One can’t help feeling sorry for the luckless Michael Stephen. Not simply because he lost his life, accidentally or otherwise, at the early age of 25, but because nobody, apart from Elvira, seems to have been too bothered by his passing. It is often the case that the victims of violence receive less attention than the perpetrators but it is not so much that sad fact- in this instance, there is a coldness about attitudes towards the dead man that is a little troubling.
Reading the witness statements, press-reports, reminiscences and case-histories , it is clear that the majority view was that somehow Mr. Stephen deserved his ignominious end. Not so much victim as architect of his own downfall. No-one appears to be on his side. There is no outraged call for justice and no public attempt to counter the very unfavourable image the media, the defence and (it has to be said) even the prosecution painted of the object of Elvira’s desire . A picture of a feckless, immoral and slightly sinister ”gigolo” has remained largely unchallenged for eighty years. The best that has been said about him is that he was probably no worse than Elvira – hardly a ringing endorsement.
It is clear that Michael Stephen was not really an insider in this set. Of the cocktail party guests, only Hugh Wade, Terence Skeffington-Smyth and Arthur Streek admit to knowing him well. Streek counted him as a friend but his only real piece of information is the fact that Michael was constantly borrowing money. Irene MacBrayne was presumably a friend as he had personally invited her to the party that morning, but again she has little to say on his behalf. The guests all agree that Michael and Elvira were very fond of each other and all downplay (or deny) the many rows between the couple. However, this probably says more about their loyalty to Elvira than anything else.
The “other woman”, Dora Wright, does speak fondly of Michael and attests to his devotion to Elvira - but she was a lone voice and, anyway, her opinion was never made public. If there was another Michael, who was not simply an idler,a sponger and a general scoundrel, we have little print evidence for such a re-evaluation. Besotted with him as Elvira undoubtedly was, her frustration with this low-level philanderer seems to have been shared by more than a few of his peers. He died pretty well alone and unmourned.
Although only a couple of years younger than Elvira, his good looks (as opposed to Elvira’s rapidly fading beauty), his lack of employment and his relative lack of social status made him an easy figure for the press to demonise. The Sunday Dispatch even produced a supposed autobiographical essay where he bemoaned his easy success with women and gave a tittillating account of various shady residences where all sorts of immoral acts took place, in which he was both participant and observer. This was an obvious fake – why would an unknown man conveniently leave such a condemnatory account of his own life with a national newspaper just days before his untimely (and,one assumes) unexpected death? Still it added to the generally critical view of Michael and served to reinforce the consensus that the handsome corpse was really the villain of the piece.
But what do we really know about Michael? Well, he wasn’t called Michael, for a start. His name was Thomas William Scott Stephen and he was born in Elgin in 1908. His father was Thomas Milne Stephen who had worked his way up from clerk,then accountant to Bank Manager for a London branch of the North of Scotland Bank. Moving from branch to branch along the promotion ladder, Stephen pere had found a wife in Croydon in 1903. She was Elizabeth Park, a callisthenics teacher and daughter of a Tax Collector. So came into being a solidly middle class family, three sons and one daughter. By 1932 they were living, in some comfort, at Penshurst in Kent.
“Michael” and his two male siblings were all educated at Shrewsbury and his elder brother, Francis, had then become a solicitor. It was to him that the police turned to for information. Francis’ statement is curt and decidedly unsympathetic. He gives Michael’s profession as a “dress designer” ( an occupation that the trial judge found worthy of scorn) and said that he had been unemployed recently. Whether Michael was a dress designer or not is unknown. Terence Skeffington Smyth states that when he met him first in Paris (with a Mr.Firmin) Stephen was seeking out contacts in the industry. Incidentally, Michael Sherard, a friend of Arthur Jeffress’ and someone probably known to Michael, was in Paris at the time learning that trade.
