In his new book, Andrew Rose contends that a Frenchwoman standing trial for killing her Egyptian husband in 1923 was found not guilty because she possessed scandalous letters proving she'd conducted a torrid affair with a future British king, writes Jonathan Gornall
Book review: Did Royal affair affect murder acquittal?
The Prince and the Princess
It ought to have been an open-and-shut case. In the small hours of July 10, 1923, as a brutal heatwave was finally broken by a thunderstorm that shook London to its core, the 32-year-old French wife of a wealthy young playboy gunned down her husband outside their suite in the Savoy Hotel. The shooting was the violent culmination of a nine-day stay during which the serially faithless wife and the jealous husband had rowed repeatedly.
British law, unlike that of France, admitted no defence of crime passionnel to the act of murder and, when the curtain rose two months later on the sensational trial that followed at the Old Bailey, there was every expectation that the accused would follow in the footsteps of Edith Thompson, a British woman who earlier that year had found herself in the same dock for killing her husband and who subsequently had been hanged at Holloway Prison. But there would be no noose for the Savoy killer. The former Marguerite Alibert had one thing going for her that the late Mrs Thompson had not: the unfortunate target of the three .32 bullets "accidentally" fired from the black Browning semi-automatic pistol she kept under her pillow was an Arab.
A new book about the case argues that the accused succeeded in her plea of not guilty to the murder of Ali Kamel Fahmy thanks to a perversion of the course of justice engineered by aides to the British royal family.
It's a tempting theory and one developed with great enthusiasm and skill by the British author, Andrew Rose.
An Old Bailey barrister, he revisits a story he first told in 1991, armed with the fresh knowledge that during the First World War Marguerite - or Maggie Meller, as the high-class prostitute was then known in the French demimonde - had had a brief affair in 1917 with the young Prince Edward VIII, heir to the British throne.
Edward, a dissolute disappointment who in 1936 was to shock Britain and the Empire by abdicating in order to wed Mrs Wallis Simpson, an American divorcée, was sufficiently dull of wit to have showered the object of his wartime affections with a series of highly indiscreet letters. These, it seemed, remained in Marguerite's possession, and it is the revelation that they did so that has led Rose to construct an entertaining and almost plausible conspiracy theory.
It boils down to an agreement having been made between Marguerite and the royal household which, asserts Rose, "colluded with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the trial judge" in what amounted to "a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice".
The evidence? Unlike the murder scene at the Savoy, there is no smoking gun for Rose's theory, merely, in his own words, "a wealth of coincidence". What is certain, however - as evidenced by court records and newspaper reports at the time - is that Marguerite's greatest advocate at the Old Bailey was racial prejudice.
Marguerite was born in Paris in 1890, the daughter of a cab driver and a cleaning woman. After an early pregnancy, as a teenager she found work as a prostitute in the French capital and set about securing herself the financial support of wealthy men.
In 1907, aged 17, she met André Meller, the rich (and married) 40-year-old son of a Bordeaux wine merchant and, during a seven-year affair, she acquired all the trappings of the kept woman while continuing a series of profitable affairs with a string of other, equally generous married men.
This was the woman the 23-year-old Prince Edward met in Paris in 1917, while on a few days leave from his safe behind-the-lines job at British army headquarters in France. Introduced by fellow officers to the more shadowy delights of Paris, the ingénu prince quickly fell for the experienced Maggie Meller, as she was now known, the first of a series of "pols" whose company he would keep.
The affair lasted for about a year, during which the two exchanged many letters, as the prince later regretted: "If only I can square this case it will be the last one, as she's the only pol I've really written to," he wrote to a friend in 1918. "I'm afraid she's the £100,000 or nothing type … I must say I'm disappointed and didn't think she'd turn nasty."
So did Maggie produce the prince's letters, five years later, as a get-out-of-jail-free card? Rose believes so, though it is hard to see why she hadn't bartered them earlier, for cash, as Edward predicted she would.
