Her lover was shot during an argument during which
she alleges that she threatened to commit suicide. He struggled with
her in an attempt to get the gun away from her and the gun went off
killing Michael Scott Stephen. Whether or not this was true it was
enough to convince the jury and Elvira Dolores Barney was found not
Elvira Barney was a 27-year-old
wealthy socialite who had separated from her husband and was living in
a mews house in fashionable Knightsbridge. On 31 May 1932 she
telephoned her doctor telling him that a 'terrible accident' had
happened. She sounded very worked up and agitated.
When the doctor arrived at the house
it was to find the body of 24 year old Michael Scott Stephen lying at
the bottom of the stairs. The doctor could see that he had been shot
at close range in the chest. The police were called and beside the
body they found a .32 Smith & Wesson revolver with two empty chambers.
The neighbours had been awoken by a row between the
couple shortly after the pair had arrived home, rather the worse for
wear, following a party at the Cafe de Paris. The neighbours reported
that they had heard Mrs Barney shout, I will shoot you, This was
followed by one or more shots. Mrs Barney told the police that a
quarrel had indeed happened between her and Michael Stephen, she also
stated that this was a common occurrence, a statement the neighbours
agreed with. Mrs Barney went on to say that during the argument she
had threatened suicide if he left her and that they had struggled and
the gun had gone off accidentally as they fought.
She was arrested and charged with murder on 3 June
1932. At her trial she was defended at the Old Bailey by Sir Patrick
Hastings. He was able to point out to the jury that the gun had no
safety catch and demonstrated that the gun only took a very light pull
to fire. This, he insisted, made it an obvious case for accidental
Mrs Barney was found not guilty, though it was
thought that several points were not satisfactorily explained in
court. These included a bullet hole in the bedroom wall of the house,
but no bullet, and testimony from witnesses who stated that Mrs Barney
had, on another occasion, fired at Stephen, in the street outside,
from an open window. Elvira Barney moved to France to live and four
years later was found dead in a Paris hotel bedroom.
Medical Officer’s Report on Elvira
“29th June 1932
Elvira Dolores Barney
Central Criminal Court
I beg to state that the above named has been under
mental and physical observation since her reception on June 4th. I
have already submitted a report on June 8th giving a list of abrasions
and bruises which I found on the prisoner after her reception to
prison. She is in good health, has not shown any signs of physical
illness, she has slept well, shown no symptoms of drug taking, and has
increased one and a half pounds in weight since reception.
She has had good health but has had to undergo an
operation for middle-ear disease and she met with a serious accident
some twelve months ago in which she broke her lower jaw and has since
required special treatment for her teeth.
I have examined her on various occasions, she has
always conversed rationally, shown no signs of delusions or
hallucinations and her conduct has been normal except on one or two
occasions when she has shown hysterical manifestations.
I am of the opinion that she is of sound mind and
fit to plead the indictment.
I have the honour to be,
your obedient servant
John Hall Morton
Governor and Medical Officer
There are a number of points worth exploring in
this statement. Firstly, there is the denial in the first paragraph of
Elvira’s drug-taking. There must have been a line of inquiry that
suggested such an involvement, otherwise why mention the issue at all?
Secondly, Elvira’s medical history and the
after-effects of the car-crash modify the usual narrative. I am
assuming that this was the same incident in Piccadilly when Napper
Dean Paul was also injured. Apart from sounding a lot more serious
than generally reported, I wonder whether the marked change in
Elvira’s appearance in 1931-32 was the result of the crash rather than
her life of “debauchery”. It also can’t have had the most calming
effect on her already turbulent personality. Of “middle ear disease” I
know nothing but it has been linked to mental illness and
schizophrenia by some doctors (then and now).
Of Elvira’s present mental condition the letter
seems a little complacent. What “hysterical manifestations”? How many
– “one or two” hardly smacks of scientific accuracy? I am not implying
any sort of cover-up but for a woman about to go on trial for her life
the general tone and brevity of the report suprises me a little.
The writer of the report, John Hall Morton, was in
charge of Holloway Prison from 1921 until his death, aged 52, in 1935.
He was, by the standards of the time, an enlightened governor,
famously installing mirrors in the cells - much to the delight of the
female inmates and angry mutterings from the usual press sources. He
was also an opponent of capital punishment. This stance, highly
unusual in the service, had come about after he had been required to
record the horrific state of Edith Thompson’s corpse after she was
executed in Holloway in 1923.
