Violet Sunday Spain is blissfully unaware of the drama that has heralded her birth. At just five months old and cradled in her mother’s arms, she has inherited her mother’s dark eyes, though her strawberry blonde hair comes from her father. Not that he has set eyes on her yet.
For Violet is the only child of Sir Benjamin Slade, the infamous aristocrat who has spent the past few years broadcasting his desire to find a woman with whom to sire an heir.
So desperate was he to find the perfect ‘breeder’, as he so charmingly put it, the eccentric 75-year-old aristocrat — who has a castle, manor house and baronetcy to his name — even went on ITV’s This Morning in 2017 with a checklist at the ready.
His ideal candidate, he said, should be aged between 30 and 40. To become Lady Slade of Maunsel House and Woodlands Castle in Somerset, he added, she would naturally need to be ‘castle-trained’.
While, initially, his hunt seemed fruitless, recently it appeared that Slade might finally have achieved his dream.
Last year, the Mail revealed that he was to marry. And in February this year came the joyous news that he had finally become a father.
A fairy-tale ending? Alas no. For in an exclusive interview with the 30-year-old mother of his child, American poet and composer Sahara Sunday Spain, the Mail can finally reveal the astonishing story behind their relationship and the conception and birth of their daughter, Violet.
Sahara Sunday Spain poses for a photo with daughter Violet Sunday Spain, the child she had with eccentric millionaire Sir Benjamin Slade, who he now refuses to see
And what a story it is — from their meeting through an elite co-parenting agency to Violet’s conception via IVF using sperm frozen by Slade more than 20 years ago. Not to mention accusations of gold-digging and, now, claims of abandonment.
For despite all his longing for a child, to this day Slade has never even met his daughter, who now lives with her mother in France. He has, however, legally acknowledged paternity and his name is on her birth certificate.
As for that marriage; it never happened. In fact, not one but two weddings organised by Sahara and Slade were halted by him at the 11th hour in this jaw-dropping saga, with enough twists to fill an entire series of Downton Abbey.
‘The way that my daughter and I have been treated by Sir Ben is utterly shameful,’ says Sahara.
‘I know Ben wanted a boy but he didn’t know the sex of the baby when he cancelled our second wedding. Would he have had a change of heart if I’d had a son? Only Ben knows that. But he has shown no interest in meeting Violet. His behaviour is devastating.’
Sahara Sunday Spain poses for a snap with the future father of her child during a garden party. They met via an an elite co-parenting and used IVF from sperm frozen 20 years ago to conceive their child
WITH her delightful daughter wriggling happily on her lap, Sahara looks like any proud new mother.
But while she patently adores her little girl, she is still processing the extraordinary events of the last two years that propelled her into the bizarre world of one of Britain’s most colourful aristocrats — only for her to be ruthlessly expelled and left to pick up the pieces.
And while Sahara is clearly angry about the way that she and Violet have been treated, she insists: ‘I don’t hate Ben. Part of me will always love him. I’m grateful he’s given me Violet who is my world now. I just regret that it’s ended like this.’
Given their relationship disintegrated amid accusations of gold-digging, it’s something of an irony that we are talking in the great hall of the 16th-century fairytale chateau in Normandy where Sahara and Violet are currently living with Sahara’s mother, U.S. photographer and anthropologist Elisabeth Sunday.
‘It’s laughable that his relatives accused me of wanting to marry Ben for his castle and his money,’ says Sahara.
‘Ben doesn’t have any money. I knew that from the start. He’s land-rich and cash poor. And if all I wanted was a castle, well, I already had that right here.’
Sahara and Slade were introduced in March 2020 via a London agency for those seeking a co-parent to have a child with. Both paid the agency’s £10,000 fee. While Slade’s reasons for joining are obvious, Sahara, who was only 28 at the time, was just as desperate for a baby although for different reasons.
Diagnosed with endometriosis so severe that it required frequent hospital stays, she was advised by gynaecologists either to undergo a hysterectomy or to start a family.
‘I always wanted children,’ she explains, ‘so I really didn’t want a hysterectomy.’
With her health deteriorating, she urgently needed to find someone to have a child with.
Sir Benjamin Slade’s castle to go with his manor house and baronetcy. In Slade’s hunt for the perfect ‘breeder,’ he discussed how she would have to be ‘castle-trained’
She discussed the possibility of shared parenthood with a close male friend but he wasn’t interested. She joined conventional online dating sites, but men were put off by her desire to start a family straight away.
Sahara was in London for specialist medical treatment when a friend recommended the agency for ‘single and successful’ people who would ‘love to be a parent’. She was told only the first names of potential fathers and spoke to three candidates on the phone.
‘They were very much talking about having a child in a couple of years time and I was very clear that I needed to act faster. I needed someone to take a leap of faith with me.’
When she finally spoke to Slade, he appeared to offer her just that. All she knew was that he was ‘Ben’ — she had no idea that he had a title or a vast estate — and that there was an enormous age gap between them.
‘At the time I actually thought that was a positive because an older man would want kids as badly as I did,’ she says.
And when they first spoke on the phone, Sahara found Slade to be ‘charming and funny. When Ben is on form, he’s so much fun,’ she says.
Slade immediately invited her to stay and said he’d send a car to pick her up from her rented house in North London. Sahara agreed. ‘He said he lived in a big house with lots of rooms, which made me feel better about staying there because I’d have my own space. He said we should meet and see how we got on, all of which seemed sensible. I packed for a long weekend.’
