The Perfect Murder

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Andrew Rose’s ‘The Prince, the Princess and the Perfect Murder’ tells a great story: the romance between a future king and a courtesan, a murder most foul and royal blackmail. Truth as so often being more colourful than fiction the future king in question is Edward, Prince of Wales, (the future King Edward VIII) and the courtesan an impoverished Parisian who schemes her way to a fortune before shooting her Egyptian husband dead at London’s Savoy Hotel. The story culminates with the courtesan escaping the death penalty, according to the author, through an audacious blackmail based on the secret correspondence with her royal lover. The story of Edward, Prince of Wales, and Marguerite Alibert begins in the latter days of the Great War when he was serving behind enemy lines on the French front. The sexually inexperienced and emotionally immature Edward had only recently lost his virginity after being introduced to a Parisian courtesan and was beginning to enjoy exploring his sexuality. Having been brought up rather prudishly it was far from surprising that during his wartime sojourn, which freed him from the constraints of his parents, Edward found his way to the pleasures of the Parisian demi-monde. Nor was there was anything unusual about visiting sex workers for men of all classes, the difference being that a man of Edward’s status – who did his galavanting as the Earl of Chester – frequented a higher class of woman, the courtesan, in which Paris excelled. Of the attractive women Edward could have chosen from, that he was attracted to Marguerite Alibert (who by the time they met had adopted the name of her lover and become Marguerite Meller) was not surprising. Her charms had brought many admirers. Petite, with long auburn hair and an impish, provocative charm, men found her hugely appealing. She was also something of a libertine offering the sexually adventurous an exciting range of services. By the time she met the 23 year-old Edward she was in her late twenties and already had a lifetime’s experience of entertaining men. But her carefully crafted persona hid an unhappy and traumatic past.

Marguerite had been born into a poor Parisian family. Her father Firmin Alibert was a cab driver and her mother, Marie Aurand, a charwoman. Marguerite had two siblings, a sister Yvonne, born in 1900, and a brother. In later years she would try to rewrite her past with some fanciful stories but the reality was more mundane and rather tragic. Marguerite later claimed that her brother had been killed in the Great War but through family sources the author has learned that he was in fact killed at the age of four, hit by a lorry while playing in the street. Marguerite was held to blame for not having watched him properly. As punishment she was sent to board with the nearby Sisters of Mary. The nuns reminded her daily that her brother’s death had been caused by her sins. What Marguerite learned from the nuns can be summed up in a word – survival. She had no love for them but they did give her at least the smattering of an education and taught her to sing (she became a decent mezzo-soprano, another bow to her arsenal of charm). Marguerite endured, took what was on offer, but left the nuns without remorse. Alongside the rudiments of the social skills she required, the Sisters of Mary may also have inadvertently put Marguerite on the road to her future career by placing her with the family of a lawyer named Henri-Jules Langlois. Typically Marguerite would claim that Mme Langlois was her godmother but it is more likely she joined the household as a domestic servant. The placement, however, did not last long, due to Marguerite’s headstrong nature. By the summer of 1906 Marguerite, who in more truthful mode described herself as “mercurial,” had become pregnant, aged just sixteen. She also wove a fantasy around the father’s identity: firstly he was a childhood friend aged twenty-eight and then became a colonial administrator in India killed during the Great War. The known facts are that the birth of Marguerite’s daughter, Raymonde, put an abrupt end to her stay with the Langlois family. Marguerite returned to the family home but her parents lacked the means to care for her baby daughter who was sent away to be looked after on a farm in central France.

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Edward, Prince of Wales, aged eighteen disembarks after crossing to England from France on board the ‘Pas de Calais’. It was during Edward’s time in France during the Great War that he discovered the pleasures of the Parisian demi-monde of showgirls and courtesans.

