Some months after the Thompson-Bywaters case (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/03/25/scandalous-women-and-public-opinion-1-edith-thompson/) the headlines were dominated by another example of a woman involved in the death of her husband. This time the outcome was very different, although the “justice” of the verdict was every bit as unsatisfactory.
Madame Marguerite Fahmy
At the Savoy Hotel, London, in the early hours of July 9th, Madame Fahmy (formerly Marie Marguerite Alibert of Paris) shot and killed her Egyptian husband “Prince” Kemal Ali Fahmy. She was thirty two and he was twenty three. The couple had been married for less than eight months.
Ali Kamel Fahmy
Madame Fahmy’s was the name most often linked with Elvira’s – in contemporary reports and in later accounts of the Mews shooting.In Edgar Lustgarten’s Defender’s Triumph (1951) the following contrast is made between the task for Elvira’s defence in comparison to the tactics deployed on behalf of Marguerite Fahmy.
“Nor was Mrs Barney’s case one where sympathy, as such,
could readily be roused; unlike that of Madame Fahmy,
which had been heard in the selfsame court nearly nine
years before, and was now being frequently recalled and
quoted as a parallel. In each a young woman of good breed-
ing and good station was charged with murdering the man
whom she had loved. In each a revolver was the instrument
of death. In each, oddly enough, Percival Clarke was prose-
cuting counsel. But Madame Fahmy, a Parisian lady of
faultless morals and gentle disposition, had married a rich
Egyptian prince whose suave drawing-room manner con-
cealed a savage cruelty and perverted appetites; for several
years before the shooting incident in respect of which her
successful plea fused self-defence and mishap she had
patiently borne great suffering at his hands. Mrs Barney, on
the other hand, had engaged in an illicit and unsanctified
relationship with the young man she was accused of having
killed; her general standards of behaviour fell somewhat
short of strict; her disposition was volatile if it was not
violent; and any suffering there may have been she volun-
tarily endured, and in all likelihood commensurately repaid.
With an English jury the differences were radical.”
The above passage is as accurate about the prejudices and perceptions that surrounded both cases as it is inaccurate about the background and character of Marguerite Fahmy (I would also dispute how “voluntarily” Elvira endured violence, but we’ll let that lie for the moment).
Looking back, it does seem odd that the “Great British Public” that had reviled Edith Thompson should, shortly afterwards, positively swooned over the plight of Madame Fahmy. Edith had not struck a single blow, Marguerite fired three shots.However, context and image is everything.
Edith Thompson was seen as a manipulative, over-ambitious woman who had singularly failed in her role as a suburban housewife. Madame Fahmy was rich and glamorous and, as far as the public was told, eminently respectable. More importantly Edith’s husband was a pipe-smoking Englishman of unimpeachable dullness, Marguerite’s husband was free-spending youth and a “foreigner”.
The Fahmy trial was a triumph of racism over the available evidence.The character assassination of Ali Fahmy began in the press almost immediately. He was profligate with money, owning several cars and motor boats, betting heavily at Deauville and throwing lavish parties. All of which was perfectly true, but no different to the “Society” types much loved (and fawned over) by the gossip writers.
It was the combination of race and sex that decided the outcome. He was an “oriental” who made unnatural sexual demands on his white European wife. There were hints that he was homosexual and much was made of the continual presence of Ali’s “black” (back then,all non-Europeans could be termed thus) servant and adviser. The press was in one of its periodic frenzies about white women and “black” men – Brilliant Chang and Eddie Manning being also in the news. It was also the era of “The Sheik” (Edith M. Hull’s 1919 novel was still on the bestseller list and Valentino’s film version was still doing the rounds).
