The Chicago Countess

March 24, 2012 at 5:08 pm (Alice's Childhood, Chicago, Kenya, Paris, Silverthorne Family) (, , , , , , , , , , )


“de poetas y locos todos tenemos un poco”
we all have the traits of poets and of mad people
(Spanish proverb)

A PRIVATE ROOM IN EXCLUSIVE MUTHAIGA CLUB, COLONIAL AFRICA IN THE 1920S.
A sensuously beautiful woman leans casually against a wall strumming her mandolin, watching her friends banter over who she will sleep with tonight. What it is to be in demand! Her long pale fingers play seductively over the strings of her mandolin in the half-light. Plucking them slowly, one at a time, she taunts her audience with her low siren song:

“A is for Alice, a doubtful shot,
B for the boy she so nearly got
C is for C-B always demure
D is for Delamere, upright and pure
E is for Eileen the catch of the season
F is the fucking we like with good reason…”

This scene from the movie White Mischief is what the world remembers of Alice Silverthorne de Janze de Trafford. In various books and movies of the era she is the symbol of the orgiastic lifestyle of Kenya’s Happy Valley community during the 1920s and 1930s. She is remembered as the friend of the promiscuous and much-married Idina Sackville Wallace Gordon Hay (Erroll) Haldeman Soltau and as the lover of Idina’s murdered former husband Joss, Earl of Erroll. An after-thought of history.

During her life Alice was notorious as the “fastest gun in the Gare du Nord “, the beautiful young American-born countess who shot her lover then married him. What sort of woman would inspire a man to pledge undying love to her after she has very nearly mortally wounded him? Alice, it seems, inspired considerable loyalty in her men under any circumstances.

“It’s no use; I always get my own way. I always take what I want and throw it away when I like; don’t forget this ever, I hate repetition….”

Comte Frederic de Janze attributed these words to his former wife, Chicago heiress Alice Silverthorne, a year after she had “thrown him away” in a manner that made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. Public humiliation did not prevent him from defending her in a Parisian court, beseeching the judge not to sentence Alice to jail time. Her victim had recovered from his injuries sufficiently to tell the court that the shooting was his fault. He was severely reprimanded for his troubles.

Alice’s charm however has not lasted through subsequent generations. While researching this book, one of her grandsons Guillaume de Rougemont wrote me that she was “an unhappy, insecure and deeply selfish manic depressive, who ended her own life after abandoning and totalling neglecting her two young children”. While there certainly is something that made Alice act as she did and she was deeply unhappy at periods in her life, I am not sure it is as simple or easy to explain. He goes on to say that his mother (Paola) would never admit that Alice had abandoned her “because the truth is too painful”. Indeed, my research has not turned up a single negative comment about Alice by either of her daughters.

Most of Alice’s generation is gone now. They were a generation who died young through the attrition of war, drugs, suicide and occasionally murder. A few of the younger generation still survive. They remember Alice as a true friend, a fascinator, the life of the party and in times of war, a true patriot who threw off her hedonistic lifestyle and rushed into uniform to do her part for her adopted country, dirtying her privileged hands in the blood and disease of critically wounded soldiers.

Countless Silverthorne and Armour relatives still claim Alice as kin. Many of them never met their famous relative, but they hoarded precious newspaper clippings on the Countess of Chicago, carefully tucked between the pages of books or slipped into family photograph albums for 6 or 8 decades.

In fact, despite the scandalous newspaper coverage of the time, no-one who actually knew Alice has a bad word to say about her. They speak of her kindness, her wit, her beauty, her passion for animals and her distress at injustice, particularly cruelty to animals. They also speak of her sadness, the melancholia that pursued her through four decades and three continents.

The search for Alice started in the thriving metropolis of Chicago in the beginning of the 20th Century, a time of speak-easies, prohibition and gangsters. A time when society took itself very seriously and scandals were to be hushed up at all costs.

Then across the Atlantic to Paris between the wars, the time of Hemingway and Stein, the American “lost generation” of artists and writers who sought inspiration in the euphoria sweeping the newly liberated Paris. And to the jazz age London of the Bright Young Things, wealthy glamorous twenty-somethings too young to have taken part in the horrors of the Great War but old enough to feel its apocalyptic reach as it decimated a generation of young men – their older brothers, friends and lovers. The nihilistic hopelessness it engendered in the generation that followed made them reckless and numb – in search of a thrill, something to make them feel alive, unsure why they lived when so many died. They sought their excitement in juvenile pranks and hi-jinks played upon the background of post-war London, Paris and the Riviera.

And to the colonial outpost that was British East Africa, a place of hard working settlers eking out a living from a land they had barely begun to understand. The beautiful and cruel landscape of eastern Africa, vast plains dotted with thorn trees and startlingly high mountains covered in jungle and topped with snow, inhabited by animals so bizarre and exotic when compared to the domesticated beasts of northern America and Europe. This was what drew Alice, her husbands, her lovers and her friends. This was the land that offered them a second chance, the opportunity to create a new society, a utopia, far from the censorious eyes of family and society. This was the land that ultimately destroyed them – or allowed them to destroy themselves.

And finally, a tragedy. A tragedy that drove Alice across oceans and continents, drive her to wild, impetuous and ultimately fatal actions. A tragedy that made it all comprehensible.

To call it madness is too simple.

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Rare books and great excitement!

December 6, 2011 at 1:09 pm (biography research and writing, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Yesterday I received a treat in the mail.

To start at the beginning, some number of years ago when I started researching Alice’s story, I rapidly assembled a list of “core texts” that I needed to be able to read. (I should add in here that the reference and bibliography sections of books are a great way of finding your way back to the original texts, both books and newspaper articles. Often they will also include the details of people interviewed as well. As I have an academic background, I am very keen on these sources, and on getting as close to the original source as possible.)

