Monday, June 30, 2008

Scandalous Love - The Life of Violet Trefusis

"Across my life only one word will be written: "waste" - waste of love, waste of talent, waste of enterprise." Violet Trefusis

She was the daughter of the mistress of the King of England but for a few short years, she caused a scandal the likes that England had never seen before, and almost caused the break-up of two marriages. Nowadays she is just a footnote in the larger lives of Vita Sackville-West and Mrs. Keppel. Her name was Violet Trefusis.

She was born Violet Keppel on June 6th 1894. At the time of Violet's birth, Mrs. Keppel was four years away from meeting the Prince of Wales. Although his name was on her birth certificate, in all probability, George Keppel, was not her biological father. It is speculated that he was in actuality William Becket, MP for Whitby. From the time of her marriage, Mrs. Keppel had cultivated the company of wealthy powerful men. Her husband, the Honorable George Keppel, the third son of the 7th Earl of Albemarle, after resigning his commission in the Gordon Highlanders, joined the Norfolk Artillery, the year she was born. As a third son and a soldier, he had very little money to keep Alice in the style to which she was accustomed. Each of Mrs. Keppel's lovers brought her higher and higher on the social ladder and finally into the future Edward VIII's orbit. Violet once wrote about her mother "I wonder if I shall ever squeeze as much romance into my life as she had in hers."

Violet and her younger sister Sonia from an early age were in awe of their mother. Mrs. Keppel was known for being discreet and extremely charming. George Keppel was a rather shadowy figure in their lives, willing to step aside for his wife's relationship with the Prince of Wales. The King would come to visit Mrs. Keppel at her house in Portman Square every day at tea time. When Violet's sister Sonia was born in 1900, there was speculation that her father was the King himself. The girls would be paraded out for a brief visit, they came to regard the Prince as a sort of grandfatherly figure who used to allow them to race buttered toast down his immaculate trouser legs.

At first they were unaware of the exact nature of their mother's relationship with the monarch, but they soon were aware of the rumors. Violet was brought up by a series of governesses while her mother attended house parties with the King and traveled abroad on holidays with him. From an early age, Violet was revolted by the hypocrisy of her mother's life, and determined that her life would be different. At the same time, she also saw it as wonderfully romantic.

At the age of ten, she met the love of her life, Vita Sackville-West, a party. Vita was two years older, they bonded over their mutual love of books and horses. Like Violet, Vita was the daughter of an exotic and charismatic mother, Victoria Sackville-West. Vita's mother was the illegitimate daughter of the 2nd Baron Sackville and a spanish dancer named Pepita who he never married (Pepita was already married to another dancer). Victoria married her first cousin Lionel who became the 3rd Baron Sackville. After giving birth to her only child Vita, her mother determined never to go through the sordid business again. She eventually banned her husband from her bed, sending him into the arms of other women while she pursued a platonic relationship with a rich Scotsman, Sir John Seery, who lavished money and gifts on her. Vita grew up at Knole in Kent, the biggest heartbreak of her life was that she wasn't born a man and couldn't inherit Knole.

The two young girls wrote each other intermittently over the next several years and met occasionally. Violet, from the beginning was the pursuer. She wrote ardent letters to Vita sevearl times a week, while Vita's letters were shorter, filled with her life of books, horses, and Knole. When Violet was 14 and Vita 16 they spent time together in Italy, where Violet had been sent to perfect her Italian. Violet declared her love to Vita and gave her a ring with the head of a doge.

After the death of Edward VIII in 1910, the Edwardian Age was over and with it Mrs. Keppel's reign as La Favorita. The new King and his Queen ushered in a more conservative age with a less glittering court at which Mrs. Keppel was not welcome. For the next two years, she spent increasing time abroad as sort of 'discretionary' leave before re-establishing themselves in British society. Violet spent time in Germany, Italy and France, developing her fluency for languages, and a life long love of France. After two years abroad, the Keppels moved to another address in London, this time in Grosvenor Street.

By the time Violet returned to London, Vita was engaged to Harold Nicolson and also having a love affair with Rosalind Grosvenor. Violet made it clear to Vita that she still loved her, she flirted with men outrageously at parties trying to make Vita jealous, she even got engagedtwice to Gerald Wellesley and Osbert Sitwell. Despite this, Vita married Harold Nicolson in October of 1913 and settled down to the life of a country matron, giving birth to two boys Benedict and Nigel (another son was still born). Violet was distraught although she sarcastically agreed to be Benedict's godmother. After her marriage, Vita discovered that Harold had contacted a sexually transmitted disease from a man he had had a brief affair with at a country house party. While Vita was shocked, she and Harold came to an understanding that they would both be allowed to pursue outside affairs as long as their own bond was paramount.

That agreement was tested in 1918. Violet came to stay with Vita at Long Barn, the Nicolson's home in the country while Harold was spending the night at his club. Violet once again declared her love, counting off on her fingers all the reasons why, but this time Vita reciprocated. In her diary which her son later published as Portrait of A Marriage, she paints Violet as a seductress that she couldn't resist as if Violet were the elder of the two with endless experience. The reality was that Violet had been pretty much under lock and key with Mrs. Keppel. She was in love but had no idea what to do about it until Vita.

While homosexuality between men had been criminalized (which would have been career suicide for Harold Nicolson if he had ever been caught), lesbianism was not. In fact, Queen Victoria had struck out all references to women in the bill that criminalized the male homosexuality. Still, the very idea that two women could be involved that way was something that most people couldn't wrap their minds around. If good women were still seen as having no sexual desires for men, how could they possible have desires for their own sex?

The two women became lovers, going off on holiday together to Hugh Walpole's cottage in Cornwall. Violet wrote at this time, "Sometimes we loved each so much that we came inarticulate, content only to probe each other's eyes for the secret that was secret no longer." They pretended to be gypsies, called each other Mitya and Lushka.

The two women spent increasing time together much to the dismay of Vita's husband Harold and Violet's mother Mrs. Keppel. It was soon fairly clear that the two women weren't just good friends. In the autumn of 1918, Vita and Violet began work on Vita's novel Challenge in which she depicted herself and Violet as the lovers Julian and Eve. Vita took to wearing corduroy trousers, with her short hair, she looked like a man. They went out together, Vita in her man's garb with Violet as Eve. Harold was incensed at the idea of Vita going off without him. Vita wrote him a letter, uncomplimentary towards Violet, telling him that she needed new experiences and horizons but it didn't dim her love for him.

Vita and Violet went abroad to France for several months. Gossip about the two women wormed its way into all the smart drawing rooms in London. In the meantime, Mrs. Keppel determined that it was time that Violet got married a soon as the war was over. Society dictated that no matter what one's proclivities were, one married, particularly in the case of upper class women who depended on marriage to support them. Violet had no skills in order to support herself independently, her only income was derived by the allowance that Mrs. Keppel gave her. No marriage, no allowance.

Enter Denys Trefusis, the poor sap who found himself in a situation that was completely over his head. He was 28, attractive with reddish gold hair and blue eyes, the son of an old aristocratic family. He was an officer in the Royal Horse Guards who had served heroically during the war. He was also unusual in that he had lived in Russia for several years before the Revolution, teaching the children of an aristocratic family. He had learned to speak Russian fluently and longed to go back. He was awarded the military cross for his services during the war. He was kind and intelligent, and suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome. Violet wrote lively chatty letters to him while he was at the front, seducing him by post.

Violet and Vita's relationship continued. Vita was now obsessed with Violet. She told Violet that she loved her, that they had been made for one another. She promised not to sleep with Harold and took of her wedding ring as a symbol of fidelity. Violet was equally obsessed, spending her days in agony until the next time that she could see Vita or receive a letter from her. She and her mother fought, when Mrs. Keppel caught her writing to Vita. "I hate lies," she wrote to Vita. "I'm so fed up with lies." Violet's dream was for Vita to leave Harold and go off to France with her to live openly as a couple.

