Lady Elizabeth Anson: Life is an endless dish of canapés

She is the queen of etiquette. A painfully shy débutante who became party planner to the royals. So why is she pursuing Ivana Trump through the courts?
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The Independent Online

The English Season, that annual, slow-motion riot of hedonism, hats, Dom Perignon and Royal Enclosures, will screech to a halt at the end of this month. Morning-suited sporting bravos and Voyage-frocked beauties will stash their summer finery back in their wardrobes with genuine regret. For one royal personage, though, the end can't come soon enough. Lady Elizabeth Anson has, frankly, had it with bloody parties.

The English Season, that annual, slow-motion riot of hedonism, hats, Dom Perignon and Royal Enclosures, will screech to a halt at the end of this month. Morning-suited sporting bravos and Voyage-frocked beauties will stash their summer finery back in their wardrobes with genuine regret. For one royal personage, though, the end can't come soon enough. Lady Elizabeth Anson has, frankly, had it with bloody parties.

"I'm so short of sleep," she says, puffing a Silk Cut in a mildly distracted fashion. "It's not unusual, these days, for me to go to bed at 6am and get up at 8.30pm. She has been to every significant event, every ball and royal birthday party, every major interface of good breeding and unlicensed gourmandising the summer has had to offer - but not to enjoy herself. She's been at work. As founder and boss of Party Planners, the top thrash-fixer to the aristocracy for 40 years, she has stood on the sidelines of the grandest events in the social calendar, her sharp eyes (in that rather hard Windsor face) scanning the tuxedoed revellers like Wellington at Waterloo, deciding the precise moment at which to bring on reinforcements of smoked salmon, platoons of emergency kedgeree, back-up divisions of knives and forks, cavalry units of jugglers, stiltwalkers and modestly funky rock bands.

She organised the awesome triple-header on 21 June (Prince William's 18th, the Princess Royal's 50th, Princess Margaret's 70th), an event eclipsed only by the joint birthday party she helped Princess Michael of Kent throw on 1 July for her famously thirsty son, Frederick Windsor, and demurely sexy daughter, Gabriella.

"The press blew it out of all proportion," said Lady Elizabeth crossly. "The amount they claimed Princess Michael was spending was nonsensical. They talked about there being golden goblets, which made me furious because they were plastic. Everything was disposable." Why all the sideshows and stiltwalkers? "When you've no formal dinner and no formal introductions, you need to have a lot going on. Then, if someone's feeling a bit lonely, they can have a conversation with the performers."

Although it may be a bit stilted. Lady Elizabeth radiates concern about rescuing the lost and the lonely. And a curious thing about this omni-competent party animal is that she started out as precisely the kind of nervy ingénue she now frets about. "I was, and still am, cripplingly shy," she says. "When I did the débutante season, I went through hell getting into parties. I've never forgotten going to one in a block of flats. I bought a new outfit, had my hair done, went to this building, got in the lift, went up, and I couldn't go into the room. I got back in the lift, went down hoping I'd meet someone I knew who'd take me in, came up again, still couldn't go in... I did it five times and then went home."

She's had hypnosis for it. "It's partly because I'm terribly short-sighted. I'd walk in and the host would say, 'Do you know anybody here?' and, looking my brother straight in the face, I'd say, 'No I don't'."

It's a strange form of therapy, devoting 40 years of your life to running the kind of parties that you'd run a mile from attending as a guest. "I've never had a Monday that I didn't want to go to work," she says, in a rehearsed sort of way. "I get a lot of fulfilment from standing on the sidelines watching people having a wonderful time." What was she doing on the sidelines? When you're so well-connected, so au courant, so privy to a million stories from a thousand parties... "I don't want to be a part of it," she says shortly.

A thundercloud over the endless picnic of Lady Elizabeth's life is Ivana Trump, whom she's pursued through the courts for seven years, claiming Mrs Trump owes her £6,500, the balance of a £36,500 dinner bill. The venue was Raymond Blanc's famous Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Oxford, where Ivana asked Elizabeth to arrange a 50th birthday party for her then-fiancé, Riccardo Mazzucelli. A simple matter: 10 couples, dinner, stay overnight and leave after brunch at 11am. Elizabeth quoted Ivana an all-in price. "But she kept adding more guests. There were twice the number of people, with hot-air ballooning in the afternoon, tea, canapés on the lawn, then dinner and a full-blown lunch next day, until 3.30pm. It was a different ballgame." Ivana paid £14,506. More than £16,000 was still owing. Elizabeth paid the Manoir bill and sued Ivana. Ivana refused to pay, lost the case and appealed. Legal costs went stratospheric. The warring socialites faced each other in Central London County Court earlier this month. They are still waiting for the judgment of the Recorder, David Barnard.

You're an expert on etiquette, Lady Elizabeth, I said. What's the etiquette of pursuing a bill through the courts for seven years? "I've no idea. But it's the principle of the thing. Why should people enjoy themselves at my expense?" Indeed.

She is the sister of photographer Patrick Lichfield,who together sound like they had a wretched childhood, and one that spookily mirrors that of the late Diana Spencer: noble lineage, broken home, fond brother, eating disorder. She was born in Windsor Castle in 1941, her father the fourth earl of Litchfield, her godfather George VI; the Queen is her cousin. She was four when her parents divorced. Her mother married a Danish diplomat and moved to Paris; her father was often abroad, so the children were shunted between ageing aunts in Scotland, Devon and Staffordshire, where Patrick inherited the family seat of Shugborough at 18. Elizabeth was then 16

"I had to grow up very quickly," she says now. "You don't normally start running a house at 16, do you? We filled the house with people every weekend and I played the little cook with no training except for watching my mother." She went to Downham School in Hertfordshire, "and was badly educated but had a lovely time.

More relevantly, while she was becoming "a good dinner party cook - I learned to dish up a lot of things at the last minute", her coming-out party loomed. Since her mother was in Paris, she had to organise it herself; and found she had a flair for it. Party Planners was born.

She bewails the dwindling of the Gatsby strain in the last 20 years. "What's changed is that there used to be real party-givers, people who threw an annual drinks party or a big dinner every year. That doesn't happen anymore. It's once in a blue moon or for a special occasion." And she's alarmed by the amount of drink consumed by today's Wild Young People. "One had definite codes of behaviour then. Woe betide you if you behaved a fraction as badly as that. The whole family would have had to go abroad. But people wouldn't have put themselves in a position to be photographed when drunk. They'd have found a friend who'd protect them and get them out the back door. But where are the friends now? Where's the support system?"

By the time I left she was tucking into her second energy drink of the day, a pint glass of mango, apple and apricot. It's what has kept her going through the strain of the season - fruit in the morning, vegetable in the afternoon - along with the satisfaction of a job well done. And now she had to get weaving. Tonight she was giving a small drinks party at home for her daughter, Fiona. Seventy or 80 people. Piece of cake. She surveyed the rooms. "I can't really worry about it. If I worried about these things, if I didn't think they were going to go right, I'd've been dead long ago."

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