A Woman to Know: Sylvia Brooke

I have done almost everything in life except two things: I have never had a son, and I have never come down in a parachute. — Sylvia Brett

(image via The Bodleian Library)


Born an English aristocrat, fashioned into worldwide royalty. After dating London playboys, daredevil pilots and even Hollywood star Erroll Flynn, she met her future husband at a neighbor's house party: Charles Vyner, the White Rajah of Sarawak. At 26, she married the heir to the White Raja rule in Borneo, gleefully claiming her title of Ranee and secretly preparing for a life of her own political ambitions. Her own brother called her a "female Iago."

In her 50 years beside the Rajah, she scoffed at her husband's multiple affairs (the two would bring their own lovers to their wedding anniversary dinners, shocking their royal friends) and earned a reputation as a jet-setting socialite. But in the midst of Borneo's political turmoil, her husband abdicated his throne in 1946 — and Sylvia set about implementing her long-held "schemes to alter the succession." She'd been ridiculed for her inability to produce a male heir to the colonial throne, but in the wake of her husband's abdication, Sylvia instead pushed for her daughter Leonora to be named the first female leader. But to no avail; once it seemed the White Rajahs had lost control entirely, the mother-daughter duo escaped to Barbados. There, Sylvia spent her last years cannibalizing the events of her life — the affairs, the scandals, the politics — for a series of books and short stories.

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