Death in Belgravia

Rosemary Hill

  • 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

Rosemary Hill: Death in Belgravia

‘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.
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.

In America the young Binghams were looked after by wealthy connections of their parents, the Brady Tuckers, who ‘lived like Astors’ with ‘three major houses’ and behaved with ‘generosity unbounded’. Winters in New York, summers in Florida, tennis and swimming and servants to take care of everything else. The children had a whale of a time, except John. His sister remembers her six-year-old brother as puzzlingly miserable in America and even more so when, at 11, he came back to the ‘racketty grandeur’ of their parents’ home in Eaton Square. After the trauma of separation, reunion was another shock. The house had been bombed and was now a scene of ‘dustcloths and crazy furniture’. The whole city had a weary, shattered appearance and the rain, the rationing and a bohemian mother whose hair looked ‘as if someone had stabbed a sofa’ made a considerable contrast to Park Avenue. His sister thinks that when Lord John Bingham (as he then was) was sent away to summer camp during their time in America his unhappiness manifested itself in destructiveness; he ‘tried to damage things’, as she puts it, and from then on she recalls a restless discontent in him.

*

Intellectually he was not the dim aristocrat of caricature. He was generally agreed to be intelligent and his schoolfriend remembers him as ‘very bright’, yet, Griffin recalls, ‘he didn’t put it to good use.’ The only thing to which he applied himself at Eton was learning to gamble. His National Service, with the Coldstream Guards in Germany, was largely spent playing poker in the officers’ mess and, finding himself for the first time in a country where casinos were legal, learning to gamble on a bigger scale. A fellow officer recalls him ‘getting dressed up for dinner and going out to the best hotels … Quite often he’d hire a car … and insist that we all put on our dinner jackets and motor down to the casino at Bad Neuenahr.’ Reaction against his parents’ high-mindedness, a temperamental discontent, soured by the shocks of evacuation, a desire for money and success but a lack of persistence and application: any or all of these might account for his behaviour and his subsequent career.

For five years he worked for a City bank in order to ‘make my pile’. He wrote to his uncle, with what we may hope was a degree of irony, that he knew money couldn’t buy happiness but that it could buy ‘cars, yachts, expensive holidays’ and security, and these things, he explained, would make him happy. He reckoned that a large part of success in finance – 20 per cent was where he set it – was due to gambling ability and in 1958, having not made a fortune in banking, he decided to drop the day job and become a full-time professional gambler. His schoolfriend, who was also in the City, tried to talk him out of it. If he is a less subtle witness than Griffin he speaks in similarly wistful tones of a man who lacked patience, was ‘very short-sighted’ about his life and failed to notice that ‘he had the whole world at his feet really.’

Even so, the late 1950s were not a bad time to be a wealthy young nobleman on the loose in London. Lord John Bingham was remarkably handsome, an ornament to both an old idea of Society which was passing and a new one coming in: 1958 was the last year in which debutantes were presented at court; Mary Quant’s shop Bazaar had been open in the King’s Road since the previous year; and while there were, as ever, socially ambitious people keen to meet aristocrats there were also, as the much discussed ‘Princess Margaret set’ demonstrated, members of the upper classes happy to meet at least the more talented and glamorous members of the lower orders. Yet Thompson fills in this background to Lucan’s later life and its ultimate debacle with a clumsily broad brush. The milieu she describes of ‘Terry-Thomas dashers and Kay Kendall girls’ lacking in social ‘self-awareness’, for whom ‘the threat of levelling tendencies’ and ‘the encroachment of Lucky Jim Dixon’ had yet to loom, is as crude a caricature as anything in the press coverage of the Lucan affair.

