This is the story of the woman who brought down the empire my criminal grandfather helped build with the Flying Squad, and how two ancient districts of London, Soho and Streatham, where I passed my childhood, led to the convergence of their lives. Dr Johnson makes an appearance. Streatham was a second home to him. It was here that he fell in love with Mrs Thrale.
The story starts in 1972 at the Dauphin Club in Fitzrovia (north of Soho) with a vicious attack on Peter “Pooky” Garfath. Pooky was the lover of Rusty Humphreys, a former striptease dancer and wife of pornographer Jimmy. After being slashed with a razor and beaten by six masked men, Pooky was warned to stay away from Rusty, who had just been released from Holloway Prison. Pooky reckoned, reasonably enough, that his lover’s husband, Jimmy Humphries, was behind the attack. Jimmy was known to have a short fuse and a predilection for violence. He confirmed Pooky’s suspicions by promptly leaving his Soho business for the anonymity of Holland. Whilst on the run there, Jimmy claimed that DCI John Bland of the Serious Crime Squad, was framing him for the attack on Pooky.
DCI Bland was a patron of the Leigham Court Hotel in Streatham. My grandfather, Charlie Taylor, owned the lease, having bought it from the renowned conman, Cyril Smith. Cyril had achieved a profile when by “Mad” Frankie Fraser nailed him to the floorboards of the South London office of the Richardson gang. Once a conman’s cover is blown there is nothing for it but fresh pastures. Cyril moved to Sussex, and my grandfather got the palatial Leigham Court for a song. He made a success of it as a straight-up hotel complete with restaurant and cabaret night-spots and a meeting-place for bent cops and robbers. By the late 1970s, the word on Charlie was this: he was being minded by corrupt officers, and, together with Leonard Ash, he was running the dollar premium fraud and faking gold sovereigns. Together, Lennie and Charlie were about to bring down the Bank of England. Leonard Ash was a slight, instantly forgettable man (the perfect disguise for a conman). There was something, however, incongruous about Lennie. He had a girlfriend called Mariella. Leonard brought her to the hotel. She was a bottle blonde in hipsters, skimpy halter-neck top and feather boa. Her eyes were wide and rimmed with kohl. She had a sharpness to her despite her spaced-out smiles and air of seediness. Maybe she had popped too many pills. But Mariella had depths in reserve. She had been part of the scenery in the previous decade. It was Mariella who had partied with JFK, Suzy Chang, Stephen Ward and the Man in the Mask. No one knew this yet. It was the Seventies and she was moving in a different, darker crowd.
Mariella Novotny was born in London in 1942. She claimed her father was born in Czechoslovakia, and that she was the niece of the former president. According to Christine Keeler, Mariella’s real name was Stella Marie Capes and she came from Sheffield.
Christine met Mariella when they were both striptease dancers in Soho. Mariella moonlit as a prostitute. Christine recalled: “She had a tiny waist that exaggerated her ample figure. She was a siren, a sexual athlete of Olympian proportions – she could do it all. I know. I saw her in action. She knew all the strange pleasures that were wanted and could deliver them.”
The Suburb that Swung (working title) is a work of narrative non-fiction written in the shade of pscyhogeographers. I shall focus on criminal activities in the ancient resort of Streatham and Soho’s hunting grounds. The narrative deploys true crime – the story of my grandfather’s criminal activities – as the narrative hook. Linked in with his story is the story of Mariella Novotny, agent provocateur and hostess of the notorious “Man in the Mask” party.
Charlie Taylor, my grandfather, died in mysterious circumstances, having become a fixture in South London gangland. He carved a role for himself fixing problems created by the Richardsons and their associates, and solved them by conniving with corrupt members of the Flying Squad. Charlie was a go between, a money-getter, a fixer, a hotelier, a fraudster and a forger. His sons were drug addicts, and they kept getting arrested. The police started to use Charlie’s sons as bargaining tools. Charlie moved up a gear by playing the two sides off against each other. The inevitable happened. In his police cell he started to talk about his friends in high places, including the House of Lords. The police officer investigating his activities received death threats. Charlie died in the middle of two high-profile Old Bailey trials. Just before he took the stand and told all.
