FORTY years after he disappeared, the fate of Lord Lucan still fascinates the public and torments two families, writes Dani Garavelli.
If the key ingredients of a gripping yarn are obsession, murder, high society and enduring mystery, then the Lord Lucan scandal is the mother of all yarns. A rip-roaring, heart-stopping epic, peppered with crooks and cads and set against the backdrop of a tortured marriage and the upper class gambling dens of London’s Mayfair, it has provided more “hold the front page” moments than the Monica Lewinsky and Profumo affairs combined.
Like Chappaquiddick, it brought the world a self-seeking anti-hero who fled the scene of a heinous crime, but, unlike Ted Kennedy – who eventually faced the music – the dapper aristocrat remained at large, a fugitive from justice. His continued absence fed the myth, until there were more sightings of him every year than Elvis, with the added frisson that Lucan could quite feasibly have been whisked abroad by his wealthy, amoral Clermont Club set and be living anywhere in the world.
The Lucan story is full of human conflict: a dysfunctional relationship, a tug-of-love, crippling debt, misguided loyalty and a debate over the guilt or innocence of the protagonist that will never be definitively resolved. Tracing the earl has become a fixation for real and armchair detectives who have come up with theories ranging from the obvious (Lucan drowned himself on the night of the murder) to the outlandish (he hid out in a retreat on the tiny island of Eigg). But the key to the tale’s longevity has been its many twists – a remarkable new witness here, a family rift there – which have kept it spinning like a dreidel through four decades.
The drama opens with a scream in the night. At 9.45pm on 7 November, 1974 – 40 years ago on Friday – Lady Lucan burst into the Plumbers Arms pub in Belgravia shouting, “Help me, help me. I have just escaped murder.” Nearby, in the basement of her five-storey house, lay the family’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, bludgeoned to death with a piece of lead piping, and upstairs and unaware, her three children, Frances, 10, George, seven, and Camilla, four.
The sequence of events Lady Lucan related was this: Rivett – having swapped her usual day off – had gone down to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. When she didn’t reappear, Lady Lucan went to the top of the stairs and called down, only to be attacked herself by her estranged husband. After a short fight, he let go of her throat and confessed to having killed the nanny. As a ruse, Lady Lucan offered to help him cover up the killing, but when he went to the bathroom, she made a run for it.
By the time the police arrived at the property, Lucan had already gone to the home of his friend Susan Maxwell-Scott in Uckfield, East Sussex. He told her he had been walking past the house when he saw, through the basement window, Rivett being attacked by a stranger. As he ran to her defence, he slipped and fell and the stranger escaped. He had tried to comfort Lady Lucan, but she had screamed and he had panicked and fled, afraid he would be blamed.
The police didn’t believe a word of it. They were convinced Lucan had killed Rivett after mistaking her for his wife. He had – they said – told friends he wished she was dead, and a piece of lead piping, almost identical to the one at the scene, was later found in the boot of his borrowed Ford Corsair car which had been abandoned at the port of Newhaven.
Over the years, however, a third theory has emerged; could Lucan have hired a hitman, had second thoughts, but arrived too late to stop the crime? This version is the one embraced by some members of Lucan’s family because it means he is both guilty and not guilty, and explains why he allowed his wife to escape.
Lord Lucan was the archetypal English gentleman; with his slicked back hair and tidy moustache, he looked like a cross between David Niven and Mr Banks from Mary Poppins, but like many aristocrats, his childhood was far from happy. For the first three years of his life, he was raised by a nursemaid, before being packed off to prep school, evacuated to Wales and then sent across the Atlantic with his siblings to live with millionaire Marcia Brady Tucker.
He returned in early 1945 to a Britain in the grips of austerity and suffered psychological problems from which Lady Lucan said he never recovered. On the surface, he was a player, oozing Old Etonian charm, though, even as an adult, he sometimes lapsed into childish public school slang. In a letter written to his wife’s brother-in-law, Bill Shand Kydd, after the murder, he talks of “lying doggo for a bit” as if he were some naughty pupil who had raided the tuck shop. A merchant banker, Lord Lucan quit his job to become a professional gambler, playing backgammon, poker and bridge at the Clermont Club, an elite casino owned by John Aspinall. Once considered for the role of James Bond, he was dubbed Lucky Lucan after a win of £26,000 in 48 hours, but the nickname took on a hollow ring as big losses, combined with his love of power boats and Aston Martins, led to massive debt.
He was not lucky in love either. His marriage to Veronica Duncan – a pretty art student and model – was doomed from the start. Always fragile, she suffered post-natal depression after each of her three pregnancies, and in 1972 the couple split up. Lucan was desperate to keep the children so he launched a custody battle, spying on her to prove she was an unfit mother. When he lost, he upped the ante, taping her conversations and phoning the house repeatedly before hanging up. It was against this background that the killing took place. After Veronica ran from the house, Lucan phoned his mother to ask her to collect the children, went to Uckfield, wrote three letters including the one to Shand Kydd, then vanished.
