Grace, elegance and a love of powerboats: The very full life of Lady Violet Aitken

·6 min read
Lady Violet Aitken has died at age 94.  (Powerboat Racing World - image credit)
Lady Violet Aitken has died at age 94. (Powerboat Racing World - image credit)

"First Lady of Offshore, Lady Violet Aitken, has passed away."

The headline in Powerboat Racing World, one of the first Canadian outlets to report Aitken's death on Feb. 18, seems at first blush to be a remarkable understatement of her larger-than-life life.

In her 94 years, there was little Aitken hadn't experienced or achieved.

She was the daughter-in-law of Miramichi-raised Sir William Maxwell Aitken, better known as Lord Beaverbrook, a leading benefactor of the University of New Brunswick and founder and sponsor of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.

Her marriage to Beaverbrook's son, Sir Max Aitken, brought her into New Brunswick's orbit and sparked what would become a lifelong love of the province and of Canada.

She was the first female chancellor of the University of New Brunswick, a post she held for 10 years.

She was on the board of the Beaverbrook Foundation and the driving force behind many of the foundation's key projects.

She was one of New Brunswick's most ardent ambassadors, a mother of two children — the current Lord Beaverbrook, Maxwell Aitken, and Laura Levi — and grandmother and great-grandmother of many more.

And yes, as noted by Powerboat Racing World, she was also a fiercely competitive powerboat racer.

Lady Violet Aitken with powerboat racer and journalist Ray Bulman.
Lady Violet Aitken with powerboat racer and journalist Ray Bulman.

Clearly, as stated by the Beaverbrook Foundation in announcing her death, "she had a zest for life."

In a pithy Facebook post, her granddaughter, Lucci, concurred. "My Gran was a badass. RIP."

That's the challenge of capturing a life as broad, as deep and as enthusiastically embraced as Aitken's was.

There is no one word that quite suffices.

There is, however, a general consensus, and that is this: Lady Violet Aitken was "utterly genuine and quite simply remarkable."

Lady Aitken leading the tour outside Cherkley Court during Kevin Fram's visit in the 1990s.
Lady Aitken leading the tour outside Cherkley Court during Kevin Fram's visit in the 1990s.

An extraordinary tour, followed by lunch and cocktails

Kevin Fram, a keen student of Lord Beaverbrook and his family, had the opportunity to meet with Lady Violet Aitken several times back in the '90s, a fact that still seems to amaze him.

He was working as an assistant to then Governor General Roméo LeBlanc and was planning a trip to the United Kingdom.

Former University of New Brunswick president Colin B. Mackay heard about the trip and offered to introduce Fram to his dear friend, Lady Violet Aitken, so he could meet up with her when he landed.

It was arranged that Fram would take a train from London to Leatherhead, Surrey, and she'd meet him at the train station.

"She picked me up in her little Volkswagen and took me on what turned out to be an extraordinary tour of the area," Fram said in an interview Thursday.

"She showed me the gravesite of R.B. Bennett [former prime minister and a childhood friend of Lord Beaverbrook], and she took me on a tour of Cherkley Court."

Kevin Fram at the entrance to Cherkley Court, the former home of Lord Beaverbrook.
Kevin Fram at the entrance to Cherkley Court, the former home of Lord Beaverbrook.

Cherkley Court, once the home of Lord Beaverbrook, was like a time capsule, he said.

"The drawing room, the dining room, the study, there was a movie theatre — it was all there," Fram said. "It was as if Lord Beaverbrook were still alive."

Aitken was living in a cottage on the Cherkley estate, and after the tour, she invited Fram in, served him "lunch and gin and tonics and then talked and talked and talked" about Lord Beaverbrook and her husband and New Brunswick.

"It was obvious how passionate she was about New Brunswick," Fram said. "She cared very deeply about the province and was very proud of the fact that her husband, and then of course she herself, had been so intimately involved with the University of New Brunswick."

The second time Fram visited, he was on his way to India.

"She said 'Well, you're going to need a good square meal before you head off,' " he said with a chuckle.

Aitken insisted on cooking him lunch – fried pork chops, green beans, all the fixings — followed by an afternoon of gin and tonics and hours of conversation.

"Whatever your preconceptions might be about a well-bred member of the British aristocracy, I can tell you this: Lady Aitken was warm, genuine, gracious, charming — she was completely enchanting."

Lady Violet Aitken in a recent photo, posted on the Beaverbrook Foundation website.
Lady Violet Aitken in a recent photo, posted on the Beaverbrook Foundation website.

Decade-long dispute over paintings

Judy Budovitch remembers Lady Violet Aitken as a woman of incandescent natural charm.

Budovitch chaired the board of Fredericton's Beaverbrook Art Gallery from 1990 to about 2000, when Aitken was the custodian of the gallery, and said she "elevated the energy of every event she attended just by being there."

"When she stood up to speak, she captured the room," Budovitch said. "She spoke beautifully and warmly and she cared a great deal about the institution. She was a wonderful custodian."

The fact that Aitken was so universally well-liked and admired made what eventually transpired so difficult.

In 2004, a dispute arose between Fredericton's Beaverbrook Art Gallery and the U.K.-based Beaverbrook Foundation.

At issue were 133 works of art worth millions of dollars that arrived at the gallery in the 1950s and 1960s. The foundation argued it owned the pieces and lent them to the gallery; the gallery maintained Lord Beaverbrook gave the works as gifts.

In 2007 an arbitrator awarded 85 of the works, including the most valuable paintings in the collection, to the gallery. The foundation won the remaining 48.

"Those were trying times for her, and for everybody here who liked her so very much," Budovitch said.

Warm memories

Aitken had retired from the board by that time, and Budovitch said she never spoke to her after the dispute arose.

"But I'm sure it pained her greatly to see a fracture between the Aitken family and their longstanding support for good works in New Brunswick," she said.

However, that's long since been overtaken by the many warm memories Aitken left in her wake.

Budovitch recalls how, when she went to England with her teenage sons, Aitken met up with them in London.

"We went to her home at Cherkley and had lunch with her. … She just couldn't have been more gracious," Budovitch said.

"She just put you at ease immediately, she was interested in people and you felt that when she spoke with you, even my boys felt at ease with her.

"She was very special. Truly, it was the highlight of my years on the board at the gallery to have gotten to known her."