By David Leafe
Scrolling through the social media posts of the 61-year-old Dowager countess of Shaftesbury, you would never imagine that this was a woman who once paid for her husband to be murdered and left his body to be mauled by wild animals.
not for this former escort and Playboy model the contrite life of one quietly atoning for their sins. Jamila Ben M’Barek, as she was born, has an instagram page boasting the name ‘comtesse’ — the French word for countess — despite her role in the killing of the husband from whom she derived the title.
Another of her instagram accounts goes by the handle ‘Jam_ Borgia’. There is no explanation of why she has chosen the surname of one of history’s most notoriously brutal families, but below it are posts suggesting that, as she puts it in one caption, ‘life is good’ for Ben M’Barek who was released from prison in 2016.
in one she flaunts a louis Vuitton tote bag which, if it’s the real thing, would have set her back some £2,000. in others, she is seen dancing suggestively in tight denim shorts, relaxing on a luxurious yacht and holidaying in the upmarket resort of Buzios, the ‘St Tropez of Brazil’, as she puts it.
given all this, we should perhaps not be surprised by her reported insouciance in a forthcoming channel 5 documentary about the murder of her husband, Anthony Ashleycooper, the 10th Earl of Shaftesbury.
Apparently, in between shots of her strutting around St Tropez in a sun hat, a polka-dot crop top exposing her tanned midriff and equally garish pink shoes, the programme features interviews in which she wears a white shirt unbuttoned down to expose her cleavage.
As if this is not incongruous enough, there is said to be an account of her difficult childhood, and her description of how hard life with the Earl was because of his heavy drinking. ‘i was with him 24 hours, looking after him,’ she allegedly says. ‘i told my sister. She said you are crazy.’
All in all, if this is what the programme shows, it seems she expects us to feel sorry for her, despite her role in one of the most scandalous episodes to have engulfed the English aristocracy.
She was just one of the many females in Anthony Ashley-cooper’s life and his tragedy was that most were with him only because he paid them to be.
He was born in 1938 into a distinguished family which had been at the forefront of English society for more than 300 years — the Earl of Shaftesbury title was created in 1672 for Anthony Ashley- cooper, chancellor of the Exchequer to King charles ii and founder of the Whig Party.
The 7th Earl lord Shaftesbury was a noted philanthropist and social reformer whose work on behalf of the poor and mentally ill during the Victorian era was commemorated by the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain — featuring a statue better known as Eros — which was erected in Piccadilly circus in 1893.
His arrow is said to point in the direction of St giles House, the family seat near Wimborne St giles in Dorset, the upkeep of which became the responsibility of the 20th-century Anthony, who had been educated at Eton and oxford, when he succeeded his father at the age of 22.
Along with 5,000 acres of land, his inheritance included an art collection, the greatest private library in England and houses in london, Hove, Versailles, Paris and nice.
overnight he became one of the ten richest people in the UK. But the estate was in decline following a run of death duties and he would spend much time and most of the family fortune trying to restore it.
At 28, he scandalised his relatives by marrying a 40-year- old italian divorcee he had known for only a few weeks. none of his family attended the service at Westminster register office and the marriage was soon doomed by his many liaisons with prostitutes in Soho and Brighton.
They divorced in 1976 and he married his second wife, christina, an ambassador’s daughter with whom he had two sons, Anthony and nicholas. But he continued seeing prostitutes. He was also drinking heavily to help him cope with the financial stresses of running the estate, and in 2000 he divorced christina and fled to the South of France.
Then 62, he took to wearing black leather trousers, pink shirts and colourful sunglasses, and earned a reputation as a cocaine- snorting playboy in the nightclubs of cannes and St Tropez. in reality, he was a lonely man who often paid women just to talk to him.
‘His idea of a morning well spent was to wake up with a prostitute — he hated it when they left before breakfast,’ writes journalist Michael
He was lonely and paid women just to talk to him
‘She was out to get everything she could’
litchfield, author of the book The Murder of lord Shaftesbury. Before getting out of bed, he would light a cigarette and pour himself a glass of champagne from the dregs of the nearest magnum. Then he’d have another cigarette and, fortified, pop open a fresh bottle. He once said that if he wasn’t drunk by noon, he was having a bad day.’
He did have occasional girlfriends, including 29-year- old ‘Penthouse pet’ nathalie lyons who was showered with gifts, including cheques totalling more than £1million, a £100,000 rolex and an Audi TT sports car.
But he continued to hire escorts from a madam who, in February 2002, made the fateful decision to send to him 41-year-old Jamila Ben M’Barek, a divorced mother-of-two.
