Some time ago I asked if anyone could translate an article about Elvira that appeared in the French magazine Photo Journal (see Photo Journal 1951 )
Almost by return of post I received two fine English versions of the piece. The content is remarkable, to say the least, and not a little perplexing. If true, the whole Elvira story needs revising. Unfortunately, what is revealed is almost completely a work of fiction.
As the Barney trial is already prone to anecdote, falsehoods and wild speculation (some of which I have on occasion unwittingly added to) I was reluctant to doing anything further with the article. However, although innaccuracy and downright lies do nothing but harm, the “myths” that this piece generates are part of the story so have a certain interest of their own.
The premise upon which this sensational account is founded is shared by nearly all the commentators on the scandal, contemporary with and subsequent to the trial. Basically, Elvira symbolised a decadent and parasitic ruling class, partying ever more wildly, while around them the suffering of the masses was growing worse by the hour. This view, found across the entire political spectrum, is not entirely without merit and certainly is one reason why the case has continued to fascinate.
The thesis is overly reductive, though, even in its more sophisticated formulations (see Osbert Lancaster or Giles Playfair). When formulated as crudely as it is in the Photo Journal report it breaks down completely into tired cliche and exposes itself as lazy generalisation masquerading as political insight.
Anyway, here is the article. I’ve included both versions (which seemed only fair, although they barely differ); partly to say thank you and partly because some of the “information” is so bizarre that it takes two reads to fully appreciate how outrageous a fiction it largely is.I suggest you either amuse yourselves by attempting to tally up the number of factual errors or merely console yourself that, Leveson notwithstanding, journalistic “licence” knows no national boundaries.
How the Jealous Lady Elvira Shot Her Young Fiancé.
London. You need to go back to 1932, England was deep into a grave financial crisis, there were millions of unemployed, seaports were paralyzed, industry and coalmines at a standstill. The ruling class whilst living in selfish indifference began to be worried. Suddenly, in the month of May, an important scandal broke out. in high society. One of the most beautiful and elegant ladies of London is placed in the dock. The economic crisis suddenly takes second place. The newspapers seize the chance to report the private life of this lady who risks hanging. It concerns Lady Elvira Ashley Mullens, daughter of Lord John Ashley Mullens, financial consultant to His Majesty George V and at the same time the all powerful president of the Exchange Agents Corporation. Leader of the British and World exchange markets, Lord Ashley Mullens rules the roost at the Stock Exchange were everyone obeys his orders. The only person who he has not been able to tame is his daughter Elvira. Beautiful and turbulent she caused, from adolescence, grave concern by her adventures revealing a rather excessive “dynamism”.
At the age of 29, after three marriages, of which the last profoundly shocked English high society. Lady Elvira appeared to have no intention of calming down.
First of all let us look at what was her third experience.
Finding herself at the Warldorf Astoria, Lady Elvira, in the glory of her twenty seventh year had, despite prohibition, beaten all records in the matter of drunkenness. During one of her “bottle parties” she picked up John Sterling Barney, a mediocre tenor, better known for his physical attributes than for his singing voice. She removed and held him prisoner for some time in her magnificent villa in Newport News (the Cannes of the USA) and then trailed him before a minister who united them in marriage. The English aristocracy was outraged, Lord Ashley Mullens ordered his daughter’s immediate return to England, without husband, at the risk of having her allowance stopped.
Either the menace produced its effect or Elvira realized the mediocrity of her tenor but will she accept to return to London? She wanted nevertheless to spend some time in Paris to wait for her divorce to be granted.
Life in Paris at that time was very gay for those who had lots of pounds sterling. Patronizing the smart places , Lady Elvira meets a fellow countryman, Michael Stephens, a handsome young man of twenty three, somewhat debauched, who was used to escapades in night clubs and cashing cheques without funds which his father, a minor banker, paid to save the family name. Basically a good boy he had pleasantly whiled away his time in Paris thanks to a beautiful “danseuse” from the “Folies Bergère” who lived with him and subsidized him with her salary whilst waiting for the time he would see fit to marry her.
Onto this idyll the beautiful Elvira came, like a brilliant shooting star, deeply moving…….
Straight away she engages the pink faced blond Michael as private secretary and goes everywhere with him. Michael, who for the first time in his life earns money without having to beg from his father or girlfriend, feels happy.
