She was a call girl who became a novelist. She was chased out of the United States for playing nurse with president-elect, JFK. In a complicated honeytrap, the man who introduced her to UN officials and politicans was charged with white-slave trafficking. He skipped bail, and was later found in the Soviet Union. Back in London, 17-year-old Mariella hosted the Man in the Mask party made infamous by the Profumo Scandal. She knew Stephen Ward and Ivanov, Keeler and Mandy, Lord Astor and David Bailey. She knew them all. She was a one-woman sexual revolutionary who left the Swinging Sixties to draw its collective breath while she delved deeper into its creeds and promises. Sadistic showmanship, espionage and the Occult were favourite pastimes
By the Seedy Seventies, Mariella was scaring the pants off MI5. She kept notes of everything. So it made sense when she became a founding member of Women in Media and an active participant in a sex-education film. Growing Up was condemned by Mary Whitehouse and banned from schools.
Its director, a sex therapist who provided sexual surrogates in his group sessions with clients, was charged with keeping a brothel. Mariella was accused of being an agent provocateur. Two-way mirrors and microphones were hidden in a room in Brown’s Hotel. There were bungled attempts on her life. People who knew her got scared away. Mariella did what she did best. She became a striptease artist in the peepshows of Soho. This is where my Uncle James caught up with her.
Mariella Novotny, who claimed to be the niece of the Communist Czech president, but who, Christine Keeler claimed, was the daughter of a shorthand typist from Sheffield, occupies a hinterland between incriminating fact and scandalous theory. She was mixed up in high and low places. She tried to play a winning game. She haunts me.
‘It would be humbug if I did not confess that I looked forward to the sex orgies. I have been to every type of that party — those specialising in certain perversions and those given in an elaborate setting where all the formalities were observed.Many of the people who attend are rich and famous — many faces that are seen in public life and on television. If their public could only see them like this.’
— Stephen Ward, osteopath and society artist, 1963.
‘Hod Dibben was allegedly a man of fathomless depravity in whose hands Stephen Ward was clay … in addition to his interests in black magic he had a tremendous appetite for sex, so long as it was perverted enough. Mariella Novotny was a beautiful blonde of Czech origin. She had grown up witness to the horrors of the turbulent post-war years in central Europe and [her] experience of rape and torture twisted her nature into something vile and deformed.’
— Thomas Critchley, civil servant and secretary to the Denning Inquiry, 1963.
‘I don’t know why the trade started here. But it might have something to do with the locals. They were foreign, weren’t they?’
I didn’t need to reply. Uncle James was on a roll.
They floated in and out: French Huguenots, Greek Christians, the Maltese, Chinks, Yids and Eye-ties. All sorts, you name it. Authorities weren’t kind to foreigners in those days. So they all kept schtum. That provided the perfect cover. What a man did or didn’t do for a living was his business.’
We were on our third caffeine high, and Uncle James, in his waxed Barbour jacket, wool trousers and silk cravat, was enlarging on his theme. He was right about Soho — the district gained a piquant flavour, and has been associated with prostitution for hundreds of years. They are still out there in the dark stretches of night, at the corner of Berwick Street and Walker’s Court, framed by the steel shutters of Morrison’s. By day, grim-faced they loiter on the fringes of Compton Village, eyeing the passing rucksacks and iPhones.
Uncle James wasn’t showing me how to graft. We were walking through Soho looking for traces of the past. My Soho had a distinctly Italian flavour, only to be found in cafes like Sicilia, Pollo and Cappuccetto. For years I had been doing the rounds searching for the perfect scallop alla milanese; the perfect zabaglione. I would sip on a brandied concoction of froth and sugar in the velvet booth of a grotto framed in pink wax that grew round the necks of green bottles and fringed by red beaded curtains drawn to filter out stony sunlight. Uncle James’s association with Soho was shaded with demireps, scroungers and swindlers. Those days were over, he told me. He had ‘cleaned up and cleared out of there’, he went on to affirm. He only came back to Soho to deliver his message: ‘We do recover!’ So he steered me past the landmarks where Nilsen preyed on rent, where Jack the Spot got shanked, where Rusty opened her club right next door to Bernie Silver’s porn emporium.
But I was looking for Mariella. There was unfinished business between her and my family. A deal gone wrong, and no convictions — a tantalising glimpse of a netherworld where puppetmasters held the truth in their hands before they stashed it away in filing cabinets marked for redundancy. Times have moved on.
‘She ruined men,’ my Uncle said with a vigour usually reserved for his ex-wives. Ten days later he was found on his bed surrounded by old, lipstick-smeared photos, frayed letters and pages torn from a diary. A needle was sticking out of his arm.
