A NOTED beauty with an enviable musical talent, as a young woman on the threshold of a brilliant career Marion Thorpe, who has died at the age of 87, had seemed singularly fortunate.
Her name is honorably connected with the Leeds International Piano Competition which she co-founded with Dame Fanny Waterman, yet it is also associated with a double misfortune.
The first saw the ending of her marriage to the Queen’s first cousin, the 7th Earl of Harewood, following his long affair with the Australian violinist and fashion model Patricia Tuckwell whom he then married.
Now divorced, the former countess chose for her second husband the charismatic and highly entertaining leader of the Liberal Party, Jeremy Thorpe.
His wife, Caroline Allpass, had been killed in a car cash in 1970, and it was a mutual friend, the pianist Moura Lympany, who introduced them.
They were married without fanfare at Paddington Registry Office in 1973, but any chance of enjoying a settled life ended when Mr Thorpe was accused by the male model Norman Scott of hiring Andrew Newton, an airline pilot, to shoot him.
In the event, the only casualty was Rinka, Mr Scott’s Great Dane, but the murder plot accusation led to a trial at the Old Bailey in 1979 which Mrs Thorpe attended every day in loyal support of her husband.
He had resigned as party leader in 1976, and although acquitted, his reputation was destroyed and he lost his North Devon seat in the 1979 election.
Three years later he started to suffer from Parkinson’s disease, his wife seeing to his needs until her own ill-health made that impossible.
Maria Donata Nanetta Paulina Gustava Erwina Wilhelmine Stein was born in Vienna, the daughter of Sophie and Erwin Stein, a prominent Jewish musician who had been a pupil of Schoenberg.
She was immersed in music and surrounded by musicians whose fame allowed Vienna the boast of being the musical shrine of the world.
After the Nazi-enforced unification of Germany and Austria in 1938, the family left their home and moved to London where Mr Stein joined Boosey & Hawkes, working as Benjamin Britten’s publisher until 1940 when he was interned on the Isle of Man, his wife and daughter having to survive on the meagre weekly allowance of £3.
She first met Benjamin Britten when she was 12, and after fire destroyed the Steins’ apartment in 1944, the family lodged for 18 months with the composer and his long-term partner, the tenor Peter Pears, in St John’s Wood.
After leaving school in Kensington, she studied at the Royal College of Music, and while attending the first of Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh Music Festivals she met the festival’s president, the late Lord Harewood, the Queen’s first cousin and 11th in line for the throne.
When they married at St Mark’s Church, North Audley Street, the Royal Family returned to London for it from Balmoral, 900 guests attended, 500 police lined the streets and the ceremony included the first performance of Britten’s A Wedding Anthem.
Considered a first-rate pianist who brought a radiant personality to her performances, Mrs Thorpe gave up her concert career after becoming a mother. At Harewood House she organised spectacular events, including an opera-inspired fancy dress ball in aid of Britten’s English Opera Group, and the composer showed his gratitude the next year by dedicating his opera Billy Budd to the Harewoods.
Mrs Thorpes’s fruitful association with Dame Fanny Waterman began when her son became a pupil of the renowned piano teacher, who then enlisted her support for the extraordinarily bold idea of establishing an international piano competition based in Leeds.
The Countess persuaded her mother-in-law, the Princess Royal, to be its patron, guaranteeing it certain recognition from the outset. There was some concern for its future reputation when the first competition in 1963 was won by the prodigy Michael Roll, who was then a pupil at Roundhay Boys’ Grammar School. But the Leeds quickly established its credentials as a being the equal of the International Tchaikovsky in Moscow and the International Van Cliburn in Texas.
In 1967, the year her marriage ended in divorce, Mrs Thorpe and Dame Fanny Waterman began a collaboration which resulted in Faber’s best-selling Me and My Piano series of piano tutor books for beginners.
Mrs Thorpe is survived by her husband and by the three sons of her first marriage, David, now the 8th Earl, James and Jeremy.