Tag Archive: Edith Thompson

For Whom the Cloche Tolls

As Ethel Mannin, rapidly becoming my favourite commentator on the period, states in Young In The Twenties,

“The cloche hat has become almost a symbol of the Twenties; it came down to our brows, almost enveloping us, but it was not unbecoming, I think, and we liked it; it stayed with us a long time; we wore it with our sacks of dresses and with our mannish suits; we wore it in town and in the country, and at tea dances, and in our own homes at luncheon parties.”

Louise Brooks

The cloche hat reigned for about ten years (1923-1933) and is indeed ever present in  contemporary photographs and illustrations . It had been around since 1908, but it was particularly suited to the new lines in clothing and, especially, hairstyles.Noel Coward’s friend Edward Molyneux has as good a claim as any for making it so popular but something about it (brimmed or brimless) so fitted the spirit of the age that every leading fashion designer promoted it.

Monte Carlo 1920s

It is appropriate then that the wittiest and most delightful pastiche of the modes and mores of the 1920s should be entitled “For Whom The Cloche Tolls”.Although regularly reprinted, this charming satire has slipped somewhat from popular consciousness  but I urge you to seek it out. It is a joy to read – witty, occasionally acerbic and superbly camp.

For Whom The Cloche Tolls: A Scrapbook of the Twenties” appeared in 1953. Its author was Angus Wilson, a novelist whose star has rather faded.The early fifties in English Literature were dominated by authors such as William Cooper, John Wain and Kingsley Amis, whose anti-Dandyism and hostility to all things Bright and Young has been well documented (particularly by Martin Green in his much maligned but very rewarding Children of the Sun). Angus Wilson was once grouped together with these writers but his agenda (and aesthetic) differed considerably.

Always essentially a satirist, Wilson, in Cloche, shows himself a master of pure comedy. It is a light-hearted affair, full of in-jokes and innuendo. The narrative is Gay in both senses of the word. The premise is that of a series of reminiscences about a recently deceased, rich, American woman (Maisie) and her adventures in London and Paris in the 1920s, accompanied by her debutante daughter (Bridget) and her epicene son (Tata). Every iconic marker of the period is mentioned – the Blackbirds Revue, Mews Parties, Bohemians and booze, cocktails and cocaine. It is determinedly nostalgic and very funny.

Equally entertaining are the “photographs” that accompany the text. These are, in fact, cartoons/illustration by the French aesthete and collector, Philippe Julian. Whether recording a Mah Jongg game or Josephine Baker at the Bal Negre, they capture the mood perfectly and have a louche decadence to them that gives the book a certain bite.

Philippe Julian is another name that appears to have been largely forgotten. He does have a “cult” following and there is a very good article on him (and Cloche) here

Connoisseur of the Exotic.

Among his many works, he wrote an informative biography of Violet Trefusis and his book on Symbolist artists, Dreamers of Decadence, almost single-handedly reminded British art-lovers of the existence of that movement. If you see a copy, grab hold of it, it is everything you want a book on Art to be.

There is a drawing in For Whom the Cloche Tolls of Edith Thompson in the dock. This accompanies a passage deploring Maisie’s constant pursuit of younger men.  The great trials that I have been posting about are briefly covered in the text, employed to cruel comic effect while indicating their significance as symbols of the times.

“I suppose when one thinks of some of the tragedies that infatuation with younger men brought in those days – those stupid, passionate letters of that poor feather-brained Edith Thompson and later Mrs.Rattenbury (I remember how upset I was to think how easily she might have been one’s own neighbour – shopping at Harrod’s and staying at quite a smart residential hotel with her own chauffeur).And of course Mrs.Barney, who was quite a friend of Maisie’s. (Such different backgrounds, and yet not one of them disreputable. I’m afraid the horror of the First War affected us all a great deal more deeply than we realized.) When, indeed, I think about some of Maisie’s friends, I’m amazed that things did not turn out worse than they did.”

Mrs. Barney

For me, of course, mention of Elvira is a bonus, but the whole book is bursting with apt and amusing references. There are too many highlights to  dwell on but the more literary minded might enjoy the affectionate but barbed pastiches of Huxley, Bennett, Mansfield and Woolf  that appear towards the end.