As she is allowed to explain at length in the TV documentary, she had a troubled upbringing, brought up in northern France as one of five children of an alcoholic Moroccan miner who was violent towards the whole family.
Her mother eventually fled the marriage, taking her children back to her native Tunisia, where the young Ben M’Barek struggled with the restrictions placed on her in a male-dominated society.
‘My ambition was to be a movie star,’ she laughs with the joie de vivre of a successful actress being interviewed about her early career rather than a convicted murderer.
‘i was talking all the time about Hollywood, so my first nickname was Hollywood.’
She got no further than the bright lights of St Tropez where she began working as a prostitute at the age of 17, partying on yachts and later claiming in court that her clients included film stars george clooney and Bruce Willis, former Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg and Prince Albert ii of Monaco.
All denied even knowing her, let alone sleeping with her — just one example of Jamila Ben M’Barek’s very casual approach to the truth.
Although her relationship with Anthony Ashley-cooper was, at first, strictly professional — she claims that he paid her £4,000 a night — he quickly became besotted with her, much to his family’s despair.
They have declined to comment on the channel 5 documentary but Anthony’s son nick Ashley-cooper, who succeeded to the earldom following the death of his older brother, was interviewed by the Mail in 2013. He said that he suspected Ben M’Barek’s motives the minute he met her over lunch at an italian restaurant in West london.
‘instantaneously i saw her as someone who was out to get everything she possibly could,’ he recalled.
The next bombshell for the family came when Ben M’Barek, told the Earl that she was pregnant and persuaded Anthony to marry her in the netherlands only six months after they first met. His wedding present to her was a £500,000 apartment in cannes, with an allowance of £8,000 a month and two domestic staff, as well as a holiday home in a converted windmill.
He also changed his will in her favour, leaving Ben M’Barek £4million, a villa in nice and a flat in Versailles. And she took enthusiastically to her new aristocratic status. ‘She wore a tiara whenever she was in public and insisted that every woman she knew must curtsy and address her as “countess”,’ writes Michael litchfield.
He describes how when she visited the Shaftesbury estate without her husband, she was furious to learn that the house, the land and the library were all ‘entailed’ to the heir — which meant that it could never be hers.
When she returned to England, she was supposed to be seven months pregnant but she told the Earl that he was a drug addict and drunk who was unfit to be a father and so she had had no choice but to have the child aborted.
They separated and by April 2004 he had met another woman he hoped to marry, a nightclub hostess named nadia Boche.
When he rang Ben M’Barek and told her that he wanted a divorce, she gave him an ominous warning.
‘You’ll be sorry,’ she said — and six months later he disappeared.
Aware that Ben M’Barek stood to inherit far more in the event of his
death than she would receive in a divorce settlement, following his disappearance the police placed a tap on her phone and heard her complaining to her sister that their brother, Mohammed, was blackmailing her for £100,000 as payment for helping her dispose of the Earl’s body.
When questioned, she claimed that her husband had been accidentally killed during an altercation with Mohammed at her apartment, and that she and her brother had panicked and loaded the body into the boot of his car.
She claimed that she didn’t know where it had been dumped. But her phone records showed that, two days before the Earl died, she had been in a remote spot miles outside Cannes. The police searched the area and in April 2005 they found the Earl’s badly decomposed remains in a valley where it had lain undiscovered and at the mercy of mountain wolves for months.
A post- mortem examination showed that he had been strangled and beaten. And although Ben M’Barek had not taken part in the physical attack on the Earl, payments to her brother from her bank account confirmed that this had been a murder premeditated by the two of them.
When the case came to court in 2007 it took the jury just two hours to find them guilty. Both were sentenced to 25 years in prison where Ben M’Barek was said to have demanded that both the governor and her lawyers should address her as ‘ Countess’ and that the warders should bow to her.
While her brother remains locked up, Ben M’Barek was released in 2016 for good behaviour inside after serving just nine years. According to the captions at the end of the TV programme she received no money from the Earl’s estate and currently lives in Switzerland.
All efforts to contact her had failed as the Mail went to press so we can only speculate as to how she makes her money.
According to a spokesman for Debrett’s Peerage, no action has been taken formally to prevent her using the title Dowager Countess.
The spokesman said: ‘it would be very difficult to do so. But we suspect most people, particularly the family, would not afford her the courtesy. We certainly do not record her as such in our database.’
That message of disapproval does not appear to have reached Ben M’Barek, judging by those social media accounts which suggest that she has little remorse for her crime.
At the very end of the featurelength programme, it’s believed she is questioned about what she would say to Anthony AshleyCooper’s family if she met them now. ‘i would say sorry to them for the pain that you had,’ she apparently replies, almost as if he had died of a terminal illness, rather than at the behest of the woman whose ruthless pursuit of money saw her mastermind her husband’s cruel and untimely death.