But the dream kept being deferred. Denys Trefusis was now involved. Despite his lock of money, Mrs. Keppel wanted him to make her daughter respectable. Violet wanted him only to get her mother off her back and to provoke Vita to leave Harold. Vita, however, hoped that Violet would gain more liberty by marrying, as long as the marriage didn't preclude fidelity to her. "Violet is mine," she wrote in her confession. Mrs. Keppel tried to still the gossip by taking Violet away until Denys was back in London. Harold Nicolson, trying to be a good husband and reasonable, suggested that Vita buy a little weekend cottage in Cornwall where she could do whatever she wanted, he wouldn't ask questions. This was exactly the type of life that Violet abhorred and wanted nothing to do with, but circumstances were spiraling out of control.

Vita continued her dual life, writing long passionate letters to Harold, at the same time pursuing her relationship with Violet. Denys proposed to Violet but she put him off. Instead, she and Vita went off to France. Ironically, Harold Nicolson helped to arrange the permits that they needed. Since he was busy with the Paris Peace Conference, he told her that he didn't mind if she went. Mrs. Keppel agreed soley because Denys would be in France. In Paris, they scandalized everyone by dancing together at a the dansant. They were gone for four months finally returning to London the next year, 1919 in March.

Mrs. Keppel sprang into action, demanding that Violet stop dithering around and marry Denys Trefusis. The engagement was announced, Violet in a quandary. Her life was about to become the very thing that she loathed. She wrote to Vita, "Are you going to stand by and let me marry this man. It's unheard of, inconceivable..." Poor Denys was completely clueless as to what was going on with his fiancee. He believed that Violet was in love with him, she had accepted his marriage proposal. But in reality it was Mrs. Keppel pulling the puppet strings, offering him an income, an undemanding office job, travel, her daughter was the prize, his reward for the awfulness of war.

Soon after the engagement was announced, Denys agreed that the marriage would be platonic. He viewed women as pure and less corruptible than men. After Denys insisted that Violet could come and go as she pleased, and that he would be happy to only spend 3 months of the year with her, Violet eventually gave in and married Denys on the 16th of June 1919. On the day of her wedding, she wrote to Vita, "You have broken my heart, goodbye." Vita went off to Paris with Harold to keep herself from stopping the wedding. Violet had learned a hard truth, that society would never condone the love that she shared with Vita, it led to social ostracism, and self-loathing. One of Violet's flaws was that she found it impossible to care for anyone else once she had given her heart to Vita.

The marriage was doomed from the beginning. Denys and Violet went to Paris for their honeymoon and guess who was there? Vita and Harold. While Harold was at the Peace Conference, Vita met Violet at the Ritz where they resumed their relationship. "I treated her savagely. I had her. I didn't care, I only wanted to hurt Denys," Vita wrote later. She promised Violet that in the autumn they would go away together. The next day, the two women confronted Denys and told him the truth about their relationship. The poor man was heartbroken and shocked. He had been used and tricked in the worst possible way. Leaving Violet to deal with the wreckage of her marriage, Vita went off to Geneva with Harold.

Back in London, Denys and Violet tried to end their marriage but Mrs. Keppel was adamant that the marriage continue. Denys meanwhile was starting to show signs of tuberculosis and needed nursing. Violet didn't want to go but it would have looked bad if she had abandoned a sick husband. Meanwhile, Violet's sister Sonia (grandmother of Camilla Parker Bowles) was in love and wanted to marry. Her future husband was Roland Cubitt, heir to the title of Lord Ashcombe and to a huge building fortune. The Cubitts had built much of Belgravia, Pimlico and Eaton Square and rebuilt Buckingham Palance. Marrying Roland Cubitt was a coup that Mrs. Keppel was not about to let slip out of her daughter's fingers. The Cubitt's were already against the relationship because of Mrs. Keppel's relationship with the late King. A scandal with Violet would ruin everything.

She kept a close eye on Violet to make sure that she was not sneaking off to meet Vita or writing to her. Vita couldn't make up her mind what she wanted, leaving Violet in a painful limbo. Harold, had affairs with other men including the couturier Edward Molyneux, hoping to make Vita jealous. The marriage between Violet and Denys continued to disintergrate as Violet heaped emotional abuse on the poor man, declaring that she would never care for him. In October, Vita and Violet went off together again for two months, playing their familiar roles of Julian and Eve. Back in London, people gossiped about the two women. Harold Nicolson was furious and threatened divorce while Mrs. Keppel demanded that Denys act like a man and bring his wife back.

This train wreck was heading down a fast track to nowheresville. Vita again told Violet that she would elope with her in February of 1920, that she would leave her old life behind. But to Harold, she wrote that although she found it impossible to have sex with him, she loved him so much and so deeply that it couldn't be uprooted. Finally the day came for the two women to leave. The night before she left Denys, they engaged in some kind of sexual exchange that neither would explain. Although she tried to tell Vita, she didn't want to hear it. While Violet went ahead to France, Vita sent frantic telegrams to everyone to rescue her.

Denys arrived first and he and Vita crossed the channel together. Violet refused to return with Denys so humiliated once again, he went to Paris. Vita and Violet stayed in Amiens while Vita waited for rescue. It came in the form of Harold Nicolson who told Vita that Violet may not have been as faithful to her as she said. This was the excuse that Vita needed to break things off. She told Violet that she couldn't see her for two months.

Denys and Violet again begged for annulment and Mrs. Keppel again said no way. Violet was not going to disgrace the family anymore than she already had. Sonia needed to be married off, Violet was not going to ruin her sister's happiness with her selfishness. More to the point, although she would give Violet 600 pounds a year allowance, she would have nothing to do with her emotionally or financially if she and Denys split up. Colonel Keppel, Violet's father had had enough though. He refused to speak to his daughter and left the room if she entered it. Even Sonia refused to speak to her. Violet was beginning to have a taste of her life as a pariah.

So Violet and Denys struggled on in a marriage of inconvenience complete with scenes and recriminations. He began seeking solace from other women all the while tormenting Violet by burning her letters from Vita and checking her alibis whenever she went out. Vita and Violet went on one finally journey together for two months, but the handwriting was on the wall for Violet. She realized finally that Vita was never going to leave her life in England for good to be with her.

While Vita was everything to Violet, Vita had a life independent of her with Harold, their sons, her garden and her writing. Her life was full and there was only ever going to be around 20% available for Violet. Violet would need to find a new life that didn't include Vita. She and Denys settled in France, where they lead seperate lives until his death in 1929. By the time of his death, they were completely estranged. However, he did do one good thing for Violet, he introduced her to the Princess de Polignac. Born Winaretta Singer, one of a multitude of children of Isaac Singer, whose fortune was made in sewing machines, she had married the much older Prince Edmond de Polignac who was a discreet homosexual.

Violet modified her behavior but not her sexuality, becoming more socially acceptable. Mrs. Keppel approved of the relationship, it more closely mimicked her own with the King. Violet wrote books in both French and English, while they sold well enough, the critics agreed that they were not great literature. Violet's life increasingly became a pale copy of her mother's. She threw dinner parties, told witty stories, was charming in an increasingly brittle way. She even began telling people that her father was King Edward VII. Completely incapable of taking care of herself, Violet would lose money constantly or trip and fall down the stairs. After her parents death, Violet inherited Ombrellino in Florence, where she spent most of her time. She and Vita reconnected briefly during the war, after Violet fled the Nazi invasion. Violet passed away in 1972, ten years after Vita.

Although their affair had ended, it continued to have a lasting influence on both women. Although Vita continued to have affairs with other women, no one ever came close again to affecting her so deeply. She and Harold continued to live together, their bond growing deeper as the years passed. Virginia Woof based the character of Sasha, the slavic princess on Violet in Orlando. Violet wrote her own account of their love affair in Broderie Anglaise, mainly as a reaction to Orlando. In both cases, the love affair was written as heterosexual.

If Violet had a fatal flaw, it was her inability to see anyone else's point of view but her own. She had no concept of her husband's feelings or understanding of the bond that Vita had with Harold Nicolson. Once she had made her mind up that Vita was the love of her life, nothing would stand in her way. She gave no thought at all to the damage that she caused her parents, her sister, or particularly Denys. She never once realized how much she had wronged him or hurt him, or even apologized for what she did to him. In her romantic fantasy, love should have conquered all. But there was the reality fo real life. The life that she envisioned for herself, a life without hypocrisy, she never achieved. The world wasn't quite ready for that. Nor really was Violet. As much as she deplored the hypocrisy of her mother's life and her aristocratic set, she also longed to emulate her mother and please her.