From this historical distance it is not only broad trends that are easier to see: details are also emerging in the memoirs of people, especially women, who were at the time more or less silent witnesses. Among those Thompson should not have ignored are Fiona MacCarthy’s The Last Curtsey (2006), a witty account of coming out at a time when debs were turning into dolly birds, and Elisabeth Luard’s My Life as a Wife (2008). Luard’s book casts a sharp sidelight on the scene Thompson needs to evoke. Her husband, Nicholas, was an acquaintance of Lucan and they had an important mutual friend in the painter Dominick Elwes, whose suicide in 1975 was, one way or another, a consequence of the murder in Lower Belgrave Street. Nicholas Luard’s headlong career embodied the ethos of early 1960s London. Maverick, ambitious and something of a fantasist, he was a co-owner with Peter Cook of Private Eye and the Establishment Club in Soho. He was also a habitué of John Aspinall’s gambling club, the Clermont, which became the fulcrum of Lucan’s life after he left the bank. When Lucan disappeared the ‘Clermont set’ loomed large in the police investigation and the press coverage. Defenders of Lady Lucan felt she was frozen out by them; detractors said that her unhappy presence on the club’s ‘widows’ bench’ embarrassed her husband and helped to undermine the marriage.

Elisabeth Luard’s impression of the club’s atmosphere as one of ‘coldness … indifference’ and casual misogyny tends to reinforce the former impression but, more important, My Life as a Wife portrays a world in which everything was a gamble, not just at the tables. As the conventions of the 1950s loosened, hare-brained schemes were fashionable, though often doomed. The Establishment Club failed, taking Luard’s modest inheritance with it, and he and Elwes embarked on a succession of get-rich-quick enterprises. Their most entertaining failure was the retractable dog lead which Elwes patented. Since he and Luard were among the young men invited to dine (without wives) by Princess Margaret they thought she might be persuaded to use it when presenting prizes at Crufts to generate useful publicity. HRH agreed, but in front of curious photographers she put the spring-load on the wrong setting and all but strangled a chihuahua. Sales never recovered. Tellingly, the only Luard-Elwes venture to make money was their book, Refer to Drawer, a guide to confidence trickery.

Lucan’s attempt to fund a trip to the Cresta Run by beating his fellow hotel guests at ping-pong was in the same spirit of cock-eyed derring-do, as was his short powerboat racing career. He entered the 1963 Daily Express race in his top of the range boat The White Migrant and his schoolfriend, who was at Lord’s for the day, recalls the story unfolding in headlines in the Evening Standard. At lunchtime it was ‘Surprise Leader in Powerboat Race’; by close of play it was ‘Powerboat Sinks’. ‘Well,’ his friend concludes, ‘I didn’t even have to look to see.’ The set in which Lucan moved was united more by this sort of gambler’s bravado than by class. Aspinall, who was arguably Lucan’s true nemesis, was the son of an army officer and made his money from the casinos he ran, at first illegally, with his mother. Of the other regulars, James Goldsmith made his own fortune in a succession of businesses, including the chain that became Mothercare; the Shand Kydds’ wealth came from wallpaper manufacture; and Ian Maxwell-Scott was employed as a director of the Clermont, having bought his substantial home in Sussex on the proceeds of an insurance policy taken out against his wife having twins, which she did in 1966.

For a man with plenty of money and a short attention span it was all good fun. Lucan seems to have been happy enough with his lot and with his friends. When Bill Shand Kydd, to whom he was particularly close, married Christina Duncan, Lucan met Christina’s sister Veronica. Whatever his reason for proposing to her it was not snobbery or financial gain. Her mother and stepfather ran the Wheatsheaf Inn near Basingstoke and Veronica, like Fiona MacCarthy, was one of a growing number of upper-middle-class girls in reduced family circumstances who was expected to marry as well as she could. Thompson says the relationship came about in a ‘desultory way … He had to marry, to get an heir. The time had come.’ But the heir to an earldom in want of a wife could scarcely have been short of choice and he chose her. They married in 1963 and early in 1964, when his father died, Lord Bingham became the seventh Earl Lucan.

