I have a large cyclamen corm in my garden, it came from the garden of an amazing woman who sadly in her later years was regarded as eccentric by many, she lived in Stoke Gabriel.
I knew Marion Crook for around 40 years, meeting her back in my dog showing days when she was an incredible sight to behold, dressed to the nines with tons of make up, and killer heels, everyone knew her as the painted lady. When I met my husband she was one of his customers, I knew who he was describing before he put a name to her!
She was truly one of the greats within the world of Skye Terriers, having bred innumerable champions and breed record holders, both with her beloved Creams and her Silvers. But that is just part of Marion’s amazing life story. She told tales of being married three times to wealthy business men, of wedding gifts that included two Jaguar cars. Of a social circle that included such stars as James Stewart, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper & Humphrey Bogart. Of holidays abroad with friends like Errol Flynn who sailed into Palma in the 1950s on board his legendary yacht the Zaca. She had an amazing collection of photos and letters which were sadly burned after her death.
Marian Crook passed away in her 99th year just before her 100th birthday when she intended to have a big party to celebrate. Marian was born in Vienna on the 28th December 1911 and was an only child. Her father died when she was 12 and Marian with her mother went to live with her extended family. She finished her education in Vienna. Can you imagine growing up in a city whose legacy was shaped by residents including Mozart, Beethoven and Sigmund Freud, how wonderful!
But Vienna had its dark side too known for a Jewish community dating back to the 12th century. In the 1920s, more than 200,000 people in Vienna (ten per cent of the population) were Jewish. Twenty years later almost all had been killed or deported.
The beautiful city of Vienna had become an abattoir of surreal brutality. Key changes in the Viennese medical scene included eugenics and compulsory sterilisation — ideas the Nazis imported from the US, sponsored by none less than the US National Academy of Sciences, who hosted the Second International Congress of Eugenics in October 1921 in Manhattan, and promoted in journals like Science. In Germany in 1934, 62,400 people with schizophrenia, epilepsy, inherited blindness and other conditions viewed as human imperfections were brought to the newly formed Genetic Health Court and were given forced sterilisations.
Three weeks after the Anschluss the prestigious University of Vienna Medical School was transformed to conduct research into ‘racial improvement’. A new Dean of Medicine was appointed, who Aryanised the medical school: all faculty members had to produce birth certificates to confirm their Aryan descent and sign a loyalty oath to Hitler. Eighty per cent of the medical faculty was dismissed, since of the 5,000 physicians practising medicine in Vienna at that time, 3,200 were Jews. Many were dragged out into the streets by gangs, brutally humiliated and deported to concentration camps.
It was in this context that Professor Asperger gave the first ever public lecture on autism. On 3 October 1938, in a lecture hall in the University Hospital, he declared: ‘Not everything that steps out of the line, and is “abnormal”, must necessarily be “inferior”.’ To understand quite how brave that statement was, we need to know the political climate. That night was Kol Nidre, the night before Yom Kippur. For the next 24 hours storm-troopers brutalised Jewish neighbourhoods in Vienna. A month later, Kristallnacht occurred: 95 synagogues in Vienna went up in flames and Jewish homes, hospitals, schools and shops were demolished with sledgehammers. Amongst all this Hans Asperger was working in the Children’s Clinic in the excellent University of Vienna Hospital. This was no ordinary clinic, indeed Silberman argues that it was a century ahead of its time. It was created in 1911 by a doctor, Erwin Lazar, who, instead of seeing children with special educational needs as being ‘broken’ or as having an ‘illness’, saw them as needing different teaching methods more suited to their own learning styles.
Anyway I digress back to Marion. When she was 18 she met Bob Crook, who was a director of the forerunner of ICI; within three weeks they were married and she had moved to the USA. They lived in New York for a couple of years where they had a suite in the Waldorf Astoria. A hotel that was internationally renowned for its lavish dinner parties and galas, often at the center of political and business conferences and fundraising schemes involving the rich and famous. The first hotel to have a telephone in every room and first-class room service, the hotel was designed specifically to cater to the needs of socially prominent “wealthy upper crust” of New York and distinguished foreign visitors to the city. It was the first hotel to offer complete electricity and private bathrooms.
They returned to the UK in the 1930’s, what happened to her husband is a mystery, but she claimed with a twinkle in her eye, not to have divorced him, however she did eventually marry her second husband Paddy Tighe who had made his money in the oil industry and they went to live in Shropshire. A few years later Paddy wanted to move to Malta but Marian had fallen in love with the UK and did not want to leave.
Marian moved to Rhosneigr in North Wales where she married Douglas Aitken, Rhosneigr was the place from where she took her world famous prefix. She was truly one of the greats within Skye Terriers, having bred innumerable champions and breed record holders, both with her beloved Creams and her Silvers.
She was renowned throughout the world and when Skye Terriers were mentioned, Marian’s name was sure to come up. Her kennel name Rhosneigr was known world wide for producing Cream and Silver champions. She was a mine of information about the breed and would always help. She was the only person to judge the breed three times at Crufts. Two stories come to mind regarding her ‘dress sense’. At Crufts in Olympia, Reg Gadsen was judging and as usual Marian had several dogs entered. She was hoping to do well with 2 of them and had brought with her complementary outfits. This plan was thrown into confusion when Reg gave her BOB with one of the other dogs. In the lunch break she went out, had her hair restyled and bought a new outfit to compliment the BOB!!
Unfortunately her husband Douglas’ health was not too good and he needed to move to a drier climate. Marian gave away all her dogs and moved to Spain to be with him. After a couple of years in Spain, Douglas’ health improved and they decided to moved back to the UK settling in Stoke Gabriel near Totnes in South Devon. She bought back some of the dog bloodlines she had originally bred and kept on breeding dogs almost to the end of her life.
After Douglas’s death the house fell into massive decline, I don’t think she ever did any housework the cobwebs and inches of dust had to be seen to be believed, but she just didn’t see it, her beautiful glassware and antique furniture rotted all around her and had to be burned after her death it was so decayed. The garden was a burial ground for a huge number of dogs-goodness knows what they found when the house was demolished! Few people visited her although everyone knew of her. Even in her 99th year she wore full face paint every day, had long painted nails, continued to buy all her clothes from Harrods and had an amazing wardrobe of fur coats and shoes that no woman of her age would consider walking in!
My husband was probably one of her few close friends and someone who had stayed in constant contact with her turning out at all hours of the day and night as her calamities grew worse and worse, He reluctantly took on looking after the dogs for a short period before she passed away,but they were by then in a sad and sorry condition and the majority had to be destroyed by the RSPCA as they weren’t fit to rehome.
It was so sad to see Marion in her last year or two, after a nasty fall she was in hospital and a nursing home for a long time, all they saw was a disheveled , cantankerous old woman, not one of them ever stopped to consider what a wonderful life she had led and what a beauty she once was. I particularly remember her fear of the showers and being taken in by a male nurse but this was a Jewish woman who had grown up in terrible times, did no one stop to think!
She was a one off and when she was made they broke the mold. We will not see her like again and the world and dog shows will be poorer for it. Yes, she could be obstinate and opinionated and was misunderstood by most in her later years but throughout history it has always been that way with the truly great.
So there you go a long tale all inspired by one cyclamen in my garden.