The mystery of David Jacobs, the Liberace Lawyer
With the film 'Behind the Candelabra’ opening this week, the tawdry life and mysterious death of a showbiz solicitor remains veiled in secrecy
When, in 1959, the bejewelled and perfumed Liberace walked out of a London libel court, £26,000 the richer and declaring that he was “crying all way to the bank”, after a newspaper columnist had implied – outrageously! – that he might possibly be homosexual, he had one man to thank.
David Jacobs was the showbusiness solicitor who had planned Liberace’s strategy in his libel case against the Daily Mirror columnist Cassandra, recommending that the pianist should hire Gilbert Beyfus, a lawyer who was 73 years old and suffering from terminal cancer. Clapping eyes on Beyfus, Liberace – the film of whose life, Behind the Candelabra, opens on Friday – was horrified and suggested they go for a younger man. But Jacobs was adamant, and Beyfus was able to persuade the jury that Liberace was of unimpeachable moral character, not the “luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother-love…” that Cassandra had accused him of being.
For much of the 1950s and 1960s, David Jacobs was the leading showbusiness lawyer in Britain. His list of clients constituted a who’s who of the world of entertainment and beyond.
He represented Laurence Olivier, Judy Garland, Zsa Zsa Gabor and the Beatles manager Brian Epstein. He acted in the Profumo case and for John Vassall, the Admiralty civil servant who was convicted of spying for the Russians after being blackmailed over his homosexuality.
Whether the problem was divorce, drugs, sex or libel, Jacobs had a silken facility for getting – or keeping – his clients out of trouble. But he was to prove tragically unable to solve the problems of his own life.
On December 15, 1968, at the age of 56, he was found hanged by a rope from a beam in the garage of his home in Hove. A coroner returned a verdict of suicide. But exactly why David Jacobs should have chosen to kill himself – or if indeed he did – remains one of the more tantalising mysteries of Sixties London.
Jacobs was every bit as theatrical as the clients he represented: 6ft 3in tall, with dyed black hair, he cut a suave and commanding figure. He shared his tailor with Prince Rainier of Monaco. To the frequent consternation of judges and opposing counsel, he would appear in court wearing full pancake make-up. He employed a chauffeur to drive his two-tone pink-and-maroon Rolls-Royce and kept a table on permanent reserve at Le Caprice in Piccadilly.
“David,” says Peter Maddock, who worked as his articled clerk for a number of years, “was one of those big people who moved like a ship under sail. Quick on his feet. He was a personality.”
Jacobs was homosexual at a time when homosexual acts between men were illegal, and when to be gay was to be part of a necessarily secretive, subterranean world in which prominent figures in showbusiness, society and politics would inevitably have known each other.
It was predictable, then, that Jacobs should have acted for a large circle of clients who preferred to keep their sexual preferences secret: Brian Epstein, the broadcaster Gilbert Harding, the composer Lionel Bart; and the Tin Pan Alley impresario Larry Parnes – “Mr Parnes, Shilling and Pence” – who built the careers of the first generation of British rock ’n’ roll singers, including Billy Fury, Marty Wilde and Vince Eager, and whom Parnes, it was said, named according to their sexual characteristics.
A gregarious and highly sociable figure, Jacobs was famous for throwing extravagant parties at his home in Chelsea, and at the family home in Hove, where his mother continued to live, and where Jacobs built an extension likened to “a Miami hotel” for entertaining. He had lent the house to Ringo Starr and his new bride, Maureen, for their honeymoon in 1965.
He was highly secretive about his own affairs. For 17 years he was in a relationship with a hairdresser, John Barr, who lived in his Chelsea home and whom Jacobs maintained on £1,000 a year.
His flamboyant character and list of high-profile clients made him a well-known figure in the press.
In one newspaper profile of the time, a friend described him as a man “passionately dedicated to his job”, who “has never become corroded by the seamier side of it”.
“Whatever problem anyone can offer me,” Jacobs once said, “whether they be a pauper or a millionaire, all I want is that I can solve it for them. People can come into my office, and in 10 minutes I can tell them their whole lives – and they can’t understand how.”
His clients, he said, “are my life”.
He had a reputation for being shrewd, and tough. Lord Beaverbrook – himself, no pushover – once said that he would rather have Jacobs on his side than against him any time. “Other solicitors,” Jacobs admitted, “on the whole hate me.”
His skills, and his contacts, were particularly useful in the accident-prone world of pop music.
