Downton Abbey's royal gigolo
'Downton Abbey' features a new jazz singer character based on 1920s cabaret star Leslie 'Hutch' Hutchinson, whose seductive skills caused a High Court libel sensation with Edwina Mountbatten. Christopher Wilson reports
He was a runaway train, a battering ram, a seducer and philanderer with the sweetest voice and the surest touch. Upper-class women swooned for him, royalty melted in his presence. In bed or in cabaret, there was nobody else quite like Leslie Hutchinson.
In a recent episode, cloaked under the name of Jack Ross, he entered 'Downton Abbey' as a sizzling jazz singer. For Ross, however, read Hutch – Britain's biggest music star in the inter-war years.
Hutch dressed in Savile Row, was chauffeured everywhere in his Rolls-Royce, rode to hounds, fished for trout, and spoke with a delightful upper-crust accent. His greatest fan was the Prince of Wales, and his most passionate lover Edwina Mountbatten. His life was that of an aristocratic English rake – except that he was black.
As has become customary, Julian Fellowes will be drawing on episodes from real life as his character Jack Ross insinuates himself into the affections of the Crawley family. But it's unlikely Fellowes will avail himself of the full catalogue of sexual shenanigans that sum up Hutch's life.
Will Fellowes dare to have one of his characters order a priapus sheath from Cartier? It happened to Hutch. Will Jack Ross have all his clothes and jewellery paid for by women, as Hutch did? Will Ross perform in a singing brothel? Hutch, again.
Leslie Arthur Julien Hutchinson, who was born in Grenada of mixed parentage, was a precocious child. In his teens, he moved to New York to study medicine, but was diverted from his ambition by the acclaim he found playing piano in Manhattan bars. He moved to Paris to further his musical career before arriving in London in 1927. Slim, athletic, seductively handsome, Hutch was at the top of his game. Women flocked to him and showered him with presents. He made his West End debut in 'One Dam' Thing After Another', an expensively mounted revue with costumes by Coco Chanel.
But, immediately, he came up against a prejudice that still consumed large parts of the population: his place, he discovered, was to be in the orchestra pit – black men were not allowed onstage with white women. And though the reviews were ecstatic, 'Variety' magazine made no mention of his name – he may have been brilliant, but he was black. Those were the rules.
Such shibboleths did not concern the upper classes, and in that first heady discovery he became the subject of an almost disproportionate hero-worship. At the first night of 'One Dam' Thing', the Prince of Wales brought along the Earl of Lonsdale; his cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, took a box with his wife Edwina. They were transfixed by what they saw.
"The waiters stopped dead as if petrified when he sang," recalled one eyewitness. "He had a liquid, magic voice. He could inject more sex into one bar of music than most people knew in a lifetime."
"Lady Louis'', as Edwina was known, was enraptured. The grand-daughter of King Edward VII's uber-rich banker Ernest Cassel, she epitomised the spirit of the age of the Bright Young People, and a typical entertainment might include living the day backwards, starting the morning with brandy and a five-course dinner and ending up at midnight with porridge.
She was rich, she was headstrong – and what Edwina wanted, Edwina got. That included, according to biographer Charlotte Breese, the gorgeous jazz singer she met at the post-performance party. A few nights later, Hutch performed a late-night set at swanky Chez Victor: "He sang directly to Edwina. (She) took off her chiffon scarf and put it round his neck and kissed him while he was playing." Such behaviour, between an aristocrat and a black entertainer, was unheard-of. But Edwina didn't mind who talked, or what they said.
Hutch, bemused by this latest attention but ready to take on all-comers, was living with a society girl, Zena Naylor, and had had affairs with actresses Tallulah Bankhead and Merle Oberon, and another aristocrat, "Babe" Plunkett Greene. He also had a wife tucked away in north London.
I t made no difference – Edwina couldn't get enough of him. As his star rose, her passion for him increased, and four years later the couple were still making music. By this time, Hutch was being celebrated as the greatest entertainer of the age; but Walter Winchell, America's leading gossip columnist, did his best to prick the bubble by drawing attention to this most unlikely pairing. British newspapers looked the other way.
Nonetheless, Noel Barber, then Paris correspondent for a Fleet Street newspaper, wrote a novel putting into fiction what was on everybody's lips: "Edwina Mountbatten. Married to Queen Victoria's grandson. They say she's fond of dark-skinned men. They're particularly well endowed, you know." John Mills, the actor, recalled: "He used to play tennis and was great fun. I remember we men all showered together. What a man!"
In her biography of the singer, Charlotte Breese adds: "Promiscuity was wholly natural to Hutch and, for many, much of his attraction lay in his uninhibited approach to sex. Hutch boasted to fellow musicians that his penis was 'the biggest in the world'."
Small wonder, perhaps, that Edwina should pay homage to the prized possession by commissioning from Cartier a jewelled sheath for it, which in later years he joyously showed off to fellow musicians. She gave him, more conventionally, a jewelled gold cigarette case "with an affectionate inscription", a signet ring bearing her coat of arms on the inside, and a gold identity bracelet bearing another inscription. Hutch, in return, gave her love – and lots of it.
A BBC producer, Bobby Jay, recalled their antics: "I was at a grand party. Edwina interrupted Hutch playing the piano. She kissed his neck and led him by the hand to the dining room. There was a shriek and, a few minutes later, she returned, straightening her clothes."
Bizarrely, Hutch took Edwina with him when he performed for inmates of Dartmoor Prison. Onlookers stood back in amazement as a chauffeured limousine slid through the prison gates – in the back sat Hutch and Edwina, holding hands. It was only time before, with all this madness, something had to give. And it did. The fun came to an end on a Sunday morning when a newspaper unexpectedly launched an attack on Edwina. Without naming her, the article trumpeted: "It concerns one of the leading hostesses in the country – a woman highly connected and immensely rich. Her association with a coloured man . . . the couple were caught in compromising circumstances."
The article was understood by most to imply Edwina was having an affair with Paul Robeson, the only other black male singer in London. The writer went on to infer that Edwina, who'd temporarily moved to Malta, where her husband was serving in the Royal Navy, had been ordered to come home by the King, George V, along with her husband. Indeed, Mountbatten was given a sea-plane to fly home in, with another for his bags.
The resulting High Court libel case caused a sensation. Edwina stated she had never met Robeson – a fact confirmed by the singer. It was a case of mistaken identity but, as Edwina's biographer Janet Morgan, observes: "The effects were ineradicable for years."
With the King, who prided himself as being custodian of the nation's morals, gunning for it, the newspaper backed down. Massive damages were paid to charity and the Mountbattens were very publicly invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace the next day, neatly papering over the cracks in their marriage.
But though still a superstar – he made famous such standards as 'A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square' and 'These Foolish Things' – Hutch suddenly felt the chilly wind of establishment disapproval. Despite his continuing success, Hutch was never asked to perform at a Royal Command Performance. The BBC dropped him from radio shows and certain theatres no longer booked him.
A nd slowly his career started to slide. During World War II, he entertained the troops tirelessly, but was never recognised for his morale-boosting work. He was struggling to make ends meet, performing at a Trafalgar Square restaurant, while Edwina was by then Vicereine of India, surrounded by servants and crowned in glory.
The former lovers were to meet just once more, however. After work one night, Hutch limped over to the Dorchester Hotel for a last drink.
As he walked in, the newly ennobled Earl and Countess Mountbatten were marching out. "Oh look," cooed Edwina, "there's Hutch!"
"Hutch?" snarled Mountbatten. "I thought he was dead." Poor old Hutch. He may as well have been.