Fifty years on, Lady Elizabeth Anson’s party planning business remains an A-list choice, and no wonder. As Helena Frith Powell learns, the down-to-earth aristocrat, who is in the UAE to organize the Rolls-Royce Ball, is organised, animated and full of good humour
This Lady knows how to do a party
Lady Elizabeth Anson is in a good mood. And this despite the fact that we are stranded outside her suite at Abu Dhabi’s Fairmont Hotel because her assistant, Harriet, has lost the card to get into the room.
“Never mind,” says the British Queen’s first cousin brightly. “It will give us more time to chat. But I do miss keys.”
We are here to talk about her latest party. A big project always puts her in a good mood. As does the prospect of seeing her grandchildren, who now live with Lady Elizabeth’s daughter and her husband in Dubai. After our meeting she is off to spend the weekend with them.
Lady E, as she is known among her staff, is in Abu Dhabi to organise the Rolls-Royce Ball to be held on March 17, where owners and aficionados will gather to celebrate Rolls-Royce cars. She is hardly new to party planning. Her hugely successful party planning business celebrated its 50th birthday last year. Lady E set up Party Planners in 1960 when she was 18 years old. She got the idea from the excruciating experience of being a debutante, the process whereby well-to-do young ladies are introduced to society.
“By that time my father had died and my mother was living abroad so when it came to coming out I had to throw my own coming-out dance, which caused me so much stress and angst that I thought ‘There must be a market for someone to do this’,” she says. “I also remember very clearly being that girl standing alone in the middle of the room with a canapé feeling awkward. I vowed to create parties where no one had to feel like that. I have always dreaded parties because of feeling that way and I still do.”
We finally get into her Fairmont suite. There is no sign of the tea we have ordered, so Lady E makes some herself. This is clearly not a woman who is used to sitting around. She is animated to say the least, always jumping up to make a point, or to show me something, her face constantly smiling and her sense of humour (at times caustic) blindingly obvious. She has just been on some kind of protein diet and looks at least 20 years younger than her 70 years. “It was marvellous,” she tells me. “I have so much energy.”
Lady E is formidable. I have met her on several occasions and I can’t say she was lacking in energy on any of them. She is the kind of British upper-class woman whom you can imagine running the empire single-handedly, while bringing up a family of four and winning the Badminton Horse Trials.
She was used to managing things from an early age, including her brother’s estate when her father died. She was just 15 at the time. She went to boarding school when she was only seven years old.
“I learnt nothing except good manners, which were drilled into us,” she says.
Lady E did well at school but in those days “girls didn’t go to university”, so she was sent off to Paris where her mother and stepfather (a Danish prince and diplomat) were living. This is where she says her “passion for food” was born, a passion she has carried on throughout her career, her latest appointment being that of ambassador for the celebrity chef and M columnist Marco Pierre White here in the Middle East.
“I love the way Marco works and thinks,” she tells me over a cup of her self-brewed tea.
In 1972 Lady Elizabeth married a widower, Sir Geoffrey Shakerley. She inherited three stepsons and they had one daughter together.
“What a mistake that was!” she laughs. “Of course the minute he got his daughter he didn’t want any more, I wanted to have lots and lots.” The couple divorced 22 years ago and Lady E never remarried.
Lady E is now getting changed, ready for her trip to Dubai and her beloved grandchildren. Harriet, her assistant, takes the opportunity to tell me about another project they are working on with Grayshott Spa in Surrey.
“I can hear everything you’re saying,” says a voice behind the wall.
With the energy (and the hearing) of a 20-year-old organising it, I think we’re in for quite a party come March 17.
The Lady E file
BORN June 7, 1941, Windsor, Berkshire, England
SCHOOLING Downham School in Hertfordshire, England; Constance Spry Cookery School, Winkfield Place; France
FAMILY Father, the late Viscount Anson, and mother, the late Princess Anne of Denmark. She is a cousin of the Queen and a niece of the late Queen Mother, and the late King George VI was her godfather. She had one brother, the late Earl of Lichfield, better known as Patrick Lichfield the photographer. She married Sir Geoffrey Shakerley on July 27, 1972, in Westminster Abbey, and Princess Anne was her bridesmaid. Lady Elizabeth and Sir Geoffrey have one daughter but are divorced.
CAREER Set up Party Planners, the first party planning service in the UK, on March 18, 1960. Has been organising weddings, cocktail parties, corporate functions and all manner of events for the rich and famous ever since.
WORST MEMORY “Coming out as a debutante – I was painfully shy and loathed every minute of it. But it gave me the idea for Party Planners.”
PHILOSOPHY “All my life I have kept several balls in the air. Before I start dropping any, I want to drop dead.”
CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT My friends and family
CAREER HIGHLIGHT Lots, but notably Sting’s wedding in an 11th-century chapel in Wiltshire in 1992, the Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s 80th birthday party at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in London in 2005 and the Queen’s 80th birthday party at the Ritz in London in 2006.
READING AT THE MOMENT The Duchess of Devonshire’s memoirs, Wait for Me
IDEAL DINNER PARTY GUEST One who arrives on time
TOP PARTY TIP Put all the bores at the same table, they won’t notice.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019