Nicole, Duchess of Bedford, was the third wife of the 13th Duke. She was born and brought up in France and married Ian Bedford in 1960. She became one of the leading châtelaines in England's burgeoning stately homes business. She helped to turn Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire into Britain's premier stately home, with record attendance figures and big profits.
With Nicole's help and enthusiasm the Duke managed to pay off a massive and crippling death duty bill and provide the almost bankrupt Woburn estate with ample funds to keep the 350-year-old house in good repair. When they both "retired" from running Woburn in 1974, they passed on a healthy and solvent business to the Duke's eldest son and heir, Robin, Marqess of Tavistock.
Nicole Schneider was born in Paris in 1920 and educated at a convent in the city. At the age of 18 she married Henri Millinaire; they had two sons and two daughters. The marriage was never really a success and she lived apart from her husband for many years, eventally divorcing him in 1956. During the Second World War she was recruited into the French Resistance by her friend and lover, Michel Bompard. She was often beaten up by the Gestapo; Bompard died in a concentration camp in 1945.
After the war she went on to have a successful career in exports. Later she went on to meet Sheldon Reynolds, an American television producer, and it was through an affair with him that she went on to become an acclaimed producer herself. In 1957 she went to England to work on a comedy series for ITV, Dick and the Duchess. In order to publicise the series a real duke, in the form of the Duke of Bedford, was brought in to help. He posed with her in photographs carrying with his Woburn Abbey guidebook. In one of the publicity shots, Nicole was shown looking through the guide book; he wrote on one of the pages, "Would you like to come to the theatre?" They became friends, marrying in 1960 after he divorced his second wife, Lydia.
In many ways they had similar personalities. They were both interested in people and were good at projecting themselves, having a shrewed idea of how to exploit the media. They also had a great sense of humour and were constantly thinking up new ways of getting publicity for the Abbey and planning new ways to bring in extra cash. When Lord Bath, at Longleat, imported lions into his park, the Duke soon copied him in opening up a safari park at Woburn. Lord Bath jokingly called the Duke a copycat, but the Duke rightly pointed out that Woburn had had a stock of rare animals in its park, cared for by previous Dukes of Bedford, long before Longleat opened its doors to the public. The Duke also opened a pub at Woburn, near the Abbey's souvenir shop.
The new Duchess developed money-making ideas of her own. She had an empty stable block converted into antique shops and then rented them out. She persuaded the Duke to invite paying guests to stay with them in their private wing for long weekends. Their magnificent Sèvres collection of porcelain, hidden away for many years in one of the stable blocks, was cleaned and put on display in the gold and silver vaults at the Abbey. The ticket prices were increased as a result.
Neither were prepared to turn away highly profitable television advertising work during the 1960s. The Duchess , in her rather sexy and slightly husky French accent, would appear in adverts recommending Vitapoint, a hair gel for women which came in an easy-to-use tube. Not to be outdone by his wife, the Duke took to advertising a floor cleaner called Flash. "Hello," he would say, '"I'm the Duke of Bedford. I get thousands of visitors every year. Flash helps to keep my floors really clean!" Egged on by the Duchess, he also advertised Jaffa Cakes and would bite into one saying, "Hmm, orangey!"
The Bedfords were quick to realise that TV characters could make useful publicity for the Abbey. So they invited Ena Sharples, Minnie Caldwell and Esie Tanner, along with other characters from Coronation Street, for afternoon tea one Sunday. And at the State Opening of Parliament, the Duchess always knew that if she wore the fabulous and priceless Bedford tiara on entering the Lords, this would bring admiring gasps, even from royals like Princess Margaret, and ensure photos in the tabloids the next day.
The Bedfords often joked that their "marriage" to Woburn came before their own marriage. By 1974 they had worn themselves out and were ready to hand over to the younger generation. So Lord Tavistock reluctantly took over the reins from his father and stepmother. The Duke believed that unless his son took over in his thirties he would soon be too old for such a demanding job.He believed that running a stately home was not a job for someone to start doing in their forties or fifites. There were other reasons for an early handover: the Duke was determined to avoid the ravages of estate duty that had nearly destroyed Woburn when he inherited it in 1953 .
Following their "retirement" in 1974 the couple went to live in the tax haven of Monte Carlo. The Duke always loved a warm climate and they were at home there with the international jet set, though they loved to travel the world and would sometimes be away for many months at a time. The Duke died in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the age of 86 in 2002. In his 1959 autobiography A Silver Plated Spoon, the Duke ended: "I may be the 13th duke, but if we can keep Woburn I shall count myself a very lucky man." Of course, his real luck came in marrying Nicole a year later. Together they turned that dream of saving Woburn into a reality.
Nicole Schneider, résistante, television producer and businesswoman: born Paris 29 June 1920; married 1938 Henri Milinaire (divorced 1956; two sons, two daughters), 1960 Duke of Bedford (died 2002); died Monaco 7 September 2012.
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