She had no idea of Sir Ben’s notoriety or of his archaic views on women. Neither did she know that he was embroiled in an industrial tribunal with two former employees who accused him of appalling treatment while they were pregnant and on maternity leave. They won their case and a judge later described him as ‘misogynistic, malicious, cynical and nasty’.
One of Slade’s friends drove to London to collect her the next day. Sahara says they arrived at Maunsel, the 13th-century manor house near Taunton that’s been in his family since 1831, just as he swept into the driveway in his Bentley, a move she believes was designed to impress her. ‘The whole thing was surreal,’ she says.
Slade very quickly started talking about marriage and children — and Sahara found herself warming to him.
‘He said: “I need to pass down the title to an heir” and I thought to myself: “Excellent. It sounds like you really want children and so do I.” He didn’t want to mess around. I was happy that it would be a mutually beneficial thing. Looking back, I was naive.’
Maunsel, the 13th-century manor house near Taunton has been in the Slade family since 1831. Sahara was keen to have a baby as soon as possible at the age of 28 because she was advised by gynaecologists either to undergo a hysterectomy or to start a family
During early conversations with Slade, there was no discussion about titles, money, inheritance or even how the baby might be conceived. Sahara says she was utterly unfazed later, when she realised that if they married she could take the title Lady Slade. ‘I have my own name,’ she says, ‘and I use it professionally. I wouldn’t have changed it.’
(She is also descended from the same Spencer family as Princess Diana through her maternal line.)
With a career as a composer and musical theatre librettist, which saw her dividing her time between London, New York and Paris, Sahara had a good life. But she was happy to settle in Britain if it meant becoming a mother — not that she could have foreseen how quickly things developed.
Events overtook them just after she arrived when, on Monday, March 23, the first coronavirus lockdown came into force. But with Boris Johnson stating that restrictions might well be relaxed in three weeks, Sahara decided to stay put at Maunsel, not realising she’d end up stuck there for three months.
‘I thought I might as well stay with Ben for a few weeks and give it a chance,’ she says.
With his wedding hire business in freefall, she says Slade was in a terrible state. ‘It was a complete catastrophe. Weddings and events were being cancelled. People wanted refunds. There was paperwork everywhere, so I jumped right in to help.’
In a way, this time of crisis brought them closer together. They would take long walks around the grounds and have dinner together, giving them a chance to discuss the future.
‘We talked about what we both wanted. He was specifically looking for somebody who was going to take care of him. I wanted to have a baby and continue with my music career. I thought that I could do that. I wasn’t put off by the thought of caring for him.’
But what of romance? ‘There are different kinds of love,’ she says, thoughtfully. ‘I thought we could make it work as good friends. It wasn’t a fiery passion but it was no less valid as the basis for a family.’ However when lockdown restrictions eased in June 2020, Sahara left. ‘I felt he was stringing me along,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t get a straight answer from him about having a baby together so I rented a car and left.’
A week later Slade phoned her.
‘He said: “I need you, I can’t do without you.” I said: “I can’t just be your secretary. I need more than that. You said you wanted marriage and a baby. I need commitment from you.”
‘I grew up without a father and I felt that if I was bringing a baby into the world, then I owed that child stability,’ she explains.
With no memories of her own father — U.S. killer Johnny Spain, a former member of the Black Panthers political movement, who divorced her mother when she was three — Sahara was determined that any child of hers should know both its parents.
While there was no romantic proposal, she says Slade reassured her about his intentions in a letter he wrote to her and so she moved back to Maunsel where he began introducing her as his partner.
When Covid restrictions permitted, they hosted dinner parties.
‘His friends were incredibly interesting and most of them were very welcoming,’ she says. The arrangement might have been unconventional but to begin with, at least, it worked. While Sahara says that she, Slade and his beloved Jack Russell, Bolly, often shared a four-poster bed, their relationship was affectionate rather than sexual. Did she love him? ‘I cared about him. We were planning to create a family together, that’s a type of love.’
They planned to try for a baby together as soon as the IVF clinic where Slade’s sperm was stored re-opened. They discussed names.
She laughingly recalls: ‘He said: “What about Cuthbert?” I said: “What about — not Cuthbert?” ’
She says that it was around this time that Slade’s nephew and niece — ‘the Cayzers’ — began to visit. Multimillionaire businessman the Hon Charles Cayzer, and his sister, interior designer the Hon Robina Debarge are the children of Slade’s late, older sister Sarah.
Sahara’s mother Elisabeth (pictured above with her daughter and granddaughter) phoned Slade to tell him he was a father of a little girl. Elisabeth recalls how ‘underwhelmed’ he was.
Sahara recalls how they used to come to Maunsel to speak to Slade in private.
Sensing their hostility towards her, Sahara says she spoke to Robina.
‘I said she had the wrong impression about me. I said: “I understand you’re concerned about the age difference, so let’s talk. Let me assuage your fears.” She seemed totally uninterested in that.
‘She just kept saying: “Why Ben? You’re a young woman. Why would you want to take care of him?” I said: “When someone is your partner, you take care of them.” ’
Against these family tensions, Slade and Sahara agreed that they would marry only after Sahara became pregnant, which she did after one round of IVF at the London Women’s…