Penny a Lump
That’s the stuff to make you jump
If you jump you’re bound to fall
Hokey Pokey that is all.
‘It’s a powerful drug, Lily,’ my Uncle had acknowledged when I was once dreaming of tracking down Colombian cartels (‘for what purpose?’).
‘And the only way to do it is bangin’ it up!’ he had declared, as he stabbed an imaginary syringe into the crook of his arm. It was a practised gesture. He had been doing it since the early Sixties. But even then it wasn’t new.
‘We were doing that back in the Thirties,’ he told me his aunt Dolly had said. She had walked in on him once. Of course he’d been young then. Now he looked away from me, and winced.
‘What do you want to know about Mariella?’
The Sheffield Mata Hari. It was Lord Denning who called Mariella Novotny’s December 1961 orgy ‘the Man in the Mask Party’. She preferred to call it the Feast of the Peacocks. It took place in her mansion flat at 13 Hyde Park Square. Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler arrived fashionably late. They were greeted at the door by their mentor, Stephen Ward. He was dressed in a sock. Everyone else was naked. Apart from Mariella, who was wearing a black corset and a whip. She was in bed with six men. She joked that she was the Government’s Chief Whip.
Mariella made her London debut in 1957 as a topless dancer in Soho. She was 16. It was her mother’s idea. One year later she married Horace ‘Hod’ Dibben, a sado-masochistic associate of Stephen Ward. David Bailey took the wedding photos.
Hod dealt in antiques and official secrets. He ran night-clubs in Shepherd Market and Mayfair where he played host to Anthony Armstrong-Jones, the Duke of Kent, Lord Astor and the Kray twins. He and Mariella held dinner parties for Earl Spencer. Hod was fifty-six. Mariella was eighteen. At one of Hod’s parties, Mariella met a TV producer/procurer who set her to work in New York. Hod gave his blessing and off she went. In May 1961 she escaped from a hotel in New York where she had been restricted by a probation order as a minor on vice charges. She arrived back in England on the Queen Mary, and sold her story to the News of the World. It was a good one. She told the senior crime reporter that she was the niece of the former Czech president, Antonin Novotny. And that, as a child, she had spent four years in a Soviet Stateless Persons Camp. She even had the accent to back it up.
One of the facts that Denning did not reveal in his report was the international impact of the Profumo scandal. It was not Christine or Mandy or even Stephen Ward who excited the interest of the FBI. It was Mariella. Whilst in New York she had taken part in a game with President-Elect John F. Kennedy. For the game, she had worn a nurse’s uniform. So had her Chinese colleague, the notorious ‘international call-girl’ Suzy Chang. The women were hospital staff, and JFK was their patient.
It was bad enough that one of the nurses was Chinese, but the other was a runaway Communist from Czechoslovakia. Robert MacNamara, the US Defence Secretary, told a senior FBI agent that he ‘felt like he was sitting on a bomb’ as headline after headline in British newspapers opened the lid on the Profumo affair. Even Robert Kennedy, it emerged, was caught up in this sex and spy ring. Lord Denning decided not to name the ‘Czech madam’ as one of his principal witnesses.
The other story Mariella told was that she was born Stella Marie Capes, the daughter of a shorthand typist from Sheffield. She could have been the result of her mother’s brief affair with a Czech or Polish pilot. It was also alleged that her MI5 codename was ‘Henry’, and she swore that she was part of an FBI smear campaign that had JFK in its sights. Her escape from New York had been arranged by secret agents in return for her address book.
I left Uncle James that day to go to the Turkish steam rooms in Portland Baths. ‘You’re a water baby,’ he told me. Uncle James went home to an empty flat filled with memories. They took hold, and spurred him on. Cocaine makes a 62-year-old man in remission from cancer and out of gainful employment feel live and relevant. He started with half a grain, and after ten minutes one grain more. Then he increased the strength of the injections to about two grains, continuing these every quarter of an hour or twenty minutes. This method was supposed to prevent any undue shock to the heart. He had anticipated that when his breathing accelerated too much, he would correct it with a small dose of morphine, mixed with his next injection. He never reached that corrective point. He was bound to fall.
The Seventies saw Mariella adapting to survive. In 1971 she put her extensive experience of the demi-monde to literary use. The result, King’s Road, was plugged as ‘the novel of Britain’s Permissive Society’. It told of the turned-on and elegant Tricesta St Regis and her involvement with incest, the Black Power Movement, vaginal piercings and kinky MPs. It bombed. Heroin addiction was making her steely-eyed and resourceful. She made herself available to British Intelligence. The Security Services invited her to help them compromise ‘people of interest’ to the state. She met a lot of interesting people. If her brief in the Sixties was, as she claimed, to ‘get’ President Kennedy, by 1977 she was edging towards a dirtier, more dangerous world.