Sources include:

Mrs. Keppel and her daughter - Diana Souhami
Portrait of a Marriage - Nigel Nicolson
World's Wickedest Women - Margaret Nicholas

There is a splendid TV movie starring Janet McTeer, David Haig and Cathryn Harrison based on Portrait of a Marriage.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Scandalous Life of Elizabeth Chudleigh

'Bigamy, it seems, is a greater crime than simple fornication or fashionable adultery,' The Times of London in June 1788.

Gossip has been around for centuries, but it wasn't until the 18th century with the rise of the printed media, like newspapers and magazines that gossip reached a mass audience. It seemed that everyone loved to read the titillating tidbits about the aristocracy. New magazines like Town and Country, printed a monthly article on certain aristocrats and their mistresses. The trial of Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston for bigamy provided the lower classes with confirmation that the ruling class of England was made up of a group of degenerates, and revealed a secret that the aristocracy had known for years.

The Duchess of Kingston was born plain Elizabeth Chudleigh on March 8, 1721. She was the only daughter of Thomas Chudleigh, who was the administrator of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea at the time of his death in 1726, at the relatively young age of 38, when Elizabeth was five. The Chudleigh's were an old Devonshire family, whose ancestors had fought on both sides of the English Civil War. Thomas Chudleigh's mother Lady Mary Chudleigh, had been a writer of some note. Her most famous work was The Ladies Defence, a satire on marriage. Some scholars believe that Lady Mary must have been married to an overbearing husband to have written The Ladies Defence, but biographers believe the marriage was relatively happy, if only because her husband allowed her to publish at all.

He married his first cousin Henrietta, after making his way as a soldier, rising to the rank of Colonel of his regiment. After several babies died soon after birth, they were finally blessed with a son, Thomas in 1718. Three years later, Elizabeth was born, completing their little family. Although the Chudleigh's owned property in Devon, they were not rich. Thomas Chudleigh had invested one thousand pounds in the South Sea Company, only to see the bubble burst on the investment.

After her husband's death, Elizabeth's mother was forced to remove the family to the edge of a newer section of London, called May Fair (named after a local fair that was held there every May) which had only recently been developed as a residential area. Soon the area was flooded with arisocrats fleeing the crowded areas of Soho and Covent Garden. Like most aristocratic women who were left in genteel poverty, she could hardly go out to work for a living, she took in a lady lodger. The location was also convenient because it was close to her brother and his family, which included several children, to be playmates for Elizabeth and Thomas.

Tne next several years of Elizabeth's life remain a blank until she arrives at court. No letters survive and there is little in the public record. Her later biographers managed to embroider fanciful tales of Elizabeth coming down with smallpox but escaping without a single mark, that she grew up like a mini-savage in the wilds of Devon. One can assume that she spent most of her time traveling amongst the homes of various relatives around the country, spending weeks or months at a time, until she moved onto the next. She probably also spent time at the little country manor that her family still owned in Devon. Her education was probably minimal at best, since there wasn't much money to hire tutors or governesses. Her mother probably taught her a little needlework, given her books to improve her mind, a little dancing instruction, if she was lucky, she might have been able to sit in on classes with her more well off cousins, while staying with them. Apparently she also managed to learn enough French to speak it tolerably well.

The years were not quite kind to the Chudleigh family as one by one the men in the family began to die off, including Elizabeth's brother Thomas, who died in 1741 at Aix-la-Chapelle during the war of the Austrian succession. Her mother Henriette turned to a friend of her husband, William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath, who managed to find Elizabeth a position as a maid of honour to Augusta, Princess of Wales in 1743 when Elizabeth was 22. The position paid two hundred pounds a year, but it required Elizabeth to have a wardrobe suitable for the position. Fortunately for Elizabeth, court dress hadn't changed much since the late 17th century, necessitating dresses that required less fabric than the more fashionable sacque dresses that had come into vogue.

Elizabeth was considering to be very pretty, with a ready wit, and the ability to tell a story that captivated audiences. She didn't lack for admirers, from among the aristocratic gentleman at court. Elizabeth met the man she eventually married, Augustus John Hervey, the future 3rd Earl of Bristol while at the races down in Winchester. It was a whirlwind courtship, the young couple barely knew each other before Hervey proposed. Her aunt, Mrs. Hamner tried to persuade the couple to wait, until Hervey returned from a 2 year tour of duty in the navy, to see if they would still feel the same. But the young couple was impetuous and in love (or highly infatuated) and insisted on marrying before he left. It was a rash decision, Hervey only had fifty pounds a year to his name, hardly enough to support a wife and a home. There was also the possibility that his grandfather would object to the union, thereby cutting him out of the will and the succession. His prospects at the moment were slim, his older brother while suffering from ill-health, might live for many years, meaning that Hervey would not inherit the earldom and the money for a good while. Divorce, if the marriage turned bad, was not really an option. Divorce was expensive and required a private act of Parliament. They were stuck with each other for life. Elizabeth would have to leave her position as a Maid of Honor (as a married woman she would no longer be a Maid) and her two hundred pounds a year.

They were married on August 4th 1744, in private at Lainston, near Winchester. Their union was kept secret to enable Elizabeth to retain her post at court, while Hervey, who was a naval officer, rejoined his ship. The old saying, 'marry in haste, repent at leisure' could be applied to Elizabeth and Hervey. While Hervey was gone, Elizabeth led an active social life, being eventually courted by James, the 6th Duke of Hamilton, among others. Due to her secret marriage, of course, she had to turn any offers of marriage down. Hervey, when he returned to England in 1746, was appalled to hear rumors of his wife's flirtatious manner while he had been abroad. He was also upset to discover that his wife was not so eager to see him. It was three months after his return before Elizabeth finally agreed to meet with him. They immediately quarrelled, Hervey was pissed that she wouldn't come to him, and Elizabeth was pissed because he didn't immediately run to her in the country. It was pretty clear that the two were hopelessly incompatible. Still, Hervey was willing to give the marriage ago, but Elizabeth was more reluctant. However, she wasn't reluctant to take his money to pay her debts which were considerable, life at court not being cheap.

The situation got stickier when Elizabeth found herself pregnant in the summer of 1747. She retired to Chelsea (which was a country retreat at the time) to await her confinement and to hide the pregnancy. She gave birth sometime in late October to Augustus-Henry Hervey, but the baby didn't live long, dying a few months later in January of 1748. Elizabeth was distraught but relieved. A child would have tied her to Hervey for life. The marriage limped along for another year, before they finally agreed to seperate in 1749. This wasn't a formal seperation since the marriage was still basically a secret. Elizabeth was now in a quandary, now that her marriage was over, she couldn't count on Hervey to continue to support her.

The time had come to find a protector. Elizabeth was now almost 28 years old, long past the time most women of her station were married. She had already rejected the Duke of Hamilton, and the Duke of Ancaster as husbands which must have caused comment, and her removal to Chelsea in the summer of 1747 hadn't gone without notice. She caused a stir at a subscription masquerade ball at the King's Theater in the Haymarket during the King's Jubilee Celebration. Costumed as Iphigenia, her dress caused one guest to remark that it left her 'so naked ye high Priest might easily inspect ye Entrails of ye Victim.' The other Maids of Honor, many of whom were no better than they ought to be, were highly shocked at Elizabeth's costume, so much so that they refused to speak to her.

George II was not shocked, he was delighted at her costume, and asked Elizabeth if he might touch her breast. Elizabeth replied that she knew something softer to the touch, and placed his hand on his head! Far from being offended by her remark, the King appeared infatuated. Although Elizabeth contemplated the pros and cons of being a royal mistress, she decided against that avenue. Royal lovers were notorious for being cheap, or at least the Hanoverians were. At the most she would have gained a title, perhaps some jewelry, but her bills would not have been paid. Until she came up with another plan, she took comfort in the fact that she was one of the few people welcome at both the court of the King and the court of the Prince of Wales (George II notoriously hated his son and heir and ridiculed him at every opportunity).