He is able to dip freely into the cheque book of his new found patron….but at the same time his life becomes difficult. Not only does he have to fill his functions as “private secretary” of a very demanding lady but he has to keep calm the alarmed “danseuse” who is becoming jealous.
We know how similar stories generally end up. Elvira losing her head , offers her secretary her hand in marriage and a first class situation in London. Michael outlawed by his family allows himself to be easily persuaded. The prospects of going back to England with a substantial position and with the help of the City’s biggest financier made him forget the charms of his Parisian dancer.
Whilst Lady Elvira badgers her New York lawyers for a rapid divorce, the new fiancés live as a married couple. However, the mediocre tenor has no intention of giving way so easily, he threatens to reveal to the newspapers and courts the piquant details; he wants to exact a price for his consent. Lady Elvira appeals to her father in assuring him that her new marriage will settle her down. Her father forgives and pays up, but he makes it a condition that she returns to London and gives up the unhealthy life of the night clubs of Paris and America. He even obtains a splendid furnished flat in Mayfair where Lady Elvira will settle into, followed shortly afterwards by Michael.
In London she l takes up again her frenzied life of nocturnal amusements in the company of the most deranged elements of the aristocracy where she wants to involve Michael. At present, he despises this disorderly life and has only one wish and that is to return to Paris and find his Juliette again.
The discord begins, the rows follow and suddenly tragedy strikes.
One day, while Michael was washing, Lady Elvira discovers a photo of the dancer hidden in a watch left on the bedside table. She says nothing but decides to get rid of this rival;
Some time afterwards, the 30th of May around three in the morning, the couple having returned from a dance, prepare to go to bed, Michael decides to open the letters which had been waiting for him the previous morning. He finds a letter from Paris in which Juliette explains how Lady Elvira had managed to get her thrown out of the theatre where she danced. Michael demands an explanation but Lady Elvira sneers. At the height of indignation Michael wishes to get out to fly for Paris, but two pistol shots get him before he is able to reach the door.
Following this event Lady Elvira goes to prison. As one would predict the scandal was enormous. However all means were tried to stifle it. The press, no sooner won over, began to speak of the incident. The lawyers did the rest.
One month later the trial begins. The whole of English high society was there. Lady Elvira shows up in the dock dressed in black with two large white flowers at the waist. As always, beautiful and casual, she confirms the version of the story of accidental mishap caused by the revolver accidentally falling to the ground. It is in vain that her chambermaid declares that she heard her say “I am going to kill you”. It is in vain that the doctors in charge of the victim’s post mortem prove that the shots were fired deliberately at point blank range. The jury voted in her favour and amongst applause from the “snobs” in the public gallery, the judge acquitted her.
Only one person protests, a man who shouts in indignation and spits at the jury and is evicted from the court by the police as quickly as possible. It was the elder brother of the poor Michael.
It was necessary to use mounted police to disperse the crowd and it was under cover of darkness that Elvira was able to get out of the court unnoticed and leave for the USA where naturally she was received as a heroine.
PHOTO JOURNAL PARIS 1 NOVEMBER 1951
JEALOUS, LADY ELVIRA MULLENS KILLED HER YOUNG FIANCE
We must go back to 1932. England is in the grip of a grave economic crisis with one million unemployed, ports paralysed, industries and coal mines stopped. The ruling class, living entirely in a state of self-centred indifference, began to be concerned. Suddenly, in May of that year, a grave scandal shocked the heights of society and one of the most beautiful and elegant ladies of London society was seen on the criminal bench. The economic crisis slipped into to second place and the newspapers were captured by the private life of this lady who risked being hung “by the neck until dead”.
This was the Lady Elvira Ashley Mullens, daughter of Lord John Ashley Mullens who was in turn a financial adviser to His Majesty George V and the all-powerful president of Corporation of Stockbrokers. Dominating the British and world financial markets Lord Ashley Mullens made the rain fall and the sun shine on the London Stock Exchange where everyone bowed to his will. The only person whom he could not dominate was his daughter Elvira. Beautiful and stormy, she had, since her adolescence, been a worry due to adventures that revealed a rather excessive “dynamism”.
At the age of twenty nine, after three attempts at marriage – the last of which had distinctly shocked English high society – Lady Elvira seemed to show no intentions of settling down.
