The Disraeli Saga

The great-granddaughter of Benjamin Disraeli is living testimony to the great Victorian prime minister's secret affair with an anonymous Jewish woman.

Shifra Horn
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Shifra Horn

AUCKLAND, New Zealand - Cathy-Esther Styles takes me into a room in her home whose walls are covered from floor to ceiling with pictures and statues of the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli: "I'm Disraeli's great-granddaughter," she tells me, in Hebrew. "My grandmother Catherine was his daughter."

I had heard the story about her grandmother, Disraeli's illegitimate daughter, a few days earlier, when I went with my husband Peter to a store in Auckland that specializes in framing pictures and restoring old photos and documents. On the carved wooden counter were several old prints that a customer - a tall, handsome man - was asking to have framed. "The Earl of Beaconsfield," said Peter, recognizing the man in the pictures, "Benjamin Disraeli."

"My mother's grandmother was Disraeli's daughter," said the man, in an apologetic tone, "and I'm Jewish." After I had asked him a few questions about his family he spoke about his mother, Cathy-Esther Styles. By the time we returned home we already had a message waiting for us on our voice mail, in a soft and pleasant voice, in Hebrew: "This is Esther speaking. I want to meet with you."

In Auckland, at the foot of the dormant Mt. Eden volcano, in a white Victorian house, Dorothy, Disraeli's granddaughter, the mother of Cathy-Esther, lived to her dying day. Even in the New Zealand rain that pelted down, we were impressed by the well-kept lawn in front of the house with pink-and-white camellia bushes blossoming along its edges. A few steps lead to a narrow enclosed wooden porch, adorned with carvings. I rang the bell. An attractive woman opened the door and I found myself embraced by her like a long-lost relative who has just returned for a visit. Today, a widow of 72, Cathy-Esther still uses her maiden name.

Inside the house, in front of the fireplace, waits her son Peter, 50, thanks to whom I've arrived here. Built of New Zealand kauri wood, the house looks like a product from another time and place. The Victorian drawing room is full of objects, pictures and memories that have piled up during three generations of women: old furniture, crystal chandeliers, carved wooden desks, family pictures, porcelain dishes, Persian rugs that are thin and unraveling with age, and mementos from distant lands.

"This is Catherine - Cathy - my grandmother," says Styles, showing me a portrait of a young woman in an oval frame. She looks stern, with curly black hair pulled back tight in a bun and dark eyes. Catherine, born on March 13, 1866, was the daughter of the famous author-statesman Disraeli and an anonymous lover, as revealed by historian Stanley Weintraub in "Disraeli: A Biography," from 1993. By precisely calculating the time of conception and pregnancy, Weintraub proved that during the period when the sperm met the egg, Disraeli had not been particularly busy and had time for some fun.

Styles says that she already knew about the relationship between her grandmother and Disraeli. "'Let's sit on the porch,' Grandma would say to me when I was a child, pretending that we were on the deck of a ship," she recalls in English peppered with French and Hebrew. "Then we would look at the volcano looming above us and she would once again tell me the story of her childhood and her travels."

And did she talk about her father, Disraeli? Styles: "Not specifically. In conversations between us she would give us hints. For example, by asking whether we had already learned about Disraeli in our history lessons. When I replied that I was more interested in literature than in history, she explained to me that when I learned about Disraeli, I would understand that the two subjects are closely related, because Disraeli also wrote novels, and she referred me to one of his books. She encouraged me to write, and for one of my birthdays she bought me a fancy notebook and gave me a silver pen that had been hers. The tip of the pen was broken. 'I removed the inscription that was on it,' she said to me, and I didn't asked whose it was."

Styles heard the family secret about Catherine's parents from her own mother Dorothy, who one day, for no special reason, told her about it. When she was on her deathbed Dorothy revealed yet another secret to her daughter: Disraeli also had a son born out of wedlock, from another woman. Styles thinks her mother was named after Lady Dorothy Neville, a writer, society woman and Disraeli's first mistress; he was the father of her son Ralph. "My grandmother was an expert at planting hints and she may have named her daughter after Lady Dorothy."

Unknown fate

The baby Catherine was born prematurely and was so tiny that she could fit into a jug of milk. Nobody knows the name or the fate of her mother. In the family, the following story about her was passed down from one generation to the next: She was a Jewish woman of French extraction. The child was registered as the eldest and legitimate daughter of Mary Donovan, 23, and her husband John Donovan, 21, who had a modest position in a publishing house that published the parliamentary speeches of politicians.

