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Lady Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton, 103; founded Bundles for Britain

NEW YORK — In 1939, Lady Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton, who died on Jan. 14 at 103, had yet to acquire that title or that name. She was Natalie Latham, a native of Cohasset, Mass., and a fixture of Manhattan society who founded the World War II relief program known as Bundles for Britain.

Mrs. Latham had previously achieved a dollop of fame when she and her two young daughters, nicknamed Mimi and Bubbles, appeared together in matching swimwear in a Life magazine photo spread, having captivated a photographer at a beach club one day.

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Their mother, who was deft with a needle and thread, had made the outfits herself.

At the time, England had declared war on Germany. It was then, already twice divorced at 30, that Mrs. Latham paused to take stock of her life.

A former debutante, she had family wealth, a Revolutionary War pedigree, and an Upper East Side address. She was busy enough, organizing charity balls, herding two rambunctious children about town and making her own clothes. Like most Americans, she did not want the United States to join the war, but she felt private citizens ought to help somehow.

‘‘I had never had time to think before,’’ she said in an interview with The New Yorker in 1941. ‘‘I began to think of Britain.’’

It was a turning point in a life of privilege that led to one of the 20th century’s most inspired relief efforts. Nearly two years before the United States entered World War II, Mrs. Latham started Bundles for Britain, an organization that initially consisted of a few New York women knitting socks and caps for British sailors.

It would grow to embrace 1.5 million volunteers in 1,900 branches in every state and begin shipping to Britain not only hundreds of thousands of knitted items but also ambulances, X-ray machines, and children’s cots — all labeled ‘‘From your American friends.’’

Manhattan society matrons pitched in, along with sheepherders in Oregon, apple growers in Michigan, and blanket makers in Oklahoma. South Carolinians raised money with a watermelon-eating contest. Women baked cakes and took in laundry to buy yarn.

Letters of thanks poured in (“Dear Bundles,’’ most said), so Mrs. Latham sought help in replying to them, recruiting eight women, all former debutantes, at the Stork Club, one of her favorite haunts.

For help on the English end, she enlisted Janet Murrow, wife of the legendary CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow, whose live radio broadcasts from London brought the war home to Americans; Louise Carnegie, wife of the industrialist Andrew Carnegie; and Clementine Churchill, wife of the prime minister.

Joan Crawford asked her fans to forgo giving her holiday presents and contribute instead to Bundles. For a raffle, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, mother of the current queen, donated a bejeweled cigarette case, as well as a piece of shrapnel from the bomb that had hit Buckingham Palace.

‘‘It’s like a fairy tale,’’ Mrs. Latham told The New Yorker. ‘‘I just go around pinching myself, it’s so thrilling.’’

It was also exhausting: she sometimes collapsed at her desk with fatigue. King George VI made her an honorary Commander of the British Empire, the first non-British woman to be so honored.

Lady Douglas-Hamilton died at a nursing home in Andover, N.J., her family said.

She was born Natalie Scarritt Wales on Aug. 8, 1909, in Cohasset. Her father, Nathaniel Brackett Wales, invented an early electric refrigerator. He was descended from another Nathaniel Wales, who arrived in Massachusetts in 1635. Her mother, the former Enid Mariner Scarritt, was descended from a governor of Colonial Virginia.

What turned out to be her longest endeavor, promoting Scotland in the United States, grew out of her marriage to Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton, a member of the British Parliament from Scotland. They met in 1951, when, representing Common Cause, she spoke to the House of Commons about communism.

They married two years later, after the death of Edward Paine, her third husband, and the lord’s divorce from Pamela Bowes Lyon, a cousin of the queen mother.

Her first husband was Kenelm Winslow, whom she had met on the debutante circuit. They were married in 1928 but soon divorced. In 1937 she married Edward Latham, a former diplomat. Another divorce ensued, in 1939.

Her daughter Natalie Wales Winslow (known as Bubbles) died in 1988. She leaves her other daughter, Mary-Chilton Winslow Mead (Mimi); six grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

Bundles for Britain, which continued through the war, was but one milestone in her life. At the request of the White House, she created a spinoff group, Bundles for America, to aid Americans in need during the war; one project involved scavenging junkyards for upholstery to make into clothing.

In 1947 she founded and became president of Common Cause (not to be confused with the liberal government watchdog group started in 1970), a moderate anticommunist organization. She also formed a group to aid Haiti; another to stem erosion of the nation’s morals; and still another to encourage good taste.

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