Edward Fitzgerald, 7th Duke of Leinster

Do you guys want another story about a debauched aristocrat? Of course you do! I’ve been reading Marcus Scriven’s Splendour & Squalor: The Disgrace and Disintegration of Three Aristocratic Dynasties (2009), and have discovered the rather remarkable, decadent life of Edward Fitzgerald, 7th Duke of Leinster (1892-1976). All quotations will come from that book.

As he lived through the 1970s, his life is generally outside my usual range of focus (the long nineteenth century). However, he got up to plenty of nonsense before the first world war, so he counts!

In no particular order, a few facts about his life:

-As a boy, he attended Eton (naturally). “Amongst the personal possession he kept in the ottoman in his room at Eton were a number of live snakes” (14).

-One incident at his family home when he was a teenager, “he disturbed his family – assembling for breakfast on an austere winter morning – with the sound of repeated gunfire, which was seemingly coming from the rookery at the side of the house . . . . Everyone rushed out and saw Eddie shooting into thin air. They said ‘What the hell are you doing?’ Eddie said, ‘I’m just keeping my hands warm.'” (14).

-His two best friends were a pair of aristocratic brothers, one nicknamed ‘Whisky’ Cole and the other Horace de Vere Cole. They used to love to gamble with each other. Horace Cole once bet Edward that “he could lie down in the street without attracting a crowd“. Edward accepted the bet, and then promptly lost when Horace curled up underneath a parked car where no one could see him. (23).

-Horace Cole was a notorious practical joker and achieved notoriety by “inspecting the Home Fleet at Portsmouth whilst in the guise of an Eastern potentate” (endnote 17, p. 351).

-Edward also once gambled the equivalent of three-years’ income (£3,000) that he could drive from London to Aberdeen in fifteen hours or under. Though it would only take about eight or nine hours by modern standards, in the 1910s, this was a hugely difficult feat with unreliable cars and one-track roads. “Driving an open-top Rolls – and accompanied by a wolfhound”, Edward managed the drive in only thirteen hours (despite taking two seriously wrong turns on the way). In winning the bet, he also got “vehement condemnation in the House of Commons for recklessness, as well as attracting the attention of at least one local constabulary. Summonsed for failing to produce his license, he notched up two speeding fines the following week” (38).

-Edward was very close with his mother’s sister, Cynthia, who attempted to protect him from the worst of his follies over the years. She rarely succeeded. “During his courtship [with his first wife May], largely conducted in fashionable restaurants, Edward found that his evenings were prone to a pattern of sabotage, with Cynthia sending notes to him from another table. Later, on his return from a voyage to New Zealand and Honolulu (intended, by the family, to distract him from his unsuitable finacee), Cynthia was waiting for his ship to dock in Liverpool. Assisted by Desmond [Edward’s older brother], she marched him straight on to a train, before he could see his fiancee or his friend, Captain ‘Whisky’ Cole, both of whom had also been waiting for him” (19).

-May was also on the train that Aunt Cynthia had shoved Edward on. He managed to sneak away from his aunt for a few minutes to visit May’s compartment “and assured her that he would see her that night. He kept his word, arriving at her house in dishevelled stat after dark; he had, he said, been locked into his bedroom at the FitzGerald house in Belgravia, but had escaped by shinning down a drainpipe” (25).

-When he first met May, who was a chorus girl, Edward was largely attracted to her because “he sensed [she] was a girl to break rules with” (24). He later said, “May was more than pretty. She was tiny, dark, and looked like an angel. Other people envied my being with her, and that pleased my vanity. I saw her again and again. I was fond of her, she liked me. Her interest flattered me. She was gay, too, and adorable. But . . . I was not in love with her” (24-25).

-Edward largely married May because he was stubborn and his family kicked up a fuss. Edward said, “I would probably not have married her if my family had not acted as they did” (25). But they tried to stop him seeing her, so he had to get REVENGE, even at the expense of his and May’s own happiness. Their marriage was not a happy one.

-“He doled out a cascade of jewellery, not to May, but to the programme girls at the theatre, considering this an appropriate way to reward them for taking billet doux to May backstage. The charm of the technique was slightly lost on the FitzGeralds when they learned that Edward’s gifts were family jewels. May retrieved them – and kept them” (25).

-On the day of their wedding, the marriage caused an absolute sensation–a young rich duke, marrying a chorus girl?!?! The paparazzi followed them everywhere and they had to leave the registry office by a side entrance and climb over two walls in order to get to the street and escape the press. Edward said, “May was game for anything. She clutched her bouquet in one hand, her handbag in the other while I called her over” (26). They they jumped in a taxi and avoided the following press cars by urging the taxi driver to make a dangerous U-turn.

