By Michael Thornton
Friday 14th November 2008
This was an episode in the London High Court that astonished even experienced members of the Bar.
The Lord Chief Justice’s court opened its doors at the unprecedented hour of 9.30am on that July day in 1932 to enable an earth-shakingly intimate and sensational libel action to be heard – in effect, in camera – before newspaper reporters even got to hear that it was happening
The plaintiff in the action was Britain’s richest and most publicised heiress, the bisexual Lady Louis Mountbatten, afterwards Countess Mountbatten of Burma and the last Vicereine of India.
Sitting beside her was her handsome sailor husband, the equally bisexual Lord Louis, uncle of Prince Philip, cousin of the King, great-grandson of Queen Victoria, the future last Viceroy and first Governor General of India, First Sea Lord and finally Chief of the Defence Staff.
Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten – whose ten-year-old ‘open marriage’ had been the subject of feverish gossip and barely suppressed scandal ever since it had begun – had been summoned urgently home from his latest naval posting in Malta and forced by Buckingham Palace into reluctantly issuing libel proceedings against the gossip columnist of ‘that vulgar socialist Sunday paper, The People’, as Mountbatten called it.
Seven weeks earlier, the paper had alleged ‘a scandal which has shaken society to the very depths. It concerns one of the leading hostesses in the country – a woman highly connected and immensely rich.
‘Her association with a coloured man became so marked that they were the talk of the West End. Then one day the couple were caught in compromising circumstances.
‘The sequel is that the society woman has been given hints to clear out of England for a couple of years to let the affair blow over and the hint comes from a quarter which cannot be ignored’.
Mayfair gossips lost no time in identifying the woman in question as Edwina Mountbatten.
When King George V saw the article, he ordered the Mountbattens to return to London immediately, and to sue for libel, in order to clear the Royal Family of the allegation that Edwina had been exiled from Britain on the orders of the Palace, and Edwina from the suggestion that she had a black lover.
Cables from Buckingham Palace rained down upon the Mountbattens. ‘Coded messages galore,’ wrote Edwina, ‘and really nearly going mad (three months’ gossip to the effect that I had been exiled from England for two years as a result of my association with a coloured man whom I have never even met!!!!’)
The man widely identified as her lover was the American actor and singer Paul Robeson. ‘It is most incredible,’ wrote Robeson’s wife, Essie, ‘that people should be linking Paul’s name with that of a famous titled Englishwoman, since she is just about the one person in England we don’t know.’
So, if not Robeson, who was it? According to a startling new C4 television documentary, Edwina’s lover was, in fact, the sleek, sophisticated and – according to legend – sensationally well-endowed West Indian cabaret singer and pianist, Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson.
Among the many amazing claims put forward in the documentary is the suggestion that Edwina commissioned Cartier to design a diamond-encrusted penis sheath for Hutch.
It is further alleged that the ‘compromising circumstances’ referred to in The People article concerned Hutch and Edwina becoming inextricably locked together sexually through a rare medical phenomenon known as vaginismus – which led to them being taken in flagrante delicto from the Mountbatten residence, Brook House in Park Lane, to a private hospital where doctors separated them.
Even allowing for Edwina’s lifelong reputation for promiscuity, can such outlandish claims possibly be true?
According to her official biographer, Dr Janet Morgan (in private life, Lady Balfour of Burleigh), the story is ‘piffle’.
But should we believe Dr Morgan? After all, she was recommended as official biographer to Edwina’s daughters (the present Countess Mountbatten and Lady Pamela Hicks) by their father’s official biographer, Philip Ziegler, whose 1985 study of Mountbatten blandly ignores all pointers to its subject’s own wild sexual antics.
Both official biographies – of the Countess and Mountbatten himself – are Establishment-friendly, and both deliberately omit clear evidence, in Mountbatten’s own handwriting, of his extra-marital interest in the reigning society beauty of the day, Margaret Whigham, afterwards the notorious and sexually licentious Duchess of Argyll.
The TV documentary offers compelling evidence that Edwina’s activities with Hutch became increasingly brazen, and were bitterly resented by her husband.