Although the Donovans' income was not high, Catherine's childhood memories, as related by her granddaughter Cathy-Esther, sound like fairy tales. She lived a life of leisure and wealth with a well-to-do family in a rural suburb of London, and she called the woman who raised her Grandma. She had horses and peacocks that screeched in the garden before it rained. During her childhood she met famous people such as banker Leopold Rothschild, whom she called Leo, Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts - the richest woman in England, who was famous for her philanthropic projects and frequently invited her to afternoon tea on Sundays - and even the Prince of Wales, who called her "my little Cathy."

Catherine was a pretty and vibrant woman, with a small frame and wavy black hair that was her pride; like Disraeli, she dyed it black when it started to turn white. The figure of her father had such a great influence on her, says her granddaughter, that she demanded that her second husband grow a curl on his forehead, just like Disraeli. Her handwriting was elegant, her English flawless, "she spoke like the Queen of England in an aristocratic accent." Nor does Styles herself sound like a typical Aucklander: Her accent, explains my husband, is typical of British aristocrats who studied in a prestigious private school. In her case it was apparently a result of eight years of growing up with her grandmother in Napier, on the east coast of the northern island of New Zealand.

Styles: "My mother divorced and was busy in Auckland and my grandmother, after whom I was named, raised me. I always thought she was my mother, so I called her Mother and called my grandfather Father. I believed that my mother, who would sometimes come to visit, was my older sister. That was the case until my grandfather died, when we both went to live with her in Auckland.

"I had a very special relationship with my grandmother. She trusted me and told me secrets from her past. I slept in her room and every night she would tell me stories about her travels in Europe, about Salzburg and Paris, where she visited unknown relatives, and traveled with them in a carriage with six white ponies."

Catherine's favorite country, according to her granddaughter, was Italy, and she particularly loved Venice, from which Disraeli's grandfather had emigrated to England. "There was something Italian, Venetian, instilled in him," says Styles.

Grandmother Catherine learned to play piano and made sure that her own children also received a musical education: They took voice lessons and studied piano, cello, violin and flute.

Styles points to the piano she inherited from her grandmother, but the most expensive object in the house is undoubtedly a Meissen porcelain statuette that Disraeli bought for his daughter Catherine - a souvenir of his visit to Germany (perhaps when he participated, as prime minister, in the 1878 Berlin Congress). Catherine loved the statuette - of a one-man orchestra, with a pitch-black beard and hair, sitting on a drum with a cocker spaniel on his lap, and simultaneously playing bells, cymbals and a flute - as though it were the strongest link to her past and her father. She carried the "old man," as she called the statuette, from England to Australia, and from there to Napier, until it was placed with proper respect on a shelf above the fireplace in her home in Auckland. This statuette survived several earthquakes in Napier, including the biggest one of all, in 1931, which destroyed the city. Styles believes that her grandmother was also attached to the statuette because the black-haired, pointy-bearded musician reminded her of her father.

Jewish statesman

Benjamin Disraeli was born in 1804 in England to a Jewish family of Italian descent, and therefore he was never considered a gentleman from birth. His father baptized him when he was 13. This enabled him, as a Christian, to begin a political career some 20 years before the right of Jews to be elected to Parliament was recognized. At the age of 34, already a well-known writer, Disraeli was elected for the first time to Parliament as a member of the Conservative Party. In 1852 he joined the government as chancellor of the Exchequer and in 1868, three years after Catherine's birth, he was first appointed prime minister. After six years in the opposition he led his party to a great victory in 1874 and was reelected prime minister, a position that he held for another six years. In 1876 Queen Victoria granted him a title: the Earl of Beaconsfield. People have said he was an opportunist, a hedonist, a dandy who used to wear his rings on his gloved hands, and a chronic womanizer, although in recent years there have been attempts to uncover homosexual tendencies in his work and his behavior. During his travels in Europe and the Middle East, Disraeli fell ill with gonorrhea and upon his return to England received medical treatment. This disease usually caused sterility in men, but apparently not in his case.

In 1839, at the age of 35, Disraeli married a rich widow, Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis, who was about 12 years his senior. It is therefore unsurprising that the couple was childless. For years his devoted wife stayed awake every evening, awaiting his return. One night, after a long session in Parliament, he found her waiting for him with a cake and a bottle of Champagne. When he embraced her he whispered to her, "Dearest, you behave more like a mistress than a wife."

It turns out that he knew whereof he spoke: At the age of 61 Disraeli became a father, but the baby girl was not born to his wife. Had the story been exposed at the time, the scandal would probably have cut short his brilliant political career. That is apparently why the relationship was kept secret, the woman disappeared from the pages of history, and the child was registered and raised as a daughter of the Donovan family. Catherine Donovan married a man named Stacey, who was an artist and a singer, and in 1880, a year before her father's death, she was exiled to Australia, far from the public eye, with a modest income from an unknown source.

