October 23, 2017

The Man Who Bought Mustique

Colin Tennant, the 3rd Baron Glenconner, purchased the tiny Caribbean island of Mustique for £45,000 in 1958 and transformed from it from a barren cay into a glamorous playground for the rich.  Here he entertained the likes of Mick and Bianca Jagger, David Bowie, John Cleese and Sir David Frost, future Conservative cabinet minister Paul Channon, and Princess Margaret. Photographs—including some by Robert Mapplethorpe and Lord Lichfield—from the heyday of jet-set partying on this private reserve show Princess Margaret in a turban, dancing with Lord Glenconner, and Mick Jagger, chatting with Lord Glenconner’s mother, Pamela, Lady Glenconner, at a fancy dress party in 1976.

Tennant, heir to his family’s ancestral estate The Glen in the Scottish Borders, was born in 1926, attended Eton, served in the last days of WWII, went to Oxford, and travelled widely in Asia and the Caribbean. In 1956 he married Lady Anne Coke, by whom he later had three sons and twin daughters. Lady Anne was the daughter of Thomas Coke, 5th Earl of Leicester. Lady Anne had been one of Queen Elizabeth II’s Maids of Honour at the 1953 coronation, and was also a friend of the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret. It was as a guest at their wedding that Princess Margaret met Tony Armstrong Jones (later her husband) who had been hired to take wedding pictures. After purchasing Mustique in 1958, Tennant built a new village for its inhabitants, planted coconut palms, vegetables and fruit, and developed the fisheries. In 1960 the British royal yacht Britannica carried Princess Margaret and her new husband, now Lord Snowdon, on a honeymoon cruise around the Caribbean. The royal couple visited Mustique to accept a wedding gift from Tennant, a plot of land on which the Princess was to build her holiday retreat, Les Jolies Eaux.

Glenconner and his wife increasingly spent time apart, and after his death in 2010 the estate was embroiled in highly contentious litigation. Their lives were also colored by tragedy. Their eldest son Charlie, a heroin addict, died of hepatitis in 1996. Their second son Henry died of AIDS in 1990, and his third and youngest son, Christopher, was disabled in a motorcycle accident in 1987. The twin daughters are now in their mid-forties.

The cost of running Mustique depleted Glenconner’s family fortune, and he was obliged to take on a consortium of business partners headed by Hans Neumann, a Venezuelan paint manufacturer. By most accounts Glenconner’s autocractic caprices were not compatible with the more practical partners and their strategic business plans. Eventually, in the early 1980s, he went into exile in a charming house on nearby St. Lucia, where for many years he ran the “Bang Between the Pitons” restaurant (now sold to the adjacent Jalousie Plantation hotel). The Man Who Bought Mustique, made in 2000, chronicles Glenconner’s first visit to Mustique since his exile, and includes a brief luncheon visit from Princess Margaret, then in fragile health not long before her death.

Both fictive films and documentaries require a director who understands the subject and can articulate why we should find it interesting, entertaining, provocative, or moving; and both types rely on good writing and compelling visuality. With documentaries, however, instead of actors we get one or more individual subjects, narrators, and/or interviewees, a mosaic of people sharing actual experiences in their own words. And instead of an original or adapted screenplay the script is woven from facts, salient if sometimes conflicting opinions, impromptu footage, and material from primary sources.  The Man Who Bought Mustique was produced on a low budget, and it has neither an important subject nor a powerful message. Colin Tennant, the 3rd Baron Glenconner, is not a man of significant accomplishments, his circumstances are not desperate or dramatically urgent, and he is very far from being an especially sympathetic human being. Why then does this documentary strike us as such an interesting, even fascinating, snippet of history? And given the subject’s rarefied eccentricity and tyrannical arrogance, why do we find The Man Who Bought Mustique an engaging and at times moving human portrait?

Director Joseph Bullman—The Seven Sins of England (2007), Dynamiters, Assassins, Fiends (2008)—manages to fashion a canny, balanced look at this man, a psychodrama both bizarre and elegant, without comment or criticism. As documentary it has an ironic, poised, tongue-in-cheek subtlety, wherein Bullman and Glenconner perform a cautious and intricate pas-de-deux alternately allowing one another to dictate what will be seen and what will not, what can be said, who and what shall appear and in what context. Bullman seems to have gotten his subject’s number—he plays to his vanity—and yet there is little condescension in the project. He gives Glenconner his head and if in some instances that means more rope to hang himself by his foibles that’s as may be, but he also takes care to create spaces and breathing room for the man’s moments of generosity, dignity, humor, and remarkable aesthetic sense. The Man Who Bought Mustique is a scrupulous look at a profligate aristocrat, artist manqué, an intolerant, eccentric, ego-centric, controlling man who bought a tiny (1,400 acres) Caribbean island, made it a post-Colonial private preserve with himself as imperial arbiter and a guest-list of assorted aristocracy, artists, rock stars, and other celebrities—then lost control of his fantasy.

There are moments when King Lear comes to mind, but in Shakespeare’s tragedy the old monarch achieves moments of grandeur and pathos, and though there are scenes here in which we feel fleeting sympathies for Glenconner, grandeur and pathos are thin on the ground: his solipsism is impenetrably seamless, he is petulant and petty, a bitchy neurotic, at times delusional and, at times, viciously cruel. This documentary about his extraordinary tastes and his failed folly is, however, absorbing and in the end curiously humane.

 

– Hadley Hury

 

 

 

 

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