-After their wedding, Edward loaded May up with booze to soothe her nerves, told her he wasn’t about to waste money in getting them a hotel, and dropped her back off at her house, while he went back to his family home. She didn’t see him for the next two days, after which point he showed up spontaneously at her door and said, “Come on, I’ve got the [honeymoon] tickets. We’re going.” (27).

-“During the brief, hopeless marriage that followed, Edward showed himself at his worst: callow, selfish, inconsiderate. The honeymoon in Canada, for example, was arranged solely with his interests in mind – an amalgam of property deals, fishing and moose-shooting. Most of it was spent at a lakeside hut of spartan purity, almost unfurnished except for an iron bed marooned in a room with wooden floorboards and wooden walls. Supplies were brought in periodically by motor-boat” (26).

-He refused to introduce May to his family. She ultimately met them once, and it was a very tense afternoon.

-May once asked him “if she would soon be taken across to Buckingham Palace to be presented to the Royal Family. Edward [replied] that he had made ‘sufficient fool’ of himself by marrying her without needing to give anyone the opportunity to comment” (27).

-Edward and May quickly overspent their income and were forced to give up their flat and move in with May’s grandmother for a while.  Soon after, they found a pet-shop “whose owners proved gratifyingly accommodating. They produced a lemur . . . and fifteen monkeys in time for the move …. Unfortunately for May’s grandmother, the monkey phase, although beginning to peter out, continued when May and Edward took refuge with her …. The Brixton bathroom coped as well as it could with eight monkeys (seven having been returned to the pet-shop), but was eventually not equal to the struggle, and was abandoned. ‘The smell,’ May recalled, ‘was simply terrible’. A chimpanzee, procured for £50, followed. Edward dressed it in red trousers, jersey and hat, and insisted that it ate with them, whether in Britxton (where it had its own high-chair) or at the hotel or restaurant where they were having dinner. It, in turn, was succeeded by snakes – his old Eton favourite – which were given the run of the couple’s room … ‘and then a fox cub which, at Edward’s insistence, May carried under her arm when walking down Regent Street” (27-28).

-May became pregnant in 1913, The night before she gave birth, “Edward had decided that his wife should accompany him to the boxing at the Ring in Blackfriar’s Road” (28). She gave birth the next morning at 6 a.m. to a little boy named Gerald. Edward immediately got into a car and ran away.

-Gerald’s birth signaled the end of his parents’ marriage. When they split up, Edward insisted that Gerald be taken away from May and raised by Edward’s Aunt Adelaide in Ireland, as it would be a more stable upbringing than either of them could provide the boy. Part of May’s alimony included a clause that she was never to see Gerald again. Edward almost never visited Gerald, to the point that when they were forced to meet years later, they were almost complete strangers to each other.

-About five years after the divorce, when Gerald was about nine or ten, May killed herself by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.

-At this point, Edward got really into racing cars, “an activity from which he derived unusual pleasure, perhaps because of his impregnable indifference to the terror of his passengers” (29).

-It goes without saying that Edward got into an enormous amount of debt in order to pay for his fun and carefree lifestyle. Like many rich wastrels, his incessant spending jeopardized the family estate. He became acquainted with an aristocratic moneylender named Sir Harry Mallaby-Deeley, with whom Edward made the following deal (to the horror of his estate’s trustees): Mallaby-Deeley agreed to pay off all of Edwards debts (the equivalent of £16.4 million in today’s money), and Mallaby-Deeley would also pay Edward an allowance of £1,000 per year for the rest of his life. In return, Mallaby-Deeley would receive all the income from all of Edward’s estates (and all estates entailed to the dukedom)–worth roughly £50,000 per year (at the time), as well as the right to use the great houses whenever Mallaby-Deeley wanted. Of course, Edward forgot to account for inflation. £1,000 a year was a lot of money in the first decades of the century, but it eventually became barely enough for him to survive on. (36) In later years, he tried to “supplement his annual £1,000 allowance by polishing stair rails” (54), although he frequently forgot to show up to work.

-“It was an exercise in futility: by 1936 Edward had notched up his third bankruptcy, owing £139,233. As usual, he was borrowing at fearsome rates of interest. One creditor lent £50, but later claimed £3,075; another demanded £10,000 in repayment for a £2,000 loan” (40).