Marguerite was undoubtedly hardened from an early age but she was not entirely without feeling as a mother. Sending her child away was necessary but, when Marguerite’s fortunes improved, Raymonde was brought back to Paris and was subsequently sent to school in London after the Great War. With her daughter out of the picture, it was in the years leading up to the Great War that Marguerite began her career in the sex industry. Not much is known about this phase of her life but the young woman, streetwise with a veneer of sophistication from her stay at the Langlois family, was determined to escape poverty and harboured dreams of entering high society. With its long history of famous courtesans and mistresses, France provided many examples of women of loose virtue who had made their fortunes. Marguerite started at the bottom, possibly even taking to street prostitution, before coming to the attention of a Mme Denart who ran a high class brothel in the fashionable 16th arrondissement. Under Mme Denart’s wing Marguerite learned the arts of the courtesan and became according to Mme Denart “the mistress of nearly all my best clients, gentleman of wealth and position in France, England America and other countries . . . It was me that made a sort of lady of her.” Marguerite learned fast and by the time she was introduced to Prince Edward had become a well- established face on the social scene. She had previously been in a relationship with a wealthy married businessman named Andre Meller, whose name she appropriated. Whilst openly living with a mistress was acceptable in French society Andre and Marguerite rowed violently due to his jealousy and the relationship broke down in scandal. Marguerite benefited from a 200,000 francs pay off but she was furious with herself for having accepted what she felt was a paltry sum. Greater opportunities soon presented themselves as she had piqued royal interest – the Prince of Wales no less.

Their first meeting was at the request of Prince Edward. A?cover for a sexual liaison, but the appearance of propriety was important so a formal introduction was arranged by Edward’s aristocratic friends the Breteuil family. It was a fateful lunch during which a mutual attraction was soon in evidence, as was a shared taste for the partying social scene. But, as was always the case with Edward’s lovers, there was more at work than just physical attraction and he and Marguerite had other things in common. Psychologically there was something at work. Both were rather neurotic about maintaining their figures and also shared a sense of frivolity, capriciousness and at times recklessness. These were traits that were beginning to come to the fore in Edward, who was reacting against his upbringing in the oppressive court of King George V. Another aspect of the attraction may well have been the strength of Marguerite’s character. Life had taught her she “had to be tough”, even dominating. Naturally therefore, amongst her services Marguerite was ready to play the dominatrix. Her forceful personality would be paralleled in Edward’s most famous love affair with Wallis Simpson, like Marguerite a complex woman absolutely determined to live the good life and make her mark in society. The affair was brief but intense, lasting around eighteen months until the late summer of 1918. Edward saw Marguerite whenever his limited wartime duties permitted and wrote around twenty letters to his lover, an early chapter in what would be a lifelong habit of indiscretion. The letters not only revealed his feelings for “Mon Bebe” but also included information about the progress of the war effort and made derogatory comments about his father. Adding to the risk the letters were sent by King’s Messenger, which Edward naively thought ensured absolute security.

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An elegant studio portrait of Marguerite Alibert. Photo courtesy of Raoul Laurent.

The Prince’s advisors soon became concerned at the relationship but to their relief by the summer of 1918 Edward had shifted his attentions elsewhere, this time to a married woman, Freda Dudley Ward. After his experiences in the demi-monde, Edward felt able to indulge his fancy and enjoyed running two mistresses as well as briefer escapades when the opportunity arose. But Marguerite, who realised she was on the way out, was made of sterner stuff than to be simply cast aside. At the least she aimed to benefit financially from her relations with the future king. Her method was direct: blackmail. In November 1918 Edward received a letter reminding him of their correspondence. The letter has been lost but Edward wrote to his advisor Joey Legh: “Oh! Those bloody letters, and what a fool I was not to take your advice over a year ago . . . I am afraid she’s the £100,000 or nothing type, tho’ I’m disappointed and didn’t think she’d turn nasty: of the whole trouble is my letters and she’s not burnt one.” Fortunately for Edward, Marguerite’s stratagems took another route. His name was Charles Laurent, a young airforce officer. Laurent was rich and handsome, the family owned the famous Hotel Crillon and a large department store in the Grand Magasins du Louvre. Blackmailing Edward could backfire in scandal, which could ruin her chances with Laurent. Instead Marguerite used her charms and ended up as Mme Laurent. The marriage, perhaps by design, was brief and unhappy, the couple having little in common. Laurent was a serious minded man who had little appetite for the hedonistic life Marguerite craved. She could never play the part of the dutiful wife and was bored by trips to concerts, recitals and the opera. By March 1920 the marriage was dissolved, much to the Laurent family’s relief, whilst Marguerite relieved her husband of a generous sum. She was now an independent woman, living on fashionable Avenue Henri-Martin, who could afford servants, a stable for ten horses, a full-time groom and two limousines. But Marguerite, still in her prime, had not ended her husband hunting days.

