longleat, Wiltshire, in March 1971
Despite the conventions of his upbringing — Eton, Oxford and the Life Guards — the future marquess had originally been vehemently anti-marriage.
In 1966, he went through what he called an ‘anti-marriage’ with Tania Duckworth, a model from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), in a ‘deist humanist’ ceremony he largely made up himself. This was followed by an ‘anti-divorce’.
But he needed an heir. ‘I was coming up to 37 and I needed a legitimate son if Longleat was to pass down through me,’ he said in 1976. He asked Anna if she wanted to be the mother.
Anna was a model and budding actor when she met Alexander Thynn aged 15 in Paris while he studied at the at La Grande Chaumière art college in Montparnasse
In the early days of their marriage, Alexander and Anna each had their own drawing room and would eat dinner together. Family life began with the arrival of their daughter Lenka, who went on to be a model and a TV researcher. Ceawlin, the much-wanted heir, was born five years later.
The couple soon came to a working arrangement: she would continue filming in Paris, leaving him free to follow his quixotic pursuits. It meant the children were largely raised by their father and nannies, while Anna was an occasional visitor.
‘It’s an unusual arrangement and I’ve gotten all kinds of criticism about it,’ she said in 1972. ‘Even now I get letters from strangers attacking me.’
Emma Weymouth, Marchioness of Bath, and Ceawlin Thynn, Viscount Weymouth attend the launch of Idris Elba And David Farber’s Porte Noire Bar and Shop in Coal Drops Yard last year
She insisted that Alexander understood her need for independence and that she couldn’t sacrifice herself for anyone.
Thynn succeeded his father as the 7th Marquess in 1992, and Anna became Marchioness.
However, she said she found that side of her life boring. On the other hand, she said that the title ‘Lady Thynn’ had been detrimental to her acting career because people thought she didn’t need the money.
By then, she had long tired of acting and reinvented herself as a journalist, travelling to Vietnam to cover America’s war with the Viet Cong in 1971 and also reporting from Cambodia.
Her new job took her to other front lines: Bangladesh, Rhodesia, South Africa and Northern Ireland. But she gave up trouble zones in the 1990s at the urging of her children, and turned to politics and economic affairs.
Wherever her assignment took her, she always headed back to Longleat when it was over, taking personal charge of conserving its historic paintings, tapestries and books.
As for Lord Bath, he remained not just married to Anna, the wife he so grievously betrayed, but devoted to her, describing her as ‘the sexiest actress of all time’.