It was in the early 1970s that things began to change. The Lucans had three children by then but the marriage was unhappy and other good things, especially money, were coming to an end. In a grim economic climate Aspinall lost a fortune on the stock market and was bailed out by Goldsmith. For Lucan the effects of the crash were exacerbated by the fact that he was gambling too much. Aspinall had no scruples about how much he allowed his supposed friends to lose and Lucan was losing heavily; he was also drinking, and practically living at the Clermont. When new legislation made it illegal for Aspinall to play in his own casino he sold it in 1972 to Victor Lownes, owner of the Playboy Club. The old circle was breaking up. The Luards decamped to live cheaply in Spain, where their most grandiose joint enterprise with Elwes, a luxury villa complex called El Cuartón, was soon quite literally sinking. Ian and Susan Maxwell-Scott’s marriage was as rocky as the Lucans’. Susan, the last person known to have seen Lucan alive, was also drinking and behaving oddly. During a weekend both couples and their children spent at the Maxwell-Scotts’ home in Sussex, Susan wrote: ‘Don’t let Lord George fall down the fucking stairs’ in boot polish on the landing wall. The japes were taking a nightmarish turn and in an uneasy political climate grand schemes were getting more serious. In 1974 another Clermont habitué and founder of the SAS, Colonel David Stirling, formed GB75, a vigilante group to be mobilised in the event of civil unrest.

Veronica Lucan was not only unhappy, she was mentally fragile and her relationship with her sister and brother-in-law volatile. After a spectacularly unhappy Christmas in 1972 the Lucans separated and began a battle for the children. Nobody has ever denied that Lucan was profoundly attached to his children, or that he was dismayed when custody was awarded to Veronica. He became obsessed with getting them back. Edith Sitwell’s remark about the Eliots that ‘at some point in their marriage Tom went mad, and promptly certified his wife’ may not have been true in that case, but it points to a truth about marriage as folie à deux. It was said by some that Veronica Lucan’s medication made her paranoid, by others that her husband embarked on a campaign to drive her mad and prove her unfit to keep the children. He certainly tried to get her admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Wherever it originated, by the end of 1973 the Lucans’ marriage was a compound of paranoia and obsession that culminated in the murder of Sandra Rivett.

*

The undisputed facts are few. Somebody bludgeoned Rivett to death on what would usually have been her night off and then assaulted the countess. Lucan was in the house in the later evening and spoke to his wife. She appeared barefoot and covered in blood in the nearby Plumbers Arms pub appealing for help. After he left the house Lucan talked to his mother on the telephone and drove to the Maxwell-Scotts’ house in Uckfield, where he spent some time with Susan, called his mother again and wrote two letters to Bill Shand Kydd, whom he had been trying in vain to contact. His version of events was that he had been going past the house and had seen a fight taking place, he had interrupted it and found Rivett dead and Veronica injured. She had accused him, not for the first time, he said, of hiring a hitman to kill her. He left the Maxwell-Scotts and the car he had been using was found parked in Newhaven on 8 November.

After that there were no more confirmed sightings and mystery rapidly became myth. Rumours grew of a conspiracy among the Clermont set to protect Lucan, to hide him or smuggle him abroad, and with nothing else to show for their respective efforts press and police had an obvious interest in promoting the idea. The image took root of what the Daily Express called a ‘tightly knit circle’ who ‘shrink from interview … for fear of breaking that masonic style bond which linked that certain breed of men whose “stud book” lines mostly lead back to the same stables … Eton, Oxford, the Household Brigade’. If the Clermont set was riddled with class prejudice their detractors were by no means free of it.

If any individual gave the arrogant, conspiratorial circle theory more substance than the others it was Aspinall. His pathological, coat-trailing contempt for ‘the law or the common norms of civic behaviour’, his assertion that if Lucan had come to him ‘covered with blood’ he would not have handed him in and that if Veronica ‘had been my wife I’d have bashed her to death five years before and so would you’, further blackened by implication the reputation of the man he had helped to ruin financially. As a further outrage to the middle-class morality he despised, Aspinall possibly started and certainly sustained the rumour that Lucan killed himself after telling Aspinall where to find his body, and that Aspinall collected it, put it through the bone crusher at Howletts, his private zoo, and fed it to the animals. That was what he told Richard Parkes, a Clermont regular who had lent Lucan money which he never recovered.

