Death in Belgravia
- A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan by Laura Thompson
Head of Zeus, 422 pp, £20.00, November 2014, ISBN 978 1 78185 536 2
‘Well,’ said the heavily bandaged Countess of Lucan from her hospital bed, eyeing her sister and brother-in-law with no great affection, ‘now who’s the one with paranoia eh?’ Forty years after the murder of the Lucans’ nanny, Sandra Rivett, the answer is pretty much everybody. The events of the night of 7 November 1974, when Rivett was bludgeoned to death in the basement of the Lucans’ London house, 46 Lower Belgrave Street, the countess was violently assaulted and her husband, John Bingham, seventh earl of Lucan, disappeared, offer all things to all tastes. The story has the violent glamour of crime fiction with the additional thrill of reality, and the facts are just enough to make a narrative while leaving hugely tantalising areas of doubt. Also the Lucans looked right. He the central-casting aristocrat, dashing with his guardsman’s moustache and a hint of the cad round the eyes, she, tiny beside him, bouffant hair in a velvet band. There followed four decades of obsessive gossip, conspiracy theories, sightings of the earl on every continent except Antarctica, and grisly accounts of his death, as well as some more thoughtful studies of the case and what it reveals about postwar Britain and its social structure.
Lord Lucan and Veronica Duncan on their wedding day, 28 November 1963.
Thompson’s book is a mixture of all of these and the result is persuasive and revealing in some parts, absurd and tasteless in others. Yet it is a compelling read. The story doesn’t pall because it has become a myth and myths change with time. As the Lucan affair recedes to the horizon of living memory, revelations and theories once libellous are now printable, while first-hand recollections become clouded and the pattern of light and shade in the story shifts. Some things have changed less than might have been expected. While the press at the time called it ‘the Upstairs, Downstairs’ murder there is no difficulty, as Thompson points out, in reinterpreting it as a Downton Abbey affair. James Fox’s articles in the Sunday Times and the New Review saw in it the ‘whole waterlogged English class system’ sinking under its own weight. But the system has proved remarkably buoyant. Old Etonians and alumni of the Bullingdon Club continue to thrive. By contrast their antagonists of forty years ago, the police and the press, have fared less well. This side of the Stephen Lawrence case and the phone-hacking trials neither has the same level of credibility they enjoyed in the 1970s.
Born in 1934, Lucan would have been, or just possibly was, eighty in 2014. The second child and eldest son of George Charles Patrick (‘Pat’) Bingham, the sixth earl, and his wife, Kaitlin, much was made in 1974 of his ancestry, in particular the life and character of his great-great-grandfather, the third earl. In addition to treating his Irish tenants at the time of the Famine with a cruelty that was remarkable even by contemporary standards, he also ordered the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854. A brute and an idiot, what else, it was implied, could be expected of his descendants.
In fact, as Thompson explains, Lucan’s pedigree sported a familiar range of lordly personalities. Like a row of cartoon portraits by Osbert Lancaster she runs us through them. The first earl was the clever one, a Whig who got the title, the second was the cultured earl, who lived in Italy and commissioned busts of his daughters from Thorvaldsen. The inevitable spendthrift earl was the fourth. He married a daughter of the Duke of Richmond and lived in style on the far from limitless family fortune, his enjoyment marred only by half a century spent avoiding his bankers. With the next generation came the reaction. His son, Lucan’s grandfather, was the consolidating earl, a privy counsellor and Conservative MP with a devotion to public service. He took control of the estate in 1900 and did what he could to stop the rot. But few noble families could withstand the rigours of the 20th century, and war and taxation reduced the family seat to little more than a golf course.
