Born as Lady Moira Forbes in 1910 in London, the Countess Moira Rossi di Montelera was the eldest child of Bernard Forbes, the 8th Earl of Granard and Beatrice Forbes, Countess of Granard, an American-born heiress and whose father was Ogden Mills, an American financier and Thoroughbred racehorse owner. Beatrice Mills was raised around horses at her family's Hudson Valley estate in Staatsburg, New York. She found her way to England as part of a phenomena of American heiresses marrying titled Englishmen that was typical of the time.
Countess Rossi's childhood was split between a handful of grand houses: Forbes Castle in Ireland; the Mills family home in Staatsburg; Forbes House in Halkin Street, London, and the Maison Granard in rue de Varennes, Paris. The mansion and surrounding grounds became the Staatsburgh State Historic Site in 1938 when her aunt, Gladys Mills Phipps, donated the house and 192 acres of land to the state of New York as a memorial to her parents Ruth and Ogden.
Countess Moira as a child on horseback in the early 1900s. Photo courtesy of the Staatsburgh State Historic Site
Already of noble lineage, it was her brief marriage to Count Teofilo Guiscardo Rossi di Montelera of Turin, Italy in 1942 that bestowed her ultimate title. Count Rossi di Montelera was an avid sportsman, having been a four and five man bobsled driver in the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics, a world champion offshore powerboat racer, and the heir of the Rossi family, a dynasty of wealthy distillers as partners in Martini e Rossi SpA.
An article published in London’s The Evening Standard in April 2005 described the Countess as “a grand old lady who had surrounded herself with opulent 18th century ormolu and silk brocade, tortoiseshell and ebony, painted, carved and gilded furnishings and friends the breadth of American and European society.” Her taste spanned a broad range, from “from the outrageously glam to the whimsical,” but it was curated with considerable care and knowledge - and the end result was a sumptuous yet livable level of comfort in her Lausanne, Switzerland apartment overlooking the lake with the Alps rising in the distance. Countess Moira’s taste was such that her ownership of a collectible is now an important part of its provenance in auction lots, such as a 2007 Sotheby’s auction of a Cartier Gem-set Carving of Three Pekingese Dogs.
Anybody fortunate enough to have been invited into her domain will smile knowingly when sharing stories of gatherings at her Lausanne apartment, where she would hold court on her orange silk brocade sofa, propped up with mink cushions, her hair violet or blue, depending on mood, and her chihuahua named Frou-Frou testing the mettle of a chosen visitor by licking an ear from the back of the sofa with the expanse of Lake Geneva unfolding behind. She was the hub of all society gossip. She knew exactly what was happening in New York, London, Paris, Geneva, and Gstaad.
Countess Moira in her Lausanne apartment with her dog Frou-Frou
Blessed with her keen wit right to the end, business meetings would be conducted at her dining room table with her close advisors as accounts would be reviewed, or potential treasures would be evaluated for potential acquisition. It was a honor to be anointed as a steward of her trust and the responsibility for excellence that came along with it. Upon conclusion, and after a late afternoon respite or perhaps cheering on one of her racehorses via the television in her private bedroom - it would be time for dinner with her advisors and their spouses - and always an extra chair for Frou-Frou as well next to her. A frequent dinner guest recently reminisced: “All the waiters knew to bring the dog a saucer of cream."
Having no children of her own, Countess Moira avidly embraced the idea of creating a philanthropic legacy in 2000 and The Countess Moira Charitable Foundation was formed in New York (see From The Founder). She greatly enjoyed hearing updates of good works that were being done in her name, and she resolved to bequest a material portion of her estate to both the existing New York based foundation as well as a newly created "sister" foundation, the Fondation Comtesse Moïra, based in Lausanne.
Countess Moira Rossi di Montelera passed away in May, 2004 at the age of 94. A combination of European aristocracy and American wealth allowed her to indulge her two passions for horse racing and jewellery while living, and to bestow a legacy of philanthropy in her name upon her passing.
Special thanks to the following individuals who contributed significantly to this narrative:
- Pamela Malcolm, Historic Site Manager and Maria Reynolds, Curator - both from the Staatsburgh State Historic Site for reviewing the historical narrative and providing the photograph of Moira on horseback
- Brett Sherlock, SVP and MD of Christie's Canada ( Toronto) and formerly Geneva who was a close personal friend and advisor to the Countess for providing first hand accounts of life in Lausanne
Header images used with permission of Irene Wilson Art