The British socialite Lucy Houston sent a surprising telegram to the White House in the final weeks of the First World War. Addressed directly to President Woodrow Wilson, it advised him in the strongest possible terms to ignore Germany’s recent request for an armistice, and to insist that the war went on till the bitter end.
‘Dear President Wilson,’ wrote Lady Houston, then 61. ‘I am only a woman. But if I were you, I should return the German peace note with one vulgar, but forceful, little word written across it – “Piffle”.’
Lady Houston in about 1909. Ruthless, dazzling, unpredictable and highly eccentric, she indulged in unimaginable luxury and shamelessly used her wealth and contacts to promote her own strident, right-wing views
On the face of it, this was an extraordinary message for a woman with no military or political experience to send to the world’s most powerful man at such a time. But Lucy Houston was no ordinary woman.
Born into Victorian poverty and working as a chorus girl by her early teens, her rise up the social ladder led her to become Britain’s richest woman – and one of its most colourful characters – after amassing a stupendous fortune as the three-times-married wife and mistress of a series of powerful men.
Ruthless, dazzling, unpredictable and highly eccentric, she indulged in unimaginable luxury and shamelessly used her wealth and contacts to promote her own strident, right-wing views. When she wanted something done, she’d go to great lengths to get her own way and was particularly adept at bending men to her will.
‘What she did not know of the male sex was not worth knowing,’ wrote the journalist Warner Allen, adding that she was ‘essentially a character such as the world no longer moulds, providing a welcome break in the monotony of mass-produced humanity’.
Convinced that sun and sea air were good for the health, Lucy thought nothing of promenading naked on the deck of her luxury yacht – once she had given the order that the crew go below.
She was, however, an inveterate flirt. The author Collin Brooks, recalling a meeting at his office with a fur-coated Lucy, recounted how, as they parted, she giggled: ‘Do you know, my dear, I’ve nothing on under this!’
With her lofty position in society, she attended all the most prestigious events – including Edward VII’s coronation in 1901.
Royalty and aristocrats apart, her friends included the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (who gave her name to the dessert of meringue, fruit and cream), the authors Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, and the war hero Lawrence of Arabia.
Such was her talent for self-publicity that she bought her own newspaper, the Saturday Review, which she edited herself to ensure that her voice was widely heard.
It didn’t seem to occur to her that her forceful views might not be welcome.
In March 1928, while relaxing on the Riviera, Houston, then aged 70, wrote to Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, about his forthcoming Budget, suggesting those advising him should be sacked.
Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain was an ‘awful ass’ and Lord Birkenhead, Secretary of State for India, ‘never opened his mouth except to put his foot in it’.
To her, Churchill was the ‘only gentleman’ among them and she hoped he would not be influenced by such ‘duffers and bounders’.
Churchill’s short reply was a masterpiece of tact. ‘I am very much obliged to you for your letter,’ he wrote. ‘And though I cannot agree with your harsh comments on my colleagues, I will bear in mind the advice which you give.’
It is a sign of the influence wielded by Houston that Churchill bothered to reply at all. But such was the power her money gave her that on her merest whim, politicians and Cabinet Ministers happily paid obeisance to her and visited her home where they would be entertained, often in her bedroom, while she wore her dressing gown and a turban.
It is said that just days before his abdication, Edward VIII – one of her idols – visited her at her home by Hampstead Heath.
Quite simply, Houston was a woman who could not be ignored.
Those she believed to be a force for good – the Suffragettes, war veterans, some members of the Conservative Party, Edward VIII, aviation pioneers – she supported with loyalty, devotion and vast sums of money.
Her chauffeur recalled how, in the run-up to the abdication, he was asked to deliver a brown paper parcel to the outgoing King containing what to him ‘felt like bank notes’. One theory is that the amount was about £250,000 and was intended to fund a coup.
US President Woodrow Wilson in 1913 (right), and British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald (left)
But towards those who incurred her wrath, her venom knew no bounds.
She regarded the League of Nations (an international diplomatic group set up after the First World War designed to solve disputes between countries) as ‘useless’ and ‘stupid’. She described future Tory PM Anthony Eden as a ‘sinister self-worshipping simpleton’, the ‘prince of ineffectuals’ and ‘this nancified nonentity’, casting aspersions about his sexuality.
Chief among those she despised and the object of her relentless vitriol for the best part of a decade was Labour’s first Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. So great was her loathing of the man she called ‘one of Satan’s own disciples’ that she spent much money and time plotting ways to bring him down.
To her, it was monstrous that pacifists such as MacDonald, who’d opposed going to war in 1914 and supported the Bolsheviks, should be entrusted with running the country.
She got the words ‘To Hell With Ramsay MacDonald’ displayed in bright lights on her yacht. She also offered a £5,000 reward to anybody who could prove that MacDonald was, as she firmly believed, in the pay of the Soviet government and thus a traitor.
Many of these stunts were relatively harmless – even amusing – but in 1935, as the prospect of a second world war loomed, events cast Houston in a more devious and irresponsible light.
Today, with the release of previously unseen papers, details of Lucy’s involvement with a convicted fraudster and a series of forged letters falsely linking MacDonald with Moscow can finally be revealed. If the documents had been made public at the time, they could have led to the toppling of the government and the end of Ramsay MacDonald’s career.
In the early weeks of 1935, Houston was visited at her London home by a suave American called Thomas Walker who described himself as a journalist and an authority on Russia. He showed her letters purporting to be written to prominent Soviet politicians and bearing the signature of ‘J Ramsay MacDonald’. The mysterious Walker told Houston that he had just returned from Russia where he had obtained the letters with great difficulty, and having paid about £300 for each he was keen to sell them to her. All three appeared to have been written in 1926, the year of the General Strike, and two were seemingly on private notepaper from MacDonald’s London home.