With Lucan’s father, there was another reaction and the birth of that peculiarly modern figure, the socialist earl. To the dismay of his parents and some of his children Pat Bingham and his wife were active members of the Labour Party and anti-apartheid campaigners. He served as an under-secretary of state in Attlee’s government. They were not unconventional enough, however, to keep their four children in England during the Second World War. Like many who could afford it they sent them to America. Lucan and his brother and two sisters arrived in Washington in 1940, returning to London in 1945. That episode, his elder sister Jane Griffin told Thompson, was ‘when it all started’. Griffin, one of the members of the family who sympathised with her parents’ politics, has long made her home in New York. Her account of her childhood and of Lucan’s character is balanced, regretful and affectionate. Through her eyes the man begins to emerge from behind the cardboard cut-out, and it is her recollections and those of Lucan’s unnamed schoolfriend, who had not previously told his story, that justify Thompson’s subtitle and make the book, at its best, a portrait of the man who is both the centre and the missing middle of the story.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 37 No. 4 · 19 February 2015
From Rosemary Hill’s review, it seems we have another book, this by Laura Thompson, exonerating Lord Lucan of the murder of the children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, and the attempted murder of his wife, Veronica (LRB, 5 February). It is bizarre after all this time to find any writer on the case, who is not a family defender of the disappeared earl, putting across such a conclusion. That Rosemary Hill buys it too is odd but more excusable – she’s getting it from the book or books. But it’s fascinating in terms of historical myth. ‘That he was desperate enough and able … to hire a hitman seems more plausible,’ Hill writes, ‘that he panicked at the reality and tried to stop the killing, arriving when Rivett was already dead and his wife wounded.’ More plausible, she says, because Laura Thompson and two other writers, including Patrick Marnham, all think that ‘whatever his state of mind, he (Lucan) was not capable of such extreme, sustained violence.’ How do they know? What is that based on? Shouldn’t Hill have been more sceptical of this?
Where does the intruder story come from? Only from Lord Lucan’s letters written that night, trying to set up a version to save his children’s shame, before he committed suicide. Why believe them instead of all the massive evidence against him? Lucan’s only description of the intruder is of a ‘large man’. To Michael Stoop he wrote: ‘I have had a traumatic night of unbelievable coincidence. However I won’t bore you with anything.’ They are Etonian letters par excellence – the first skill you acquired in that brutal age at Eton was lying, vide Jonathan Aitken. Like Aitken’s sword of truth speech, Lucan’s letters have a giveaway mixture of fake nobility and self-pity. ‘When they [the children] are old enough to understand,’ he wrote to Bill Shand Kydd, ‘explain to them the dream of paranoia, and look after them.’ Hill opens her piece with Veronica’s question to Dominick Elwes from behind her bandages in her hospital bed: ‘Now who’s the one with paranoia?’ Hill doesn’t follow this up. Veronica was talking about her husband trying to kill her.
Hill cites Marnham’s book Trail of Havoc as a source for the intruder theory. I reviewed Trail of Havoc for this paper (LRB, 12 November 1987). I know Marnham and admire his writing but I was forced to point out (as Walter Winchell used to say) that his central theory collapsed from a monumental mistake of geography – he had Lucan and his hired killer moving between Lower Belgrave Street and the Lucan mews house behind. But, alas for him, had he measured the ground, the mews house is not back to back with 46 Lower Belgrave Street but some way along the mews. It was Marnham’s Lucan article in Private Eye that triggered the hundred years’ war between Richard Ingrams and Jimmy Goldsmith. He rang after my review and said: ‘I haven’t had a lot of luck with Lucan.’
Hill compares the (posthumous, one assumes) press and police treatment of Lucan with their treatment of Christopher Jefferies, the schoolteacher wrongly arrested for the murder of Joanna Yeates – as in poor old Lucky being picked on for his earldom and his silly moustache. In fact the Jefferies treatment was doled out in spades, misogynistically, to Veronica Lucan. She became la folle de Belgravia in the popular imagination and stories of her waspishness, madness etc circulated wildly at the time – another plant by Lord Lucan, who had been trying to have her committed or, if not that, to terrorise her into submission. A little unstable maybe, but she wasn’t at all mad. And here is the glaring omission in all this: Lady Lucan’s evidence. Why is Lucan believed and not Lady Lucan? Because she’s mad? I am cited in Hill’s review for my pieces in the Sunday Times and the New Review and I was very close to the story all those years ago. I certainly had a scoop in terms of my access to Lady Lucan, who described in great detail to me how she got out of this murderous attack by her husband, re-enacting the scene on the staircase of 46 Lower Belgrave Street. The dialogue between them, that she reported to me, can’t be made up. Lucan thought it was the nanny’s night off (his daughter told the police he had asked her for this information), so when Rivett came down to the darkened kitchen (Lucan had removed the light bulb) he mistook her for Veronica and killed her. Veronica came down after a while calling for Sandra. Then ‘someone rushed out and hit me on the head.’ Four times. She screamed. He told her to ‘shut up’. He thrust two fingers down her throat; they fought, she got between his legs, managed to twist around and grab his balls. I’m not sure why I didn’t quote Veronica Lucan in my pieces – I remember our interviews were surrounded with legal conditions – but I had no doubt she was telling a true story. The same she told to the police, to Dominick Elwes and to the jury at the coroner’s inquest, which found Lucan to be the murderer. The detail was right; she never wavered or embellished it down the years. One detail was so extraordinary it can’t have been invented. When he lunged at her throat, she managed to croak: ‘Don’t you dare touch my pearls.’ Perhaps he wasn’t capable of sustaining this second attack after the appeal to his manners, and after a wrestling match. In the pause, as they went upstairs, she managed to run out to the Plumbers Arms.