Elizabeth found her protector and the love of her life in Evelyn Pierrepont, the 2nd Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull. The Duke's grandfather, also named Evelyn had served as Lord Privy Seal and Lord President of the Council. He married twice, one of his daughters was the noted playwright, Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu, who later spent time in Turkey where her husband was appointed Ambassador at Istanbul, and who fought to bring inoculation for small pox to London. Evelyn's cousin was Lord Bute, who became Prime Minister under George III. Evelyn was shy and retiring, but he was considered one of the handsomest men in England, he was also interested in fishing and cricket, in fact the Duke was the subject of the first extant reference to the game of cricket in Nottinghamshire. It is not certain exactly when the Duke and Elizabeth made their acquaintance but by 1752, there were references to the relationship in letters from various courtiers.

Elizabeth, now that she was settled as the Duke's mistress and had no more money worries, began to spend lavishly, buying property in London and in the country. She had a house built in London which she named Chudleigh House (after her marriage, it was renamed Kingston House). She also began to entertain, planning lavish parties for her royal friends. She was still one of the Princess of Wale's Maids of Honor, and her mother had now moved to Windsor as the Royal Housekeeper. Still there were people who were not happy at Elizabeth's good fortune. Lady Mary Coke, the wife of Viscount Coke, wrote virulently and maliciously about Elizabeth over the years. Perhaps motivated by jealously, her own marriage had been particularly strained and after her husband's death she had been infatuated with Prince Edward, the Duke of Albany, she seemed to revel in Elizabeth's later misfortunes.

Despite this, the Duke and Elizabeth were happy together, content to spend time on his country estates fishing (yes I said fishing, apparently Elizabeth's passion for the sport was as great as the Duke's). Over their years together, Elizabeth even travelled abroad by herself, which was unusual at the time when women rarely travelled although it was common for men to take a grand tour of Europe in their twenties (she wasn't really alone, having brought along her servants), spending time in Saxony where she became a particular friend of the Electress. The only fly in the ointment was her marriage to Hervey. Over the years, Elizabeth had been able to put the unfortunate relationship out of her mind. However in 1759, Elizabeth did a curious thing, she had her marriage to Hervey registered in the parish church at Lainton and sealed. Why did she do this? Probably as a safety measure, if the Duke should abandon her, and her husband should succeed to the title of Earl of Bristol, she would at least have the satisfaction of being a Countess.

Hervey had other plans, now settled back in England, decided that he wanted a divorce. Elizabeth decided to turn the tables and took the matter to the eccleseastical court, stating that the marriage had never taken place, therefore there could be no divorce. Why didn't she want a divorce which would have freed her once and for all? Well there was the publicity aspect, and if she were free, the Duke wouldn't have been willing to marry a divorcee. It was now incumbent on Hervey to prove that the marriage existed. Witnesses were provided, including several servants who had worked for Hervey, and the maid of Elizabeth's late Aunt, Mrs. Hamner, testified that the marriage had taken place, although they had only heard about it, they hadn't witnessed the actual marriage. Mrs. Hamner's maid Anne Craddock testified that the marriage hadn't taken place. Elizabeth, although she had qualms, swore that she was unmarried, and the consistory court in February 1769 pronounced her a spinster. Within a month she married Kingston on her 48th birthday.

Elizabeth found a curious thing. Society which had been eager to make her acquaintance, now turned its back her. Apart from a few old friends, no women came to call once she became a Duchess. Adultery, murder, bankruptcy, these could all be forgiven, bigamy however was another story. Despite the findings of the ecclesiastical court, everyone knew that Elizabeth and Hervey were still married. The Royal family still received her, she had been a good friend to the Dowager Princess of Wales, and the old King had found her delightful. The Duke and Duchess removed themselves to their country estates, and rarely came to town. However, it was the same story in country circles. Apart from a few old friends, the new Duchess was shunned. Still, she had married her best friend and the love of her life, so Elizabeth was content to spend most of her time in the Duke's company.

Their happiness was short lived because the Duke died four years later after a series of strokes, leaving her all his property on condition that she remained a widow. It would be only after her death, that his relatives would inherit. His family was outraged, despite the fact that the Duke had made his feelings clear about his relatives long before his death, he disliked them all. What incensed them even more was that the properties would be inherited by his sister's second son, and not the eldest, cutting him out entirely apart from a small sum of 800 pounds.

During her mourning period, Elizabeth travelled abroad, and visiting Rome the Duchess was received with honor by Pope Clement XIV. Meanwhile, in March 1775, her first husband's brother died and Hervey became Earl of Bristol. Elizabeth's marriage to Hervey was a legitimate one, despite her denials, and she was therefore legally Countess of Bristol. The Duchess was forced to return to England to defend herself against a charge of bigamy, which had been preferred against her by Kingston's nephew, Evelyn Meadows. She tried desperately to get the case seen in the House of Lords, but to no avail. She even wrote to George III hoping that he would look favorably on her but it was a difficult time for the King, what with the American colonies rebelling and all. She attempted to have the charge set aside in December 1775 by reason of the previous judgement in her favour, but this failed and she was tried as a peer in Westminster Hall.

The Duchess was portrayed as a coarse and licentious woman as Kitty Crocodile in a play A Trip to Calais, by the comedian Samuel Foote, which ridiculed her. However, he was denied a license and was not allowed to produce the play. Foote was incensed and took his case to the press. The Duchess wrote to him protesting his treatment of her, to which Foote then had the letter reprinted in the press along with his response which didn't do the Duchess any good, although the public lapped it up. Not even her lawyer telling the press that the playwright had offered to suppress the play for two thousand pounds helped her cause.

Elizabeth was just barely able to escape being incacerated in the Tower of London during her trial. However, her ill health meant that she was allowed to live at home for the duration under the custody of the Black Rod, in a nutshell, she was under house arrest. The trial was attended daily by the fashionable of London society, with their food and drink (even a heavily pregnant Queen Charlotte attended a session, sitting in the Duke of Newcastle's private area), tickets to the court case were hard to get, while the case received ample amounts of press in all the newspapers, most of them not favorable to Elizabeth. She was seen as a gold digger who had searched for the richest Duke in England and tricked him into a bigamous marriage. Stories were planted about what sort of punishment the Duchess should expect if she should be found guilty. Much was made of the fact that war with the colonies meant that she wouldn't be deported to a penal colony.

Many of Elizabeth's friends who were called as witnesses tried to get out of testifying in court. One peer fled to France rather than testify. Not only did Anne Craddock testify this time that she had actually witnessed the initial marriage, but the doctor who delivered Elizabeth's son testified, as well as the witnesses to Elizabeth's 1759 actions. Elizabeth's protestations of innocence in court held no wait, although she talked for 45 minutes. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, the verdict went against her, and she was found guilty. Only a few members of the House of Lords declined to vote.

However, she retained her fortune, although the Meadows family then brought in a suit in Chancery, to have the will overturned claiming that Elizabeth had unduly influenced the Duke when he made out his will. Elizabeth was assured by her lawyers that the case would drag on for years (anyone who has read Bleak House by Dickens knows this to be true). She lived for a time in Calais, spent time in Saxony although she left when the Elector would not receive her, not wishing to piss off George III, and then made her way to Vienna where she hoped to be received at the court of Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II. However she found that in that conservative court, the British ambassador made it known that she would not be recieved and certainly not as the Duchess of Kingston.

Elizabeth decided to visit Saint Petersburg, where she hoped to be received as the dowager Duchess, feeling that Catherine the Great's court would more lenient towards a bigamous Countess/Duchess. Near which city she bought an estate which she named "Chudleigh". Meanwhile back in England, Hervey did manage to eventually gain legal recognition in 1777 that his marriage to Elizabeth was legitimate, but he did not pursue divorce proceedings before his death. Elizabeth continued to style herself Duchess of Kingston, resided in Paris, Rome, and elsewhere, and died in Paris on 26 August 1788, still legally Countess of Bristol. Before her body was cold, her possessions were being divied up, Evelyn Meadows made off with whatever he could take with him, and her attendents divided up her clothing. When the news reached London, it revived the old interest in her court case. Many column inches were devoted to her, and pamphlets flew off the printing press. Even in death, Elizabeth was big news.