After the prince, Marguerite eventually found her way to Ali Fahmy, 10 years her junior.
The spoiled son and heir of a wealthy Cairo civil engineer who had made a fortune in the Egyptian cotton industry, the 22-year-old had been set up for a life of extravagance by the demand for cotton created by the First World War.
Entertaining generously in Cairo and the fashionable fleshpots of Europe, Ali became known in the English-speaking press as "Prince Fahmy" - a bogus attribution, as Rose notes, that "he seems to have done little to discourage".
Fahmy met Marguerite for the first time in Cairo in the spring of 1922, while she was staying at the Semiramis Hotel with her latest admirer. Both were, of course, following the same seasonal migratory trail of the idle rich, and their paths crossed again in Paris and Deauville, where in May Marguerite moved into Ali's suite at the Majestic.
By all accounts - though chiefly that of Ali's faithful secretary, Said Enani - theirs was a tempestuous relationship, complicated by Marguerite's reluctance to break off other financially rewarding liaisons.
By November, Ali had persuaded Marguerite to join him in Cairo, a city she had visited twice before as the mistress of other men. This time, however, the man of the moment asked her to marry him and on December 26 she did so. In January she converted to Islam and by July Ali was dead. This, in Rose's words, "was murder for gain".
At the trial, Marguerite was represented by Sir Edward Marshall Hall, a star barrister known as The Great Defender. His tactics were simple - to paint Marguerite as a helpless white woman first seduced by the mystery of the Orient and then driven to desperate measures by her beast of an Arab husband.
The British press had laid the groundwork, accusing Fahmy of having indulged in "every form of excitement that could appeal to a sensuous nature". He and Marguerite were "the beautiful and the bestial", a charge reinforced in court by her allegation that she had been driven to despair by her husband's unnatural demands.
Hall declared his client had been infatuated with Fahmy, who at the outset of their relationship, as The Times reported, had "showed her his gorgeous palace, his retinue of servants, his Rolls-Royces, his motorboats and his yacht".
But it had soon transpired that he was "a man who enjoyed the sufferings of women … abnormal and a brute", and the helpless Marguerite had found herself "at the mercy of Fahmy and his entourage of black servants".
Finally, on the fateful morning, she had feared for her life. Fahmy, she claimed, had tried to strangle her and, "in sheer desperation, as he crouched for the last time - crouched like an animal, like an Oriental, to get a bound forward - she put the pistol to his face, and to her horror the thing went off". Three times, with one round blowing out his brains.
To the relief, no doubt, of the British royal family, there would be no discussion in court of Marguerite's lurid past. Fahmy's character, however, was fair game - as was that of his Egyptian secretary, Enani. The two men, observed Hall, had been very close - unnaturally so, was the inference handed to the jury.
Contemporary popular culture had predisposed the jury to swallow this nonsense. Doubtless the 10 men and two women were aware of the best-selling contemporary novel Bella Donna, with its lurid depiction of a married Englishwoman who embarks on a torrid affair with a wealthy Egyptian, who treats her "as a chattel … she felt cruelty in him and it attracted her".
It took the jury only one hour and eight minutes to find Marguerite not guilty of murder and the lesser charge of manslaughter, and the packed court broke into cheers.
The killer would live out her life in Paris, in the lap of luxury, until her death in 1971.
Her extraordinary acquittal was an act of its time, unthinkable today in a Britain changed beyond recognition, and in a world where the balance of power has shifted distinctly eastward.
Six years after the trial, an Egyptian boy named Mohamed was born in Alexandria who would go on to buy Harrods, the quintessential British store.
Today, it belongs to Qatar, as does The Shard, which dominates the London skyline, while the vast London Array windfarm owes its existence to the vision of the United Arab Emirates. Even the Savoy itself belongs to a prince of the Saudi Arabian royal family.
Today, London treats Arabs with rather more respect than it did in 1923 - and that, 90 years after his murder this July, represents a kind of belated justice for Ali Kamel Fahmy.
Jonathan Gornall is a regular contributor to The National.