For her next conquest she looked further afield, across the Mediterranean to the mysterious east and Egypt. ‘Prince’ Ali Fahmy was well known on the Parisian scene, a likeable character but with his share of idiosyncrasies and temperament.?Marguerite, however, would not have been focused on Ali’s personality as much as the Fahmy fortune. The family had grown rich on the Egyptian cotton trade and Ali fitted the mould of the rich playboy that Marguerite knew how to exploit. He was a tempting prospect with an annual income of £40,000 (around £2,000,000 today). Ali could also be very generous, enjoyed the social scene and had clearly fallen for the charms of the former Mme Laurent. Marguerite of course could not be seen to make the first move but Ali had noticed her and, as Prince Edward and many others had before him, asked a mutual friend to introduce them. The strength of the spell she could cast had not dimmed and by December 1922 Ali was mirroring Charles Laurent in overriding the objections of his family to marry Marguerite in Cairo. Although he was not actually royal, Ali’s father had the respectable title of ‘bey’ (governor), the couple would embellish a little and became known as Prince and Princess Fahmy. A white lie that added to the scandal that would soon follow. Marguerite’s aim was probably to have the marriage fail with a quick divorce and a suitable financial pay off. But the plan ran into trouble with Ali. Others lovers had been jealous but Ali seemed to need to take matters further, he felt he could tame the headstrong Marguerite. In one letter to Marguerite’s sister Yvonne he wrote: “Just now I am engaged in training her [Marguerite]. Yesterday, to begin with, I did not come in to lunch or to dinner and I also left her at the theatre. With women one must act with energy and be severe – no bad habits.” The letter was probably humorous but reveals some of the tensions in Ali’s mind. He clearly felt a need to control his wilful wife. Marguerite’s account of the marriage was very different. In her version Ali was a sexually abusive brute to whom she soon became little more than a captive. The reality seems to have been that they were quarrelling furiously from the outset, often in public.

Whether it was her scheming to wreck the relationship or psychological issues she may not have understood herself, Marguerite was not marriage material. Ali’s fatal mistake was to think she could be reshaped. The result was that by July 1923 he was dead at Marguerite’s hand following a furious row at the Savoy Hotel. Three shots at close range and witnesses to the row the couple had been having before the shooting seemed to seal Marguerite’s fate. Which is where the story returns to her relationship with Prince Edward. By now he had become the poster boy for the British monarchy. It was a role he was well suited to. Boyish good looks and a genuine sympathy for the hardships endured by his future subjects bolstered the monarchy in a period when Bolshevik style revolution seemed a real threat. Edward had to be protected from scandal at all costs and his sexual antics had left a trail of potential disasters in their wake. Nonetheless it would take all of Marguerite’s cunning to evade the gallows and, according to the author, the means by which she did so was to blackmail the British establishment through the threat of revealing her correspondence with the Prince of Wales.

Andrew Rose believes he has unearthed one of the great scandals of British royal and judicial history and devotes around a third of the book to presenting the prosecution. Whether or not the case for conspiracy and cover up is made will be very much for the reader to decide and has sharply divided the reviewers. It is an engrossing investigation told through the eyes of a criminal barrister. As for Prince Edward and Marguerite? They both survived: she the gallows, he a potentially devastating scandal. But Edward’s wayward side would destroy him and the historic question remains tantalisingly open. Was it really Wallis Simpson who took the British King-Emperor to his ruin? Or was the great fall an expression of deeper processes at work in Edward? To uncover the psychological ‘why’ of Prince Edward and Marguerite Alibert is not the raison d’etre for Andrew Rose’s investigations, but the characters in this remarkable story are well drawn, the writing clear and crisp. For royal authors it must seem as if the life of Edward VIII is the gift that keeps on giving. This flawed and damaged man has proven a rich source for biographers, dramatist, film-makers and, indeed, republicans! ‘The Prince, the Princess and the Perfect Murder’ brings fresh insight to the life and times of the future king. This is a tale of a dangerous woman and a foolish man coming together in extreme times. And in Marguerite Alibert, Andrew Rose has uncovered an extraordinary character who was a formative and rather appalling influence on the young Prince Edward. (Royalty Magazine Vol. 23/01)