But let us look first at that third marriage experience.
Finding herself at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, Lady Elvira – in all the glory of her twenty seven years – had, in spite of prohibition, broken all the records in drinking bouts. In the middle of one of these “drinking parties” she picked up John Sterling Barney, a mediocre tenor, better known for his physical attributes than singing voice. She carried him off and after holding him prisoner for quite a while in her magnificent villa at Newport-News (The Cannes of the USA) towed him off one fine morning in front of a pastor who married them. The aristocracy of England was outraged. Lord Ashley Mullens ordered her immediate return, without her husband, on pains of their lives.
Whether the threat worked or whether Lady Elvira began to realise the mediocrity of her tenor, she did return alone to London. She wanted, however, to stay a while in Paris until the divorce came through.
Paris, at that time, was particularly exciting for those with British pounds to spend: spending her time in elegant spots, lady Elvira met a young compatriot, Michael Stephens, a handsome young man of 23, a little lame, prone to occasional pranks in nightclubs where he presented cheques without any backing so leaving his father, a minor banker, to pay up in order to preserve the family name. Basically a good lad, he was made comfortable during his time in Paris thanks to a pretty dancer from the Folies-Bergere who lived with him and supported him with her wages waiting all the while for him to marry her.
The beautiful Elvira crashed into this idyll like a resplendent meteor turning everything upside down. First she dragged the pink and blond Michael everywhere as her secretary. To date Michael had never earned his own money always having to ask his father or girlfriend for money so he felt happy. He was able to plunge his hands into his “boss’s” cheque book. But at the same time his life became tricky. Not only did he have to perform all the duties of a “private secretary” to a demanding lady but he also had to calm the dancer who, awkwardly, had become jealous.
We well know how similar tales have ended. Elvira lost her head, offered to marry him and establish him at a high level in London. The idea of returning to England, properly sorted out and supported by a high ranking City financier enabled him to forget the charms of his Parisian dancer. While Elvira harassed her New York lawyers to expedite her divorce, the young engaged couple lived together. Bu the mediocre tenor had no intention of giving in easily. He threated to give the papers and the court juicy details; he wanted to be paid off. Lady Elvira told her father that her new marriage would calm her down. Her father forgave her and made peace, insisting only that she returned to London leaving behind the malign influence of Parisian and American nightclubs. He found her a splendid furnished apartment in Mayfair into which she moved followed shortly by Michael.
In London, she started her rounds of frenetic night time entertainment again with the most unbalanced elements of the aristocracy, wanting to drag Michael along. But he had changed. At the moment he was turning against this disordered way of life and dreamed of nothing more than returning to Paris to his Juliette.
Disagreements began; scenes followed and the tragedy gathered force. One day while Michael was dressing, Elvira found a small photo of the dancer hidden in his watch where he had taken it off and left it on a table overnight. She said nothing, deciding to get rid of her rival.
Sometime later, on 30 May, about 3am the couple came back after a dance and ready for bed but Michael decided to open the post that had been lying around all day. He found a letter from Juliette that said Lady Elvira had managed to get her sacked from the theatre where she danced. Michael demanded an explanation; Lady Elvira sniggered. In high indignation, Michael left to rush off to flee to Paris. But two bullets hit him before he reached the soil.
Following this Lady Elvira was taken to prison. As one might expect the scandal was huge. Attempts were made to stifle it but the press was pre-warned and reported the incident. The lawyers did the rest. A month later the case began. All of high society turned up. Lady Elvira took her place dressed in black with two large white flowers at her waist. Always beautiful and rather casual she confirmed the details of the unlucky accident, caused by the gun falling. In vain might her maid state that she heard her call “I’ll kill you.” In vain might the doctors in charge of the victim’s autopsy state the shots were point blank and deliberate.
The jury found Lady Elvira not guilty and, amid applause from the snobs who filled the gallery, the judge acquitted her.
Only one person protested and spat at the jury until the police ejected him. He was poor Michael’s elder brother.
Mounted policemen were needed to disperse the crowd. And only under cover of night was Lady Elvira able to slip away from the court unnoticed and set off for thee USA where of course she was welcomed as a heroine.
It was in fashionable bars like this that Lady Mullens loitered in idleness. Barmen in London and Paris were well acquainted with this noble lady, one of their most assiduous customers.
NB Little of the above is true.