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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