MONTE CARLO, was once described as a sunny place for shady people. In the early 20th Century, this pocket-sized principality became one of the most popular and decadent playgrounds in the Mediterranean, a heady ferment of louche grifters, loose women and fallen aristocracy. Dostoyevsky wrote his story The Gambler based on his betting disasters in the city, in which he lost all of his royalties on future works. He and other roulette casualties helped line Monte Carlos's public coffers to the point where it no longer needed to tax its citizens (a situation which still exists today).
Not surprisingly, then, the casino, a shimmering whitewashed palace set in elegant gardens, was the principality's de facto church and its town hall. Inside, behind fringed curtains and in the sultry glow of green lamps, the rituals at the table were as solemn and serious as any mass. Instead of incense the air swam with cheap perfume and crackled with tension -- Monte Carlo's ragged "suicide graveyard" provided a constant reminder of just what was at stake for some. Outside on the terrace the express train from Bologna to Cannes could be heard bringing flowers from the Cote Azur. And in the distance the indigo Italian hills provided a horizon of serenity.
In the early 1900s there cannot have been too many Irishmen with the means of stumbling into this Gatsby-esque vision. Dublin's status as the Second City in the Empire was waning and the public finances were in disarray. Vere St Leger Goold was no ordinary Irishman, however. As detailed in Michael Sheridan's new book, Murder in Monte Carlo, and in Love All, a play held last summer at the Clonmel Junction Festival, Goold was a member, albeit a slightly dubious one, of the Anglo-Irish gentry.
The fifth son of a magistrate in Co Waterford, his grandfather was a baronet and his grandmother was a daughter of the Earl of Kenmare. According to an Irish Times cutting from the time, he settled in Dublin and was appointed secretary of the Municipal Boundaries Commission of Inquiry into the Land Act and he additionally received, he said, an income of £400 a year from the Earl of Cork. He would later preface his name with "sir" -- a title more properly due to his still-living brother -- on the grounds that his acquaintances were clamouring to befriend someone who sounded like he might be a knight.
If Goold's breeding was somewhat less than true blue, he was, nevertheless, a colourful member of the Anglo-Irish social scene in Dublin in the early part of the 1900s. Much of this stemmed from his skill at the newly popular game of tennis. As a pastime for the upper middle classes, it was perfect -- expensive enough to keep it out of the reach of riff-raff, yet not so expensive as, say, polo, which all but the very wealthiest found prohibitive. It was genteel and vigorous, "yet without the temptation for injurious over exertion" according to a contemporaneous press report. And as a sport it was enjoying a boom across mainland Europe and England. In 1877 Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis club was founded -- British military got a discount on membership -- and two years later players came from different parts of the country to stay in the Georgian mansions and hotels around South Dublin for the inaugural Irish Championships.
The atmosphere around the competition was more akin to a race meeting than a modern tennis tournament. Displaying a raw athleticism, Goold dominated the competition that year and became such a star at Fitzwilliam that the "yellow" in the club's crest was said to be "gold" (a play on his name). Goold's chiselled good looks and blonde hair made him something of a heartthrob. He was therefore gustily cheered on when he travelled to England in 1879 to take part at Wimbledon, where his "showy and attractive" style took him all the way to the final. There he was defeated by the Reverend John Hartley, who later described Goold as "a wild and cheery Irishman".
Just how wild would be seen in Monte Carlo later, but in that moment in London the description was believed to refer to the roaring hangover which impeded Goold in his quest for sporting immortality. Further outbreaks of overindulgence stunted a budding rivalry with one of the original tennis legends, Willie Renshaw, and by 1883 booze and drugs had caused Goold to hang up his racquets for good.
He moved to London, where a local journalist would later write of him: "Those who knew him described him as a man of perfect breeding and of courtly, charming manner, cultured and generous. He was wont when coming home late from the club or the theatre to collect stray cats and to bring them to share his supper."
He married a French dressmaker, Marie Giraudin, who, according to the London Times, had wed a man against her parents' wishes but then left him and fled to England. There she met and married a captain in the English army -- her first husband having died in the meantime -- but was made a widow for a second time when the captain died and, sinking into penury, she was forced to sell her jewels. It was around this time, in London, that she met Goold. After marrying, the couple were reported to have taken a large and furnished house in London's West End where they held lavish parties and "lived extravagantly".
Early in 1902 the pair ran into serious financial problems. They fell into arrears on the rent and when the landlord called to the house he found it had been cleaned out, but not in a good way -- the furniture had been sold.
From London, the Goolds fled to Canada, where Marie resumed her business in Montreal. The shop prospered but the profits were squandered on gambling -- a foreshadow of the troubles to come -- and on poor investments. They then shuttled between Montreal and Liverpool -- where Goold set up a laundry business. By then, the couple had re-invented themselves as "Sir Vere and Lady Goold".
Vere, meanwhile, plotted a scheme to break the bank of the casino in Monte Carlo. It had been done only a very few times in the past -- once by an English actress who was said to have entranced Oscar Wilde -- and Goold was determined that he would turn his fortunes around. A friend had advised him of a secret system of winning, which, he said, was "infallible".
Upon arriving in the sunny centre of sin, they rented for £100 the fourth floor of a well-known local villa.
According to the Irish Times, "They mixed with the best society and were frequently seen at the tables in the casino." Goold himself was "quiet, unassuming and soft spoken" while his wife was invariably depicted as a domineering battleaxe. They were "on visiting terms with people of note in the resort and were always well dressed and paid their bills regularly". Their niece, Isabelle, who stayed with them, was "one of the belles of the season" and had English doctors pursuing her across ballrooms.
Behind the scenes, however, things had begun to unravel. Although Vere himself would later deny this, the Goolds were running out of money and by midsummer their respectability was increasingly threadbare.
Their solution to these problems was to befriend a rich Danish dowager by the name of Emma Levin, whose Swedish merchant husband had left her a fortune. She was, in Michael Sheridan's words, "one who revelled in the atmosphere of Monte Carlo, the lure of the roulette wheel and the fun of attracting men from 18 to 80 -- anyone who could remove the money from her account or the jewels from her back". According to one newspaper report, the Goolds appeared "anxious to cultivate her". Their plan worked and Levin, who had a reputation in Monte Carlo for being profligate with her money, reportedly lent the couple 1,000 francs.
What they found would eventually make headlines all around the world and lead to one of the biggest continental scandals in the first decade of the century; a woman's torso, with the head and lower parts of the legs severed and missing. The intestines had been removed -- it would later be speculated that this had been done to prevent putrefaction.
The sight nauseated the investigating officer but it was merely a prelude to the horror to come: for inside Vere St Leger Goold's bag were the missing pieces of the corpse -- her severed, bloodied head and her legs.
Sunday Indo Living