-Edward then met a conman named Gilbert Marsh, who talked Edward into going to America to woo American heiresses. It was quite stylish, from the 1870s onward, for American girls to gain aristocratic titles and rejuvenate ramshackle estates with their influx of cash. When Edward landed a rich wife, he’d pay off the men who funded his trip. There were several prospective brides: “an Egyptian woman with a weakness for all-in wrestling . . . . Margaret Brown, a widow who was much older than him . . . Mildred Logan, another widow . . . who had seven Rolls-Royces – one for each day of the week” (42). He proposed to Mrs Logan, who was attractive and athletic. However, Edward sensed that she wouldn’t let him get away with his previous lifestyle, so after being engaged to her for several months, he took a bit of a vacation away from her in New York and ended up proposing to another young woman he had known for three weeks, who had no money and was already married to someone else. Her name was Rafaelle van Neck, and she accepted his proposal despite her still very-much-alive husband. I’m not sure if her husband died soon thereafter, or if she divorced him, but she and Edward soon married.

-His marriage to Rafaelle was just as disastrous as his marriage to May. They were plagued by money worries and by Edward’s absolute need to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. “They moved seventeen times in three years” (44). He deserted her several times, leaving her stranded while he went to have adventures and party.

-“Edward’s taste for avoiding things, combined with his appetite for pepping himself up with new female acquaintances, soon finished off the marriage” (45). One day he and Rafaelle were having lunch and she asked him if he was sure he wanted to move to a new house; if so, she would sign the lease that day. He said yes, he was sure. She went off and signed the lease, only to receive a letter shortly thereafter . . . from the husband she had just left in the dining room an hour before. He had apparently taken his dogs and his car and fled the house. He was leaving her, but couldn’t be bothered to say anything at lunch. (45-46).

-Not too long after, he met another former chorus girl (who was seven years older than him) named Denise Orme (called Jo). Jo was a celebrated beauty whose figure was so astonishing that (years later) when her granddaughter walked in on her having a physical examination with a doctor once, she was absolutely stunned by her grandmother’s breasts. Jo was exactly the sort of person Edward needed. She was great fun and had a remarkable talent for keeping easily bored people entertained. She had been married before and wasn’t in a huge rush to be married again. She was also extremely good with money and managed to save Edward from himself on several occasions.

-After several years together, Edward eventually married Jo. Unmarried, their relationship seemed to work. Married, he instantly went back to philandering. He would make up for it by resorting to petty theft to provide Jo with presents. Eventually he met a woman named Yvonne Probyn, but she was more conservative than the other women he was used to and she refused to be just a good time on the side. He liked Yvonne enough to ask Jo for a divorce, but Jo refused. So Edward talked Yvonne into getting pregnant because Jo “would never stand in the way of a child.” (52). Jo, however, felt that being a duchess was something she had earned for putting up with all of Edward’s shit, so she did refuse a divorce. Edward an Yvonne’s son Adrian was born out of wedlock in 1952 (52-53).

-Jo finally got sick of Edward’s shit when he scammed money from her in 1956, especially because he had kept Yvonne as a mistress on the side. They separated but remained married until Jo’s death in 1960.

-After Jo’s death, instead of marrying Yvonne and legitimizing their son, as he had promised to do, he proposed again to his second wife, Rafaelle, who was smart enough to refuse him. Five years later, he married a waitress named Vivien, who was another long-term girlfriend. Their marriage lasted until his death about ten years later.


-He became very unkempt as he got older, to the point that many people refused to believe he was a duke.  “He looked like a gamekeeper . . . . he favoured ‘filthy old corduroys and a sloppy old jersey‘, and was often, remembers one of his step-granddaughters, ‘mistaken for the gardener’. By the 1950s, he occasionally varied his ‘terribly scruffy’ appearance by favouring ‘hideously old fashioned clothes, double-breasted [suits] with huge lapels'” (22).

-“A girlfriend (later his fourth wife) was made aware of this when Edward took her out for dinner on her birthday in the 1950s. The restaurant staff, noticing his unkempt appearance and tired suit, had initially been disinclined to believe that he was a duke; he retaliated by ignoring his plate and eating his food straight from the serving dishes” (21).

-“At the age of seventy-three, he was asked why he had married so often. ‘Four? It’s not so many for my age,’ he replied, still the schoolboy hoping to shock” (21).

-One of Edward’s step-granddaughters remembers attending with Edward a talk and slide show given by an ornithologist. When the talk was over and the ornithologist asked if there were any questions, Edward asked loudly, “Do you have blue tits?” (21). Because he was always a giant child.

-In 1975, a year before his death, he decided to take up his duties in the House of Lords–something he had never done in all his time as a peer. He announced that he would attend sessions two or three times per week and would even speak occasionally on (bafflingly) “whales, porpoises, animals, that sort of thing” (59). He assumed they would pay him to speak, and that there would be money in making speeches. He attended Lords precisely once, and never made a speech–about porpoises or otherwise.

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