In 1953, For Whom The Cloche Tolls was reviewed positively by actual veterans of the 1920s such as John Betjeman but I’ll give Cecil Beaton, notoriously begrudging when it came to praise, the last word,

“Mr. Angus Wilson and Mr. Philippe Julian are too young to have experienced the Twenties, but they are both Fetishists immoderately reverencing that remote period. Together they have created an evocative nostalgic scrapbook. Through the wry and malicious memoirs, compiled by her immediate family friends, lovers and gigolos, Mr.Wilson brings back to life the fun-mad, man-mad Maisie, a red-hot grandmother from Texas, who lived in London, took trips to Montmartre and the Riviera, generously pensioned off her lovers sniped from her daughter, and who with her “curious coarse happiness”, animal spirits and “self-generated joi de vivre” was, all agreed, the embodiment of the Naughty Twenties.”

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

Madame Fahmy

and here

Warped Justice

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.

Between the Wars there were a number of high-profile murder trials where the accused was female.What is striking (but perhaps unsurprising)  about the different cases is the fickleness and variety of press and public responses and how much that reaction was influenced by issues to do with contemporary social attitudes, particularly regarding sexual propriety, rather than the crime itself.

Elvira’s case took place within this context and I think there are some useful comparisons to be made, as well as some rather worrying insights into how public perception and the demeanour of the accused affected actual verdicts. Furthermore,  the women at the centre of each “scandal” get mentioned in later accounts – writings about Elvira refer to Madame Fahmy, Edith Thompson’s name is brought up in discussions of Alma Rattenbury – and so forth. Although each set of circumstances was unique, over time a sort of composite picture was drawn of “women who kill”, with great stress on their unconventionality and (supposedly) over-active libidos. I intend to take a brief look at some of the best-remembered, and most pertinent, examples, starting with Edith Thompson.

 Bywaters, Thompson and Edith Thompson

Edith Thompson was executed in 1923 for her role in the murder of Edith’s husband, Percy, stabbed to death by Frederick Bywaters, Edith’s  younger lover. Edith was 30 and Frederick 21 and although she took no part in the killing she was deemed to be equally guilty, largely because of her “influence” over the younger man and because of a series of letters she had written, which were full of fanciful imaginings, sexual references and a recurrent desire to be rid of Mr.Thompson. Most incriminating was an ambiguous remark about  putting ground glass in her husband’s food. Although this was pure fantasy, it proved very damaging at the trial.

Thompson and Bywaters

Some women became tragic heroines, some villainesses.  Edith was constructed, initially anyway, as very much the latter. Both the media and the authorities considered her decidedly odd and a threat to the social order.Imaginative, stylish and intelligent (with a special aptitude for mathematics), she was, in many ways, a not untypical example of a new generation of young women. Like so many already mentioned in this blog, she was very fond of music and the theatre, and had once hoped to be an actress. Instead she found a good job with a London fashion house. In a later time she would have thrived. Unfortunately, her lower-middle class environment (Ilford) wasn’t ready for her – and nor, it would seem was the trial judge  – or the Press.

She had kept her job (as a clothes buyer) after her marriage and had yet to produce children. In fact she had self-aborted on more than one occasion. Almost as scandalous to some, she thoroughly enjoyed the then unusual lifestyle of a professional woman – lunching with clients and making buying trips to Paris. Edith was someone who wanted and felt she merited “something more” out of life.

Her husband, who had presumably been drawn to her by the very qualities he now found irksome, was a stifling influence. Prematurely middle-aged, a bore and something of a bully, he was not exactly a “soul mate”. When she re-met the adventurous and impulsive Bywaters, a Merchant Seaman who had gone to sea at the first opportunity, the resultant affair was highly predictable. The young man she had known as a boy was to provide an excitement her husband could not offer.

Freddie, Edith and Percy

In the dock, Edith unwisely attempted to justify her actions, but succeeded only in appearing “arrogant and flirtatious” . Worryingly, she also showed a  distinct lack of ability to distinguish fact from fiction. She would have done better not to take the stand at all  (her Defence tried to persuade her not to do so) or to have adopted the requisite distraught and overwhelmed aspect that Elvira managed so successfully.

The judge seemed more horrified by adultery than murder and his remarks to the jury showed a bias that was both outrageous and unprofessional. After the inevitable guilty verdict a million plus people signed a  petition calling for a halt to the execution but, incredibly, that was on Bywaters’ behalf not Edith’s.  She was viewed as the instigator and prime mover in the murder.

