Leon Max (right in the first picture) with his gamekeeper-cum-head groundsman Roy Goodger (far left). Katia Elizavora (right) is a model and face of Leon's fashion line. She was spotted at the age of 14
At the end of a long green alley stands a mini-Versailles, nine windows wide, approached by a pair of billowing stairs.
Cream stone façade, stone lions caged on the roof by a four-square balustrade – Easton Neston looks like the home of a Renaissance prince.
The house was built in 1702, by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. Unusually for such an exquisite piece of architecture, it’s never been open to the public.
I’m shown into the drawing room by Roy Goodger, gamekeeper-cum-head groundsman, a reassuringly tweeded figure who has worked at Easton Neston for over 30 years.
The ‘prince’ in question, Leon Max, a hugely rich Russian, acquired Roy when he bought the house for £15 million back in 2005 from Lord Hesketh, a former Tory treasurer who had his own Formula 1 racing team in the Seventies.
Easton Neston was built in 1702, by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. Unusually for such an exquisite piece of architecture, it's never been open to the public
Max has reputedly spent £25 million doing up the house. There’s a Rubens above the fireplace the size of a double bed: a Herculaean boar hunt that previously belonged to the Heskeths.
Max, or Leonid Maxovitch Rodovinksi, is one of a clutch of rich Russians buying up chunks of Britain. But instead of spending his fortune on football clubs, like Roman Abramovich, or sprawling Surrey mansions like Abramovich’s ex-business partner turned bitter rival Boris Berezovsky, Max has done what no other Russians have yet done – bought up a spectacularly beautiful English stately home.
And now, just as the Mid-West nouveau riche in F Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby entertained his way into American East Coast high society, Max is launching an assault on the English smart set – although assault is the wrong word; it implies some sort of resistance.
During the shooting season the house is stuffed with chic guests – including the Earl and Countess of Albemarle and society actress Georgina Rylance.
The formal gardens at Easton Neston. 'I really like England. I like the lifestyle and the country. The history. The culture, which London is full of. The country pursuits,' said Leon
For the moment Max, however, is nowhere to be seen. Nor is anyone else; Roy aside, no visible or audible staff. There are no family photographs on the French ormolu tables.
No Mrs Max: Max is twice divorced and his only daughter, Sophie, he tells me later, is 24 and lives in Portland, Oregon. There isn’t even a dog. It’s as though the house is in a deep, brocaded sleep.
Max walks into the drawing room. He looks both very un-English and utterly at home among this slightly blank European grandeur – perhaps because his thick mane of silvered dark hair and fleshy nose make him look indeed like one of Mantegna’s renaissance Gonzaga princes – all he needs is a pair of red and white parti-coloured tights.
Instead he’s in tweeds and chocolate-brown moleskin trousers, achieving the almost impossible goal of looking country but trendy.
His first lines are very English indeed.
‘I hope someone has offered you something – a cup of tea?’
‘I’m sorry. There’s no one here. My butler is in my house in Los Angeles (his LA house used to belong to Madonna). Normally we have flowers,’ he waves a hand apologetically around the room. ‘But everything is closed up for the winter.’
Katia and Leon in his office. Following his divorce, he had an affair with the model, who still treats him with a mixture of coquetry and bitterness
Max is very different from other rich Russians. Unlike the oligarchs, he did not hack his fortune from the Darwinian bloodbath that followed the collapse of communism.
‘I don’t have many Russian friends,’ he says, maintaining his distance. ‘My childhood friends are dead – either from bad health, or they died in perestroika.’
Into the drawing room strides the six-foot-tall blonde Katia Elizavora, model and face of Max’s fashion line, who was spotted aged 14 in the street in Saratov, a town south of Moscow.
Following his divorce, Max had an affair with Katia, who still treats him with a mixture of coquetry and bitterness.
She announces: ‘I can’t stay longer than 1pm for the photographs, Leon. I told you. I have an audition this afternoon. I have my life.’
I ask him if Katia is his muse or a girlfriend. He laughs: ‘The roles have been confused.’
He talks about their relationship in terms of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with his creation, brought to life by the gods: ‘I dressed Katia up. As it is perfectly in my image it is difficult not to develop tenderness.’
But in the myth Pygmalion and his creation live happily ever after.
Katia in the gallery. Leon talks about their relationship in terms of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with his creation, brought to life by the gods
Born into Leningrad’s Soviet intelligentsia, Max fled Russia as a teenager in the Seventies, blagging a Jewish visa to Israel. Instead of changing planes in Vienna, he claimed political asylum.
‘I was being driven through Vienna in a government van. The streets were very beautiful but the signs were all in German, a language I did not speak. That was the moment I realised I had to sink or swim.’
Luckily Max’s mother had given him three Fabergé family photograph frames; he sold them and used the money to start his new life.
‘I’d love to buy them back. So if you hear of some lunatic paying over the odds for Fabergé frames, it will be me.’
His mother, now 90, still lives in St Petersburg and Max goes to see her a couple of times a year.
‘When I go back to Russia now, it’s as a rich foreigner. Which is good.’
After a stint as a personal trainer in New York, he ended up in LA, working for a start-up fashion company.
‘I thought, I can do that. So I started my own company. By 25 I was a millionaire.’