In these years of easy divorce, it might be hard to sympathize with Elizabeth's actions. Women in society were dependent on men. She was a classic illustration of how the law could keep a woman imprisoned in an unhappy situation. Of course, Elizabeth made her situation worse by first denying the marriage to Hervey for years, and then trying to suppress the evidence. But in her mind, since they never really lived as husband and wife, the marriage didn't exist. Elizabeth could be vain and snobbish, but she could also be quite generous. She settled an amount of two hundred pounds a year on Evelyn Crawford, even though his family had sued her for years. She believed not only in espousing forgiveness but also practicing it. She never lost her zest for life or her adventurous spirit, despite the curves that life threw her.


Elizabeth, The Scandalous Life of an 18th Century Duchess - Claire Gervat

Monday, June 9, 2008

Pandora in Blue Jeans: The Life of Grace Metalious

"Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay."

In the 1950's, Peyton Place was arguably one of the most famous books, if not the most famous. It was certainly scandalous. In its first month, it sold 100,000 copies at a time when most average novels sold 3,000. By the end of the decade, it had sold over 10 million copies, more than Gone With The Wind, remaining the best selling novel for close to 20 years after its initial publication. It was turned into a hit movie starring Lana Turner, spawned a sequel, a night-time soap opera that made stars of Mia Farrow and Ryan O'Neal and even a daytime soap. Mia Farrow later caused a scandal on the show by cavorting and then marrying Frank Sinatra, who was nearly 30 years her senior.

The name Peyton Place became part of the cultural zeitgeist. In the 1950's, Eisenhower was President, Howdy-Doody and I Love Lucy ruled television, the country was several years into an unprecedented baby boom, and all was right in the world after the devastation of the Second World War and the detonation of the atomic bomb. But there were tensions lurking under the surface. Peyton Place rocked the complacent, tight-buttoned world of 1950's America.

Even people who had never read the book or seen the TV series knew the name. During Bill Clinton's impeachment hearings in 1998, South Carolina Congressman Lindsey Graham famous asked of the relationship between the President and Monica Lewinsky "Is this Watergate or Peyton Place?"

But the woman behind this best seller that shocked the nation is little known today. Her name was Grace Metalious. If Harriet Beecher Stowe who Lincoln once said was the little woman who started the Civil War, Grace Metalious exposed the hypocrisy lurking in small towns in the 1950's. She wasn't the first author to write about the underbelly, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Booth Tarkington, and famously Kings Row by Henry Bellaman (a book that Grace admired). In fact Grace's book would often be compared to Kings Row, or Tobacco Road. The few women who were writing novels at that time either wrote historical fiction like Anya Seton and Kathleen Winsor (Forever Amber, another book that was banned for being salacious) or they wrote novels with a moral message, writers such as Olive Higgins Prouty (author of Now Voyager and Stella Dallas) and Fannie Hurst (Back Street, Imitation of Life). What made Peyton Place so scandalous was the fact that the author was a pony-tailed, blue jean wearing housewife with a high school education.

Grace was born Marie Grace DeRepentigny on September 8, 1924. Always prone to embellishment, in later years she claimed that she was born Grace Marie Atoinette Jeanne D'Arc DeRepentigny. Her family were French Canadians, who had emigrated to Manchester, New Hampshire to work in the mills. In Manchester, the city was divided along ethnic lines, each group content to mix with their own, with the WASPs living on the big hill. Graces, mother Laurette had ambitions to move away from the hard life of working in the mills that had made so many people old before their time. She married Albert DeRepentigny who worked as a printer and moved the family out of the French Canadian quarter. What this meant was that Grace grew up without the ethnic ties to a community.

Her father split when she was 10 years, no doubt fed up with his wife's pretensions to grandeur. Laurette had developed the habit of buying flea market items and passing them off as family heirlooms, touting her ancestors who were French (as opposed to French Canadian which wasn't quite as grand). From childhood, Grace had a fascination with the written word. Emily Toth in her biography of Grace wrote that as a child she would go over to her Aunt's house and spend hours in the bathtub writing. As an adult, she would lock her children out of the apartment, leaving them to fend for themselves to the horror and shock of the neighbors.

At the age of 18, against their parent's wishes, Grace married George Metalious whose family were Greek. In the ethnic communities of Manchester, it was considered a mixed-marriage of sorts. From the beginning the marriage was rocky. George enlisted in the army and was gone for long stretches of time. When Grace followed him, along with their first child Marsha, George was not happy. It was a classic miss-match, while Grace was emotional, George was practical. After he returned from the war, he was appalled that Grace had saved no money, having spent her salary supporting her sister, mother, and grandmother. Instead of telling him that she almost died giving birth to their first child, Grace went through two more pregnancies, only having her tubes died after the birth of her last Cindy, when the doctor once again reiterated the danger of her having more children. George disappointed her by only showing up at the hospital after the children were born. They both had affairs but somehow managed to stay married.

After George started teaching in local schools, Grace refused to conform to the image of a faculty wife. Her daily uniform was jeans and a flannel shirt, she openly claimed not to be wearing under wear in an age when most women wore industrial strength girdles and bullet bras. She wore no make-up and her hair in a perpetual pony-tail. She was a terrible housekeeper, every apartment and house they lived in was covered in dirty dishes, clothes lying on the floor, flies buzzing around. "I did not like belonging to Friendly Clubs and bridge clubs," she later wrote. "I did not like being regarded as a freak because I spent time in front of a typewriter instead of a sink. And George did not like my not liking the things I was supposed to like."

Grace's life changed when the family moved to Gilmanton, NH where George started a new job as a principal. A new friend, Laurie Wilkens who wrote for The Lanconia Evening News told her the story of a young girl who had murdered her father and buried him in a sheep pen. At the trial, the sordid story came out, the father had been sexually molesting her and her older sister for years. She shot him in self-defense after he threatened to kill her and her younger brother one night. Grace soaked up the details of the case, and other local lore that she heard. All this percolated in her brain until she wrote it all down in a novel that she was calling The Tree and The Blossom.

Grace found her agent the old fashioned way, she looked him up in the Literary Marketplace. She chose Jacques Chambrun for two reasons, his name which sounded French and the fact that he had represented Someset Maugham who was one of Grace's favorite writers. What she didn't know was that Maugham and several of his other authors had sued Chambrun for misappropriating royalties to fund his extravagant lifestyle. However, Grace had no knowledge of this. She sent Jacques her manuscript for what eventually became Peyton Place. He sent it around to several publishers, collecting rejection after rejection. Fortunately for Grace, the novel landed on the desk of a freelance reader, Leona Nevler at Lippincott. Nevler loved the book, although her bosses passed on it. During a job interview at Julian Messner, Nevler mentioned the book to Kitty Messner. Messner, who had founded Julian Messner with her ex-husband, was the Katherine Hepburn of the publishing industry. In the 1950's, publishing was still dominated by men, so Kitty was something of an anamoly. She wore tailored pants suits and smoked her cigarettes with a holder.

Messner asked to read the manuscript. Like something out of a movie she stayed up all night reading the manuscript. The next day, she called Chambrun and made the deal for what became Peyton Place. Grace received an advance of $1,500. She went to New York, where she was wined and dined at '21.' At first things were rocky, Leona Nevler had done a line edit on the manuscript making changes in pencil. There were so many that Grace lamented as so many authors have done, "why did they buy it, if they want to change it?" Kitty Messner stepped in and saved the day. Kitty was warm and motherly, in a sense the mother that Grace had never had. Grace had long had a contentious relationship with her own mother. One of the major changes that Kitty asked for was that Selena Cross murder her stepfather, not her father which was in the original manuscript.

