… And society writer William Cash has kept them all – sent to every woman he’s loved and lost. So why hasn’t he penned one to his wife? Louise Carpenter discovers why this incurable romantic was, for once, lost for words.
An ancient windowless piggery is an unlikely, arguably ironic, storage vault for the letters written to all the women who’ve won a place in your heart – two of them wives – over the course of 25 years. Yet here I am, in the grounds of William Cash’s Elizabethan moated manor house, and there they sit, stacked in more than 30 red boxes. As his third wife of five years, Lady Laura Cash, much younger at 35 to his 53, and the mother of his two children, says, sounding bemused: ‘Who keeps them? It’s quite something to keep every single one – not just the ones you were sent, but also a copy of the ones you wrote?
William Cash, a society writer, now chairman of the Catholic Herald and founder and editor at-large of Spear’s (a wealth-management magazine for affluent individuals), has some method to his apparent madness. Firstly, his anguished romantic years were largely pre-email and text. Many of the ‘letters’ he sent – declarations of mad love, some pleading for forgiveness – were faxed, so he kept the original. The second reason for the unusual stash is that he always saw himself as a novelist-in-waiting, a sort of letter-writing diarist who would one day mine the rubble of his own misery for a literary masterpiece.
Wife number one was Ilaria Bulgari, an Italian heiress. Wife number two, Dr Vanessa Neumann, was a beautiful academic born in Venezuela, and nicknamed the Cracker from Caracas for her earlier romance with Mick Jagger (not great credentials for country life).
Then there was girlfriend Helen Macintyre, an international art dealer who wore Dior, smoked and snuggled her two dachshunds in her dark fur coat. She also brought to William’s life the significant complication of having had Boris Johnson’s baby following a fling with him. (‘I loved them all,’ William tells me of the women in his red binder boxes, ‘but she really got under my skin.’) Then there are the girlfriends, flings and near-misses: Caroline, Louise, Kym, ‘Boujis Anna’ – a young woman he met at a club one night… you get the picture.
But few of his love interests, bar the odd one, ever wanted to leave London and play lady of the manor with William in Upton Cressett, his family’s pile in Shropshire. He took it over from his father – the Tory Eurosceptic MP Bill Cash – in 2007.
All William wanted, he admits, was to carve his wife’s name on the grand panelling above his bed in the master bedroom. But it wasn’t until 2014 when William joined the Third Wives Club that the initials LRC – Laura Rosemary Cathcart/Cash – were finally etched in the bedroom. It took the energy and optimism of a woman more than 17 years his junior, a Norfolk aristocrat who loves chickens and wellies – ‘a country girl used to being stuck three-and-a-half hours from London’, as he puts it – to finally make his dream a reality. A year later, when their daughter Cosima was born, he became a member of the Old Dads’ Club. As he says, ‘This is the life I never imagined I would have – but actually, it’s worked out well.’
In 2017, the couple’s son Rex was born and the family now lives a ‘mostly idyllic’ life, he concedes, involving their dogs, a peacock, a pony and Elizabeth Hurley’s chickens thrown in for good measure (Elizabeth, who is godmother to Cosima, is an old friend from William’s days living in Los Angeles as a broadsheet foreign correspondent).
The novel he always intended to write eventually became a memoir, Restoration Heart, and was published last month. In it, he tells the endearing story of rebuilding and restoring Upton Cressett, his beloved family home, while simultaneously trying to heal himself, aided by ten years of therapy.
As he says, the house – badly gutted under his orders by an over-zealous builder – was a metaphor for his broken heart. The house looked grand from the outside, yet it was full of rubble. Meanwhile William, intoxicated by the appearance of wealth and high society, flitted around parties at Annabel’s or Boujis, looking for his dream woman, but nobody he loved wanted to live there or, ultimately, live with him. He was miserable, lonely and borderline broke.
It was only when Lady Laura Cathcart came back into his life – they had had a five-week fling when she was just 26 before she too disappeared off in a black cab, leaving him desolate on the kerb – that things started to pick up.
‘I’m not sure Laura would have married me had I not been through these vicissitudes of the heart,’ William says. ‘There are two types of people: those who learn from their mistakes and those who don’t. I think I’m lucky that I re-met Laura at a time in my life where I’d gone through quite a lot and it changed me as a person. It was emotionally traumatic to write the book. I’d be going through the letters and find myself crying. I felt like I was the biographer of my own heart.’