In March 1928, while relaxing on the Riviera, Lady Houston, then aged 70, wrote to Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, about his forthcoming Budget, suggesting those advising him should be sacked. Churchill’s short reply was a masterpiece of tact
Their content was potentially explosive and added fuel to the fire of Houston’s hatred of MacDonald who, at the time, was PM as head of the National Government in coalition with the Conservatives and Liberals.
The first letter was to the HQ of the All-Russian Co-operative Society in London, an address suspected of being a cover for espionage activities.
It read: ‘Dear Mr Sokolnikoff,
‘The time does not seem ripe for the movement you suggest. Everything is to be gained by a few months’ delay. You may count upon me to support you in your noble work.
‘Sincerely, J Ramsay MacDonald.’
To the Labour PM’s enemies, this seemed to provide conclusive evidence that he’d been a key agent in Soviet involvement in the General Strike – the largest industrial dispute in Britain’s history, when almost two million stopped work for nine days in support of coal miners threatened with wage cuts.
The second letter, also to the All-Russian Co-operative Society, appeared to reveal MacDonald’s secret contempt for the British working class. It suggested he had written: ‘You must recognise that your Russian methods for serfdom and communism are not available for use here. Our British workman is more susceptible to worldly goods and materialist enticements.’ But it was the third letter that was the most shocking.
Addressed to Christian Rakovsky, a Soviet diplomat in Britain, and written on House of Commons notepaper, it read: ‘Any change which is to readjust the allocation of wealth in Great Britain and which is to establish a system of justice in settling the relation between services and reward must be a sudden and violent change. I hope to see the day, not too far distant, when the King may follow the way of the Czar.’
In effect, it suggested MacDonald had been calling for a Russian-style revolution in Britain to overthrow the monarchy and, by implication, invoked the assassination of George V and his family just as the Russian royal family had been killed a few years earlier.
There can be no doubt that Houston wanted the letters to be genuine. For, if real, they would provide the evidence against MacDonald that she so desperately wanted.
Unsurprisingly, she paid Walker for them and, a few days later, showed them to the Duke of Atholl, a friend. He got the letters examined by a handwriting expert who concluded that the signature was a forgery. Scotland Yard was duly called in.
Walker was swiftly discovered to be an escaped convict in Britain on a false passport and the documents were quickly discredited. When interviewed by police, Houston claimed she had realised on first reading the letters that they were ‘most dangerous and defamatory’. She also claimed most unconvincingly that she had never intended to make the letters public.
Without doubt, if they had been made public, huge harm would have been done to MacDonald. So how much did Houston know? Was she the prime mover in a plot to bring down the Prime Minister, or simply the victim of a sophisticated forger?
The truth can never be conclusively proved but her antipathy to MacDonald was well known. And her association with a letter – even a forgery – accusing the Prime Minister of suggesting regicide would have been the most heinous treason imaginable.
Whatever the case, the affair of the Russian letters did not end there.
MacDonald’s solicitors, having heard about the ‘correspondence’, suggested that if the material was not handed over, the matter would be dealt with in ‘a way that might be unpleasant for Lady Houston’.
This was considered a threat of legal proceedings against her for ‘trafficking with a purveyor of forged documents’.
Eventually, however, the PM’s solicitors, wary of taking on such a wealthy woman, agreed that neither side would use the letters, or knowledge of them, against the other. This deal coincided with an announcement on June 7, 1935, that MacDonald was stepping down as Prime Minister due to ill-health.
In many ways, Lady Houston was a woman well ahead of her time: a fearless pioneer of women’s rights, competing on an equal footing as men and with a talent for self-promotion that would be the envy of today’s social media-obsessed celebrities
The bizarre feud was finally over and Houston felt that her nemesis had been vanquished at last. Perhaps she consoled herself with the thought that he had resigned out of fear of her.
The leader of the Conservative party, Stanley Baldwin, became Prime Minister, and in the autumn won a general election.
However, to the fickle Houston, Baldwin was not much better.
Feeling out of kilter with the new politics and heartbroken by the abdication of her adored Edward VIII, Houston died on December 29, 1936. Typically, her final words were memorable. ‘It’s time for you to sleep,’ one of her servants told her. ‘Yes, my dear,’ replied the indomitable Houston. ‘It’s time for me to sleep – and a damned long sleep it’s going to be.’
Although now forgotten by history, Houston’s legacy was far-reaching. She had been made a Dame of the British Empire for her philanthropy in setting up a home for war-weary nurses and for her practical support for soldiers at the front, to whom she sent consignments of matches, socks and footballs, as well as messages of support.
And in gratitude for her funding of the first flights over Mount Everest, a heart-shaped lake spotted from the air 6,000ft below its summit was named by Nepal’s government the Lady of the Mountain in her honour.
In many ways, Houston was a woman well ahead of her time: a fearless pioneer of women’s rights, competing on an equal footing as men and with a talent for self-promotion that would be the envy of today’s social media-obsessed celebrities.
Even her health regime sounds remarkably modern – renouncing ‘tea, coffee, butter, bacon, meat, drinking at meal times, white bread and pastry, all alcoholic drinks and salt’. As a result, she claimed to be free from indigestion and in great health.
The Great Depression, the General Strike and the advent of Hitler’s Nazis failed to unsettle the Prime Minister of Great Britain but a meddlesome, fiercely right-wing widow almost did.
‘Adventuress: The Life And Loves Of Lucy, Lady Houston’ by Teresa Crompton is published by History Press, priced £20. Offer price £16, with free p&p, until February 25. Call 01603 648155 or go to mailshop.co.uk