We were driving down to Southend-on-Sea on the Essex coast. Christine lived there for a short time but I can’t quite remember the dates. I remember it was summer, some time in the late 1990’s and Christine really wanted me to move down to Southend with her. I was living in a small studio flat in London, it was very pokey and she hated the idea of me being there. Her idea was to get a flat in Southend and we could both live near the sea and near family. Christine had some family in Southend, her aunties Betty and Pam both lived there with their grown-up children. Christine’s aunts were both nearly the same age as her, they grew up together, they went fishing on the Thames together, they were close.
We went down to look for a flat to rent, I think with a copy of Loot, a pink newspaper that advertised all the rentals. There was one that had caught her eye, it was only a few streets away from her Aunty Betty. It was bigger than she needed so I asked why she needed the extra bedrooms and that is when she told me about her plan: “You can come and live here too and get out of that horrible flat.” We then had a very frank conversation about how I wasn’t moving to Southend - I was in my late twenties.
Driving back to London, through the East End she told me about her friend who had lived nearby who had died a few years ago. “They killed her, Seems,” she said. “Mariella Novotny, she knew too much and she was murdered, she was going to write a book about everything, but they killed her and stole her address book, it was the CIA or MI5 or someone, but they wanted to silence her... she knew too much.”
Mariella Novotny was right at the centre of the Stephen Ward story. According to Christine she was born Stella Capes and changed her name, because as Christine said, Mariella Novotny “had more of a whiplash ring to it”.
In 1960 she married Horace Chapmen-Dibben, a rich nightclub owner and antiques dealer. Hod Dibben (as he was known) was also a good friend of Stephen Ward.
Mariella lived the most extraordinary life. In December 1960 she went to New York with a new lover, Harry Alan Towers, a film producer. Mariella had plans on being a famous actress. There were sex parties with the East Coast elite, even, apparently the Kennedys, according to Mariella. She was soon sleeping with men and giving money to Towers, but by March 1961 she was arrested for prostitution. In a statement to the FBI she claimed that Alan Towers was a Soviet agent providing information to the Russians to compromise prominent individuals. The FBI investigation was called the Bow Tie case.
Mariella jumped bail and with a false name made her way back to London, where she returned to hosting sex parties for the well connected.
Alan Towers pleaded not guilty to all charges and also jumped bail but made his way to Eastern Europe. The FBI soon dropped the charges and Towers returned to London to enjoy a long career producing a vast number of movies, but there was always a question mark as to whether he had been a Soviet spy.
Dibben and Mariella hosted sex parties, this time for the elite in London, like the infamous ‘Feast of the Peacocks’ sex party that had the mysterious man in the mask.
Christine told me years later that lots of people were wearing masks.
Mariella did an interview with The News of the World in 1963, and it’s a cracking read even now.
In 1973 she wrote a book called ‘Kings Road,’ talking about famous lovers. Later in the 1970s she helped investigate police corruption, even working undercover. In 1980 Mariella announced she was going to write a book about her amazing life and all of her encounters. “It is going to be dynamite,” she said.
The book never arrived and three years later she was found dead at home in bed. The coroner called it ‘death by misadventure,’ a drug overdose. Apparently a few days later her flat was burgled and her notes, files and diaries disappeared.
Christine maintained she was murdered for the secrets she knew and because the book she was writing would have embarrassed people in power. Christine believed Mariella was pivotal to those events in 1963, “because of all she knew and the power of blackmail”.
Both Mariella Novotny and her husband Hod Dibben gave evidence to Lord Denning for his report. What had they to say? Well, you will have to wait until 1st January 2048 when that part of the report is declassified.
Mariella lived the most extraordinary life, I really haven’t done her justice on this blog, in fact there is a book on its way about her: The Novotny Papers: 'A Bit Vulture, A Bit Eagle' by Lilian Pizzichini. I do hope it is dynamite!
Mariella’s Wikipedia is almost entirely blank.
This week there was some publicity because I was asked to go on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour to talk about the pardon for Christine. The show had run over so there was a little pressure on time, as I found out that Woman’s Hour is not actually an hour long, but much closer to 45 minutes.
Interviews are always nerve wrecking because you never quite know what angle they are going to come at you with.
38:30 minutes in and Emma Barnett, the presenter, said they were going to play a clip of my mother’s interview they had from 2000. There was no prior warning and I didn’t see it coming, honestly it took the legs from under me. When you lose a parent hearing their voice again brings them back, they are in the room or on the telephone with you, that is a by-product of loss. It was particularly emotional because Christine talked about how much she loved me, and how I had understood her. It was very moving and as you can hear on the interview my voice did get stuck in my throat.
After the interview lots of people got in touch to ask if I knew the BBC were going to play the clip of my mother. No, that took me by surprise. I had no idea.