As is well known, her death was uncommonly messy and obscene and was still being cited in the debates about capital punishment in the 1950s and 1960s.  Partly because of her traumatic end, Edith has, over the year,s been transformed from villain to victim and latterly, in certain quarters, into a proto-feminist icon.

The Thompson-Bywaters case has provided the basis for a number of books. F.Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow (1934) is the best known (semi-) fictional account.  Fryniwyd Tennyson Jesse , the first female editor of the classic Notable British Trials series, was shocked and deeply disturbed by the treatment of Thompson. Peepshow captures the claustrophobic suburban world perfectly and paints a sympathetic portrait of  Julia (Edith). It is, I feel, one of the great 1930s novels.The play based on the novel was banned for some years but was eventually produced on the stage by none other than Peter Cotes, whose interest in Elvira was to some extent triggered by his exploration of this earlier murder.

The trial and its aftermath coincided with the boom in Golden Age Detective fiction and some of the writers most associated with that endeavour drew directly from the source. Dorothy Sayers’ (The Documents in the Case 1930) and Francis Iles’ (As For The Woman 1939)  are both thinly-disguised meditations on the affair. Indirectly – thanks to the  suburban setting with much dark passion buried behind a respectable facade –  it undoubtedly acted as inspiration for many other tales.  Even in this century,P.D.James’  The Murder Room (2004) could make profitable use of the tragedy.

Away from the crime genres, in recent years there has been the thoughtful film Another Life (2001) and Jill Dawson’s much-praised Fred and Edie. Non-fictional works have also been plentiful, with Rene Weis’ Criminal Justice being as good as any.

Another Life 2001

Academic interest has lately focussed on Edith’s letters which, it is argued, display a distinct textual modernism. This is not quite as silly as it sounds and, anyway, is one in the eye for T.S.Eliot, who was one of the more strident voices calling for Edith to be hanged. All commentators at least agree on Edith’s own “Modernity” as opposed to the “Tradition” which surrounded her and the case, now viewed as a barbaric miscarriage of justice, remains culturally significant.

Her name crops up repeatedly in general histories of the inter-War years, often in the context of changing attitudes about (and towards) women. I think it is most telling that another figure of some notoriety,club-owner Kate Meyrick. devotes part of her account of her own time in Holloway documenting prisoners’ reminiscences of Edith. This is not to suggest that Edith had already(1932) become a heroic figure but her symbolic value as a marker of generational change and the status of women had been partially recognised.

The official voice of male authority and pre-war morality is best summed up in Filson Young’s closing remarks to the Notable Trials edition on Thompson and Bywaters. This appeared within weeks of the verdict (Young specialised in this, his much read book on the Titanic was published less than a month after it sank) and the contrast with the opinions of Tennyson Jesse, who as stated earlier also wrote for the series, could not be greater.

Filson Young

In an otherwise thoughtful essay on the conflict between emotional desires and social conformity, Young rather closes down the debate by concluding,

“Mr. Justice Shearman frequently referred to Bywaters as “the adulterer,” apparently quite unconscious of the fact that, to people of Bywaters’ generation, educated in the ethics of dear labour and cheap pleasure, of commercial sport and the dancing hall, adultery is merely a quaint ecclesiastical term for what seems to them the great romantic adventure of their lives. Adultery to such people may or may not be “sporting,” but its wrongness is not a matter that would trouble them for a moment. Sinai, for them, is wrapped in impenetrable cloud. And if we are not prepared to adapt the laws of Sinai to the principles of the night club and the thé dansant, I see no other alternative but to educate again our young in the eternal verities on which the law is based.”

Dancing Halls and Night Clubs – it all sounds rather familiar. Throw in a jibe at the “overpaid” workforce and new leisure activities and the generational conflict is complete. This, to the letter, could be the voice of Joynson-Hicks, scourge of the Bright Young People and the great enemy of all things youthful and hedonistic.

“Jix” by William Low 1924

This is not to diminish the horror of murder. Nor am I trying to celebrate the once fashionable concept of “Transgression”. The whole thing was, as my aunt would say, “a bad business”. What it does suggest is that the fascination and fears that surrounded issues of male-female roles and female sexuality in particular were what really lay at the heart of this celebrated trial. The public , like the judge, was more interested in adultery (and the female adulterer)  than the snuffing out of a human life. Something similar will be seen again and again in other “causes celebres” over the next twenty years.