"Apparently she was asked to leave in order not to cast a stain on Disraeli and his legacy," says granddaughter Styles. Sir Philip Rose, Disraeli's attorney and confidant, and executor of his will, told his friend Sir Nathaniel Rothschild that Disraeli had not allocated any money to support the child, but if she demanded it she would receive whatever she asked for. Catherine herself told her granddaughter that her father had provided her with financial support indirectly until his dying day, and it continued even after his death. Catherine and Stacey had two sons in Australia, Harry and John, but Stacey drank too much and became an alcoholic, and she divorced him. After a while she fell in love with the New Zealand watchmaker George Styles, who was seven years her junior, and in 1901 she gave birth to their daughter Dorothy (Cathy-Esther's mother) in Brisbane. When the baby was a year old the couple moved to New Zealand, where their son Lewis was born. They were married only in 1915. In Napier, which was then a developing town of 16,000, they opened a jewelry store called Styles. Catherine sold jewelry in front, and in the back room her husband repaired watches.

In 1931 a grandson was born to Catherine in Australia. John, her son from her first husband, came for a visit to Napier with his young wife and the baby, Paul. The family visit did not go well, John slammed the door behind him and the three went to stay in a hotel. The next day, February 3, 1931, at 10:47 A.M., there was an earthquake registering 7.8 on the Richter Scale, which destroyed a large part of the city. A huge fire destroyed what remained. Over 150 residents were killed. Cathy-Esther Styles says that many survivors, including Uncle John and his family, fled to the beach.

The home of Catherine and George Styles was unharmed, and the frightened George was sent to search for the relatives. When he found them in good condition on the beach, he convinced them to return with him. On the way home George asked John to forgive his mother, "since she has had a hard life, after all she was the illegitimate daughter of Benjamin Disraeli." Years later John told this to his son Paul, who repeated it to Cathy-Esther.

However, Cathy-Esther Styles, an author, journalist, writer of travelogues and an adventuress by nature, had known from childhood that she was Jewish. She had discovered that fact one day when she got into mischief, lost the key to the house and lied to her grandmother. The reaction was harsh.

"This is a special night," her grandmother scolded her. "This is the night when we have to tell the truth and to apologize for our sins, because this is the night when we are inscribed in the Book of Life," Styles says, recollecting the reprimand she received from her grandmother, and adding in Hebrew, "That was my first Yom Kippur." I notice a mezuzah on the lintel of the entrance hall, inside the house. "We always lived underground, like Marranos," she explains. "Although my grandmother was proud of her Jewish origins, we never exposed this in public. It didn't help us, we always felt like outsiders. My Uncle Lewis, who lived in Napier, was called 'Jew-boy,' while my mother, Dorothy, was allowed to play only with the children of the Levy family. When I was born my mother called me Cathy, after her mother, and added the name Esther, after her good friend Esther Levy. But the name Esther comes after Cathy, like our mezuzah, which is concealed inside the house."

Like her grandmother before her, Styles has a unique personality. She studied piano and ballet from a young age and has a talent for languages. When she was 18 she traveled to the United States as an outstanding student, participated in debates and was among the four winners of a big prize. She received a great deal of publicity in the media and even met President Dwight Eisenhower in the White House. Back in Auckland she began her university studies, wrote for the New Zealand Herald, performed onstage as an actress and won many prizes. In Auckland she met Ronald McDowell, a young and promising singer, and married him when she was 21. In order to shorten her life story she hands me several pages that briefly describe a glorious acting career, the writing of musicals and novels, the translation of plays, etc. In 1967 she went to London, where she lived and work as a journalist for the BBC and published her second novel. A few years later she got a job with the prestigious French magazine Realites, and moved with her family to Paris. She returned to Auckland for a short period, for the premiere of a play she had written, and then went back to Paris and published another novel. She lived in France for a total of 20 years, wrote five novels, four tourist guides and two musicals, and translated several books into French. Cross and Kaddish

Grandmother Catherine's birth certificate showed that she was a member of the Catholic Church, but she grew up as an Anglican, the religion of her converted father, and married in St. Andrews Church in London. Apart from the wedding, she never participated in a church service. She read the Bible (the Old Testament), made sure not to mix milk and meat, and there were periods when she lit Sabbath candles, and got angry at her (second) husband when he taught his granddaughter Cathy-Esther Christmas carols.

Who told Catherine about her Jewish origin and taught her the Jewish laws? Says Styles, shrugging her shoulders: "We wish we knew. She spent a lot of time with the Rothschilds and apparently it comes from them." The mention of the Rothschild family reminds her of an anecdote from the period when she was living in Paris, and opened an account at the Rothschild Bank to deposit her salary there. After a while, when she wrote about the architecture of the bank for Realites, she met one of the Rothschild scions.