Today, William and Laura, a milliner, are preparing for the accompanying Restoration Heart exhibition in one of the outbuildings. William intends to lay out some of the letters for the ‘tea and tours’ guests who regularly pay to have a nosey around the grounds. He brings over some of the binder boxes, labelled according to the woman in question, for us to rifle through. There are pages of letters and postcards, with his scrawly handwriting.
‘I cannot bear the thought of living here alone without you,’ he writes to Helen Macintyre. ‘The bedroom looks wonderful. Every time I walk in and see the dark-red velvet curtains and headboard – I think of you.’
The third Mrs Cash has no binder box, a sign of success rather than failure. Laura is very beautiful, with long slender limbs and an upper-class, matter-of-fact manner. ‘He’s an optimist,’ she says, not bothered in the slightest by the outpourings of love for her predecessors. ‘We all have a past. If everybody was as truthful as William, we’d see that we all get ourselves into sticky situations. I definitely wasn’t worried when I married him. I’m sure my parents were absolutely terrified but they’ve held their tongues.’
‘I think I’m incredibly lucky that Laura is so relaxed about the content of the book,’ says William. ‘But the reality is that Laura knows that I’m happily married to her. I don’t have a password on my phone. There’s nothing to hide because I’m very much in love with her. She is a muse and an inspiration and I don’t think I could have written this book had I not been in a stable, loving relationship with her. Why should she be threatened? She’s the most gorgeous of them all.
‘My second wife Vanessa came to the book’s launch party. She was kind enough to say that she enjoyed the pages I’d sent to her, although she did say it was more enjoyable reading them than living them!’
When Cosima was born in 2015, it finally dawned on William that his life had truly changed. Age does bring an element of wisdom to how he manages family life. However, there are consequences to marrying a younger woman and becoming an older dad. ‘It is a myth that having a younger wife makes you feel younger. It makes you feel old. I’ve now started doing these long-distance walking pilgrimages. I did the West Highland Way in July, which was 105 miles in six days. I’m not fit. I’m partial to a glass of wine. I’m a foodie. That was gruelling in the extreme. But I have to take my health seriously now because I’m an older dad. In two weeks’ time, I’m off to walk the last 100km of the Via Francigena [a pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome]. Laura’s coming with me on that one.’
There is also the fact that he has years stretching before him of providing for his young family – a daunting financial prospect. ‘I’m literally back to scratch, whereas a lot of my friends have paid the school fees and their children have left home. They are now doing new things in their lives, going off for adventures around the world. Of course, I can’t possibly do that. I enjoy being an older dad, but it’s different from my parents’ generation.’
‘The fact William can work from home, though, means he gets to be a bigger part of the children’s lives than if he’d had them in his mid-30s,’ Laura explains. ‘We’re very lucky as a family for that.’
‘But when you’re with someone you love, you also go out of your way to do everything you can,’ William continues. ‘I realise how lucky I am. I don’t take anything for granted. If Laura wants something, I’m happy to give it to her.’
The family have help with the children at the weekend and it’s handy that William’s parents Bill and Biddy live on the estate in a converted barn, with a trampoline in the garden for their grandchildren. ‘For me, it’s a lot of work to keep this place going,’ says Laura, ‘alongside the children and my millinery business and a chaotic husband, who is like a third child!’
Laura had often dated older men – ‘I always enjoyed their company’ – so the age difference was never a problem. And besides, she says, one of her earliest encounters with her husband-to-be was a reflection of – how to put it politely? – his bon-vivant, partying character. During an evening at Nikita’s, a Russian restaurant in London, William drank so much vodka from an ice sculpture that he threw up in a neighbouring woman’s Hermès handbag. ‘Vom and run?’ Laura said to him wryly, as they piled in a taxi to make a getaway.
‘We thought, “If we don’t leave now, we’ll get a bill for £2,000!” I just thought, “Well, this is it. Life will never be dull.” And that’s quite right, there is never a dull moment with William. I always remember thinking, as a child, “I just never want to be bored.” And with him, I don’t think I ever will be.’
Restoration Heart is published by Constable, £20. For more on the manor and exhibition, visit uptoncressetthall.co.uk