My take on the Elvira Barney case changed dramatically after reading Viva King’s fascinating  ( if, in places, unreliable) memoirs.

” One of the quintessential female Bohemians was Viva King, who, when we went around together, would become furious if anyone assumed her to be my mother. An uncommonly beautiful woman before she became stout and puffy, she and her husband Willie, of the British Museum, were more attracted by young gay men than by each other. In later years, one of her most cherished friends was April Ashley, who had emerged as a stunningly glamorous butterfly from the drab chrysalis of a lanky merchant seaman.” Francis King 

Somewhat older than the “Bright Young People” , really a member of Augustus John’s set, she was nonetheless a key figure of the 20s scene both as hostess and party guest. She was a close friend of Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, Arthur Jeffress and knew both Elizabeth Ponsonby and Elvira Barney well. Brenda Dean Paul had been her bridesmaid. Despite some patent inaccuracies, her chapter on Elvira is very revealing.


“My friend Georgia Sitwell had, at some period before I was married, introduced me to a schoolfriend of hers called Elvira Mullins”

Georgia Sitwell (née Doble), by Bassano, May 1935 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Georgia Doble (Sitwell)

“Elvira’s father was a stockbroker to the government and they lived in great splendour in Belgrave Square.Not that Iever  saw  much of this splendour as Elvira had a real nostalgie de la  boue, so that her home had a curious atmosphere of gilded misery. She also had that fatal gift to which I have referred, always being “In love, my dear!” – said in a slightly Cockney voice. One of her victims was Charles Graves and Elvira sat out. I forget howmany hours or days, in her car waiting for him to leave his flat in Royal Avenue in Chelsea.When he finally emerged, she took a pot-shot at him with a revolver and happily missed. She drove a large car, the first I had ever seen with chromium and not brass fittings, and we would sometimes gofor a night or two to a cottage that she had near Henley. I would wash up the dirty dishes left in the bath and sweep up mountains of champagne corks – which rather annoyed her as she said that they were souvenirs of gay nights.”

6 Belgrave Square

“Three American singers came over to perform in the Halls, calling themselves the Three New Yorkers and Elvira married the ugliest and fattest of them, called Barney.He treated her very badly and with surprising jealousy and Willie (Viva’s husband) and I were witness to ugly scenes. At last he he took himself back to America and Elvira took to drugs. Drug taking was not then the legally hazardous thing it is now and she would ring me up to ask for my help. I was, of course, unable to assist her. But one day we were all surprised when she was told by a friend that if she took her car to Richmond and at a certain point drove right then left then right again she would find a teashop where, on demand, a waitress wold supply her needs. We were even more surprised to learn that the white powder for which she paid so dearly “Really was, my dear, cocaine.”

“As Willie hated parties, we did not go to her last, attended by so many of our friends, who were later grilled by the police.After the party was over, Elvira waited for her lover to return. when he did appear, out came her revolver and in a rage she fired it, bang,bang,bang! or only one bang!, which killed him.He did not die at once but went into the bathroom to staunch the blood coming from his wound and mouth, emerging after a few minutes to fall dying at her feet. She wisely sent at once for the family doctor and he stayed an hour with her before the police were called.

She was arrested and put in the infirmary of Holloway prison and Sir Patrick Hastings got the brief for defending her on a charge of murder.She was living in a mews flat, and in those days such flats were still mostly inhabited by chauffeurs and their wives over the garages.The statements of these women of the number of bangs that they heard varied considerably,ergo:according to Sir Patrick they were unreliable witnesses and only one bang could have killed the victim in the struggle for the revolver, which went off accidentally. Thus Elvira was acquitted.”

Holloway HMP

“I was upset by this terrible affair, and imagined Elvira to be prostrate after her ordeal and weeks of anxiety on remand in prison.But when I opened my Daily Mirror the next day, there she was with a happy grinning countenance, stepping into her car on the way to the hairdressers.She soon came to see me and said that she had kept a picture of Tallulah Bankhead with her in prison and that looking at it had kept her spirits up.Willie and I did not know what to make of this and I wonder if Tallulah ever later realized that among her other achievements, there had been this help she had been able to give to a suspected murderess.


“Elvira was found dead in her hotel bedroom sometime afterwards and I received a letter from her mother saying she had left me all her pictures and books, but as she had died insolvent they had been in their rights to keep the best of these to pay for her funeral.However I did get the portrait of Elvira that Eliot Hodgkin had painted of her,It was an image of Elvira that she wished to show the world. Elvira was not even her name. She had changed it by deed poll from something far more ordinary (untrue).”

Eliot Hodgkin

Eliot Hodgkin