Yet he sat beside her in court to hear Norman Birkett, one of the greatest advocates of the day, telling the judge: ‘It is not too much to say that it [The People article] is the most monstrous and most atrocious libel of which I have ever heard.’
Both Mountbattens went into the witness box, Edwina to state on oath that she had never in her life met the man referred to in all the gossip (Robeson), and Dickie to swear that his wife was never exiled on the orders of Buckingham Palace – the only reason for her presence in Malta was because he was serving there as an officer in the Royal Navy.
The People, which had spent the staggering sum (for those days) of £25,000, trying to find evidence to support its story, failed to come up with a viable defence, leaving its barrister, Sir Patrick Hastings, to make a grovelling apology – ‘genuine and deep regrets’ – on behalf of the newspaper’s owners.
Edwina, awarded full costs, declined damages. That evening, the Mountbattens gave a celebration party at the Cafe de Paris.
On the following day, in a display of royal solidarity, they were invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace by the King and Queen. A few days later, Edward Prince of Wales, who had been best man at their wedding, gave a party for them at York House.
Edwina, freed from the threat of social disgrace, and the exposure of the sham that her marriage had become, calmly went back to the black lover The People had failed to identify.
Leslie Arthur Julien Hutchinson was born on March 7, 1900, in Gouyave, a small fishing village on the island of Grenada. His parents saved hard to send him to the best local school and he became something of a child prodigy at the piano.
When he was 14, his father swept him off to a brothel, an experience which his biographer, Charlotte Breese, believes ‘frightened and distressed him: he lost something more important than he gained – his childhood innocence’.
At 16, his parents paid to send him to medical school in America, but he ditched his studies and headed straight for Harlem, capital of the jazz scene, where he married a black Anglo-Chinese girl, Ella Byrd, and fathered a daughter, Lesley.
His father cut off his allowance. For a while he was destitute, but not for long. His overpowering good looks impressed one of New York’s first families, the Vanderbilts, who scoured the art world for talent and introduced him to wealthy patrons of the jazz scene, where he soon made his name as a pianist alongside other jazz legends such as Fats Waller and Duke Ellington.
Arriving in Paris in 1924, and already flagrantly bisexual, he found a gay lover and patron in the composer Cole Porter, who wrote a hit song clearly based on Hutch’s character:
I should like you all to know
I’m a famous gigolo,
And of lavender my nature’s got just a dash in it…
The handsome West Indian stud now added screen sirens Tallulah Bankhead and Merle Oberon to his conquests. In London, where he arrived in 1927, the West End’s leading male matinee idol, Ivor Novello, also became his lover.
The biggest musical star of the day, Jessie Matthews, after a performance, heard Hutch singing to his own piano-playing in the orchestra pit one night. Transfixed by his melodious, dark velvet voice, she immediately urged him to become a solo cabaret performer.
Within a year, he had won recording contracts and had become a highlypaid headliner at top London nightspots the Cafe de Paris, the Cafe Anglais and Quaglino’s.
He bought a Rolls-Royce, a grand house in Hampstead, patronised London’s best tailors, spoke five or six languages and was on friendly terms with the Prince of Wales.
But he was still a black man in an era of racial discrimination. When he entertained at lavish Mayfair parties, his fee was large, but he was often obliged to go in by the servants’ entrance. This embittered him.
Evelyn Waugh satirised Hutch as the social-climbing upstart, Chokey, in his novel, Decline And Fall. ‘He’s just crazy to meet the aristocracy, aren’t you, my sweet?’ Replies Chokey: ‘I sure am that.’ Says Mrs Clutterbuck: ‘I think it’s an insult bringing a n***** here.’
The first scandal surrounding him came in 1930, when he made the debutante Elizabeth Corbett pregnant. Her father vowed vengeance and pursued Hutch through the courts.
Elizabeth managed to get a Guards officer to marry her. They had a society wedding in Sloane Square but she was already three months pregnant, and it was not until she was in labour that she warned her husband the baby might be black. He was appalled. The child was removed at birth and put up for adoption.