Some time after my twelfth birthday my mother told me that my grandfather was involved in a massive case of fraud involving the Bank of England and corrupt police officers. It was 1977 and I made a mental note to scan the headlines in the Daily Mirror. Nothing my family did could surprise me any more.
Mariella’s target was my grandfather, a London conman, whom she was stalking in the guise of a spaced-out hippy chick called Henrietta.
Amongst the spoons, foil and blister packs — the police had taken the syringes — I saw the papers and ephemera my uncle left behind him. On the floor was a picture of a blonde with droopy eyes clogged with mascara.
One more thing he said before he died — ‘Why do you want to write about that old junkie whore? … People don’t want to read about her.’
For what purpose?
Dear Uncle James’s father Charlie, my fraudster grand-dad and corrupt pater familias, the subject of my first book, was brought to his knees by a shape-shifting agent provocateur working for MI5. There were rumours that officers from Operation Countryman — an investigation into police corruption — were surveying Mariella surveying Charlie. Suddenly, although in retrospect, Uncle James once said, he saw it coming a mile away, ‘it all came on top for Charlie’. He got too ‘warm’, Mad Frankie Fraser said. Cases were brought against my grandfather. The man who saw himself as a fixer and go-between in London’s criminal underworld was cornered. He had no recourse but to name names. Just at this point — when things were about to get lively — he died. It was rumoured that his sudden death was due to the poisoned tip of an umbrella. Game over for Charlie.
Mariella moved on. The ‘Hungarian Circle’ took to meeting in her flat. A coup d’etat in the Caribbean had her mark on it. But she still liked to party along with other leftovers from the Sixties. By now it was the early Eighties, and these old celebs in New Romantic shoulder pads couldn’t keep away from the demi-monde. Mariella showed them the way. She had their numbers, too. On her nights off, she took to dancing in a Soho peepshow just for the fun of it. This is where Uncle James caught up with her.
I cannot blame him. The combination of intrigue, ellipses and allusions — the certainty that I am being held out on — has taken a hold of me, too. I must seize this fugitive chimera! My appetite takes a feverish turn. My imagination follows. In homage to my late Uncle I take a late-night stroll around our favourite haunt.
If I soften my gaze in order to see past the everyday, here-and-now reality, scenes tinged with sepia waft over me. It was like this that I allowed myself to be lured up the stairs at the side of a shop. The walls were littered with cards. Scrawled messages promised exotic favours. But I could not find anyone. The house was dark, and smelt of dust and book-binding glue. Gradually it dawned on me that this was a shop. It seemed to sell antiquarian books and leather-bound volumes of obscure journals. A woman popped up from behind a row of shelves. Her face was as grey and threadbare as old carpet. Decades of dust had settled in her hair.
‘She’s in the back room,’ she whispered.
The old woman led me through the bookshelves and opened a door covered with green baize. She pushed it open and ushered me in, before shuffling back to her place in the bookshelves. The room was lit by one glaring spotlight that stood by the side of a desk. A woman was sitting at the desk. She was slumped forward, with her face in a china bowl. The bowl’s contents had spilled over the sides and onto a leather blotter. What appeard to be albums of photographs formed a halo around the woman’s dyed blonde head.
In February 1983, when I was contemplating my first year at University and Uncle James had just been released from Pentonville prison, Mariella Novotny came to her sticky end. She died face down in a bowl of milk pudding at approximately three o’clock in the morning. Shortly before death she had been thumbing through a portfolio of pornographic pictures. The album belonged to her husband, Hod. His earliest picture was a one-off, a daguerreotype from 1855 that he had acquired in Brussels, of a naked girl embracing a dog. The obscure shopfront on Place de Jeu de Ville gave no hint as to where the most select items were to be found. Hod was renowned within his circle of fellow enthusiasts for the lengths to which he would go in order to feed his obsession. His collection was surpassed only by that of an elderly, fabulously wealthy banker in Paris. Mariella herself featured in the more recent poses — heavily masked and stiffly posed, along with other models some of whom were very young, and some of whom one had to wonder if they were still of this world. I could see by the girls’ eyes that they were under the influence of dark Chinoiserie-lacquered fantasies. I also saw a familiar face, a familiar pair of glazed eyes, gazing back at me.
‘Thank you, Mariella,’ I said.
To be continued...