I WAS widowed very suddenly two-and-a-half years ago, while living in France and moved back to the UK soon afterwards.
My daughter died 20 years ago this week of meningitis when she was 23 and my brother died in April last year.
My only family is my niece and I moved to live in the same county to be close to her. But as a paediatrics consultant in an NHS hospital, she is so busy and I don’t see her often.
I didn’t know anyone when I moved here and made an effort to make friends by joining the WI, U3A and a knitting group, and I got to know other dog walkers (I have a springer spaniel).
But all the friends I have made have partners/ husbands/children/grandchildren and I still feel incredibly lonely, especially at weekends. While I try to be cheerful and interested in their lives when we meet, I don’t think any of them realise how desperately sad I feel when faced with days when I spend all my time alone with my dog.
I’ve tried to make contact via Facebook and other local internet sites with other people, who, like me, have no family around, but that’s been unsuccessful.
I’m not looking for another life partner after 43 years of marriage, but wonder if I should look on dating apps for the older person!
Most weekends I end up in tears, weeping for what I have lost and just longing for someone to put an arm round me and reassure me that things will be all right. I read your column every week and it has taken me months to pluck up the courage and write.
Your brave, sad email arrived a week before another longer one, with a similar sorrow at its heart. Another widow, JB, reflected on the cumulative pain of previous bereavements, leading to the loss of her husband four months ago. Here she is:
‘This is the first time I have lived alone. From a big family, I met my husband when we were 16, married at 20 and had three children. When they left home we still had each other, soulmates, together for 58 years. I hope you can give me some reason for continuing to make an effort.
‘A lot of people have said how strong I am, but I don’t feel it. I’m just carrying on. I get up, do my make-up and dress well. The house is clean and tidy and my little dog is a comfort. But now I ask: will I get over this?’
over the years I have received so many letters like these two, from men and women alike, wondering how to continue with life after the death of a beloved partner or spouse.
What’s more, in my personal life I have shared conversations with many friends who tell me that after such a bereavement it’s hard to know whether you can summon enough strength to get out of bed in the morning and whether it’s worth it.
Some of them might be blessed with loving families and good friends and neighbours, yet still that silent spectre called ‘Loss’ follows them wherever they go and climbs the lonely stairs with them at night.
You, Joanna, desperately want company and have tried with admirable fortitude and energy to make new friends. JB wants to know if it is possible to ‘get over’ the loss of a soulmate, and wonders if it is humanly possible to get used to living alone.
My heart goes out to you both and (as so often, writing this column I love so much) I feel utterly helpless in the face of your grief.
Yet JB asks me specifically for ‘ a reason for continuing to make an effort’ and so I must try.
Because — let’s be honest, even if such honesty can seem bleak — finding a reason to live is at the very heart of
the human condition. And it’s not always easy.
At midnight, two weeks from today, we will all move our clocks forward one hour and summer time will begin. Yes, it may still be cold. Yes, there may be frost in April and May.
Yes, we might find the lighter evenings make us melancholy, as we reflect on time passing so quickly and watch people in the street. Yes, the blossom on the trees might become so blasted by heavy rain we miss the chance fully to enjoy the pink and white beauty.
All those things can happen, as you know, just as some of us will receive bad news from the doctor, while others hear something to lift them to a peak of joy… and all this is about being human, coming to terms with life and facing the veiled future. The daffodil spikes can seem cruel as they tear through the earth or look utterly glorious, filling hearts like Wordsworth’s with pleasure.
And so we stumble onwards, making the best of it while we can and, on other days, feeling like giving up.
But the reason to go on lies within the not- knowing. The promise of what might happen, the hope that sings through the bedraggled bird on the bough, the flash of a smile in the street. These things (and so many more) are why we get out of bed. Why the dog’s tail wagging urges us to look after other living things as well as ourselves. To look outwards — always.
Believe me, I hear the grief and loneliness in both the letters, from you Joanna and from JB, which moved me so much.
Countless readers will hold out hands to both of you, because they understand what you are going through. And there is nothing to do except what you are both doing — carry on going out as much as possible, appearing to be strong, and just trying. I offer the small consolation that the act of seeming strong can and will become a habit which, in time, does diminish pain. And that the hope of making new friends is real, and so is a gradual adjustment to life on your own.
What do our beloved dead want for us? That we continue and be happy if we can.
As the late poet Brendan Kennelly wrote:
Though we live in a world that
dreams of ending
That always seems about to
Something that will not
acknowledge conclusion Insists that we forever begin.