Patrick Hastings defends Elvira Barney EVERY outstandingly successful advocate is to some degree the creation of his age. By natural instinct or by conscious acquisition he reflects the temper and the ethos that prevails among the society in which his work is done. Failing this, no technical equipment will attain the topmost heights. Patrick Hastings who unquestionably takes rank among the greatest jury advocates who have ever adorned the Bar is the supreme example of a forensic master precisely attuned to the requirements of the time. In any generation his ex- ceptional talents would have won acknowledgment: his extraordinary acuteness as a cross-examiner; his agility and resourcefulness in argument; the vigour of his quick and lucid mind, keenly intelligent rather than deeply intellectual, which made him more at home as befits a jury advocate with people and affairs than with theories and ideas. But to these was added a decisive factor that served to set the lasting seal on his success and fame : a worldly knowledge that was rooted in the moment. This worldliness, this fund of con- temporary sense, directed his approach to every case he undertook ; to those for whom he fought, to those he fought against, to those upon whom rested the outcome of the fight. That approach can be defined in a single word, used in its best and most recent connotation. More than any other coun- sel of comparable eminence, Hastings was a sophisticated advocate in fashionable practice when fashionable people were setting new standards in advanced sophistication. Sophisticated people do not care for strident emphasis; they stand on guard against assaults on the emotions; they like effects to be subtle and power to be concealed. In the language of the theatre, they prefer to have their dramas underplayed. Hastings introduced, or at any rate perfected, the art of underplaying in the English jury courts. He utterly dis- carded the barnstorming technique; nobody has ever been more unlike Marshall Hall nor, one suspects, more pleased to be unlike him. Hastings never stormed nor shouted; never waved his arms about; never gave any sign that he felt at all excited nor that he wished to cause excitement among others. And yet, in the sphere of high life litigation, there has never been a more exciting advocate, nor one who could exert a more mesmerising spell. The personality, cool, self-contained, rather offhand, slightly cynical; the voice, no organ throb moving listeners to tears, but smooth and even purring with an undertone of sarcasm; the manner, in- formed with that assurance and that ease which, in a public performer, masks the highest art they enthralled and fascinated London Special Juries, particularly in the years between the two world wars. Here was an advocate whose individual style accorded with current cultivated taste. Hast- ings was a portent and an influence at the Bar analogous with and parallel to du Maurier on the stage.
Like du Maurier, and for not dissimiliar reasons, Hastings' professional home was the West End which includes, for these purposes, the east point of the Strand but does not extend as far as the Old Bailey. During his great years in the very highest flight, when he was seldom missing from a civil cause celebre, Hastings engaged in little criminal work and hardly ever accepted a capital defence. 'I have always hated trials for murder' so he wrote after retirement; and one might well imagine that such trials would repel a genius of his type and temperament. This did not mean, though, that were he once involved he would not defend a murder case with dazzling ability. Especially a murder case falling, however remotely, into his chosen province; a murder case with a sophisticated setting and, at least upon the surface, a sophisticated twist.
2 Murder is rarely a sophisticated act; and suspicion of murder is generally aroused by the presence of unsophisti- cated passions. Greed, hate, jealousy and lust these are uni- versal impulses to action; but in a highly civilised and scepti- cal community one expects them to remain under reason- able control. It is therefore not surprising that, in contrast to the Borgias of fourteenth-century Italy and to the Medicis of sixteenth-century France, the well-to-do classes of twen- tieth-century Britain did not go in for killing, except with motor cars. Their murder rate was low, their murder charges few, even in proportion to their restricted numbers. During the last two decades of their existence for since > 1940 they have been virtually wiped out in the redistribution of pro- perty and wealth they found ample employment for their favoured advocates by libel, slander, probate squabbles, and divorce. This had become such a convention of the epoch that its one great murder trial which did involve the rich came to many as a bolt out of the blue. It gave an entirely unexpected handle to those who disliked and denounced sophistication, but had formerly had no grounds for connecting it with violence. Even now, unless qualified, the implication was unwarranted. For the tiny band of debauchees and profli- gates that formed the human background to the case of Mrs Barney was no more than a foul offshoot, a leprous excres- cence, of true sophistication. They enjoyed either at first or second hand the wealth so helpful to sophisticated living; they used what passed for sophisticated language; the simple were deceived by their sophisticated front. But theirs was sophistication that had run riot and turned rotten; sophisti- cation that had gone into reverse. Idle, drunken, emotionally unstable, crude in conduct as they were coarse in spirit, they made a natural forcing bed for frenzy and convulsion.