In the clip Christine was really emotional about how people could just lie about her, she talked about being called a ‘gobbler’ in the newspapers, ‘gobbler’ meaning exactly what you imagine. Christine talked about how horrific that was her. People could say anything they wanted about her; it made her feel worthless, it made her feel less than human. I heard the exasperation in her voice and it took me right back to her sadness and her frustration because people could say anything they wanted to Christine and they could even say it to her face, because she was a convicted perjurer.
That is why.
In this part of the world we are still in a lockdown. Outside it’s still winter, the days are short and it’s turned much colder, but the forecast is that the cold snap will end soon and I am beginning to notice that the short days are finally getting longer.
We have been very busy, in fact by now I feel that I have read every newspaper article from 1963. There is a surprising amount online. The Times have their whole archive online as does The Observer and The Guardian. You can also find The Mirror and ahost of local newspapers like The Belfast Telegraph all at your fingertips. They all have opinion pieces, interviews or court reporting and they all help build up a detailed picture of what happened to Christine in 1963 as she went from court case to court case.
Christine spent a phenomenal amount of time in court in 1963. In January she gave evidence at the preliminary hearing against Johnny Edgecombe - famously she was out of the country before the actual trial in March. In April she was back in court, this time because of the Gordon assault, again in May and again for Gordon’s trial in June.
In June she was at the preliminary hearing of Stephen Ward’s case, then in July the trial itself, and September, October and December she was back in court, this time charged with perjury and conspiracy to obstruct the course of justice.
At the beginning of 1963, Christine was still 20 and she would spend that year at the centre of four high profile court cases and all under the scrutiny of the world’s media. I can’t imagine how mentally exhausting that must have been.
Christine could be excellent company. When I got married in Scotland all our friends,along with Christine, travelled up to Edinburgh the day before, and that night Christine stayed up holding court and entertaining everybody with funny stories, most of which were embarrassing tales about me. I am just pleased she didn't give the best man speech! But on the day of my wedding she was tired, tetchy and much less fun.
I have lots of friends who tell stories of spending an evening with Christine in hysterics as she regaled them with anecdotes - she could be good fun. Like most of us, Christine struggled to remember jokes, she could never remember the punchline, or maybe she couldn’t remember the set up, but she loved stories that made her laugh and the ruder the jokes the better.
Christine loved telling the three men and the fridge joke. If you haven’t heard it, there are three men walking up the stairs to heaven and they ask each other how they died.
The first man says, ‘I was so convinced that my wife was cheating on me, I left work early and rushed home to catch her at it, but when I got there she was in bed on her own. I was so wrong and I felt like such an idiot that I picked up the fridge and threw it out of the window, but the handle caught my belt and I fell out of the window with it!’
The next man gives him a long hard stare and says, ‘There I was walking up the street and this damn fridge fell on my head!’
The last man says ‘Well, there I was, minding my own business, sitting in this fridge...”
Christine would fold up laughing at this joke.
Christine liked the great Irish comic Dave Allen and would let me stay up late to watch his show. I remember she loved the way he said the word ‘fart’. I have been living in Ireland for about 15 years and talked to people from all over with all the different Irish accents but I think everyone says the word ‘fart’ the same way, just like Dave Allen said it.
When I was at school I heard my first Christine Keeler joke. By then there weren’t that many, they were already out of fashion by the time I went to school. One of my friends said to me, “Here’s a joke my dad tells: Christine Keeler walks into a fishmonger.” Now my friend had no idea who my mother was, we were young kids at school and we didn't waste our time talking about our parents. “The fish monger says to her ‘pound of fillet?’ and Christine Keeler says, ‘I bet you a pound you don’t.” I never said it was a good joke.
When I told my friend Christine Keeler was in fact my mother he was mortified and this story ended with me consoling him, but I realised even then that of course there would have been jokes about my mother, she had been famous, and of course there would be jokes like that. I would be naive to think anything else.
Just a few years ago a very good friend contacted me, he was all excited as he had just been told a Christine Keeler joke. He was working with an older man who had no idea of the connection between him and me, and he told him the joke out of the blue.
My friend couldn’t wait to tell me.
“Now you won’t get upset?” He was being polite because he was a good friend so he was going to tell me the joke if I wanted to hear it or not.
“Christine Keeler gets her toe stuck in a bath. Mandy Rice-Davies does everything she can to help Christine get the stuck toe unstuck, but after a long time of pulling and pushing at the toe, they decide to call a plumber because the toe won’t budge.
Before the plumber arrives Mandy grabs a tea towel to cover Christine’s top half and finds a bowler hat to cover her lower area so Christine wouldn’t be naked when the plumber arrived. The door bell rings and in comes the plumber. He takes a good look at Christine in the bath with the tea towel over her top half and the bowler hat covering her lower area and then he points at the bowler hat and says, ‘I won’t be able to get him out of there’.”
We both laughed.