Icons / June 2017

The Bold and the Beautiful

Who’s to say that a woman’s attraction to wealth and influence is any more shallow than a man’s to beauty or sexual allure? Whatever the motivation, writes James Medd, it took courage and strength of character for women in the 20th century to behave in a way men considered their birthright.

Nina Dyer on her wedding day with Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan in Collonges, France in 1957. Photo by ullstein bild/Getty Images.

History can be a harsh judge. This is particularly so when it is considering — or rather, ignoring — the effects of privilege, and rarely more than when examining the lives of famous women. The phrase ‘behind every great man is a great woman’ exists only because, for centuries, that great woman was forced to the back. Some, however, were bold enough to push their way forward. Most would deny this, conscious of the judgment of the present, let alone history. But if their avenue to wealth and status was restricted to little more than a ‘good marriage’, who is to say that a woman’s attraction to wealth and influence is any more shallow than a man’s to beauty or sexual allure? It would be easy, for example, to dismiss Nina Dyer, married to two of the richest men of her time, as a ‘gold-digger’, the female equivalent of the great playboy Porfirio Rubirosa. Many did, too, but she denied it with conviction. “People have called me a schemer,” she said, “but nothing is further from the truth. Luck just comes my way without my doing anything about it. It has been like that during most of my grown-up life.”

Luck, for Nina, just so happened to take the form of great beauty and sexual allure. With these, she traded the prospect of a quiet life in a colonial backwater for one of wealth and glamour. Born in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1930, the daughter of a tea plantation owner and his Indian wife, she was comfortable enough. She yearned for more, however, and set off for her father’s homeland at 20, first as a drama student in Liverpool, then in London, working as a catwalk model. With her feline eyes, full lips and ability to switch from playful lover to elegant dreamgirl as the occasion dictated, she was a natural, and took to the job and its lifestyle. Moving next to Paris, she became Pierre Balmain’s favourite and a fixture on the Riviera, an habituée of the yacht and villa party circuit.

By 1953 she had captured the attention of Dutch-born industrialist Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza. ‘Heini’, as he was known, had inherited an uncountable fortune made in steel and arms. Although he was married with two children, his affection for Nina was expressed in the most lavish terms. On top of a mountain of jewels, he gave her one of only four wild chinchilla coats then existent in the world, as well as two sports cars and a pair of black panthers, who followed her everywhere, hotel suites included. For Valentine’s Day, he added a Jamaican island, Pellew, where she built a bamboo hut and, to great scandal, swam naked. They married in 1954, but it lasted just months. Thyssen discovered that Nina had already moved on, to a penniless but very handsome French actor. Heini was driven to punch the lover in a Paris nightclub a few weeks after the marriage but waited two years to divorce her, still apparently rather against his will. “It’s a most disagreeable operation,” he explained. Nina kept the panthers, along with $2.8 million, a château with 70 acres outside Paris, and $364,000 of jewels.

Within a year she had turned another impossibly rich head, that of Sadruddin Aga Khan, son of the Aga Khan. This time the jewels included a parure specially fashioned by Cartier in honour of her panthers, and she took ownership of Pellew’s neighbouring island, renamed Tiamo, which became her boathouse. Sadruddin was in almost all other ways neglectful, however. They married in 1957 but separated after three years and divorced in 1962, leaving her with a further $1.4m. After a sojourn on Pellew, Nina moved to Paris and attempted a return to modelling that ended before it had begun. She continued to expand her jewellery collection, always favouring Cartier, but had no children, few friends and little else to occupy her. Miserably, she ended her own life with an overdose of sleeping pills, aged just 35, leaving her fortune to animal welfare causes.

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James Medd