The Cafe de Paris, the Trial of Elvira Barney
and the death of Snakehips Johnson
Visiting England apparently on a whim and a year
before she made her first film late in 1925, a seventeen year-old
Louise Brooks became a dancer at the Cafe de Paris in Coventry Street.
It was here that she reputedly became the first person to dance the
Charleston in London. The Piccadilly nightclub had quickly become the
place to be seen after it opened a year earlier in December 1924, not
least because the Prince of Wales soon became a regular visitor.
Brooks later wrote about the so-called ‘Bright
Young Things’ she had met during her time in London and waspishly
described them as a dreadful, moribund lot. She added that when Evelyn
Waugh wrote Vile Bodies about them, only a genius could have made a
masterpiece out of such glum material.
In May 1932, and eight years after Brooks danced in
front of the rich and famous at the Cafe de Paris, the celebrated
American singer Marion Harris was in the middle of one of her long
engagements at the Cafe de Paris. Harris was known to audiences at the
time as the first white woman to sing the blues and after moving to
England at the beginning of the thirties was performing to great
success in the capital city. The Prince of Wales was actually a big
fan and often came to see her sing. One night after she had performed,
the manager came into her dressing room excitedly announcing that the
Prince of Wales had been so impressed that he would like her to have a
drink at his table. Miss Harris coolly declined, telling him that “If
your customers get to know you too well, they don’t come back and pay
money to see you. The illusion is destroyed.”
She may have been on stage singing ‘the blues’ –
the acts began their set at eleven – when just after midnight on 30th
May 1932 an intoxicated couple (both of whom would have undoubtedly
considered themself a Bright Young Thing, albeit slightly tarnished),
entered the famous West End night for a rather late supper.
The couple were Elvira Barney and her louche
bisexual lover Michael Stephen and they had travelled by cab to
Coventry Street after holding one of their numerous parties at the
home they shared in Williams Mews just off Lowndes Square in
Knightsbridge. After they had finished their meal at the Cafe de Paris
and had further drinks at The Blue Angel in Dean Street they returned
back home in the early hours of that morning.
It wasn’t long before the neighbours, not for the
first time, started to hear screaming and yelling from the first floor
and Elvira was reported to have shouted:
“Get out, get out! I will shoot you! I will shoot
Almost immediately the street heard the report of a
pistol shot echoing into the night and almost immediately a neighbour
heard Barney crying.
“Chicken, chicken, come back to me. I will do
anything you want me to.”
At about 4.50am, after a frantic call to his house
just ten minutes earlier, Doctor Thomas Durrant arrived at 21 Williams
Mews and came across Barney continually repeating:
“He wanted to see you to tell you it was only an
accident. He wanted to see you to tell you it was only an accident.”
On the stairs, shot in the chest at close range,
lay a distinctly moribund Michael Stephen.
‘There was a terrible barney at no. 21′, a
neighbour later told the police, apparently unconscious of the pun.
Macdonald Hastings wrote about the fatal evening in
his book The Other Mr Churchill, (this Mr Churchill was a
forgotten about firearms expert and not the prestigious Prime
Minister) and he described the police being incredibly shocked when
they entered the mews house:
‘Over the cocktail bar in the corner of the
sitting room there was a wall painting which would have been a
sensation in a brothel in Pompeii. The library was furnished with
publications which could never have passed through His Majesty’s
Customs. The place was equipped with the implements of fetishism and
Shocked or not, and despite Elvira at one point
striking Inspector Campion in the face saying: “I will teach you to
say you will put me in a cell, you vile swine,” after she had made her
statement, the police, obviously knowing their place, simply allowed
her to go back to her family home at nearby 6 Belgrave Square. She was
accompanied by her parents, Sir John and Lady Mullens.
Four years previously, a twenty-three year old
Elvira, despite her parents protestations, had married an American
singer and entertainer called John Sterling Barney. When they met, at
a society function held by Lady Mullens, he had been performing in a
‘top-hat, white-tie and tails’ trio called The Three New-Yorkers. They
were relatively successful in the UK at the time and often played at
the Cafe de Paris.
By many accounts the facile John Barney was a
rather unpleasant man and a friend of Elvira’s once recalled:
“One day she held her arms in the air and the
burns she displayed – there and elsewhere – were, she insisted, the
work of her husband who had delighted in crushing his lighted
cigarettes out from time to time on her bare skin.”
