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William Eliot Morris Zborowski, Count de Montsaulvain (1858 – April 1, 1903) was a racing driver. Born in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, USA, he was the son of Martin Zborowski (or Zabriskie) and Emma Morris.
In 1892 he married a wealthy American heiress, born Margaret Laura Astor Carey (1853–1911), a granddaughter of William Backhouse Astor, Sr. of the prominent Astor family. She had been Madame de Stuers before her divorce from Alphonse Lambert Eugène, Chevalier de Stuers (1841–1919). They were the parents of the racing driver Louis Zborowski.
Early life and a change of name
Martin Zabriskie, Eliot’s father, left the country for the first time in his life in 1873, when he crossed the Atlantic to Paris with his family to be at the wedding of his daughter Anna to Count Charles de Montalbon, Baron de Fontenoy. The aristocratic world he saw in France made a deep impression and he thought back to stories passed down in the family; the first result of which was, he changed the spelling of his name to Zborowski. Martin’s brother, Christopher, did not follow suit. Martin’s son William Eliot, now had a countess for a sister.
Following his father’s death in 1878, William Eliot returned from Europe to take possession of his inherited fortune. He also adopted his second name, and discarded William. Part of his inheritance was extensive estates near Central Park and along the banks of the Hudson River. He was indescribably rich. Around this time, when Eliot recrossed to Europe, he called himself Count Eliot Zborowski. An unattributed back-story also began of being descended from the marriage of an American girl to a Polish count. Eliot was reported to have said that he adopted the title Count on his father's death in deference to the wishes of his grandfather (Andrew Christian Zabriskie). All that can be said now about the origin of the title is that in the contents of Martin Zborowski’s will in The New York Times there was no mention of it.
Inherited wealth brings marriage and a broader horizon
Horses were a passion for Eliot, and since his childhood he had a fine stable. He was an excellent rider and enjoyed the challenge of lengthy rides across rough country. Occasionally his daring left him injured, but it was all part of living life to the fullest. In 1885, having heard about hunting in England, he visited, was welcomed with enthusiasm, and was soon riding with the Quorn. His title seems to have been accepted from the first. Eliot quickly learnt the rules as he hunted and soon became known as someone well to the fore when a tall fence or broad ditch needed clearing. It also became accepted that his riding employed superb hand control. Something attributed to the Count was the tradition of tying a red ribbon at the base of a horse's tail, to distinguish it as a kicker.
Many kept hunting boxes in Melton Mowbray, and Zborowski looked around for somewhere suitable. With a hunting box nearby one could be fully immersed in this society. His attention was drawn to Coventry Lodge, which had good stabling and was owned by Sir Fredric Johnstone, a close friend of the Prince of Wales. Put on the market in 1881, Johnstone must have been relieved when in 1886, the Count became its new owner. Being very close to the station it was extremely convenient for someone always restlessly on the move.
Still regularly crossing the Atlantic, Eliot did so in the Spring of 1888 for part holiday, part business. After resolving the demands of business, he played polo, and found himself in a game reported as rough and bad-tempered. His injuries kept him off a horse for the rest of the summer. Holidaying in Newport, he met Margaret de Stuers (née Margaret Laura Astor Carey), aged 35 and who was already married, but unhappily. At first the friendship was platonic, and in September, Eliot returned to England. The New Year of 1890 found him back in America, where he again met Margaret. From this meeting, things became more serious and the end result was a very messy divorce in 1892.
Their New England friends disapproved of their behaviour, which ultimately meant they spent even more time in England. Either due to not knowing or not caring anyway, no-one in the hunting set seemed very bothered about their Countess being a divorcee. In fact, such was the popularity of the couple, the Prince of Wales often stayed at Coventry House. Their first child was born in 1893, but regrettably died soon after and was buried at Burton Lazars. In February 1895 a second son was born, Louis, and this time the child was more healthy. Eliot had by now altered his business life such that he would not need to return to America very much, and he hired and bought property in London for when the hunting season was ended.
The midnight steeplechase
Lady Augusta Fane looked around the room at the 25 people dining with her, the men in red dining coats and white breeches. The hunting set. Latecomers stood around the walls, chatting quietly. It was her birthday and she was now 33 and attractive. Everyone there was drawn by the thought of an exciting and different evening ahead.