Out of the rank soil of this Mayfair saturnalia sprang the most vivid murder trial of 1932. It gave the upper strata of society a shaking, seized the undivided attention of the lower, and involved all England in a passionate debate about the character and morals of the woman they accused. Life had showered many favours on Elvira Barney. She was well-bred; her titled parents, with their house in Bel- grave Square and their country seat in Sussex, occupied a position of dignity and respect. She was affluent; money raised no shadow of a problem and her pleasures never had to be curtailed through lack of means. She was attractive in the style her contemporaries preferred a face that was pleasing rather than beautiful; large grey eyes; a tip-tilted nose; blonde and fluffy hair; a boyish figure (though by the time of her trial, when she was only twenty-six, both figure and face were paying for indulgence). She had animal energy and natural intelligence. All these assets she threw heedlessly away. From her very early womanhood the writing on the wall grew steadily more visible. The existence she led, the diver- sions she sought, the friends she cultivated every one was trivial, rackety and exhausting. For a period she did toy with the idea of being an actress, and once even appeared on the stage of the Gaiety in some tiny part in a musical play; but hard work enticed her less than superficial glamour, and she did not press ahead with a theatrical career. She married, with characteristic levity and caprice, a cabaret singer who had performed at a function in her father's house and whom she decided she had fallen in love with at first sight; this marriage turned out badly Mrs Barney later spoke of it as 'hell' and the couple separated, never to re-unite. Mr Barney returned to the United States whence he had come, and con- tributes nothing to this story but his name.
The break-up of her marriage expedited Mrs Barney's downward course. London's Bright Young People claimed her for their own. You still sometimes meet survivors of this long extinguished set; they are mostly male and now almost invariably perverts. Gin-soaked, fish-eyed, tearful with self- pity, these middle-aged derelicts haunt the bars of Kensing- ton and Chelsea, calling down curses on their present lot and feebly lamenting the gay days that are no more. It is hard to believe, looking at them now, that anyone could have ever found them tolerable. But youth, while it lasts, is a potent alchemist, and for Mrs Barney certainly they were not without appeal. Her home in William Mews, near Knightsbridge a converted cottage became one of their recognised resorts and her black and red two-seater an addi- tion to their transport. There were many parties; there was much dashing to and fro; there was a brisk traffic in sexual partnerships, from which Mrs Barney did not hold herself aloof. Her lover, who had no genuine occupation (he vaguely described himself as a dress designer), rented an apartment room on Brompton Road. Everyone called him Michael, although that was not his name. Like Mrs Barney herself, he was respectably derived; but his father, a prominent magistrate and banker, in disgust at his son's conduct, had cut or? his allowance; Michael had lately kept himself sup- plied with cash by 'borrowing' alternately from his mother and his brother. He was now apparently quite content to be kept by his new mistress. There were several other things besides good family and a taste for dissipation that Mrs Barney had in common with this handsome wastrel. They were exactly the same age. They both drank far too much. And each was prone to sudden fits of jealousy, his petulant and sulky, hers un- bridled and consuming. As in all the circumstances could have been foreseen, their relationship was marked by wildly fluctuating phases. There were times of mutual rapture, all the more intense for being so perilously poised; times when they made love with fierce abandonment or wrote each other tender letters in the idiom affected by adults when addressing infants. There were also times of mutual agony, when they tore themselves and their shallow love to tatters; times when they had painful and degrading scenes in public and quarrelled bitterly far into the night. Neighbours in the mews, mostly chauffeurs and their wives, suffered whichever condition was prevailing; the din of recrimination and dispute was matched by the din of exultant celebration. Resentment aroused by these continual disturbances was not without its bearing upon subsequent events. If that resentment fixed upon the woman, not the man, the causes were manifest and comprehensible. She, not he, was the tenant of the cottage. She, not he, was in constant resi- dence, the human storm spot of a peaceful neighbourhood. And she, not he, was the dominating partner; even the least discerning could perceive that at a glance. Hers was the more possessive and explosive nature; the more self-willed; the more accustomed to impose itself on others. Of Elvira Barney it might be said with literal truth that she would rather die than be deprived of her own way. One has forgotten the smart jargon of 1932, so it is im- possible to say whether the party Mrs Barney gave on the 3Oth of May was divine or marvellous or super or terrific. There were, however, abundant indications that it gave great pleasure to the persons who attended, and it presented the neighbours with a further opportunity of studying their social betters at close range. From shortly after six the racing cars rattled and roared into the mews; their occupants, loudly shouting to each other, vanished one by one through Mrs Barney's door; the hubbub floating through the win- dows steadily increased as the female voices grew more shrill, the male more stentorian; sometimes a solitary guest, appearing overtaxed, came out into the mews for a few minutes' fresh air; and once or twice, keen-eyed observers noted, a couple would emerge, drive off in one of the cars, and, half an hour later, return and go inside again. Mrs Barney did nothing by half measures; she enter- tained her friends in the style to which they were accus- tomed.
By half -past nine, though, all of them had gone. Michael who had been handing drinks assiduously and Mrs Barney who had been assiduously taking them now sat alone amid the residual debris. They drank some more he faster, in order to catch up. When they had put themselves en- tirely in the mood they set off together on their usual nightly round.