Daisy was an English aristocrat who married into the immensely wealthy Prussian family of the Prince of Pless. During her lifetime she was famous for her beauty, wealth and for the memoirs that she published after the first World War. She was an early target of the paparazzi.
Daisy was born Mary Theresa Olivia Cornwallis -West, the daughter of Colonel Cornwallis-West and Mary “Patsy” Fitzpatrick, in 1873. She came from a long line of society beauties. Her maternal grandmother Olivia was banished by Queen Victoria from Buckingham Palace for flirting with Prince Albert and her mother was rumoured to have had an affair with the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) at the age of 16. Her brother George married first Jennie Churchill and later the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell and her sister Shelagh married the Duke of Westminster.
In 1891 Daisy married after her first season, Hans Heinrich, Prince of Pless. The Pless family was one of the richest families on the continent due to their coal mines in Silesia (now in Poland). At her wedding reception, Edward VII told her to “learn German and become a faithful subject of your adopted country.”
After that her home was mainly the Castle of Pless, on an estate larger than an English county, or the 600 room country palace of Furstenstein. At 17, she was unprepared for the formality of a German court. She describes life at Furstenstein “as almost feudal” and to go from one room to another “a bell was rung, a servant opened the door, and a footman walked in front of me to wherever I wished to go.”
In 1923 she published the first volume of her memoirs “Daisy, Princess of Pless,” by herself. It covers the 26 years from her marriage to the end of World War I and is based on her diaries and letters. The first half of the book gives a glimpse of the glittering social life for the aristocracy before the war as she travelled from house party to house party, often in her personal train carriage. She spent the spring on the Riviera and New Years would find her at Chatsworth with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.
Among her correspondents and dinner partners were both King Edward VII of England and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, whose English mother on her deathbed had asked him to be kind to Daisy. As tensions grew between the two countries, Daisy’s diary shows her increasing anxiety and her attempts to smooth relations between the two.
The second half of the book covers the war years. When war came, Daisy was in a difficult position as an Englishwoman in Germany and her home, Castle Pless was used as the Headquarters of the German Armies in the East. She became a member of the Red Cross and worked as a nurse. She had the heartbreak of watching her son go off to war against her beloved England. Daisy was roundly criticized for her efforts on behalf of English prisoners and accused by many of being a spy. The book contains letters from the front from her husband which give an interesting perspective on the progress of the war from the German point of view, which contrasts with Daisy’s perspective.
In reflecting on the war, she comments “although many highly-placed European personages were alive to the danger, no one did anything very definite to try to avert it. I think that the young of all succeeding generations will ask accusingly why we were so timid, inert and fatalistic.”
After the war, she and her husband divorced, and she moved to Munich. She was no longer comfortable at Furstenstein where many of the populace had turned against her because she was English. Daisy, like many other aristocrats, wrote her memoirs as a means to earn money. They were quite successful due to the candour in which she describes English/German relations. She published two other volumes, Better Left Unsaid and What I Left Unsaid, although neither was as successful as her first.
I don’t know much about her last years but what I found on the internet painted a bleak picture. When war came again in 1939, she seems to have been in Poland. Her eldest son, Hans Heinrich was in England and her second son Leiko served in the Polish Armies of the West. Her youngest son Bolko (who had scandalously married his former step-mother) was arrested by the Gestapo and later died of injuries he received during that experience. In 1941 the Nazis seized Furstenstein partly due to unpaid taxes and partly in retaliation for her sons’ perceived treason. The Nazis constructed a series of tunnels under the castle.
She died in straitened circumstances in 1943. But that was not the end of the story. Her body has been moved several times. This appears to have been partly as a result of the Russian advance and also due to rumours that she had been buried with the famous Pless pearls, a string 22 feet long. Her grandson, the current Prince of Pless, has indicated that the pearls were sold in the mid-thirties. Her family has kept the current whereabouts of her grave secret so she may rest in peace.
For those who are interested in the aristocratic way of life at the turn of the century as well as in the history of WWI, this is a fascinating read about a fascinating life.
Daisy, Princess of Pless by Herself, E. P. Dutton & Co., 1923 (pdf)
Better Left Unsaid, E.P. Dutton, 1931
What I Left Unsaid, Cassell and Co., 1936