Last Friday the conversation had drifted around to the fact of her coming birthday. Augusta was pressed to choose a way of their celebrating this event with something novel – and fun. It was to be a full moon that Monday, so she suggested a Moonlight Steeplechase. The idea was immediately seized upon and an outline of what was needed was decided.
Planning had gone on over the Weekend and the course chosen. Mr Gunby, the tenant of the land where they hoped to
At about 9.30 a message was sent into the room that the sky had become overcast and clouds obscured the moon. This was a setback, but there was no thought of cancelling the event. Colonel Baldock slipped down to the Midland Railway’s station at the bottom of the street, having called for the stationmaster Mr Beddington on the way. Here they borrowed a horse-drawn van, and with the help of a porter, a number of the station’s lamps were loaded inside. Off they all went to the proposed course, and hung a lamp at each end of every fence. A further lamp was hung high in the tree at the homeward turn.
Eleven riders prepared for the coming race, and it was perhaps again concerns for visibility that caused them to decide to ride wearing nightshirts. For those who were wintering at the Bell Hotel, Colonel Wilson, Algy Burnaby of Baggrave, and Colonel Hill Trevor, and those who lived locally, this was simply resolved, but for those who lived further out, they had to borrow something. One rider struggled into a pink gossamer item donated by Lady Augusta.
It had been resolved that the event would be carried out in secret, but it was a vain hope. As the time approached the lanes all around were alive with people, carts and carriages. A hum of excited chatter got stronger as the time approached. When 11.30 came, a horn was blown and the riders gathered at the start, and away they went, the riders’ nightshirts helping the spectators pick out where they were. After the turn, the riders rode hard for the finish. One, Count Eliot Zborowski, an American, was neck and neck with Algy Burnaby. A stumble by the other horse let Burnaby through and the Count had to settle for second place.
After the excitement, all the riders, and their friends, joined Augusta at Coventry House, the Zborowski home in Melton Mowbray for a ‘splendid supper party’. Algy Burnaby was presented with a silver mounted ivory cup donated by the Count, and although Zborowski must have half hoped he would win it himself, there were no hard feelings – it had been an exceptional night that would be remembered for decades.
The following Sunday, the Vicar of Melton chose as his text for a sermon, Ephesians 5:11 ‘Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them’. After discussion it was decided not to take him to task over the matter, as he was thought to have already made a sufficient fool of himself.
And despite all, that room-full of 25 had written an entry in Melton’s history – the night of the Midnight Steeplechase.
A Change of direction, cars
In 1898 something happened that would transform the Count’s life. Following a friend’s motorised visit, Eliot bought a de Dion Tricycle and after learning how to drive and maintain it, he covered 5,000 miles in 4 months.
His wife Margaret, thought he should have a real car and not just a single-seater tricycle and Eliot agreed. Most cars and all innovation seemed to be coming from Germany, so that was where he looked. Daimler’s were at Canstatt, where the Zborowskis visited the works, choosing a Phoenix model. This was delivered to them at their London home, in January 1900. The Count immediately decided that he would drive to Coventry House, which he did, garaging his vehicle in an empty stable.
A few weeks later there was a dinner-party at his house in which all the men had something in common: they owned a motor-car. After dinner, the Count surprised the party when he announced that all his horses were to go as he had lost interest in them.
He was an all round sportsman but particularly liked Mercedes racing cars.
He resided in Melton Mowbray in England and became a naturalised Briton.
Eliot Zborowski was killed when his car crashed during the La Turbie hill climb in 1903; his riding mechanic, the Marquis of Pollange, was thrown clear and survived. His son Louis Zborowski was also killed at the Italian Grand Prix in 1924.
- San Francisco Call Newspaper 29 March 1892 http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=SFC18920329.2.42&srpos=&e=-------en--20--1--txt-txIN-------
- The Midnight Steeplechase Part 1 (David Bowles and Gillian Lane) http://local-history.org.uk/waltham/pages/local-history/midnight-steeplechase/
- The Midnight Steeplechase Part 2 (David Bowles and Gillian Lane) http://local-history.org.uk/waltham/pages/local-history/midnight-steeplechase-2/
- Eyewitness account of the fatal crash at La Turbie (Sport und Salon, 11 April 1903, in German)
- David Paine's "The Zborowski Inheritance"
- Book: Chit-Chat; Lady Augusta Fane, 1926.
- Book: The Zborowski Inheritance; David Paine, 2008. ISBN 978-0-9550456-4-6