Chief in my list of core texts were the two books by Alice’s first husband, Vicomte Frederic de Janze. Frederic died aged 33 do there is no chance of getting an interview with him, so texts that he has written are the next best thing to the original source.

The first book, Vertical Land, is extensively quoted in White Mischief (Fox) and The Life and Death of Lord Erroll (Trzebinski), and pretty much any other book that touches on the Happy Valley set in Kenya. The second book, Tarred with the Same Brush, also deals with thinly veiled portraits of the Happy Valley set, and their activities.

Both are incredibly rare and difficult to get hold of.

I eventually tracked down (with the assistance of Errol Trzebinksi and Frances Osborne, author of The Bolter ) a copy of Vertical Land in the Reading room at the London Library. I was able, for a small fee, to get this transferred to the local State Library, where I was allowed to read it in their reading room and make notes. Needless to say I took so many notes and quotes I probably should have just written it out in longhand. As it is now out of copyright, it has been put online at Project Gutenberg and can be read in full here.

Tarred with the Same Brush remained elusive, although the lovely Frances Osborne sent me a photocopy of her copy. While some of the text is difficult to understand without the background knowledge of to whom it refers, and the knowledge that they are real events being recounted, albeit somewhat disguised to protect the guilty. It is only a pity he didn’t write about the shooting and court case as it would have been fascinating to hear his thoughts about what was happening with his ex-wife.

I had previously set up a number of searches through websites such as Alibris and Biblioz. These searches had managed to find a number of other rare books for me (including Oserian: Place of Peace, a private publishing by Charles Hayes, which contains a fascinating treasure-trove of stories).

To my great surprise, Alibris finally turned up gold! An ex-library copy of Tarred with the Same Brush, and at a reasonable price. And it arrived in the mail yesterday – a tattered maroon book stamped throughly inside and out with the markings of various libraries, slightly yellowed pages, the occasional ripped page or marked page. Much as I love the cheapness of e-books, it really isn’t the same as holding a real book in your hands.

I am now settling down to read the original text, dredging my memory to remember which name represents which person, fitting together the stories with the real events.

Small things can cause such excitement!

PS: Another useful resource is Open Library.

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an infamous crime

July 9, 2011 at 12:32 pm (Chicago, Happy Valley, Kenya, Paris, PD Armour and Family, Silverthorne Family, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

The murder of Lord Erroll was a scandal, yet another red scar on the reputation of the new British East Africa colony.

<strong>”Are you married or do you live in Kenya?”

Kenyan settlers were a colony of mostly hard-working farming communities. The exception were the Happy Valley lot, a group of exiles and black sheep gathered from two continents to party in the warm tropical sun, far from the disapproving eyes of their families and society in general. While the farmers toiled with new crops and new farming techniques, the Happy Valley settlers partied.

The scandalous murder of Lord Erroll uncovered the adulterous world of a small group of mostly European settlers, drink, drugs, orgies, wife-swapping, multiple marriages and divorces. In a colony trying to entice further investment from England, this type of behaviour was not the image they wanted.

But the murder of Lord Erroll, the premier Scottish peer, who had carried the Kind George’s train at his coronation – this was something to big to sweep under the carpet. An investigation was set in motion that would expose Kenyan society to disapproval, tarnish the reputation of the settlers, and end forever the idyllic life led at Happy Valley.

If you want the chronological story, read the books. But there are so many fascinating tangents, so many fascinating people, so many stories….these are the rabbit holes I want to look into.

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The woman who shot her lover then married him

June 3, 2011 at 10:31 am (Chicago, Happy Valley, introduction, Kenya, Paris, PD Armour and Family, Silverthorne Family, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

In 1984, when I should have been studying for my senior school exams, I was reading a book called White Mischief about the unsolved murder of the adulterous Earl of Erroll in Kenya at the height of World War II.

One chapter entitled “The fastest gun in the Gare du Nord” caught my attention.  This was the story of Alice Silverthorne de Janze de Trafford, a Jazz Age American heiress with a troubled story, who along with her husband, a French Comte, was friends with Erroll and his wife Idina (nee Sackville, daughter of Earl de la Warr).  Alice was also, with Idina’s knowledge, Erroll’s mistress for over two decades.

Alice was best known at the time however, as the woman who shot her lover Raymond de Trafford, in the Gare du Nord in Paris, then five years later married him, and it was this part of the story that stayed with me. What sort of woman can shoot a man and still convince him to marry her?

Fast forward to 1999 and I was on bed rest with a high-risk pregnancy, and bored, bored, bored. Surfing the net was one of the few things I could safely do.  After exhausting the multiple birth sites and scaring myself with the possibilities of what could go wrong, I turned instead to the genealogy websites, and, having exhausted my own family, started researching Alice. 

At first this was quite difficult but as more and more resources started being available on the net, a fascinating story emerged of a complex woman struggling with her psychological inheritance in a world where there were few rules that could not be broken.

This led to a journey of over a decade and brought me into contact with some interesting people whose lives were intimately or tangentially affected by Alice and her story.

This is the story of that journey, of the people who helped along the way, the clues that led to understanding, or sometimes led to more puzzles, the tangents too obscure to include in a biography, but ultimately as fascinating as Alice’s story itself, her friends and family whose lives were as interesting and complex as Alice’s. 

For Alice, was a product of her times, of her family and her friends and of the lands that her adventurous spirit took her to.  The tragedy that befell her was both of her own making and also predestined by her personality, upbringing and the tragedies that befell her.

And I fell in love with Alice’s story.

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