Tag Archive: Savoy Orpheans

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.


Chez Henri, on the first floor of 8 and 9 Long Acre, was one of the more upmarket London night-spots. Barbara Cartland approved as it was one of those places where ” one always knew everyone”. Elvira and her friends were regulars there.

Charlie Kunz

Leslie ” Hutch” Hutchinson, Billy Milton and Douglas Byng all played there but the resident for nearly nine years was the pianist and bandleader Charlie Kunz. Kunz was to become nationally famous for his skilful but sentimental “easy-listening” piano pieces, popular right through to the 1970s. In the late twenties and early thirties his band was more geared to dancing, though always displaying a restrained elegance. In 1928 he recorded “I’m Tired of Waiting For You”. This was written by Reg Batten and Hugh Wade and is as evocative of the period as anything you could wish for.

Hugh Wade is usually presented as something of a failure and an insignificant ne’er-do-well. His residencies at the Blue Lantern and Blue Angel are seen as somehow “seedy”. However,if he collaborated with Reg Batten, then he was a respected part of London’s dance-band scene. Batten was a member, violinist  and sometimes leader of the Savoy Orpheans/ Savoy Havana Orchestra, the most accomplished and well-paid dance band of the era. Founded by Bert Railton , its illustrious leaders included Debroy Somers (whom Wade also wrote for), Caroll Gibbons ( who played at Elvira’s party in 1927) and the innovative Fred Eliziade. Based at the Savoy Hotel, by the late twenties, they were probably the best known dance outfit in Europe. They recorded all the popular hits of the day and occasionally sneaked in some jazz and latin stylings. One of their most popular pieces was an instrumental version of the Noel Coward song whose title is always appended to any recounting of Elvira’s tale.

Wade seems always to have written in collaboration with either a lyricist or another musician. One such joint-effort was with Collie Knox. Called “When the Swallows Fly Home” it was, presumably a follow up to Wade’s “hit”  “When the Lovebird Leaves the Nest“. Mercifully, I cannot locate an audio file for this lost gem. Collie Knox was a columnist on the Daily Mail, best remembered for his patriotic wartime journalism (especially the book Atlantic Battle). He was a also involved in the theatre as a writer and producer. He was one of the young men whose career the flamboyant Ned Lathom had backed in the 1920s before the young Earl’s many indulgences bankrupted him. Although Knox was a household name in his time the others are rather better known today – they were Beverley Nichols, Noel Coward and Ivor Novello.

Collie Knox (1899-1977)

Knox was partly responsible for Brighton becoming the Gay capital of England that it is today. He moved there in the 1930s with the designer Peter Coats ( not the Peter Cotes of Elvira fame) and by the 1950s was part of an elegant and rather socially exclusive circle. Reminiscences of this group do not portray them in a very favourable light, but they are of interest in that they could easily be describing Elvira’s crowd twenty years on. Here are two examples (taken from Daring Hearts)

“Brighton has always had a gay mafia – all those expensive queens, you know, throwing cocktail parties, with art dealers and old actresses. It was a very closeted place, there was an awful lot that went on behind heavily brocaded curtains. Robin Maugham lived down here and had crowds of the camp coming to visit. Terence Rattigan had a house here. Collie Knox, Dougie Byng, Gilbert Harding, Alan Melville, Sir David Webster… And Godfrey Winn lived out at Falmer. And they’d all have these pink champagne and sherry dos – ‘Oh, we must invite Enid Bagnold’.”

“Sex and money was at the heart of the gay community in Arundel Terrace, Lewes Terrace and Chichester Terrace. It was an upper-class jungle. When I came here it wasn’t such a mixed social group as it is now. The terrace had a class thing about it, moneyed thing.

I would be invited to cocktail parties, which isn’t my thing. Gay males, rich, living in swanky, elegant – piss elegant – places, ghastly taste, actually, to my mind, with the interior decorator boyfriend. They considered themselves classy; worked in the Theatre, banking, stockbrokers. They had all these cocktail parties full, also, of what we called the bridge ladies who liked faggots. And theatrical lezzies. Nothing was worse than theatrical lezzies of that period. They were even more superficial than anyone. They quarrelled all the time, they drank too much. They were all refined and ladylike, as it were, and then suddenly you’d realise they’d just had too many gins, so they’d start on each other: snip, snip, snip, snip. Sad. I don’t think they liked me, really, because I wouldn’t play.”

Some of these folk may well have been veterans of the Blue Lantern and The Blue Angel, perhaps even Collie Knox.

Hugh Wade, in cap, next to Elizabeth Ponsonby in 1929 when his songwriting skills were in demand

8/9 Long Acre today