If you believe her story everything else, all the mass of evidence against Lucan, falls into place – the bludgeon found in his car identical to the murder weapon, the blood and hair on the back seat, and so on. This, in fact, was the basic storyline of the recent ITV two-parter written by Jeff Pope. Though clunky in dialogue (I don’t remember even my parents’ generation calling each other ‘old thing’ every few minutes) and repeating the calumny, now indelible, that Dominick Elwes gave me the photographs that sealed his fate, it was the first account I’ve come across that got the story straight, and showed Lucan doing the deed. Jimmy Goldsmith and Aspinall both thought he’d done it. His son George Bingham is ‘quite certain’ there was no intruder, a view he shares, he says, with his close family. He has said he wants to believe his father is culpable; it is too painful otherwise to think he abandoned his children for no apparent reason.
The greater mystery is what he did early that morning as he shut the door of his car in Newhaven. Where did he go? I believe into the sea. Keith Simpson, the Home Office pathologist, who held this theory too, told me that there is a kind of crab in Newhaven Harbour that will settle in large numbers on your corpse and consume your flesh within two or three days.
Peter Cook and Nicholas Luard’s Establishment Club ‘failed’, Rosemary Hill writes (LRB, 5 February). She may be right, but Peter never thought so. I quote what he said to me in 1988, some 25 years after the doors closed on the Establishment:
The thing that brought it down was the magazine. Scene was wholly Nick – but I was too greedy. Just as I was going off to the States I saw these very flashy dummy issues – well-designed, colour photographs, it all looked quite nifty – and instead of saying I don’t want anything to do with that, because I wasn’t anything to do with it, I went along with it and I was fed what turned out to be absolutely inaccurate reports of its fortunes while I was in America. It had pretensions to be the sort of smart magazine you’d be well advised to leave hanging around on your coffee table, but we’d have been better off selling coffee tables I think … again it shows how naive we were financially, the same limited company ran both Scene and the Establishment, so when Scene went down the tube it dragged the Establishment down with it. The Establishment never lost money.
San Giovanni d’Asso, Italy
Vol. 37 No. 5 · 5 March 2015
Rosemary Hill, retelling the sad story of Lord Lucan, runs through the earls in his family tree but does not mention one of his most remarkable forebears, Margaret Bingham (née Smith), Lady Lucan (1740-1814), wife of the first earl. She was a notable illustrator and miniature painter, but her most remarkable work was the long poem ‘Verses on the Present State of Ireland’, which probably dates from 1778. Writing as a ‘wrong’d Hibernian’, she argues that the political concessions being made to America offer an opportunity to reconsider the case of Ireland – whose misery, she says, ‘lies squarely at the door of England’.
Her painting gets her an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Her poem is unmentioned there, though it is equally remarkable for political thinking and for literary skill. (My account of the poem draws on commentary from the Cambridge University Press project Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present.) For those with faith in bloodlines, progressive politics were as natural to the Bingham family as less salubrious qualities.
‘Winters in New York, summers in Florida’ is how Rosemary Hill describes Lord Lucan’s American childhood. In this she follows an error in the book under review, Laura Thompson’s A Different Class of Murder, in which Lucan’s American hosts, the Brady Tuckers, ‘lived like Astors, spending the winter in their home on New York’s Park Avenue. In summer they used their beach property in Florida or, in the main, enjoyed their estate at Mount Kisco in Westchester.’ The reverse is the case. An Astor would winter to the south of New York City (Florida) and summer to the north (Newport).