His company is Max Studio, a mid-market women’s clothing line. It sells, he tells me, ‘over a million units a month. That’s why I have the wherewithal to do all this.’
Leon is proud of the Rubens in the drawing room - 'It used to hang there. So when it came up for sale recently I bought it. I thought it would be nice to have the same picture there. Also it fits perfectly,' he said
All this being Easton Neston, his new English life: he now runs his global clothing empire from the design studio he created in a burnt-out servant’s wing, built by Sir Christopher Wren. He has just launched his new line, Leon Max, in the UK.
I ask him if he made any money out of the birth of New Russia.
‘Not as much as I should have,’ he jokes.
But then he closes up. Does he do much commodity trading?
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
He does admit, reluctantly, that his family back in Russia have been very successful. But he is only too aware of the potential price: Sergei, his childhood best friend, became a rich banker.
‘He’s dead. He was shot at a crossroads by a motorcyclist in 1997.’
His American fortune is safe from the feuds of Russian business; safe from Putin.
‘Not that I am necessarily against Putin,’ he says. ‘Some countries need a strong leader. You just have to hope he is benevolent.’
Leon runs his global clothing empire from the design studio he created in a burnt-out servant's wing, built by Sir Christopher Wren. He has just launched his new line, Leon Max, in the UK
Max is huddled in his chair. Why this house?
‘It’s a very beautiful house.’
‘I really like England. I like the lifestyle and the country. The history. The culture, which London is full of. The country pursuits.’
Does he shoot, hunt?
‘I don’t hunt but I do shoot. I have met a number of interesting people on shoots. And it’s interesting to go to other great houses. I’m friendly with Charles Spencer (Princess Diana’s brother), who is my neighbour here.
'So I shoot there, he comes here. The Marlboroughs at Blenheim (the Duke’s daughter, Lady Henrietta Spencer Churchill, was Max’s decorator).
'I have another single neighbour who lives nearby at Castle Ashby, Danny Compton (Earl Compton, heir to the Marquess of Northampton). I’m friendly with Orlando Rock (the Antiques Roadshow star).’
Easton Neston, he explains, was love at first sight.
‘I saw it from the helicopter. I knew it was the one.’
'Ideally this house should have a family. But it works just as well as a house to entertain in,' said Leon (pictured above: the dining room)
He’d been looking for a ‘disused white elephant of a pile’ where he could set up a UK design studio for his clothing line.
‘It had to be close to London so I could commute when needed.’
Max bought the house, he explains, the week after the Heskeths had auctioned the contents.
‘Tragic,’ he says. ‘They had to move all the chandeliers.’
He doesn’t like to waste money. Despite being worth about £1 billion, he doesn’t have a house in London.
‘It’s not worth it. I stay at the Lanesborough.’
He doesn’t own his own helicopter.
‘I ring for one if I want one.’
His private jets come from bookajet.com.
‘I’m waiting for a plane. It’s late to market. It’s a turbo prop with vertical take-off ability.’
He even, it appears, doesn’t bother to heat his house. That, he laughs, is a mistake.
‘It just happens to be off. Something happened to it. It’s an absolutely new system. We have underfloor heating here.’
Servants' quarters in the basement
He’s proud of his paintings, such as Luca Giordano’s Jacob Wrestling With The Angel – ‘Look at the Angel’s toes, look how dirty they are.’
Or the Rubens in the drawing room – ‘It used to hang there. So when it came up for sale recently I bought it. I thought it would be nice to have the same picture there. Also it fits perfectly.’
In July 2011, Max, freshly divorced from his second wife, the American model and stylist Ame Austin, gave a lavish party.
‘I realised I didn’t know anyone in this country under 50.’
Max laid on a champagne-fuelled coach from London to bring his guests: young, cool scions of the new ‘rock-ocracy’ – Pixie Geldof, Otis Ferry – and the old – Edwardian beauty Violet Naylor-Leyland, granddaughter of Lord Lambton, and Sir George Sitwell and his wife Martha, Lady Sitwell.
Bells outside the servants' hall in the basement
Max himself talks of ‘the Gatsby-esque life’ he leads.
In his study, upstairs, he shows me a newly finished documentary, In Pursuit Of Beauty, which follows Max for six months as he tries to launch his single life in England and his new clothing line: polo at Cowdray Park; his summer party; sailing a sleek navy blue yacht in St Tropez; in the company of Katia.
But there is, he points out, a difference between him and Gatsby.
‘There’s no Daisy in my life.’
He may have no Daisy but he does have girls.
Katia aside, there were his two marriages which, he says, just ‘ran their course’ – although in the documentary, his most recent ex-wife Ame says for her the divorce was ‘dreadful’.
What about an English girl?
‘I’m an equal opportunities…’
He leaves the last word blank. A family?
‘Ideally this house should have a family. But it works just as well as a house to entertain in.’
I ask if he is lonely.
‘I have my colleagues who work in the studio,’ he says, waving at the Wren wing.
‘At the weekends I have my friends.’
Perhaps there is a Daisy, but not a human one. Max grew up with his face pressed against the Iron Curtain, longing for the beauty, the freedom of Old Europe.
He made his fortune in the New World. And now he wants his Old World friends to love his clothes too.