Violent rows started within weeks of the marriage
and after a few months the American returned back to the United States
never really to be heard of again. Elvira, according to her biographer
Peter Cotes, went off the rails and ‘started sniffing the snow…and
became the demanding but generous mistress of a number of
disorientated and sexually odd lovers.’ Unfortunately he doesn’t
really go into any more detail but the description goes someway to
explain how, at the start of 1932, she ended up sharing her bed (and
her bank account) with the drug-dealing ‘dress-designer’ Michael Scott
Sir John Mullens, with his society connections
managed to persuade the former Attorney-General Sir Patrick Hastings
to defend his daughter. Hastings, in his early fifties, was at the
height of his fame as a Kings Council and towards the end of the trial
made a final address to the jury, that the judge – a Mr Justice
Humphreys – later called the best he had ever heard.
The jury must have also been impressed with Sir
Patrick’s speech and after two hours returned a not guilty verdict. On
his way out of the court Mr Justice Humpheys exclaimed:
‘Most extraordinary! Apparently we should have
given her a pat on the back!’
The jury had acquitted her but Fleet Street weren’t
going to let her off that easily and they gleefully reported that
Elvira Mullens (the name she had reverted to) had shouted on the dance
floor of the Cafe de Paris soon after the court case,
‘I am the one who shot her lover – so take a good
look at me.’
Sir Patrick Hastings described Elvira during the
trial as ‘a young woman with the rest of her life before her’.
Unfortunately the rest of her life lasted a only four short years and
she was found dead in a Parisian hotel room. After a typical long
night of drinking and taking cocaine she had decided to return back to
her room complaining that she felt cold and unwell. She was discovered
later that night half on her bed, half off, with signs of haemorrhage
around her mouth. The years of drinking and drug-taking had finally
taken their toll.
Not long after Elvira Barney’s death in Paris,
Marion Harris retired from showbusiness and married a successful
English theatrical agent called Leonard Urry. In early 1944 their home
in Rutland Street (just a few hundred yards west of Williams Mews) was
razed to the ground by a V1 flying bomb.
Harris returned to America completely traumatised
and never really recovered from seeing her home completely destroyed.
On Sunday, April 23, 1944, alone in a New York hotel room she fell
asleep while smoking a cigarette. It set the room alight and it was
never disclosed whether she died of burns or suffocation from the
The Cafe de Paris, unlike the majority of theatres
and nightclubs in the West End, remained open at the start of the
second world war. This was probably because of the rich and famous
patrons having a slight influence on the wartime licensing
regulations, however it was said that the dance-floor was so far
underground that it would be completely safe when the air-raid sirens
On Saturday 8th March 1941 Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson
and the West Indian Orchestra were playing at the Cafe de Paris as
usual. While carefully not mentioning the actual club or the band
leader (due to wartime censorship) Time magazine reported what
The orchestra at London’s Cafe de Paris gaily
played Oh, Johnny, Oh Johnny, How You Can Love! At the tables
handsome flying Johnnies, naval Jacks in full dress, guardsmen,
territorials, and just plain civics sat making conversational love.
The service men were making the most of leave; the civilians were
making the most of the lull in bombings of London.
Sirens had sounded. Most of London had
descended into shelters, but to those in the cabaret, time seemed
too dear to squander underground. Bombs began to fall near by: it
was London’s worst night raid in weeks. The orchestra played Oh,
Johnny a little louder.
Then the hit came. What had been a nightclub
became a nightmare: heaps of wreckage crushing the heaps of dead and
maimed, a shambles of silver slippers, broken magnums, torn sheet
music, dented saxophones, smashed discs.
A special constable with the rather splendid name
Ballard Berkeley was one of the first on the scene. He saw Snakehips
Johnson decapitated and elegantly dressed people still sitting at
tables seemingly almost in conversation, but stone dead. He was
shocked to see looters, mingling with the firemen and the police,
cutting the fingers from the dead to get at their expensive rings.
Ballard Berkeley many years later became famous as the actor who
played the major in Fawlty Towers.
In 1929 British International Pictures released
Piccadilly starring the beautiful Chinese-American actress Anna May
Wong. The scene where Wong’s character Shosho performs her exotic
dance in front of an adoring nightclub crowd was filmed in location at
the Cafe de Paris. The film also includes a brief appearance from
Charles Laughton playing a gluttonous diner – his first feature film
In 1948, the Cafe de Paris was refurbished and
seven years after the tragic death of Snakehips Johnson the doors
reopened. Although it was again graced by royalty, notably Princess
Margaret, the club never really regained its sophisticated aura it had
before the war.
The only evening of note I can find was on 29th
September 1965 when Lionel Blair introduced, to an extremely grateful
public no doubt, his new dance called ‘The Kick’.I’m not sure but I
don’t think it was a storming success.