This was a time when Scotland Yard and the government were deeply embarrassed by cases of police corruption. In the case of my grandfather, it is alleged by various superannuated tricksters and swindlers that the “dirty tricks” department of MI5 sent Novotny in to plant and gather evidence. Previous to snaring my grandfather, she had enrolled in Suzy Chang’s US call-girl ring used by John F. Kennedy and other prominent politicians. Mariella made a point of keeping notes on all her appointments, and swore she could reveal details of plots to disgrace the president and his brothers. For her troubles, she was arrested in New York for white slavery, and deported back to England. The FBI continued to keep an eye on her. She continued to ply her trade back in Blighty.
The story of two lives colliding will emerge episodically – using fictionalised accounts, newspaper reports and photography. There is also the larger story of Streatham’s history to consider. The place itself has an ominous stillness to it. It is a place where anything or nothing can happen. I was a child when the tarnished glamour of the 1970s pervaded Streatham’s streets. Cynthia Payne was also resident. But there will be opportunities for other, older histories to emerge, along the theme of “missing persons”; mysterious happenings; and temps perdus.
For example, Dr Johnson’s visits to the Thrales’ Streatham villa in the 18th century. Was he in love with Mrs Thrale?: “Do not neglect me, nor relinquish me. Nobody will love you better, or honour you more.’ Even though he was dangerously ill, Mrs Thrale would not come to him. On the death of her husband, she married her daughter’s singing teacher, an Italian called Piozzi. Dr Johnson had lost Mrs Thrale forever.
The story of early Streatham encompasses the unconventional ménage of the Thrales and Dr Johnson. Hester Thrale was a powerful woman; Dr Johnson was in her orbit.
From early Streatham to Victorian gothic, here comes the history of Leigham estate’s development. The aim was to create a high street to rival the West End. The residents were Music Hall artistes, conjurors and Gaiety Girls. It was a suburb that swung.
In the 1930s, Sybil Thorndike, Anna Pavlova, John Gielgud and Alec Guinness trod the boards at Streatham Hill Theatre. Fast forward to the 1960s and Charlie Taylor opened a gambling club in the Leigham Court Hotel. Streatham’s raffish atmosphere crossed the line into criminality and corruption. The Leigham Court Hotel became a members’ club where Charlie Kray could chew the fat with DCI John Bland. Lines were crossed, boundaries were blurred. The whole disintegrated.
Streatham Hill Theatre is now a bingo hall.
In the early 1980s Rusty Humphries was imprisoned again for living off immoral earnings and aiding and abetting. She was thought to have made over £50,0000 in the previous 12 months. The girls had to pay £15.80 a day plus £3 for gas and electrics. In addition, they were obliged to buy lingerie provided by Rusty. For their part, they were required to work daily in shifts running for 12 hours. Rusty’s mother also acted as the maid, a service that did not come cheap. Soho’s sex industry started in the 17th century. The girls worked hard for their money in a Georgian house. Mariella did it for free. In the early 1980s, in the wake of Charlie’s death, Mariella is turning tricks by night and performing at an early-afternoon peepshow on Brewer Street. The underlying theme is that of addiction and the heights and depths to which addicts will resort to get a fix.
The story is a whodunit, or who-is-he/she mystery – employing a mood of nostalgia, using fragments of memory, to evoke place and person. Most of all, the book reveals itself to be about temps perdus. Photographs– newspaper cuttings, Mariella’s (mocked-up) diaries, Rusty Humphries’ (forged) accounts – will reveal the (obsessive) investigative nature of this attempt to reclaim, and recreate, the past. What is gone is not lost. It comes back in fragments and whispers.
The four avenues that place the book in Streatham are resplendent red brick and terracotta; domestic gothic villas. They stand in 2012, neglected and mournful. Streatham has acquired a different kind of notoriety. Whereas before it had been Charlie Taylor and Cynthia Payne who hit the headlines, now it is purveyors of crack and smack, and street burglars.
An interview with crime historian James Morton introduces the conspiracy theory that emerged after Charlie’s death. It involves the “downfall of the Flying Squad”, and Mariella Novotny, aka Stella Marie Capes, allegedly hired by MI5 to trap Charlie Taylor and his associates. More than this, she knew the identity of the Man in the Mask. (Her story veers off into enduring scandal. Mariella gave the famous sex parties featured in the Profumo Affair and the film Scandal. Britt Ekland plays her there. Mariella used regularly to whip the Man in the Mask. Rumour has it, her “little black book”, in which she identified him by his initials (P.P.) got her killed five years after Charlie died. Before his death, he lost everything, including the hotel. After Mariella’s death, her house was burgled.