There are two major plotlines in Peyton Place, the first concerns Allison MacKenzie, who is the daughter of Constance MacKenzie, the owner of a local dress shop. Constance had left town for New York when she was young, where she had an affair with a married man, resulting in the birth of Allison. Constance returned to Peyton Place, claiming to be a widow. Her biggest fear is that Allison will discover that she is illegitimate. Meanwhile Selena Cross comes from the other side of the tracks. Her mother married sleazy and brutal Lucas Cross soon after she was born. Lucas begins to abuse Selena starting when she turns 14. He impregnates her, and Selena goes to the local doctor to plead for an abortion, a shocking turn of events when abortion was still illegal. Like the girl that Laurie Wilkens told Grace about, Selena eventually kills her stepfather and is brought to trial. There is also the rich Harrington family (who became more prominent in the TV series) owners of the mill in Peyton Place. The major themes in the book can be broken down to how women come to terms with their identity and sexuality in a small town. Hypocrisy, social inequality and class differences are also prevalent.

It was a savvy publicist named Alan Brandt who sensed that the novel had the potential to become a sensation. He convinced Kitty Messner to add an extra $5,000 to the publicity budget. By the time the book was published in the fall of 1956 it was already on the bestseller list. It was touted as 'Tobacco Road with a Yankee Accent' Grace added fuel to the fire by announcing that her husband had been fired from his job because of her book. The reviews ranged from bad to somewhat complimentary. The book was denounced as wicked, sordid and cheap. Libraries refused to buy it, and some bookstores refused to carry it. In Canada, the book was banned altogether. Of course, this just made the book all the more popular. People passed copies along to their friends. Teenagers stole their parents copies and read them on the sly. Everyone read it, even people who claimed they would never be seen reading trash. Grace summed up the reaction to her book thusly, "If I'm a lousy writer, then a hell of a lot of people have lousy taste!"

While the book took off, things were falling apart back home in New Hampshire. While Grace should have been celebrating her success, her marriage had finally come to the end of the road. George took a job in Massachussetts. The Metalious kids suffered as parents refused to allow their children to play with them, and they were taunted at school. Grace received threatening phone calls at home. Grace was also sued by Tomas Makris, a local schoolteacher, who she had named a character after. She ended having to change the name to Michael Rossi. Townspeople were outraged that Grace had sought fit to air their dirty linen for public consumption. The hurt feelings lingered long after Grace's death. Grace didn't help matters by making statements like, "To a tourist these towns look as peaceful as a postcard picture but if you go beneath the picture, it's like turning over a rock with your foot - all kinds of strange things crawl out. Everybody who lives in town knows what's going on - there are no secrets - but they don't want outsiders to know."

Grace was also booked on a publicity tour. These were the days before authors were given media training. Grace was terrified of the attention, and insecure about her looks, she had started to drink. The woman who had once only had a glass once in awhile was now using alcohol like a crutch. In New York, she was interviewed by Mike Wallace on his show Night Beat. Just before the broadcast Grace's girdle ripped, and she was helped by an actress who did the commercial breaks during the show. Her name was Jacqueline Susann and she would be to the 1960's what Grace was to the 50's. He made the mistake of asking her if the book was autobiographical, something that dogged Grace for years. She fared much better in print interviews, where her looks didn't matter, and she could toss off bon mots like a New England Noel Coward.
She was also dogged by the rumors that she hadn't written the book, that her husband George was the true author or even Laurie Wilkens. The idea that a housewife with a high school education could have written a best-selling book seemed impossible to people. And everyone seemed obsessed with the sex in the book, although by today's standards, the book seems relatively tame. However, the idea that teenagers, especially young women, had strong sexual urges was still something of a novelty. Good girls still saved themselves for marriage but here was Betty Anderson in Peyton Place taunting rich playboy Rodney Harrington with these lines:

"Is it up Rod?" she panted, undulating her body under his. "Is it up good and hard?"

"Oh, yes," he whispered, almost unable to speak. "Oh, yes."

Without another word, Betty jackknifed her knees, pushed Rodney away from her, clicked the lock on the door and was outside the car.

"Now go shove it into Allison MacKenzie," she screamed at him.

And then Hollywood came calling in the form of Jerry Wald. He bought not just the film rights for $250,000 but also the television rights as well, something that would come back to bite Grace and her heirs in the ass in later years. Grace's attorney urged her to be practical, to set up trusts for her children, to protect her newfound wealth, but Grace never did. She had recently fallen in love with a local DJ named T.J. Martin who she made her manager. He was stocky and handsome, and he and Grace would soon become involved in a tempestuous relationship that would see her spending tremendous amounts of cash. Private planes, expensive hotels, treating her friends, all became part of Grace's new life. One night, she and T.J. woke up to find George standing at the foot of the bed taking pictures. As part of the divorce settlement, she agreed to pay for George's tuition to get his Master's degree.

Grace soon bought a house that more accurately reflected her new status, or what her new husband felt was her new status. Soon her second marriage floundered as T.J. tried to change Grace into what he thought a successful author should look like. They flew out to Hollywood during the making of Peyton Place, where Grace got to meet some of her favorite actors who incredibly (to her) knew her name and her book. However, Grace thought Jerry Wald was a douche bag. She didn't like the way he treated the actresses during the audition process, nor did she like what he had done to her book, essentially defanging it. She was especially displeased that brunette Selena Cross was being played by blonde Hope Lange. The screenwriter on the film, John Michael Hayes made the same mistake Mike Wallace did, asking her if the book was autobiographical. Grace rewarded him by throwing a drink in his face at the celebrity restaurant Romanoff's.

The film when it was released was a huge success, earning Lana Turner her only Oscar nomination, and scoring nominations for Diana Varsi who played her daughter Allison and Hope Lange who played Selena Cross. The success of the film led to interest in Grace writing a sequel. Dell, her paperback publisher, offered her $165,000. She needed the cash to help fund the wild lifestyle that she and T.J. were living. It was a constant round of drinking, fighting and more drinking. Grace hadn't written a word in months. She would call friends in the middle of the night to console her when things were bad. George packed up the kids and moved them to Stowe, but the two youngest soon moved back in with Grace.

Grace finally turned in 98 pages which were largely incoherent. The book had to be finished by a ghostwriter. When Return to Peyton Place was finally published, it was slammed even harder by critics than the original. Still it sold books although less than Peyton Place. Grace was nervous and frightened that she would never equal the success of her first books. Indeed the two other novels that were published, The Tight White Collar (published in 1960), and no Adam in Eden (in 1963) sold fewer copies than both Peyton Place and Return to Peyton Place.

By 1960, her marriage to T.J. Martin was over, and Grace reconciled with George. They purchased a motel which they optimistically named the Peyton Place Motel, hoping to cash in on the success of the book. No surprise, no one wanted to stay there, and the motel went bust and along with it, her reconciliation with George. Grace was now drinking a fifth of booze day.

By late 1963, Grace met John Rees, a British journalist, who arrived in town to interview its most famous inhabitant. They were soon embroiled in an affair. While traveling in Boston in early 1964, Grace fell ill and was rushed to the hospital. Three days later she died of cirrhosis of the liver, but not before changing her will leaving everything to her new lover. The Metalious children challenged the will. During the media frenzy, it was revealed that Rees was married and had five children. He dropped his claim to the estate, not that there was much left. Her assets totalled $41, 174 but her debts were more than $200,000. Just before she died, she told John Rees, "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it."

There is no trace in Gilmanton that Grace Metalious once lived there. No plaque on her house, no statue in the public square. While the library now carries a brand new paperback copy of the book, her children once had to fight to have her buried in the Smith Meeting House Cemetary. Peyton Place has now found a home on the curriculum of several women-studies programs at universities including Louisiana State, where it is taught by Professor Emily Toth, who has written the only in-depth biography of Grace apart from a quickie book written by Grace's husband after her death. Another professor at the University of Southern Maine mounted a campaign to get the book republished when she found out it was out of print. One can now purchase it either alone, or with the inferior sequel in a single volume. There is even talk of a movie of her life starring Sandra Bullock with a screenplay by Naomie Foner Gyllenhaal (mother of Jake and Maggie).

