Mary Henderson

Diplomatic consort with an unusual past

To those who only knew Mary Henderson as a chic and accomplished hostess, the wife of the diplomat Sir Nicholas Henderson, running a splendid establishment wherever they happened to be, it is hard to imagine the remarkable and adventurous life she led before, during and after the Second World War.



Mary Xenia Cawadias, journalist and fashion promoter: born Athens 29 March 1919; OBE 1988; married first Stephen Barber (marriage dissolved), second 1951 Nicholas Henderson (KCMG 1972, GCMG 1977, KCVO 1991; one daughter); died London 22 January 2004.



To those who only knew Mary Henderson as a chic and accomplished hostess, the wife of the diplomat Sir Nicholas Henderson, running a splendid establishment wherever they happened to be, it is hard to imagine the remarkable and adventurous life she led before, during and after the Second World War.

Born Mary Xenia Cawadias in Athens in 1919, she was the daughter of Professor A. P. Cawadias, doctor to the King of Greece. When the monarchy abdicated in 1924, the Cawadias family came to London, and Mary attended Queen's College, Harley Street. At the age of 20 she was with her mother in Greece when war broke out, and she became a Red Cross nurse during the Greco-Italian War. She was later arrested by the SS and condemned to death for assisting the Allies. From 1946 to 1949 she was a correspondent for Time and Life magazines during the Communist guerrilla war.

To have had experiences such as these, all before the age of 30, is not something one immediately associates with the sophisticated hostess and wife of one of the most successful of post-war British ambassadors. Mary had met Nicholas Henderson in Greece, when he was a rising diplomat, and they were married in London in 1951. She was a wonderful wife to Nicko, supporting him throughout his career, in Vienna, Santiago, Madrid, Warsaw, Bonn and Paris, and in his last appointment (made by Margaret Thatcher three weeks after Henderson had officially retired) as ambassador to Washington from 1979 to 1982.

The warmth of Mary's welcome, the profusion of flowers, the elegance of the embassy, lifted one's spirits. To suppose that this doesn't matter is to misunderstand the importance of an ambassadorial post in places like Washington or Paris. The standing and significance of a country is, to some extent, judged by the quality of its most prominent representatives. The very special qualities which she and Nicko brought to every post that they filled were quite outstanding.

Mary Henderson's manner, her appearance and her small size in many ways belied the character beneath her outward appearance. She was much more than an accomplished hostess: she was knowledgeable, shrewd and determined - he would have been foolish to discount her opinion on the various ministers and luminaries in the countries in which she lived. She had a wide experience of people and the vanities and foibles of human nature. Acute and, on occasions, refreshingly frank, but never unkind, behind that charming smile was a woman of high intelligence, determination and courage.

Carrington

My first sight of Mary Henderson was in a country lane where, dressed in a sharp black and white houndstooth pencil skirt and an acid yellow cardigan, she was the epitome of chic, writes Caroline Charles. Mary knew the designers of the day and enjoyed her role, during and after her diplomatic career, as an ambassadress for British fashion.

In the Paris embassy she hosted fashion shows, invited the audiences, arranged delicious food and flowers and made certain the party was a success. In Washington, she invited British furnishing-fabric makers and interior designers to make the embassy a good showcase for their work - and of course it was a marvellous place to stay with Mary and Nicko as hosts.

She was particularly good at making creative people feel valued, and in the 1980s, after the Hendersons had returned from America, she fought hard to get government funding to support the fashion industry. London Fashion Week was lucky to get such an accomplished star to join their ranks, and she worked tirelessly putting together plans for making British exports flourish. To the receptions given for the industry at No 10 Downing Street and at Lancaster House, she added her particular blend of politicians, designers, media stars and foreign visitors, without claiming a moment's credit.

Laura Ashley was also fortunate to have such a loving and loyal friend - Mary worked until the end to keep the essence of her friend's work true to its roots. Mary will be missed for her wit and wisdom, energy and fun, but she has left her stylish and talented daughter, Alexandra, and three exceptional grandchildren as part of her legacy. She was rightly proud of them.

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