William Anthony Furness
2nd Viscount Furness
31.III.1929 - 1.V.1995
Born in Melton Mowbray, England. He was the only child of Marmaduke Furness, 1st Viscount Furness, and his second wife, Thelma Furness, Viscountess Furness (formerly Converse, née Morgan), an American socialite. His grandfather, Sir Christopher Furness of Furness Withy Shipping, was created 1st Baron Furness of Grantley, and he was a first cousin of the American fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt.
Tony Furness, as he was known, was educated in England and in America and succeeded to the title in 1940 on the death of his half brother Christopher Furness VC, who was killed in action at Arras whilst serving with the Welsh Guards. For his action in attacking an enemy position against considerable odds, Christopher Furness was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
When Lord Furness came of age, he decided to enter the House of Lords and to take up his responsibilities as second viscount, rather than to live and work in America, his mother's home country. In the House he served on a series of committees and was, for many years, a mainstay of the Inter Parliamentary Union.
In addition to his parliamentary duties he also ran Furness Enterprises from his grandfather's offices at 60 St James's Street, which gave him easy access to his favourite clubs. In the fifties and sixties he was a theatrical producer or 'angel', his preferred term, most particularly with the actor Alan Badel, with whom he ran Furndel Productions, based at the Westminster Theatre. Of these productions probably the 1959 production of Ulysses in Nighttown, directed by Burgess Meredith, which transferred from New York and ran in London and later in Paris, and James Saunders' The Ark (1960) were the most prestigious; although Furndel productions also mounted the London production of Gore Vidal's Visit to a Small Planet. When his partnership with Alan Badel ended, he continued to work as a producer, most particularly through his financing of Jeremy Brett's Hamlet, and a memorable production of Heartbreak House at Wyndham's Theatre, with Roger Livesey as Captain Shotover.
During these years Lord Furness also had business ventures in America, on occasions with his old Californian school friend Larry Spector, later to be involved in music management and the financing and production of Easy Rider.
For many years Lord Furness was an active member of the Royal Central Asian Society, now the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. His theatrical and Central Asian interests culminated in his visit to Mongolia in 1960, in an attempt to bring the Mongolian National Opera to London. And although this did not succeed, due largely to difficulties made by the Russian government of the day, this interest did lead to the founding of The Anglo-Mongolian Society in 1963.
In addition to his work in business and in the theatre, Lord Furness was, from his early adult life, a knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. The Catholic Church was an extremely important part of his life, thus his work for the order was something he took very seriously. Eventually he became one of the first two English Professed Knights of the Order since the reformation, the other being the late grandmaster of the Order of Malta, HMEH Fra Andrew Bertie.
On becoming a professed knight Lord Furness focused all his efforts on working for the Order and left England to reside in Martigny, as a tax exile. He spent much time in Geneva, Switzerland, where he maintained an office.
He died in the Order's Hospice of St John and St Elizabeth in London on 1 May 1995. Since he did not marry and had no children – according to an obituary, he took a vow of celibacy upon being rejected by the only woman he ever asked to marry him – the title became extinct.
Sir Christopher Furness, 1st Baron Furness
1st Viscount Furness
Hon. Christopher Furness
Burrough Court, Melton-Mowbray
OBITUARY: Viscount Furness
Friday, 12 May 1995
When he succeeded to his viscountcy in 1940, at the age of 11, Lord Furness became known as the richest little boy in England. It was an epithet that brought him more than his fair share of fortune hunters. "They soon disappeared when I told them all the money was in trust and there was absolutely no provision for a wife," he said.
Tony Furness only came into the title because his elder half-brother Dick was killed in action at Arras (and awarded a posthumous VC). His mother, Thelma Morgan, was an American society beauty and bit-part film actress whose twin sister Gloria had married into the Vanderbilt family. Thelma was the second wife of Marmaduke, first Viscount Furness, chairman of the Furness Withy shipping line and 20 years her senior. Tony was their only child.
It was frequently rumoured that he was the illegitimate son of the Prince of Wales, with whom Thelma had a long and celebrated affair, but this is something he always denied and indeed Furness bore a striking resemblance to his grandfather, the founder of the Furness shipping line.
When he was four his parents divorced and Tony never again set foot inside one of his father's houses. He was educated first in England, then in California, where he got to know many of the child stars including Elizabeth Taylor, Roddy McDowall and Shirley Temple. But his English accent, poor health (for most of his life he suffered from diabetes, had problems with his eyes and was never permitted to drive a car), his dislike of sport and his mother's glamorous Hollywood lifestyle set him apart and created a sense of isolation and of loneliness he was never entirely to lose.
At 21, faced with a choice between settling in the United States or entering the House of Lords, he chose the Lords as the place where his duty lay. He volunteered for a number of Select Committees and took an active role in the work of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Millions have had cause to thank him for sponsoring the Bill which permits travellers who have gone through customs to have a drink out of hours.
Away from the Lords he worked for American Express and the wine merchant Percy Fox. Then, together with the actor Alan Badel, he formed Furndel Productions which put on a number of interesting, but financially disastrous, plays in the West End including Ulysses in Nighttown with Zero Mostel (1959), and James Saunders's first stage play, The Ark (1959).
A visit to Mongolia to negotiate a possible London trip for the Mongolian National Theatre (a tour which never happened) led to his forming the Anglo-Mongolian Society in 1963 and, indirectly, to Mongolia's being recognised by the British government.
While at school he had become a convert to Catholicism and through Westminster Cathedral worked for a number of Catholic charities. When rising production costs and tax demands (as his money was in trust Furness could not benefit from tax-mitigation schemes and at one point he was paying 98 per cent of his entire income to the Inland Revenue) brought an end to his theatrical career, he contemplated entering the priesthood, but was advised against it. Instead, he decided to devote himself full-time to the religious order the Knights of Malta and went to live in Martigny, Switzerland, close to the Augustinian community of St Maurice.
Tony Furness was a restless man, never entirely at ease with the life into which he was born. He had many acquaintances but few close friends. When he asked me to help write his autobiography, it soon became clear that he was not really interested in seeing a finished book, only in having someone to talk to. His only proposal of marriage, made when young, was rejected, and he subsequently took a vow of celibacy. The title dies with him.
William Anthony Furness, businessman and theatrical producer: born Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire 31 March 1929; succeeded 1940 as second Viscount Furness; died 1 May 1995.