Lord Lu­can’s trou­bled wife

The Week - - Obituaries -

Veronica, the Dowa­ger Count­ess of Lu­can, was a key player in one of the great mys­ter­ies of the 20th cen­tury: the fate of “Lucky” Lord Lu­can. On the night of 7 Novem­ber 1974, Lady Lu­can ran into a pub near her house in Bel­gravia, cov­ered in blood, scream­ing that her es­tranged hus­band had at­tacked her and killed her nanny. Back at the fam­ily home, 29-year-old Sandra Rivett was found blud­geoned to death. Lu­can was pre­sumed to have bro­ken into the base­ment, and to have mis­taken Rivett, who’d gone down to make a cup of tea, for his wife. Lady Lu­can claimed that she’d met him on the stairs – and that he’d have killed her too had she not es­caped. He drove to a friend’s house in Sus­sex; he left the next morn­ing – and was not seen again. The car was later found aban­doned, with a ban­daged lead pipe in the boot.

From then on, Lord Lu­can was “spot­ted” all over the world. In De­cem­ber 1974, po­lice in Aus­tralia ar­rested an English­man they pre­sumed to be Lu­can, only to find that he was John Stone­house – the ex MP who’d faked his own death a few weeks ear­lier. In 2003, a Sun­day pa­per pub­lished sen­sa­tional ev­i­dence that Lu­can had died in Goa in 1996. That lead went dry when read­ers iden­ti­fied the bearded man in the pic­ture as “Jun­gle Barry”, a folk singer from Lan­cashire. There were ru­mours that Lu­can’s chil­dren had been taken to see him in South Africa. Oth­ers in­sisted he was long dead: some spec­u­lated that his aris­to­cratic friends had left him in a room with a gun, then fed his body to the tigers at John As­pinall’s zoo. (As­pinall pooh-poohed that idea, say­ing his tigers were used to the choic­est cuts: they’d not have eaten “stringy old Lucky”.) Lady Lu­can never wa­vered from her view that he’d jumped off a cross-chan­nel ferry. “He was not the sort of English­man to cope abroad,” she said.

Veronica May Dun­can was born in Bournemouth in 1937. Two years later, her fa­ther – an army ma­jor – died, and she and her sis­ter Christina went with their mother to live in South Africa. By her late teens, how­ever, she was back in the UK, work­ing as a model and sec­re­tary in Lon­don. Christina mar­ried the dash­ing, wom­an­is­ing wall­pa­per heir Bill Shand Kydd – and in­tro­duced Veronica to John Bing­ham, the fu­ture 7th Earl of Lu­can. Tall and rak­ish, he’d served in the Cold­stream Guards, and was now a pro­fes­sional gam­bler, play­ing games of skill. He ac­quired the name “Lucky” Lu­can in 1964, when he won £50,000 at bac­carat. The nick­name stuck, said The New York Times, but his luck didn’t.

Though Lu­can was well known as a mem­ber of a louche cir­cle that gam­bled at the Cler­mont Club in May­fair, Lady Lu­can would re­call that when they mar­ried in 1963, their wed­ding was not well at­tended “be­cause nei­ther of us was very pop­u­lar”. They cut their hon­ey­moon short be­cause they ran out of things to talk about. Back in Lon­don, he went on gam­bling while she shopped. Money started to run out; she suf­fered from post­na­tal de­pres­sion fol­low­ing the birth of their chil­dren. Later, she claimed he was a sadist who beat her be­fore hav­ing sex with her. Yet even in old age, she kept me­men­toes and pic­tures of him on dis­play. Af­ter nine years of mar­riage they sep­a­rated, and he moved into a mews house around the cor­ner. A bit­ter cus­tody bat­tle fol­lowed; Lu­can lost, and was dis­traught. In Novem­ber 1974, he ap­par­ently de­liv­ered a kit­ten to his chil­dren – only for it to be posted back through his door a few hours later, its throat cut. Friends say that at that point, he be­came fran­ti­cally con­cerned that his wife was not fit to look af­ter the chil­dren.

Six years af­ter Sandra Rivett’s mur­der, Lady Lu­can suf­fered a se­ri­ous break­down, and the chil­dren went to live with the Shand Ky­dds. She never saw them again – al­though her chil­dren tried to make con­tact with her. Ear­lier this year, she said: “Time has passed and my life has car­ried on in a quiet, un­trou­bled man­ner. I can­not see any ad­van­tage in see­ing them.”

Lord and Lady Lu­can: bit­ter sep­a­ra­tion

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