How Rose Dugdale Went From British Debutante to I.R.A. ‘Freedom Fighter’

The True Story of Rose Dugdale and the Russborough House Art Heist
By Anthony M. Amore

Rick Perlstein once described the end of the 1960s counterculture as “a blaze of numbskull adventurism and Maoist masquerade” that flickered out by 1970. It seems no one told Rose Dugdale, the star of Anthony M. Amore’s “The Woman Who Stole Vermeer,” who in 1974 elevated numbskull Maoist adventurism to an art form — literally — by making off with the Dutch master’s painting “Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid” from Russborough House, the Palladian showcase of Sir Alfred and Lady Beit just south of Dublin.

Before her political awakening, notoriety and subsequent imprisonment, Dugdale was an upper-class London debutante. Born in March 1941, she was “tucked safely away” at her father’s country estate during the German air raids, “a Blitz baby only by date, not by experience.” Her childhood in East Devon was spent, according to friends and family, in “a farmhouse smartened up to the extent of being ‘ludicrously overdone,’” riding horses, being “jolly smartly dressed” and giggling. Rose was devoted to her “smart, handsome, lean and athletic” father, Colonel Dugdale. Amore — the head of security at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum — relates the likely apocryphal tale of the colonel having his teeth knocked out while playing polo, dismounting, shoving them back into place — where they “stayed put for several more years” — and carrying on.

Rose was educated at Miss Ironside’s in South Kensington — Jane Birkin would be its most famous alumna — with, in her words, “the daughters of aristocracy … learning to curtsy, and worrying not about exams, ‘for Mr. Right was bound to come along eventually.’” Headmistress Virginia Ironside remembered, “Everyone adored this generous, clever and dashing millionaire’s daughter, who was life and laughter.” As Amore notes, “It was high praise from a woman who taught countless young women gifted with Dugdale-like stock.” After graduation, she did the society lady’s grand tour.

She came out in the 1958 season, the last year girls were presented to the queen, owing to the diminishing “class” of participants. (Princess Margaret put it less delicately: “We had to put a stop to it. Every tart in London was getting in.”) Rose found the spectacle “a torture” but submitted so that her parents would allow her to study politics, philosophy and economics at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. “It was the last time,” Amore observes, “she would do anything at her parents’ command for the rest of her life.”

At Oxford, Dugdale was at first “extremely right-wing,” defending the House of Lords and the class system and collecting student clubs. Her rebellions were unimaginative — she wore men’s clothes, smoked incessantly and seldom cleaned her room. Rose’s own recollection is characteristically disarming: “I turned into the most disagreeable kind of intellectual, badly dressed and extremely arrogant.” She took an “unimpressive” third-class degree and went on to Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts for graduate work in philosophy. The novelist Iris Murdoch, who taught her at Oxford, predicted moderate establishment success for Rose, as perhaps “an able administrator or a good university teacher.” Rose had different ideas.

An aborted lectureship at Bedford College, two years in the Ministry of Overseas Development and the revolutionary atmosphere of 1968 combined to transform Rose “from academic to activist.” She railed against the Vietnam War, the iniquities of capitalism and, above all, the English yoke in Ireland. Bloody Sunday — the massacre of 13 Irish Republican protesters in January 1972 — drew Rose to domestic terrorism.

As Amore illustrates with an irresistible blend of wryness and affection, her adopted proletarian role was not always convincing or particularly noble. Rose continued to attend operas and horse races, supported by an allowance from her father. Her conversation was peppered with “old left-wing jargon like something out of an old pamphlet from the Fabians.” And her affair with the socialist Wally Heaton was carried out in plain view of his beleaguered wife and daughters. Whether out of “guilt, restitution or both,” Rose gave Mrs. Heaton 25,000 British pounds during the relationship.

The road to Russborough was paved with misadventure. Amore’s winning detachment is unchanged as Rose evolves from debutante to desperado. She tried to enlist Wally’s cousin-in-law, an associate of East London’s infamous Kray brothers, to orchestrate criminal activities in aid of the I.R.A., but he balked at the prospect of committing treason and turned police informant. In June 1973, Rose and Wally burglarized her family’s estate while they were out at the Epsom Derby, depositing the valuables at the flat of a former tutor. At the open-and-shut trial, she made feeble denials while proclaiming herself “a freedom fighter”; frequently kissed Wally in the dock; and disparaged her put-upon parents as “gangsters, thieves and oppressors of the poor.” Wally was sentenced to six years in prison, while Rose’s two-year suspended sentence was delivered with sexist condescension and what Amore calls “a legendary display of poor character evaluation.” The judge was, to be sure, wildly off the mark: “I think the risk that you will ever again commit burglary or any dishonesty is extremely remote.”

Within the year, Dugdale was dropping bombs on the police station at the Irish town of Strabane. In keeping with the element of farce, the explosives failed to detonate, but still she declared the fiasco “operationally very important and exciting.” A local official enjoyed witnessing his “enemy making a fool of himself.” Undaunted, Dugdale shifted her sights to Russborough House and its famous — and poorly guarded — collection of pictures assembled by the South African diamond magnate Sir Alfred Beit and his brother, Otto.

Alfred’s nephew (and namesake) and his wife were at home on the night of April 26, 1974. Dugdale, her new boyfriend and two accomplices bound, gagged and insulted the Beits (“capitalist pig” was the disappointing extent of it) and swiped 19 important paintings by Gainsborough, Goya, Rubens, Velázquez, Vermeer — to whom fewer than 40 works are fully attributed today — and others from their frames. The estimated £8 million haul was recovered upon Rose’s capture 10 days later.

For her first three days in captivity, Rose refused to confirm her identity or remove her brunette wig. The I.R.A. disavowed the robbery. The ensuing trial concluded with Rose’s solemn, semi-coherent peroration and the jury’s near-immediate verdict. This time, she got nine years in prison.

Amore’s publisher has falsely advertised his droll, engaging book as an “unbelievable” heist story. “Ocean’s 8” (or 11, 12, 13) it’s not, Dugdale is more Fawlty than Ocean. Yet this in no way diminishes the pleasures of “The Woman Who Stole Vermeer.” Rose is terrific company: clever, forthright and flamboyant. (During her incarceration, she wed, gave birth and petitioned for the construction of squash facilities.) She is still alive today — though she did not grant Amore an interview — and is now praised by the former Irish republicans. Her Facebook profile photo is the Russborough Vermeer.

And Rose’s legacy? The historian David Farber has suggested that “the ’60s generation of activists saw themselves as acting in history. ‘The Whole World Is Watching’ — they were literally chanting it in the streets. And that’s the irony that’s heated up this debate so much. Because in the end, well, maybe they weren’t the historical agents of change quite as much as they hoped.” One imagines Rose’s unprintable reply.

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