And that’s where the facts run out; everything from here on in is rumour, supposition, the testimony of (mostly) unreliable witnesses and the conclusions of private investigators, which have nevertheless captivated the public imagination and formed the basis of dozens of books and TV documentaries.
Lord Lucan is a modern-day Scarlet Pimpernel. Whenever there is a fresh clue, however spurious, detectives and journalists hot-foot it to another exotic location, convinced they will be the ones to finally unlock the truth, yet he continues to elude them. Murder squad detectives believed they were about to unmask Lucan weeks after the killing when they were summoned to Australia to interview an Englishman detained travelling on a false passport. Instead they discovered Labour MP John Stonehouse, who had faked his death after fearing a series of dodgy business deals were about to be exposed. Meanwhile, Lord Lucan, if indeed he was alive, kept under the radar.
Some of the theories on his whereabouts have been laughable: in 2003, former detective Duncan McLaughlin wrote a book suggesting a bearded man in Goa known as Mountain Barry was the erstwhile earl, though he had a Lancashire accent and addressed friends as “old cock”. He turned out to be Barry Halpin, a heavy-drinking folk singer well known in the clubs of the north-west England.
Then, a television company turned up with a retired detective to interview Roger Woodgate, who was living in his car in New Zealand after neighbours decided his upper class accent and military bearing meant he must be Lord Lucan. Woodgate pointed out he was 10 years younger and several inches shorter than the earl. “[The detective] told me that I was not Lord Lucan. I said, ‘I know that,’” he later said. Reports that Lucan was hiding in a monastery in Eigg were apparently taken seriously enough for Scotland Yard to consider sending an officer to live undercover on the sparsely populated island – an idea which summons up images of the fictional Sergeant Howie being sacrificed in The Wicker Man.
Other claims have more substance. A few days ago, for example, a book published to coincide with the 40th anniversary suggested Lucan had flown to France from a private airfield in Headcorn, Kent, while someone else drove the Ford Corsair to Newhaven. The author, Laura Thompson, had spoken to a new witness – a man who claimed his taxi driver father had driven Lord Lucan from Uckfield to Headcorn and that he himself had driven an unnamed person from Newhaven back to Uckfield.
The near-consensus among those who believe Lucan is alive (or was at least alive for years after the murder) is that he eventually settled in Africa. To have escaped the country without his passport, would have required help from his Clermont Club cronies, in particular Aspinall and James Goldsmith. Many of those who knew them believed they would have had no qualms about protecting their friend, though Goldsmith received an apology from Private Eye for erroneously suggesting he had attended a summit of Lucan sympathisers.
A few years ago, Aspinall’s former assistant, Shirley Robey, came forward to say she had arranged for the two older Lucan children to travel to Africa so their father could look at them from afar (although the children were wards of court, so it’s not clear how that would have been possible).
Amidst all the excitement of amateur sleuthing, it is easy to forget that at the heart of this high-class soap opera are real people. For Veronica – who lives a reclusive life in Belgravia – and for their three children, the misery wrought that night trickled down through the years. Though Veronica kept custody in the short-term, her depression deepened and she became addicted to the sleeping pills and steroids she says were pushed on her. As a result, the children chose to live with their aunt – which was what Lucan wanted – and the family became estranged.
Lady Lucan continues to insist her husband – not an intruder or a hitman – was responsible for Rivett’s death, as an inquest ruled, and that he threw himself in front of the propeller of a ship on the night of the murder. (He was not declared dead until 1999). She now runs a website addressing myths and misconceptions around the crime.
As for the children, they have had conflicting emotional reactions. Camilla, now a barrister, says the evidence against her father is circumstantial although she has no particular theory about what happened. George – who gave up his job as a merchant banker to travel – has said he hopes his father was “partly culpable” because he doesn’t want to believe he would have abandoned his children without good reason. Frances, a solicitor, hasn’t spoken out much about Lucan, but her rift from her mother is so severe she is said not even to have invited her to her wedding.
All family members have expressed their concern that the killing should continue to be exploited for entertainment; that’s hardly surprising when you consider the most recent ITV drama, starring Rory Kinnear, suggested Lucan had himself been murdered by the henchmen he hired to dispose of his wife’s body.
Of course, their family was not the only one touched by the events. Rivett had given up two sons for adoption long before she went to work for Lady Lucan. It wasn’t until 2004 that Neil Berriman discovered the woman bludgeoned to death in the basement of the Lucans’ home was his birth mother – a revelation that deprived him of any chance of a family reunion.
For journalists, documentary makers and anyone who loves a good mystery, the Lord Lucan affair is the gift that keeps on giving. But to those caught up in it, it’s a tragedy that has never stopped taking away. «