Dr Johnson was nearly 75. He had suffered a stroke the previous year and his legs and feet had swelled as a result of heart failure. Acute emphysema made breathing miserable. For nearly 20 years, the Thrales’ grand country house in Streatham Park was Dr Johnson’s second home. Correspondence of 1773 hints at an intimacy of peculiar depths. Mention is made of padlocks, fetters and rods. Mrs Thrale refers to herself as his “governess” and Johnson calls himself her “slave”. When beset by ‘sinful and corrupt imaginations”, by “inordinate desires” and “wicked thoughts”, he feared he was going mad. In these moments, he turned to Mrs Thrale.
The last play to be staged at the Streatham Hill Theatre was La Repetition, ou L’Amour Puni by Anouilh in 1962 – the year Charlie Taylor came to town. The Rehearsal is about a group of modern aristocrats who are dissipating their lives as though starring in a glitzy adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons. The general conceit, that the characters are rehearsing a play from a previous era, allows for a mystery to evolve as to when exactly the play takes place, a mystery that is not resolved until late in the script. The costumes with which they disguise themselves add glamour to their actions. (Time adds glamour to what is lost.)
It is always the same story.
Anouilh reduces the existence of man to role play. The roles that men play in life are attributed to them by the company they keep. A meditation on Anouilh’s text ties in with a history of Streatham.
The name Streatham is of Saxon origin, meaning “dwellings by the street”. For the Romans it was just that – a resting post on the route they were constructing from London to the Sussex coast.
Once London went up in flames, city merchants decided it was time to escape the smouldering alleys of a burnt-out city.
Edmund Tilney, Master of the Revels at Court, and John Bodley, Charles I’s moneylender, built country residences. A Spa was established on the Common.
It was a ploughman who first discovered Streatham’s spring.
By the 18th century business was booming. The Common and High Street “became fashionable promenades where all the leaders of society might be met”.
The games room where poker was played was in the sunlit conservatory. Games were overseen by Ray Rosa, the psychopath from Elephant and Castle.
The hotel was happening, full of hippy girls and stoned boys, gangsters and gamblers. Charlie dressed in white tie and tails every evening. He sat enthroned in the red velvet cushions and gilt frame of a chair from the 100-piece dining-room suite he had acquired on the never-never.
The Leigham Court was a large, Streatham mansion set in its own grounds.
During Charlie’s occupation, everyone, even the chambermaids, lived in. It was an open house where Frankie Fraser had carte blanche, as did Charles Kray, and Commander Ken Drury and Detective Inspector Bland of the Flying Squad.
Junkies lived in the greenhouse. It was a groovy pad, where Tula, a French Vietnamese soothsayer, developed astrological theories. He followed London’s leylines all the way to the Dilly (where he picked up his script from Dr Frankau) and back to Streatham.
By day, Leigham Court Hotel doubled up as a conference centre for salesmen. They attended courses in assertiveness training wearing navy blazers and regimental ties.
“I feel good. I am happy. I have a positive mental attitude.”
By night, the sales reps joined the junkies in games of crazy golf.
One day, my Uncle Victor (Charlie’s heroin-addicted heir apparent) left his E-type in the window of Radio Rental’s shop front on Streatham High Road. The police presented Charlie with a tricky dilemma …
He was a go-between for villains and the police. Then he became an informant. Trouble was, Charlie was always a chancer. He tried to gain the advantage.
At around the same time, Cynthia Payne opened a brothel just off Streatham High Street that resounded with echoes of Dr Johnson’s guilty desires.
Streatham has had its heyday. The 1980s saw a brief commercial boom but the soul was gone. Depression followed. Streatham’s avenues, though listed, are forlorn. Streatham’s landmarks sprout weeds and dereliction.
In early December, he began putting his affairs in order. He made a will, and burned some of his papers and diaries. He spent much of his time in prayer. On 13th December 1784, at about seven o’clock in the evening, Dr Johnson died.
Archive photo / illustration of Anna Pavlova dancing the Dying Swan to the music of Saint-Saens (as played at the Streatham Hill Theatre). The image suggests the slow decline of Streatham into its present state of neglect and quiescence. In a different fairy story, Streatham, like Sleeping Beauty, waits for something or someone to wake it up.