‘Let me introduce you to the man who killed Rasputin,’ Maud Cunard said to guests attending her large dinner party for the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich. Pavlovich and his friend Prince Felix Yasupov were indeed the men who had taken hours to kill the Mad Monk, Rasputin, the favorite of the Tsarina who resisting poison, bludgeoning on the head, and stabbing was finally chased from the house to be killed by a bullet in the head and then thrown into the river. Mortified at Maud Cunard’s outrageous introduction the Grand Duke Pavlovich turned on his heel and left her house, never to return.
She was the American wife of Bache Cunard, the fabulously rich grandson of shipping magnate Samuel Cunard, who founded the Cunard Line. It was a marriage that she found so unforgivably boring that she abandoned Bache and went to live in London where she assumed the more interesting first name of Emerald. The couple was to legally separate, but Bache Cunard financially supported his independent wife for the rest of his life.
Lady Cunard was probably the most lavish hostess of her day and entertained fashionable London society at countless scintillating dinners, innumerable extravagant balls, and invitations to ultrasophisticated country-house parties at her husband’s country seat at Neville-Holt Hall.. Her celebrated London salon was a center for musicians, painters, sculptors, poets, and writers, as well as politicians (anyone was invited as long as he or she was famous or interesting), but nerves of iron were necessary to withstand Maud’s quicksilver repartee and wounding tongue.
Herbert Asquith, the prime minister, considered her a dangerous woman, because although she was not greatly interested in politics, she beguiled senior politicians into revealing state information at her dinner table. Maud was renowned for serving up her guests’ frailties at dinner after the fish course. However, there was one occasion when Maud Cunard met her equal in the hands of F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead, a skilled orator, and close friend of Winston Churchill, who was noted for his staunch opposition to Irish Nationalism, pugnacious views, and hard living.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” Lord Birkenhead asked Lady Cunard long before dinner was over.
“Do you mind if we eat?” Lady Cunard responded sweetly.
“Not if you do it quietly,” retorted his lordship.
At a time when discreet infidelity was an acceptable pursuit among the aristocracy, Maud was the longtime mistress of Sir Thomas Beecham. The anecdote related by Lady Shackleton in Death Sits Down to Dinner about the window-cleaner spotting Lady Cunard in bed with Sir Thomas is actually true, and nearly cost Lady Cunard her powerful place in society.