“There was always an implication that if you need anything, come to David,” remembers Peter Brown, who was right-hand man and confidant to Brian Epstein. “David knew everyone and could always fix something for you.”
More than just lawyer and client, Epstein and Jacobs were close friends. They had much in common: both were Jewish and came from families in the furniture business – Jacobs’s grandfather had founded Times Furnishings. Both were habitual users of uppers and downers. Epstein was a frequent visitor to Hove. He trusted Jacobs on all matters.
It was ironic, then, that Jacobs should have been responsible for making one of the costliest business decisions in the history of popular music when, in 1963, with Epstein’s approval, he signed away the rights to all Beatles merchandise for a derisory 10 per cent, to an acquaintance from the London party circuit named Nicky Byrne.
It was an uncharacteristic lapse.
In August 1967, when Epstein was found by his housekeeper, dead from of an overdose of sleeping pills at his London home, Jacobs was quickly on the scene. Peter Brown remembers arriving shortly afterwards. “The street was full of reporters and David was holding court, bossing everyone and generally taking charge of things. David and I then had to go and identify the body in the mortuary. It still horrifies me to think about it.”
By 1968, Jacobs’s own life, not least its more secretive aspects, was becoming more complicated.
In September of that year, he was involved in a bizarre case in which a Hungarian interior decorator was found half-naked, nailed to a cross on Hampstead Heath. Three men were charged with grievous bodily harm. Jacobs represented them in court. Two of the men were unemployed; the third was another interior decorator: hardly the glamorous showbusiness figures who usually constituted his clientele. Police, it was said, had been questioning Jacobs himself over the case.
At around that time, Jacobs was admitted to the Priory clinic, allegedly on the verge of a breakdown. “It was all hushed up,” remembers Peter Maddock, who saw him shortly after he had been discharged, at a dinner party in Knightsbridge.
“He was very much a shadow of himself. He’d lost an enormous amount of weight. There was clearly some major issue preying on his mind, a number of things, perhaps. It was obvious he was in trouble.”
In November, Jacobs invited Peter Brown and his partner, the tailor Tommy Nutter, to spend the weekend in Hove. “It was very strange,” Brown recalls. “David was very hospitable, trying his best to be charming and nice to us, but he was very edgy. He was definitely on something.” Jacobs’s lover, John Barr, was in a different part of the house. “We never saw him,” Brown says. “It was all very creepy. When we left to go back to London, Tommy said: 'I never want to go back there again.’ ”
It was three weeks later that David Jacobs was found dead. At the inquest, his brother Basil said that Jacobs had been concerned over tax problems. (He left £105,000; a tidy sum in those days.) But that did not seem to be all. It was reported that following his death, police had found “almost indecipherable notes” in Jacobs’s hand in his red smoking jacket, leading them to question a number of young men and “several well-known and titled people” about parties in West End flats and country houses.
Jacobs, it was further reported, had been helping a peer of the realm who had paid £30,000 to silence a blackmailer, following an incident in which a naked man had been found crawling through Soho; Jacobs was possibly being blackmailed himself. John Merry, a private investigator who had been employed by Jacobs, told newspapers that there were “certain things” going on in Jacobs’s life.
Merry later claimed that Jacobs had telephoned him two days before his death, saying: “I’m in terrible trouble. They’re all after me,” and reeled off the names of six prominent figures in showbusiness. When the investigator tried to reassure him, Jacobs rang off.
There was another, yet more lurid, story. It is said that shortly before his death, Jacobs was approached by an emissary of the gangster Ronnie Kray – himself well known in London’s gay world – seeking his help. Ronnie and his brother Reg were due to stand trial at the Old Bailey, charged with the murders of George Cornell and Jack “The Hat” McVitie. Jacobs, it is said, refused to help, and had asked for police protection.
Peter Maddock doubts the story, or that Jacobs and Kray were acquainted. “Bob [Lord] Boothby was famous for courting the criminal, and Francis Bacon. It was very fashionable in the 1960s – that East meets West thing. But David was not involved with gangsters. It wasn’t his style.”
But Maddock has another story to tell. Shortly after Jacobs’s death, Maddock visited the playwright Robin Maugham, a close friend of Jacobs, at his home in Hove. Maugham had something to show him. It was a Christmas card from Jacobs. “All love and best wishes for the New Year. David.”
It had been posted two days before his death, Maddock says.
“Does a man planning to take his own life write Christmas cards?”
As originally seen on Telegraph.co.uk