Tag Archive: John Sterling Barney


Newspaper Photograph

This photograph appears on the back cover of “Crimes of Passion” (1975 Verdict Press).

I don’t know which newspaper or magazine it is from, but it is a single page or part of a page . The reproduction isn’t that great but it does give a sense of the case was being covered.

The captions read,

Top Row

“Measurements were taken by the police at the scene of the tragedy – Williams Mews, Lowndes Square.”

“The Shot Man: Mr. Thomas William Scott Stephen, ex dress designer in Paris, who was found shot after the party.”

“The Accused : Mrs. Elvira Dolores Barney, daughter of Sir John and Lady Mullens who has been charged with murder.”

Middle Row

“Chief Inspector Hambrook C.I.D., who was in charge of the police activities, leaving the scene of the tragedy the day after.”

“Mr. and Mrs Barney after their wedding in 1928. Mr. Barney was a member of the prominent cabaret turn – The Three New Yorkers.”

“The Mother and Father of the Accused: Lady Mullens, escorted by Mr.Coleman, solicitor for the defence, behind whom is Sir John Mullens.”

Bottom Row

“Holloway Prison wherein Mrs. Barney awaits her trial on remand. Lady Mullens is seen moving from her motor-car to visit her daughter who, it is stated, has now recovered from her breakdown at the charge.”

“The Sympathy of the Crowd went out in typically English fashion to Lady Mullens when visiting Mrs. Barney in Holloway. The mother has paid several visits to her daughter since her removal on remand from police court to prison.”

The photograph of Elvira on her wedding day is one that doesn’t get published often. Is Elvira’s choice of outfit not a little odd?  I’m completely ignorant of such matters but it doesn’t strike me as particularly “bridal”.

The sympathy for Lady Mullens (I love that “in typically English fashion”) has been pointed out elsewhere. Giles Playfair (in “Six Studies in Hypocrisy”) sees the public support for Lady Mullens as the key to Elvira’s acquittal.

Michael’s family do not feature at all and this photograph of him, as far as I can tell, is the only one ever used in the press or in later accounts.

As it mentions several visits to Holloway, I’m guessing this item appeared towards the end of June, a week or so before the actual trial. A definite narrative is already firmly in place. The word tragedy is used twice, why not “shooting” or “alleged murder”? And whose tragedy – “the ex-dress designer in Paris” or the Mullens family?

 

 

 

 

John Sterling Barney, for many the real villain of the piece, was part of the Three New Yorkers singing group that came to London in 1927/28. They scored a significant success in the show “Many Happy Returns” and had residencies at the Kit Kat club and at the Cafe De Paris. They may be long forgotten, but they were “pop stars” in their day – introducing a slick, American vocal style to English audiences. That Elvira, with her love of the theatrical world and of all things fashionable and  modern, should have found them fascinating should not surprise us. Barney is usually presented as a seedy nobody, but the fact that Elvira’s party at her parents’ house in Belgrave Square included the group as part of the entertainment, along with three major stars of the day – Billy Milton, Lesley Hutchinson (“Hutch”) and Carroll Gibbons – shows that they were , however briefly, the talk of the town.

The marriage was, of course, a disaster, Barney proving himself to be both jealous and sadistic. He was back in America within a year and for many commentators Elvira’s journey into the wilder side of 1920s life can be attributed to Barney’s cruelty. I am not entirely convinced of this but what little we know of him is hardly endearing. For example, his major contribution to the trial was an offer to sell the story of the marriage to the newspapers. He then disappears altogether. His partners, Ross and Sergeant, continued the act in the states but seem not to have left any great mark on popular culture. 1928 in London was the highpoint for the trio  – and perhaps for Elvira too.

The Three New Yorkers made a few London recordings for the Metropole label – so here are two rare examples of an actual voice from the Barney case that we can access today. These are the sounds that captivated Elvira –

“Many Happy Returns” was a successful and significant show. Its historical importance lies in the fact that it included one of the iconic songs of the period,  “I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.”. Written by Herbert Farjeon, an important figure in London theatrical and revue history (and another cricket-writer of some repute),it encapsulated the Prince of Wales cult, then at its height, with some precision and remains a much quoted testament to those times.