To move from the tragic to the seemingly trivial, forgive me if I point out that, on the night of the murder, the Thompsons had been to the Criterion in Piccadilly to see The Dippers. This was a musical comedy written by farceur Ben Travers. It was his first West End success, featuring music by Ivor Novello and starring Binnie Hale and Hermione Gingold. A more 1920s’ collection of names, I can hardly imagine and I’m sure it was Edith’s rather than  her husband’s choice of show.

Binnie Hale

In 1928 Binnie Hale would perform a song that will forever be associated with the whole era. Its innocence could hardly be less appropriate for the Thompson-Bywaters case and for many other of the less salubrious activities of all the Elvira’s and Alma’s and Edith’s – much as they would probably have adored it. It was, of course, “Spread A Little Happiness“.

“29th June 1932


Elvira Dolores Barney


Central Criminal Court


I beg to state that the  above named has been under mental and physical observation since her reception on June 4th. I have already submitted a report on June 8th giving a list of abrasions and bruises which I found on the prisoner after her reception to prison. She is in good health, has not shown any signs of physical illness, she has slept well, shown no symptoms of drug taking, and has increased one and a half pounds in weight since reception.


She has had good health but has had to undergo an operation for middle-ear disease and she met with a serious accident some twelve months ago in which she broke her lower jaw and has since required special treatment for her teeth.


I have examined her on various occasions, she has always conversed rationally, shown no signs of delusions or hallucinations and her conduct has been normal except on one or two occasions when she has shown hysterical manifestations.

I am of the opinion that she is of sound mind and fit to plead the indictment.

I have the honour to be,


your obedient servant

John Hall Morton

Governor and Medical Officer”

Elvira in 1932                                        

There are a number of points worth exploring in this statement. Firstly, there is the denial in the first paragraph of Elvira’s drug-taking. There must have been a line of inquiry that suggested such an involvement, otherwise why mention the issue at all?

Secondly, Elvira’s medical history and the after-effects of the car-crash modify the usual narrative. I am assuming that this was the same incident in Piccadilly when Napper Dean Paul was also injured. Apart from sounding a lot more serious than generally reported, I wonder whether the marked change in Elvira’s appearance in 1931-32 was the result of the crash rather than her life of “debauchery”. It also can’t have had the most calming effect on her already turbulent personality. Of “middle ear disease” I know nothing but it has been linked to mental illness and schizophrenia by some doctors (then and now).

Of Elvira’s present mental condition the letter seems a little complacent. What “hysterical manifestations”? How many – “one or two” hardly smacks of scientific accuracy? I am not implying any sort of cover-up but for a woman about to go on trial for her life the general tone and brevity of the report suprises me a little.

The writer of the report, John Hall Morton, was in charge of Holloway Prison from 1921 until his death, aged 52, in 1935. He was, by the standards of the time, an enlightened governor, famously installing mirrors in the cells  – much to the delight of the female inmates and angry mutterings from the usual press sources. He was also an opponent of capital punishment. This stance, highly unusual in the service, had come about after he had been required to record the horrific state of Edith Thompson’s corpse after she was executed in Holloway in 1923.

Edith Thompson

The Edith Thompson-Freddie Bywaters trial was one of a number of high-level murder trials  that captured the popular imagination between the wars and her cruel sentence (her boyfriend had actually stabbed her husband) has been the basis for novels (A Pin to See The Peepshow) and films (Another Life) ever since. Along with Madame Fahmy, acquitted of shooting her husband at the Savoy Hotel, Edith Thompson’s was the name most often linked with Elvira’s by crime reporters at the time. Fortunately, Elvira had a more competent defence team than Edith.

Morton’s last act as governor/medical officer was to write a report on Alma Rattenbury, the central character in the next great scandal involving sex and murder (and the subject of Terence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre ). That trial also had an accusation of drug use on the part of the accused but the various doctors, in Alma’s case, found no evidence although in retrospect it looks very likely.Alma’s story is well worth reading alongside Elvira’s, not so much for the “whodunnit” element but for the light they both throw on pre-War attitudes to sexually active women.

Alma Rattenbury

Apart from these high-profile figures the most famous, and very regular, resident of Holloway under Morton’s tenure was someone Elvira would have known well. This was the Queen of London Nightclubs, the legendary Kate Meyrick. However, she deserves a post to herself.

Party at Silver Slipper club celebrating Mrs.Meyrick’s release from Holloway