Catherine, whom Disraeli never acknowledged as his daughter, carefully kept her father's secret. Styles is convinced that her grandmother promised some unknown person that she would not reveal the story of her origins - although it is certainly possible that she decided on her own, in order not to stain the honor of her father, even after his death. Catherine lived to the age of 90 and in her pictures from that period she looks like a Middle Eastern matron. She died in 1956, taking her story with her to the grave. Her daughter Dorothy died in 1993, at the age of 92. She asked to be cremated, but declared that she also wanted to be buried as a Jew and asked that the name of Jesus not be mentioned at the funeral.

'Her body was cremated," explains Styles, and a minyan (Jewish prayer quorum) gathered to say prayers; even the Kaddish was recited. And since those present couldn't bear the sight of the cross above the crematorium, they all turned their backs to it and sat facing the exit. And my mother would probably have greatly enjoyed seeing them in that position, she remarks with a smile.

And the urn of ashes? "They placed it in a non-Jewish cemetery," she replies, adding that she wants to be cremated like her mother, on condition that the Kaddish is said over her, too. Her son Peter, who is quietly listening to our conversation, adds that he himself wants to be buried in a Jewish cemetery in an Orthodox ceremony when the time comes. It turns out that he began to take an interest in Judaism at the age of nine, when his mother told him about his Jewish origins. "At the time we lived in Golders Green, a Jewish neighborhood in London, but nobody there wanted to believe me when I said that I was Jewish, too," he recalls.

Peter began the search for his ancestors when his mother once again demanded that he marry only a Jewish woman. He visited Israel several times, fell in love with a Jewish woman of Algerian extraction and married her in a synagogue in Paris. In order to do so he went from one rabbi to another, told them the story of his family and asked for a certificate to prove his Jewishness. Although he was circumcised he was required in the end to do a conversion lehumra - a pro forma, stringent process, for people whose Judaism is in doubt: He immersed himself in a ritual bath and a drop of blood was taken from his sexual organ. "The fact that my grandmother's grandfather was Disraeli is of marginal importance to me," he says. "All I wanted was proof of my Jewishness." Peter infected his mother with his enthusiasm and she began energetically studying Jewish law and the Hebrew language, and even attends a Reform synagogue for "Kol Nidre" services on Yom Kippur. "Do you eat pork?" I ask, and they are horrified at the question. "Not pork and not seafood, although occasionally I do mix meat and milk," admits Styles in a lowered voice.

Disraeli's son

Catherine was not Disraeli's only child, and her mother was apparently not his only lover at that same time. The juicy gossip about his son became an open secret in the gentlemen's clubs, but this secret was kept among the men and was never revealed to the media. Like Catherine, Ralph Neville was born in 1865; he was registered as the son of Lady Dorothy and her husband Reggie Neville, who were separated. Lady Dorothy, whose nickname was Dolly, lived near the Disraelis; Benjamin's wife Mary Anne was considered her friend and was even the godmother of one of her sons. In the Disraeli biography by Stanley Weintraub, I learn that Dolly, who was 20 years her husband's junior, and 21 years younger than Disraeli, was considered a rebel pursued by scandal and was famous for the thick cigars that she liked to smoke and the strawberries she grew. She was 38 when she became pregnant. Her husband, who lived far away from her in their country home, was busy hunting foxes and deer and raising horses, and apparently turned a blind eye to the fact that his wife consoled herself in Disraeli's arms. Moreover, during the rare occasions that he visited London, Disraeli was considered one of his close friends. In the draft of the autobiography that Disraeli began to write but did not complete, he described Dolly as a woman who was not graced with unusual beauty, but was wild and captivating. In her latter years Dolly herself used to say that that she had seen Dizzy (Disraeli) in his nightcap, and knew him in every situation and from all angles.

The son, Ralph Neville, who became a writer, never married and died in 1930. Some people claim he never managed to escape his mother's shadow. Cathy-Esther Styles has a drawing of him in profile, which was done in 1920, in her house in Auckland. After all, he was her grandmother's half-brother.

She says that the drawing was given to her by biographer Weintraub, who received it from John Neville, a relative. On the same occasion Neville admitted to him that Disraeli's paternity was an open secret in the family, despite the fact that Ralph was registered as the legal son of Reggie Neville. I look at the picture: A man in a top hat, with glasses and a hooked nose bending over a book. "Look how much he resembles Disraeli," says his great-granddaughter. I leave the house and on the way back drive along a nearby street. At the corner I notice the sign: Disraeli Street.

Shifra Horn's book "A New Zealand Experience," was published last month in Hebrew by Am Oved.



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