While Grace would never have called herself a feminist, she was one of those women in the 50's who chafed against the narrow role that society had created for her. The women that Betty Friedan later wrote about in The Feminine Mystique. She wanted to be a wife and mother, but she also lived to create in a time and a place, where you either did one or the other. She longed to be taken care of by a man but then ended up more successful than either of the two main men in her life. There was no having it all in the 50's but Grace tried. She was constantly at war between the traditional values that she was supposed to espouse and the free-spirited woman who liked to dance, drink and have a good time. She wanted success as a writer, but when it came she had no idea how to handle it. But how many writers out there are equipped to see their first book take off the way that Grace's did? She was just writing what she knew, telling a story like the ones that she liked to read.

Her ex-husband George Metalious told a reporter from Vanity Fair, when contacted for a recent article on the author, that 'Grace cared deeply and loved deeply. She was naive, unfortunately. She put her trust in the wrong people, and she believed in the basic good of people. She had faith, and it worked against her."

It wasn't until 2007, that the city of Manchester, along with the Manchester Historic Association, and the University of New Hampshire at Manchester finally honored Metalious with an in-depth examination of her life and most famous book. The celebration, which included lectures, readings of her work, and showings of the movie, marked the area's first public acknowledgment of its native daughter.

Sources include:

Inside Peyton Place: The Life of Grace Metalious - Emily Toth
The Fifties - David Halberstam
The Bad and the Beautiful - Sam Kashner & Jennifer McNair

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Bad and the Beautiful: Lana Turner and the murder of Johnny Stompanato

“I raced down the stairs in a panic…I ran through the kitchen door. On the sink lay a gleaming butcher knife…I grabbed the knife, ran upstairs and had it beside the door.” Cheryl Crane in Detour (1988)

“I shake my head defeated. What happened I can never forget, but why it happened, I’ll never really understand. I was weak, I’ll admit it, but I never meant anybody any harm – God is my witness to the truth of that." Lana Turner.

Fifty years ago, Hollywood was rocked by a scandal involving Love Goddess Lana Turner. While scandal was nothing new in Hollywood, this was something the town had never seen before. Lana's lover Johnny Stompanato had been stabbed by her daughter Cheryl Crane.

It seemed like every decade there was some new scandal, each one bigger than the one before. In the twenties, there was the unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor and the rape trial of Fatty Arbuckle, in the thirties, the death of Jean Harlow's husband Paul Bern, the forties brought the antics of Errol Flynn. But there was something particularly unsavory and scandalous about the murder of Johnny Stompanato. Already in the 1950's, Hollywood had had to deal with the spector of the House Unamerican Activities Committe probing into Communist infiltration into the movie business, the rise of scandal magazines like Confidential (the precursor to such modern tabloids such as The Star and The National Enquirer) and the erosion of the studio's power by the onset of television.

Lana Turner was born Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner on February 8, 1921, in Wallace, Idaho. Like a lot of Scandalous Women, Lana had a troubled homelife. Her father, Virgil, was a gambler and bootlegger who was murdered when she was a child. Her mother seemed incapable of taking care of her, Lana bounced around from one miserable foster home to another until her mother moved the family to Los Angeles, where she found work as a hairdresser. The constant moving, and the death of her father, left a hole in Lana that she spent a lifetime trying to fill. Young Judy as she was called attended Hollywood High. She was discovered at the age of 15 sipping a soda at the Top Hat Café by Billy Wilkerson of The Hollywood Reporter while cutting school.

Soon she was part of the Hollywood machine, signed under contract to MGM. They changed her name to Lana and her hair color from auburn to platinum blonde. Lana was five foot three, with a perfect figure of 35-23-35. She became a top star in the 1940’s although she was no great shakes as an actress, the wax mannequins at Madame Tussaud's showed more emotion on screen. A reviewer in Time magazine once said about Lana, 'In any posture, Lana suggests she is looking up from a pillow.' Apart from The Postman Always Rings Twice, most of the 40 films Lana made by the time she hit her thirties were forgettable . She was at her best when she played a role similar to her, morally ambiguous roles, where the women made bad choices, usually involving men.

What she was good at was getting married, 4 times by the time she had turned 30. In fact, Lana was known more for her love life than she was for her appearances on screen. She was called 'The Nightclub Queen,' in the press. Men were Lana's weakness, her kryptonite as it were. "I find men terribly exciting," she once said. "Any girl who says she doesn't is an anemic old maid, a streetwalker, or a saint." An executive at MGM studios once said, “She was amoral. If she saw a stagehand with tight pants and a muscular build, she’d invite him into her dressing room.”

Her first boyfriend was Mickey Rooney who allegedly not only relieved her of her virginity but also got her pregnant leading to her first abortion. Her first husband Artie Shaw, she married impetuously on their first date. His ego was bigger than the Hollywood Sign, treated her cruelly, as he considered her intellectually inferior. Second husband, Stephen Crane, the father of her only child, was a restaurant owner. The marriage didn’t last. Fourth marriage to Lex Barker lasted four tempestuous years but she divorced him for mental cruelty after throwing him out when she realized that he was sexually molesting her daughter Cheryl. Along the way there were other lovers from Clark Gable to Tyrone Power. Lana was madly in love with Power who refused to leave his wife, despite Lana getting pregnant with his child, leading to Lana's second abortion.

Even as a mother, Lana was no great shakes. Children were seen as necessary accessories for most Hollywood stars, to be trotted out for magazine appearances, and then hidden away so that they didn't detract from Mommy and Daddy's image. In Lana's case, her relationship with Cheryl was particularly fraught. She alternately infantilized her, or treated her like she was on the verge of becoming world's biggest slut. Clearly, she was trying to avoid Cheryl turning into Lana 2.0.

Lana was a low point when she met Johnny Stompanato. MGM had let her go, and her last romance with Fernando Lamas had fizzled faster than her career. Johnny was dangerous and exciting. Although he told her that he was 43, in reality he was 32, five years younger than Lana. Stompanato worked for Mickey Cohen as an errand boy and had lived off of rich women before he met Lana. Tall, and good looking in a slick way, he wore his shirts open to his naval, like some kind of caricature of an Italian gigolo. His nickname around town was 'Handsome Harry' and the rumor was that he was incredibly well endowed.

Like Lana, he had been married a few times. He also had a son who lived with his mother back home in Illinois. After attending military school, he had served in the marines during WWII. After the war, he stayed behind, claiming that he had run nightclubs in China. After returning to the States, he and the Turkish woman he married, divorced and he moved to Los Angeles, hoping to break into the movie business either as an actor or a producer. Cohen hired Stompanato as a bouncer and personal body guard.

The romance started in spring of 1957. Out of nowhere, Lana began receiving phone calls, flowers and messages from someone calling himself John Steele who wanted to meet her. She said no, but he was persistent. Lana liked to call the shots with her men, but John Steele turned up on her doorstep unannounced. Before long, Lana couldn’t help but be flattered by the gifts and his personal knowledge of her.

Stompanato was smart, he used her daughter Cheryl as a ploy by suggesting that she might like to try out the horse that he had just purchased. The flirtation continued during the filming of Peyton Place, based on the best selling novel. Lana had been reluctant to do the film, claiming that she was too young to be the mother of a teenager on screen (forgetting the fact that she was the mother of one in real life!). In the film, she played Constance McKenzie, the mother of an illegitimate daughter, a fact she's concealed from her and the entire town. Although the movie wasn't a critical success, it was box office gold, reestablishing Lana as a major star, reviving her career.

Soon Lana discovered that Steele’s real name was Stompanato and that he worked for gangster Mickey Cohen who had taken over the rackets in Los Angeles after the death of Bugsy Siegel. Lana knew that her reputation would suffer if it got out that she was dating someone mob-related. When Lana realized exactly who she was dealing with, she tried to cool down the relationship. She dated others, but Johnny persisted. Now he wanted her to help him become a producer. One night, he climbed into her apartment by scaling the fire escape and tried to smother her. She threatened to call the police, but it was an idle threat. More than anything, Lana feared the bad publicity that would ensue.

Lana was hired to make the film Another Time, Another Place in England, starring a very young and handsome Sean Connery. Stompanato wanted to accompany her but she refused. However, when she got to England, loneliness overwhelmed her, and she called for him to come join her. At first things were good between the two lovers, but after awhile, Johnny became bored with sightseeing. He wanted to spend time with Lana on set. Lana, of course, was worried about people finding out. They had a huge fight during which he attempted to strangle her. Only the intervention of her maid saved her life. Lana had had enough. She called and had Johnny deported.