But the enduring scandal of Hutch’s life was his relationship with Edwina Mountbatten. A BBC producer, Bobby Jay, recalled their outrageous behaviour to Hutch’s biographer, Charlotte Breese: ‘I was at a grand party.
‘Edwina interrupted Hutch playing the piano. She kissed his neck and led him by the hand behind the closed doors of the dining-room. There was a shriek, and a few minutes later she returned, straightening her clothes.
‘Hutch seemed elated, and before he returned to the piano, told me that, with one thrust, he had flashed [propelled] her the length of the dining-room table.’
Although both had their liaisons, there can be no doubting the distress the affair caused Mountbatten. The reality was that he was unable to satisfy his sexually voracious wife.
Edwina showered costly keepsakes on Hutch: a jewelled gold cigarette case, a gold ring with her coat of arms engraved on the inside and a gold and diamond watch.
One night, a visibly distressed Mountbatten stumbled into Quaglino’s restaurant and told the bandleader, Van Straten: ‘I am lonely and sad and drunk. That n***** Hutch has a p**** like a tree-trunk, and he’s f****** my wife right now.’
Hutch was to pay a heavy price for the affair. After The People case, Buckingham Palace refused to have him on any Royal Command Performance bill, and Lord Beaverbrook gave orders that Hutch’s name was never to be mentioned again by any of his papers.
During World War II, Hutch was one of the first stars in Britain to volunteer his services to entertain the Forces, but he received no formal recognition for this and his name would never appear in any Honours list.
He added possibly two members of the Royal Family to the notches on his bed-post. One was the Queen’s aunt, Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent.
The other, allegedly, was Princess Margaret, with whom Charlotte Breese believes Hutch enjoyed a ‘brief liaison’ in 1955, when she was 25 and he was 55.
His role in Edwina’s life was now over. During her years as Vicereine of India, she replaced Hutch with another deeply passionate relationship – with India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.
There are those who suspect that Nehru, like both Mountbattens, had bisexual tendencies, and that Dickie, possibly in a last, despairing attempt to maintain physical contact with his unresponsive wife, may have joined them in a bizarre menage a trois.
During the Sixties, the daughter of a BBC producer regularly watched Mountbatten entering a male brothel by the rear entrance in Grosvenor Mews, Belgravia.
In the late Seventies, before they succeeded in assassinating him, the IRA closely monitored Mountbatten’s involvement with teenage boys.
In 1958, Hutch’s wife, Ella – often mistaken by visitors to his Hampstead home as his housekeeper – died. He buried her in an unmarked pauper’s grave at a cost of £12. By that time, he had six children by different mothers, and was to father a seventh at the age of 64.
Edwina’s death in 1960 symbolised for Hutch the end of his golden days. The advent of The Beatles and of the disco era closed off most of his avenues of employment, and he was reduced at one point to performing at Butlin’s holiday camps in dates such as Skegness, or in end-of-the-pier shows where he was not top-billed.
In Weymouth, where, in 1944, he had entertained thousands of troops before the D-Day landings, he now played to a handful of people at the local theatre.
Drinking heavily, overweight, his face bloated and heavily made-up, his hair dyed, he was like a gargoyle of the once-beautiful black God who had conquered high society with his looks, his voice and his charm.
With his fortune squandered on gambling, he was forced to sell his house in 1967 for £13,037. Of this, £10,000 went to pay off his debts, leaving him just £3,000 out of the millions he had earned.
He moved into a tiny flat, where he sometimes attempted to cadge money from his teenage son, the singer Chris Hutchinson.
When, on August 18, 1969, now ‘ virtually penniless’, he died at the Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead, from ‘ overwhelming pneumonia’ at the age of 69, he left a mere £1,949 and no will. Only 42 mourners showed up at his funeral.
There was to be a bizarre epilogue. On the day of his burial, the undertakers, J.H. Kenyon, received a call from Lord Mountbatten offering to pay for Hutch’s grave and tombstone in Highgate Cemetery.
Was it a final gesture of revenge on his sexual rival? Or did Mountbatten wish to ensure that the man Edwina had loved, and who had taken her from him, had a suitable final resting place?