For the Defence. the highly-theatrical and occasionally mendacious Edward Marshall Hall played all this to the full. Having reminded the jury of “that infatuation Eastern men have for Western women” he continued,
” “This curiously alluring, yet cheerful and unsuspecting woman committed a dreadful mistake in her assessment of the moral fiber of Fahmi Bek. Many women fall for younger men and Fahmi Bek, using all his Oriental cunning, succeeded in posing as a gentleman and an acceptable spouse. Yet, in fact, he was a womaniser, a philanderer whose traitorous deception surfaced only after he secured her signature on the marriage contract. Then, his true character began to show itself, as suddenly he changed from a meek and ardent suitor to a savage beast of the lowest possible nature. The more one looks at the conditions that this ill-fated woman endured the more one shivers in horror and disgust.”
He then went on to describe Marguerite’s terrified existence “at the mercy of the Negro servants and as little more than a prisoner at his command.” No wonder she could bear it not a moment longer and after threats of violence unless she submitted to yet another “abnormal” sexual practice she snapped. For good measure, but completely illogically, the Defence also claimed that the gun might have gone off accidentally.
It didn’t really matter. By the time Marshall Hall had finished, Marguerite could have been shown to have emptied a fully loaded Uzi into the hapless Ali Fahmy and still got off. What is puzzling is the way that the Parisian’s own background was not brought to light. The prosecution had, rather weakly, pointed out the her father was a “cab driver” which completely backfired, allowing Marshall Hall to fake outrage at such class snobbery.
He was more reticent about Marguerite’s youthful career as a prostitute and cabaret singer, her stint as a dancer at the Folies Bergeres and her transformation into one of the most accomplished and sophisticated (and wealthy) courtesans on the Paris scene. Nor was her fifteen year-old illegitimate daughter (then at school in London) mentioned. None of which, of course, proved guilt but hardly fitted the “faultless morals and gentle disposition” description, still being aired thirty years later.
It is quite feasible that life with Ali Fahmy was intolerable. The couple did fight constantly while at the Savoy. But to turn an older, woman-of-the-world into a helpless victim and to demonise the young man so completely took a combination of bravado and blind prejudice rarely seen, even in the Golden Age of adversarial court procedure. Sir Patrick Hastings could not paint Elvira, if you’ll excuse the pun “whiter than white”. But he had a lot of help in the picture that was built up of Michael’s sexual degeneracy and general worthlessness. The lesson was clear, if your victim can be shown to be monstrous or in any way “Other” then you’ve got a chance.
Madame Fahmy’s acquittal was greeted with even greater public enthusiasm than Elvira’s. The press saw the case as a salutary warning to young white women everywhere and editorialised at length upon the subject. The Egyptian press and diplomatic service were outraged but to no avail. After all “East is East etc….”
Marguerite Fahmy had less luck claiming her husband’s money in the Egyptian courts. There was some disquiet about the verdict and her attempt to claim an inheritance did not go down well. She returned to Paris and, by all accounts, lived quietly until her death in 1971. She has had a fairly poor press in recent years as the facts about her life have become better known and because the racial attitudes that benefitted her have faded. Personally, I think she could do with something of a reassessment. It was not her fault that attitudes towards “inferior” races and anxieties about white women and predatory “foreign” men formed the basis of her defence.
Note (top left) the caricature by Sem of Madame Fahmy at Deauville 1922
The best book on the case is “Scandal at the Savoy” by Andrew Rose. There looks to be an even more fascinating one by the Egyptian writer Salah Eissa, but it is not available in English.
Two very good articles can be found here
The Fahmy’s were as fond of shows and dancing as any well-to-do twenties couple should have been. They had been to see The Merry Widow (really) earlier in the evening and had danced to the Savoy Havana Band just prior to the shooting. The Havana Band and the Savoy Orpheans, some of whom played at Elvira’s Belgrave Square parties, were the best known dance-bands of the day and their broadcasts from the hotel pioneered the radio/dance-band craze.
The Savoy Hotel was no stranger to scandal. Oscar Wilde had conducted his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas there and in the Savoy Court apartments behind the hotel (but under the same ownership) Billie Carlton had succumbed to an overdose of cocaine (according to the press – morphine or veronal according to “Dope Girls”).
Marek Kohn’s “Dope Girls” is a very informative work that explores the relationship between young women, drug use and non-European men, the lessons of which have great bearing on the Fahmy case.