Unfortunately for everyone, Lana couldn’t stay away from Stompanato. She continued to write to him, letters that were used against her, after Johnny's death by Mickey Cohen. In one of her letters she mentioned that she was going to vacation in Mexico after the film shoot was over. Johnny met her plane in Copenhagen and joined her in Mexico. While in Mexico, Lana learned that she had been nominated for Best Actress for her role as Constance McKenzie in Peyton Place. It would be her only Oscar nomination.

Ecstatic, Lana rented a fully-furnished house on North Bedford Drive in Hollywood. While she waited for her lease to start, she stayed in a bungalow at the Bel-Air hotel. On the night of the Oscars, Lana was accompanied by her daughter and her mother. There was no way in hell that Lana was going to allow Johnny to accompany her, much to his fury. Lana lost the award to Joanne Woodward for her role in The Three Faces of Eve, but Lana was happy to be the center of attention once again. Lana and her daughter Cheryl stayed up for hours after the awards talking. After saying goodnight to her daughter, Lana discovered Johnny waiting for her in another room. They got into a huge argument which left Lana badly bruised and shaken. For the first time, Lana confided in Cheryl that Johnny had become violent. Cheryl begged her mother to call the police, but Lana refused.

Why didn't Lana break things off for good once Johnny started getting physical with her? Two reasons, Lana was afraid of the bad publicity that would ensue, if it got out not only that her boyfriend was possibly mobbed up, but that he was beating her as well. There was no studio behind her anymore, willing and able to sweep the dirt under the carpet. And the second reason was that Lana claimed that Johnny had threatened to harm not only her, but Cheryl and her mother as well.

Things finally came to head on the night of Good Friday, April 4, 1958, which forever after Lana would refer to as ‘the happening.’ Stompanato, jealous as ever, hovered over Lana as she got ready to move into her new home, even following her to the hardware store as she chose new china. A friend of Lana's, her makeup man, Del Armstrong and stopped by in the afternoon for drinks with a friend of his, C. William Brooks II. When Johnny left, Brooks mentioned that he and Johnny had attended the same military academy. It was then that Lana learned that her boyfriend was only 33, not 43 as he had claimed.

When Johnny returned that night, it was clear that he was aching for a fight. Lana, worried, ordered Cheryl to go to her room. For the first time, Cheryl saw Johnny's rage and it frightened her. 'His neck veins stood out and he breathed from one side of his mouth. He hunched his shoulders as though he were going to pull out a pair of six-shooters, while the hands at his sides clenched and writhed like a snake's tail in death.'

The two fought, Lana insisting that the relationship was now over. Reportedly, Johnny threatened to scar Lana for life. Lana later wrote that he told her "I would have to do any and everything that he told me, or he would cut my face or cripple me and if it went beyond that he would kill me and my daughter and my mother.' Cheryl, hysterical, banged on the door, begging her mother to let her in. While the two fought upstairs, Cheryl went downstairs to the kitchen to get a knife to protect her mother. Running back upstairs, she held the knife in her hand. When Lana finally opened the door, all Cheryl saw was Johnny looming over her mother with something in his hand. "Mother stood there, her hand on the knob," Cheryl wrote in Detour. "He was coming at her from behind, his arm raised to strike. I took a step forward and lifted the weapon. He ran on the blade. It went in. In! For three ghastly heartbeats our bodies fused. He looked straight at me, unblinking.' The wound was fatal, the knife sliced a kidney, striking a vertebra which punctured his aorta.

As Cheryl, shocked, stepped back, Johnny apparently gasped “My God, Cheryl, what have you done?” before falling to the floor. Lana, although hysterical, still had the presence of mind to call her mother who then called the doctor. After pronouncing Stompanato dead, he suggested that she call Jerry Geisler, a lawyer who was the Mark Geist of his day. Geisler was the one who called the police thirty minutes after the stabbing. When Mickey Cohen heard the news that Johnny was dead, he too rushed over to Lana’s house, but Geisler told him to get lost. Cohen, who had no love for Lana, never believed the story that Cheryl had killed Stompanato.

Lana feared that Cohen would retaliate against her and Cheryl. Meanwhile Cohen was pissed at the way the wagons circled around Lana to protect her. Mickey released to the press love notes that Lana had written to Stompanato that seemed to contradict her story that Johnny had threatened her if she tried to leave him.

My beloved love (Lana wrote), just this morning your precious exciting letter arrived. Every line warms me and makes me ache and miss you each tiny moment. It's beautiful—yet terrible . . . I'm your woman and I need you, my man! To love and be loved by—don't ever, ever doubt or forget that! My romance, hah! It's a hell of a lot more than that! That's for sure. I need to touch you, feel your tenderness and your strength. To hold you in my arms, so, so close—to cuddle you sweetly—and then to be completely smothered in your arms, and kisses, oh, so many kisses!

However, his scheme backfired as public opinion was firmly on Lana’s side. Cheryl, meanwhile, was being held at Juvenile Hall. At the coroner’s inquest, Cheryl did not testify on the grounds that it might further traumatize her. Her mother however did, giving the performance of her life. Camera jammed the courtroom. Lana made a dramatic entrance with her ex-husband Stephen Crane on one side, and her lawyer Jerry Geisler on the other, dressed in a gray silk suit.

Lana answered questions for the jury for an hour, twice breaking down into tears. When the judge called a recess, an emotionally drained Lana swooned in front of the press. Police questioned why the murder weapon, supposedly a brand new knife, had been scratched and chipped. There was also the question as to why there were no fingerprints on the knife, or blood on Lana or the carpet. Unexplained hairs and fibers on the knife remained just that, unexplained. None of these questions were ever resolved.

At one point during the inquest, an onlooker shouted out “Lies, all lies! The mother and daughter were both in love with Stompanato!” The unidentified man was quickly removed from the courtroom. It was alleged that he had been planted by Mickey Cohen. After only a half hour, the jurors reached the unanimous decision that it was a case of justifiable homicide, that Cheryl had used deadly force because she feared for her mother’s life. No criminal charges were filed but Stompanato’s family later filed a civil suit for damages which was settled out of court.
However, the district attorney did begin legal proceedings to determine whether or not Lana Turner’s was a fit parent. The outcome was that Cheryl became a ward of the court. For the next two years, she lived with her grandmother but the trauma never left her. She began getting into trouble, running up speeding tickets, and hanging out in nightclubs under age, ending up in reform school for almost a year. After she was released, she returned to live with her grandmother, but ran away twice. Finally, she was transferred to Institute of Living in Hartford, CT by her parents. While she was there, Cheryl tried to escape twice and later tried to commit suicide.

After she became an adult, Cheryl would go to work for her father for several years. She and her mother managed for forge an uneasy relationship before Lana’s death. She now lives on Hawaii with her partner of many years, a woman named Josh. As for Lana, she made a few movies such as Imitation of Life and the Story of Madame X but the sixties were not good to the former star. Moviegoers tastes changed, and the kinds of epic womens pictures that she had made with Ross Hunter were no longer in favor. She married twice more, starred in several forgettable films, before turning to television. She had a brief stint on Falcon Crest before retiring and writing her memoirs. She died in 1995 at the age of 75.

But the scandal wouldn’t die. Harold Robbins wrote a best-selling novel Where Love Has Gone about the case, which was later made into a movie with Susan Hayward and Joey Heatherton. To this day, there are people who insist that Lana was the one who murdered Stompanato, that she was jealous of his attentions to Cheryl, and that Cheryl took the rap because she was a juvenile. But both Lana and Cheryl stuck to the story they told police in their respective autobiographies. As recently as 2001, Cheryl Crane told Larry King on his show that she was the one to stab Johnny, but the rumors still continue.

Detour - Cheryl Crane
Hollywood Book of Scandals - James Robert Parrish
The Bad and the Beautiful - Sam Kashner & Jennifer McNair
The Golden Girls of MGM - Jane Ellen Wayne
Lana, the Lady, the Legend, the Truth - Lana Turner