Outfit by Michael Sherard, 1949
As to his brother’s relationship with Elvira, Francis states, ” He has been associated with Mrs. Barney for the past two years and has known her here since about last November. Prior to that he had known her in Paris” . He confirms that Michael’s father had severed all relations with him, though his mother had kept in touch. He adds ” He is of a roving disposition and I do not think the quiet life at Penshurst suited him”. I think we can safely conclude that the elder brother shared the father’s view of Michael. For a family built on the probity of Scottish banking, Michael’s profligacy (financial and sexual) was beyond the pale.
Denied an allowance by his father, Stephen, so we are told, turned to gambling and his fine features to keep him in spending money. However, he was always broke – so not much of a “player” in any sense – perhaps he was simply too fond of gambling and not too fond of work. We can assume that he was bi-sexual ( who in this group wasn’t?), was it this rather than his lack of a respectable career that caused the family rift? In all likelihood, yes, as not only was the money stopped but he was denied access to the family home.
Michael has often been cited as both a user and a “drugs pusher”. Peter Cotes quotes Beverley Nichols on the subject, ”He was a very unpleasant little gigolo, who once offered me cocaine, which I threw back in his face.”
If this is true, apart from adding “the” original Bright Young Person to Elvira’s circle, it is noteworthy. However Nichols was not always a reliable chronicler of his youthful career and had a tendency to turn against erstwhile friends. His reaction betrays a sense of moral outrage out of character with his early persona (though quite in keeping with his elderly one). Even if the incident took place, which it probably did but not quite as reported, it does not convince me that he was a “pusher” in any obvious sense. “Pushers” have a variety of recognisable traits, being constantly penniless is not one that I have noticed.
I think it is safe to say that Michael used drugs and was quite happy to trade on his good-looks with either sex. He liked the card table, night clubs and the party life. In that he was no different to most of the people to whose social circle he aspired to belong. I think “aspiration” is the right word as Michael is patently not quite one of the elect. Middle rather than Upper class, with no inheritance or allowance to pay for the nightly round of pleasure, he seems a little out of his league.
He may well have mistreated Elvira, but on every occasion that the police are called he is the one that appears in greater danger – with blackened eye, threatened with a gun, sober when Elvira is drunk – he hardly looks the part of the manipulative and controlling gigolo. His main concern always appears to be Elvira’s safety and state of mind. He may have been just protecting his investment but, if so, he displayed acting skills which outmatched by far any of his other discernible talents.
I think Michael Scott Stephen was essentially a waster – nothing more worthy or sinister than that. He had rejected his parents’ bourgeois world and in turn been cast out. He had found himself a more amenable subculture and had tried to become part of it. What he lacked was money. He lived by borrowing and on the goodwill of others. His misfortune was to meet a person desperate for love but possessive and unstable. Much has been made of Elvira’s need for him but perhaps he also loved and needed her. Let’s face it, most folk would have run a mile after the first of Elvira’s drunken outbursts. I can’t see him as calculating; amoral, yes, and lacking in fidelity or fortitude of any sort but no evil genius.
Had he not met Mrs.Barney in Paris he would have been just one of many kicking their heels around the West End looking for the next assignation or party invite.
Michael Scott Stephen’s death turned him into an ideal target for much of what “Middle England” felt was wrong with young men between the wars – effeminate,superficial, lacking in responsibilty, generally dissolute and, above all, unlike their fathers. Well, Michael was all of these – with a few other vices thrown in.
Twenty years later it had become customary to compare this generation unfavourably not just with an earlier and more properly masculine type but with the next group of young Englishmen - those who fought so bravely in the Second World War. By a marvellous coincidence the Stephen family provides a perfect example of this contrast.
The youngest of the Stephen brothers, who was 16 at the time of Michael’s death, became one of that legendary group of men – a Spitfire pilot. This was none other than Harbourne McKay Stephen, credited with downing eight German planes in a day and one of the best known and most honoured of Battle of Britain airmen. He later became a managing director at the Daily Telegraph (he had been a journalist before the War).
Harbourne Mckay Stephen
The contrast between the two careers could not be greater.
Michael, of course, would have been only 31 when the War broke out - but by then he and the world he unwittingly came to symbolise had been consigned to Ancient History.