“I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.
It was simply grand, he said “Topping band” and she said “Delightful, Sir”
Glory, Glory, Alleluia! I’m the luckiest of females
For I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.
My word I’ve had a party, my word I’ve had a spree
Believe me or believe me not, it’s all the same to me!
I’m wild with exultation, I’m dizzy with success
For I’ve danced with a man, I’ve danced with a man-
Who
Well, you’ll never guess
I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.
I’m crazy with excitement, completely off the rails
And when he said to me what she said to him -the Prince remarked to her
It was simply grand, he said “Topping band” and she said “Delightful, Sir”
Glory, Glory, Alleluia! I’m the luckiest of females;
For I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.”
Herbert Farjeon
The song, which catches the mood of the era perfectly, was written about Edna Deane, ballroom dancing champion and populariser of the “modern” dances that Elvira and her friends all loved. Deane’s great dance-floor rival was Phyllis Haylor, part of the London gay set and later the lover and partner of film-critic Nerina Shute. Elvira would have known all three.
Tim Palmer and Edna Deane

Elvira’s Love Letter

The police found a few love letters at 21 William Mews, two of which were presented to the court, They make peculiar reading and are not easily accommodated within the official narrative of the affair. Both appear to have been written hurriedly and there is a directness and a sentimentality about them that is a little disconcerting. They offer unique access to the feelings of the protagonists in the affair, but they also contain information that is, in terms of the trial, inexplicable.

This from Elvira

“Tuesday evening

Mr. Darling Baby

I nearly had heart failure reading your letter, it was so divine. I’ve never been so thrilled over reading anything before.

I am sorry to reply on the typewriter, but I am rushing it rather so that I can post it early and you might get it in the morning, darling, long before I arrive down.

I am terrified you might not get the letter, so I won’t say much, but I really do love you darling, and even if this note were lost I wouldn’t care if anyone knew how much I love you.

You hand me the biggest thrills I’ve ever had, my sweet, and all I hope is we can go on being thrilled endlessly.

I adore it when you are sweet and kind to me, as I haven’t had a lot of affection in my life, as you have had. So you see it means a great deal and I feel like suicide when you are angry.

Sometimes when you are furious do try to think of the hell I had to endure with J.B. and then you’ll relent I think.

Don’t be too jealous with me, either, Baby please, as I suffered so much from that too , with him, and after all, if you trust me you won’t need to feel jealous. It absolutely ruined my marriage before, and it leads to all kinds of misery, so do be a bit broadminded. I won’t let you down, God knows why I should when you are so lovely.

I do hope you’ll be well soon, my darling. Take care of yourself for me

All  my love –

Really all

Elvira

I will read your letter dozens of times when I’m in bed tonight. I couldn’t until then read it, but I was alone as I promised and I drank to you darling.”

Because it is so artless and intimate, and intended for one person only, this letter is probably as close to  Elvira’s authentic voice that we can get. The fact that it appears to have been written in a hurry also adds to its credibility as a true approximation of Elvira’s emotional state in the weeks before the shooting.

As love letters go, it is hardly a literary gem. The image of Elvira as a worldly sophisticate is somewhat dented by its gushing  tone. But the picture it paints is vivid and very revealing.

Here is a woman who is passionate, completely infatuated and desperate for love. She is excitable and given to extremes of mood, She was deeply damaged by her disastrous marriage (JB is John Barney) and has missed out on genuine “affection”. When life goes wrong  she is quick to talk of suicide.All of this is in accordance with what we know of Elvira and bolsters the defence’s portrayal of her. Indeed, the letter was used to that end during the trial. But there are some loose ends.

When was it written? The general assumption was that it was the Tuesday preceding the shooting – which would mean the 25th of May.There is no proof of this though. There had been a huge row between them on the 19th  and this might be part of the making up process, but they rowed so regularly that it could well be earlier. The only “illness” Michael was suffering from that week, as far as we know, was a black-eye that Elvira had given him the week before. I doubt the “get well soon” refers to that.

The aspect of the letter than runs contrary to the narrative at the trial is contained in the phrase “Do try to be a bit broad-minded”. Rather than Elvira being jealous of Michael’s dalliances with other people it is the other way round, or at least mutual. There is also the issue of Michael’s temper. In the witness statements it is Elvira that is usually described as angry and furious, Michael comes across as relatively passive. Is Elvira lying? Unlikely, I would have thought, given the fulsome praise he receives throughout the piece.Of course, if Michael had been seen as just as volatile as Elvira, the story of an accidental shooting while he was trying to remove the gun from a suicidal woman would have sounded less plausible.

Finally, there is the afterword – the image of Elvira, like a love-struck teenager, reading and re-reading Michael’s letter, in bed and with a drink in her hand, rings the truest note of all. I think Michael was the love of her life, giving Elvira sexual satisfaction (“the biggest thrills”)  and the affection she felt had been denied her previously. If she thought that she was losing all that then the fatal row on the 31st May, allowing for Elvira’s history and the intensity of feeling shown in the letter, becomes , if not inevitable, almost predictable.