Even before Sumurun slid into Scotland’s Firth of Clyde on May 7, 1914, she was destined to become an aristocrat among yachts.
Commissioned by a beautiful and flamboyant baroness as a gift to her husband, named for an exotic harem girl, designed and built by a legendary Scottish yard that served many members of Europe’s royalty, and hailed as one of the swiftest and most beautiful yachts afloat, Sumurun’s story is filled with vivid personalities, a multitude of racing victories, and a serene elegance that has transcended the vagaries of nearly a century on the water. It is no wonder that those who love classic yachts the world over have a special affection for her.
It was Lady Victoria Sackville of Kent who commissioned William Fife and Son of Fairlie, Ayrshire, Scotland, to build Sumurun. She asked the yard to build “a modest boat.”Â
Stunning, daring, and volatile, Victoria Josefa Dolores Catalina Sackville-West was just as much of a head turner as Sumurun would become. She was born in Paris in 1862, the second of seven children born to a British nobleman and diplomat, Lionel Sackville-West, and his cherished mistress, an internationally celebrated dancer of Spanish and Gypsy descent, Josefa de la Oliva Duran(always known as Pepita). Sackville-West and Pepita could not marry because it was impossible for her to divorce a husband she had left years earlier in Spain, but the two lovers remained together for nineteen years, until Pepita died after childbirth when Victoria was just eight years old.
In the first few years following her motherâ€™s death, Victoria and the rest of the children were looked after by friends of her mother’s where they had lived in the south of France. She was then sent to a convent school in Paris, where she spent seven long, unhappy years before finally being allowed to go to England to be with the Sackvilles. Eighteen years old and turning into a captivating young woman,Victoria was given a crash course in English and quickly acclimated herself to the social graces of the upper class, all in preparation for the next stage in her life.
Lionel Sackville-West’s sister Mary, Countess of Derby, who had become an extremely influential woman in England, convinced Queen Victoria that the young and inexperienced Victoria should become her fatherâ€™s official hostess after he was named the British minister to the United States in 1881. Soon after her arrival in Washington, D.C., this tall and slender daughter of the English foreign minister, who spoke with an exotic French accent, became the toast of the capital’s society. With an alluring beauty, Victoria’s dark blue eyes, long eyelashes, and masses of waist-length black hair charmed the men. She later claimed to have received at least 25 marriage proposals, among them one from J. P. Morgan and one from President Chester A.Â Arthur. She declined them all, and returned to England in 1888 with her father, who had by then inherited the title of Baron of Sackville and ownership of Knole, the family’s palatial country estate in Sevenoaks, Kent.
Victoria took naturally to the role of mistress of Knole, overseeing its many servants and presiding over extravagant parties. She soon caught the eye of her first cousin, another Lionel Sackville, who would eventually become the Third Baron of Sackville after Victoriaâ€™s father’s death. Despite family opposition, the two were married in 1890. Two years later, their daughter, Victoria Mary Sackville-West, was born. Always known as Vita, she would grow up to be the avant garde poet and writer, and master gardener of Sissinghurst Castle, whose “open marriage” to Sir Harold Nicolson and intimate friendships with Violet Trefusis (great aunt of the present Duchess of Cornwall), Virginia Woolf, and other members of the convention-defying “Bloomsbury Set” created much gossip in more conservative circles.
Vita’s mother Victoria was herself the subject of wagging tongues because of her sometimes-capricious behavior as well as her penchant for developing close relationships with wealthy and prominent older men (among them sculptor Auguste Rodin, millionaire William Waldorf Astor, diplomat Baron Carl Bildt, and celebrated architect Sir Edwin Lutyens). Her husband, Lord Sackville, was later described by Vita’s son, Nigel Nicolson, as “an English gentleman of Edwardian attitudes,” but for the first part of their marriage at least, neither he nor his wife seems to have been overly troubled by the other’s extramarital dalliances.
One of Victoria’s longtime and dearest gentleman friends was Sir John Murray Scott, who had been bequeathed a massive fortune by Lady Wallace, the Duke of Hertford’s widow – much to the distress of Lady Wallace’s children, who unsuccessfully contested the will. One of the richest people in Europe, Scott subsequently left a major portion of his fortune to Victoria, who in turn became the subject of litigation in 1913 when Scott’s family challenged the inheritance, charging Victoria with “hypnotism” and alluding to much immorality not only on her part but also on her husband’s.
The hearings were a cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre, and society ladies eagerly arrived at court each day with their seat cushions. Victoria was charming and dramatic, wrapped the judge around her little finger, and was ultimately triumphant. For Lord Sackville, however, it was a painfully humiliating experience and served to deepen an already serious rift between the two of them.
Soon after the trial ended, Victoria decided to use some of her newfound wealth to have William Fife and Son build a yacht. Sumurun was launched in1914, and Victoria announced that it would be a gift to her husband. Sumurun remained Lord Sackville’s yacht until his death in 1928 from complications of influenza.
THE HAREM GIRL
This lissome new yacht was christened Sumurun after the character of a beautiful harem girl in the eponymous pantomime spectacle which had been staged by Max Reinhardt in Berlin and went on to enjoy great popularity in London’s West End in 1911. Such a namesake could not have been a more appropriate choice for Lady Sackville, herself a compelling beauty with more than a streak of Gypsy blood whose mother had been a dancer.
Based on tales from The Arabian Nights, the pantomime tells the story of a wealthy old sheik’s favorite concubine who defies her master by falling in love with a handsome cloth merchant. The glamorous silent screen star Pola Negri played a traveling dancer in the stage production, and later starred in a silent film of the same name (alternately titled One Arabian Night in the United States). The movie was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who also acted in it, and it is considered one of his greatest cinematic triumphs.