Aspinall hardly ‘shrank from interview’ and he was not alone. Many of the Clermont set spoke to James Fox for his Sunday Times article, Susan Maxwell-Scott told her story to the News of the World and Bill Shand Kydd made a public appeal to Lucan to come back and face the music. Meanwhile the police search ranged wider and wider based on ever flimsier clues. A much publicised excursion to Cherbourg in pursuit of a rumoured sighting of Lucan was more or less admitted to be a jaunt to give the press some fun. In Spain, Richard Parkes, who had gone to see the Luards, caused a stir at El Cuartón, where the sight of a tall moustachioed Englishman raised hopes among the Guardia Civil. Elwes was also there and, in an incident typical of the ill-fated villa development, fell down a cliff and broke his hand and foot. It was only one of the troubles that were increasingly overwhelming him. Like most of the supposedly closed circle, Elwes had spoken to James Fox for his Sunday Times article, which painted its subjects in no very flattering light. When it appeared, Fox writes, ‘they were shocked and shamed … felt they’d been Trojan horsed.’ He believes they wanted a scapegoat and pretended to believe that Elwes had sold photographs to the paper which they knew came from Lady Lucan. In September 1975 he took a fatal overdose, leaving a note blaming Goldsmith and Mark Birley, who owned Annabel’s, the nightclub in the same building as the Clermont, from which Elwes had been barred. He cursed them, he wrote, ‘from the grave’.

Whether anyone can be held morally responsible for another’s suicide is a moot point but Elwes’s friends, including Kenneth Tynan, who delivered an outspoken eulogy at his funeral, believed he had been bullied to death having ‘set too much store by the favourable opinions of people many of whom were manifestly his inferiors’. After the service a cousin of Elwes went up to Aspinall and punched him on the jaw. Elwes was, to the Lucan case, what Stephen Ward was to Profumo – the fall guy. But if he and Rivett were the principal casualties, it is no more than fact to say that Lucan himself never had justice. The inquest on Rivett named him as her killer. It was one of the last inquests to have the power to deliver what amounted to a guilty verdict without trial or an initial presumption of innocence. His daughter Camilla Bloch, a QC, who was four at the time of the murder, said in 2013: ‘As a lawyer I hope it’s not old-fashioned to point out that my father never stood trial. It is unfortunate that he is regularly referred to – in almost factual terms – as a murderer. He has never been able to defend himself and the evidence was not conclusive. It was circumstantial.’

Forty years on the case built up by the police and the press looks shoddy and in some points disturbingly reminiscent of the case against Christopher Jefferies, the schoolteacher wrongly arrested for the murder of Joanna Yeates and branded on front pages ‘strange’ and a ‘peeping Tom’ because he had odd hair and lived alone. Lucan had an earldom, a flashy moustache and a vile great-great-grandfather. Although the forensic evidence was conflicting, and according to Thompson badly contaminated in the course of the investigation, no other line of inquiry seems to have been seriously pursued. The final third of her book covers the aftermath of the murder and relies heavily, as she acknowledges, on earlier work, especially Patrick Marnham’s Trail of Havoc (1987), James Ruddick’s Lord Lucan: What Really Happened (1994) and James Fox’s articles. Where she is original she serves up a mixture of fact and fantasy as odd as it is tasteless. Starting with the entry on Rivett’s death certificate – ‘blunt head injuries inflicted by a named person. Murder’ – she continues: ‘Possibly the greatest pleasure of reading detective fiction is the illusion it gives that there is such a thing as omniscience. Hercule Poirot … applies order and method and finds that no problem can resist them.’ By such ill-judged swerves of tone she pads out interviews which would have made a good article and turns them into a bad book.

Her conclusion, like Marnham’s and Ruddick’s, is that Lucan was not the killer, that whatever his state of mind, he was not capable of such extreme, sustained violence, nor, given that Rivett was at one point facing her attacker, was he likely to fail to recognise his own wife even in the dark. That he was desperate enough and able, through the mythomaniacal set in which he moved, to hire a hitman seems more plausible, that he panicked at the reality and tried to stop the killing, arriving when Rivett was already dead and his wife wounded. In short that the account he gave to his mother and Susan Maxwell-Scott was factually true, if a lie by omission. Afterwards it is hard to believe anything but that he threw himself off a Channel ferry and was dead within 24 hours.