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Books

Cherchez la femme

The 22nd Earl of Erroll, Military Secretary in Kenya in the early part of the second world war, was described by two of his fellow peers of the realm as ‘a stoat — one of the great pouncers of all time’ and ‘a dreadful shit who really needed killing’.

12 May 2010

12:00 AM

12 May 2010

12:00 AM

The Temptress: The Scandalous Life of Alice, Countess de Janzé Paul Spicer

Simon & Schuster, pp.308, 14.99

The 22nd Earl of Erroll, Military Secretary in Kenya in the early part of the second world war, was described by two of his fellow peers of the realm as ‘a stoat — one of the great pouncers of all time’ and ‘a dreadful shit who really needed killing’.

The 22nd Earl of Erroll, Military Secretary in Kenya in the early part of the second world war, was described by two of his fellow peers of the realm as ‘a stoat — one of the great pouncers of all time’ and ‘a dreadful shit who really needed killing’. The deed was duly done one night in 1941: Erroll’s body was found in his Buick on a road outside Nairobi with a bullet in his head, his lover Diana’s husband, the seemingly complaisant cuckold Sir ‘Jock’ Delves Broughton, was tried and acquitted of the murder and, despite years of speculation and gossip, the mystery remains unsolved. We have had books naming Broughton (jealous husband, or agent of MI6) and Diana (because Erroll couldn’t afford, and refused, to marry her) as guilty of the murder. Now Paul Spicer weighs in to assert that Alice de Trafford, an old friend of his mother, was the one who done it.

Born into a wealthy American family, Alice Silverthorne married Count Frédéric de Janzé in Paris. Together, but without their two daughters, they moved to Kenya in 1925, staying for a time with Idina and Joss Hay (as Erroll was called before he inherited the title) at their house which became known as the centre of Happy Valley, notorious for its heady combination of Altitude, Aristocracy, Alcohol and Adultery. Alice’s willowy beauty attracted a number of men, including Erroll, with whom she had an affair which continued at irregular intervals for the next 15 years. She also fell for the raffish charm of a young remittance-man, Raymund de Trafford, before returning to Paris with de Janzé and preparing to leave him.

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But when de Trafford told her their relationship must end because his Catholic family would cut him off if he married a divorcée, Alice decided that the best way to resolve this difficulty was to shoot both de Trafford and herself so that they could be reunited in what she called the Great Beyond. She went ahead with her plan, as her lover was boarding a train at the Gare du Nord, but succeeded only in wounding them both, for which at her subsequent trial she was fined 100 francs — ‘a fraction of what she would have paid under French law for shooting a deer out of season’.

Alice did marry de Trafford, once her marriage to de Janzé had been annulled, but they remained together for only a few months after they went back to Kenya. She kept dogs and monkeys, preferring them to her children, and continued her intermittent affair with Erroll, also her bouts of manic depression. According to Spicer’s account, Alice took an instant dislike to Diana Delves Broughton when she and Erroll began their affair, and was determined to thwart the relationship. So Alice shot Erroll in his car in the middle of the night, then the following day went to the mortuary and, as she kissed his lips, was heard to say, ‘Now you are mine for ever’. She did not join him immediately in the Great Beyond, waiting eight months before she committed suicide.

It is a plausible story, entertainingly told, but somewhat lacking in evidence — apart from an alleged confession letter and an unidentified revolver found in a river. Nor does Spicer give any consideration to the case against Broughton as argued by James Fox in White Mischief, in particular the statement from Juanita Carberry that Broughton confessed his guilt to her. However, I am inclined to think that he was innocent, having read his defence counsel Harry Morris’s account of the case in his autobiography, in which he lists 12 persuasive reasons for believing that Broughton was rightly acquitted. His suicide the following year had more to do with the charges he faced for insurance fraud than the circumstances of the murder. 

Spicer’s case against Alice relies on her having known that Erroll would be driving back from the Broughtons’ house before 3 am on the night in question. Her lover, Major ‘Dickie’ Pembroke, may have overheard a conversation to this effect at the Muthaiga Club which he passed on to Alice before they went to bed together. But this is pretty flimsy stuff: Pembroke never said as much at Broughton’s trial, nor apparently did Spicer ever discuss the case with Pembroke. It is ironic that Cyril Connolly, who was obsessed by the murder and collaborated with Fox in investigating it, used to meet Pembroke socially in Kent, but found him boring and was unaware of his relevance to the case. If only Connolly had asked Pembroke the crucial question — did Alice leave your shared bed for a couple of hours during that fateful night? — White Mischief might have reached a quite different conclusion.

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