She was the daughter of aristocrats. He was a penniless chancer. And one of them was going to end up dead...
It was hard to like Elvira Barney. Perhaps even harder to like the man she was accused of murdering.
But at just before 5am, on the morning of 3 June 1932, the rich, privileged and drunk Elvira, child of Sir John and Lady Mullens, shot dead Michael Scott Stephen.
She’d claimed it was an accident.
But now, in London’s Central Criminal Court, she stood accused of cold-blooded murder.
It was time for the wayward daughter of aristocrats to prove her innocence…
Elvira Barney was 27. Her parents were among the richest in London.
And possibly, that was Elvira’s problem.
She didn’t need to work. Instead, she filled most of her days sleeping off the drink and drugs she’d overindulged in the night before.
Four years earlier, in 1928, she’d married American singer, John Sterling Barney. They’d met in Café de Paris, one of London’s glitziest nightclubs.
And it was to the nightclubs Elvira returned when her marriage had turned sour and she’d separated from John.
There, in early 1932, she’d met Michael Scott Stephen.
Unlike Elvira, Michael’s parents were ordinary folk. They lived in Putney, which was a rather down-at-heel part of London at the time.
But young Michael had big dreams.
He’d left for Paris, hoping to make his fortune as a fashion designer for the rich and famous.
But he’d come back to London penniless, his dreams of high-fashion over.
Yet his dreams of high-society lived on.
Every night, he’d trawl London’s most exclusive, most expensive nightclubs, selling drugs to the small circle of wealthy London party-goers who could afford pay for them.
Partygoers such as the wayward Elvira.
Soon, he’d gone one better. Elvira wasn’t just a customer.
She was his lover.
Michael moved in to her Knightsbridge flat, lived off the money she gave him.
And then, by June, things had started to go wrong.
Michael was frustrated Elvira’s divorce was taking so long to come through.
Elvira was frustrated by the rumours Michael had lovers. And that those lovers were said to be men.
They rowed, especially after they’d been drinking.
Then, on 2 June 1932, at 4.50 in the morning, after returning from a night at the Café de Paris, Elvira shot Michael dead.
The court heard how Elvira’s neighbours had been woken by a row and heard Elvira shouting something like, ‘I will shoot you.’
Then, a shot or possibly two.
Immediately after, Elvira had called the police and when they arrived, officers had found her in the flat, cradling Michael’s dead body.
He had a single bullet wound to his chest.
‘It was an accident,’ Elvira told the police at the time.
And now, in front of the judge and jury of London’s prestigious court, she explained.
The couple had rowed, Elvira said.
But that night, she’d started talking of suicide. Just to frighten Michael – or so she told the court.
She’d taken the revolver out of the drawer in her bedside cabinet. Michael had been worried she was serious.
He’d raced towards Elvira. And in the struggle to get the gun from her, it had gone off and a bullet had hit Michael straight through the chest.
So what about the possible second shot?
Elvira claimed the gun had indeed gone off twice. The first time, she’d fired into the room, not at Michael – again, just to frighten him.
Police had found where that shot had entered the bedroom wall. But the bullet had been missing.
Had Elvira picked it out of the hole, worried it’d look as if she’d been firing at Michael to kill…and the second time, succeeded?
And what about the shouting before the gun was fired?
The neighbours weren’t sure exactly what they’d heard.
One claimed to have heard Elvira shout, ‘I will shoot.’
It could have meant she was going to shoot herself.
Another claimed Elvira shouted, ‘I will shoot you.’
By which she could only have meant Michael.
The neighbours also claimed before the court that they’d heard Elvira and Michael rowing many times before.
But not just rowing.
They’d seen Elvira waving a gun at her lover, too. A few days before the fatal shooting, neighbours had seen Michael storming out of the flat to the street.
Elvira had appeared at an upper window with a gun.
‘Laugh, baby, laugh for the last time!’ she screamed before shooting at him.
That time, she’d missed.
But did that prove she’d met to shoot him on the night of 2 June?
Elvira’s defense lawyer cross-examined one of the witnesses who claimed to have seen her firing at Michael from the flat window.
‘With which hand did she fire the gun?’ he asked.
‘The left,’ the witness replied.
When it was Elvira’s turn in the stand, the lawyer calmly placed the gun in front of her.
After a lengthy pause, he shouted at her suddenly: ‘Pick up the gun!’
Startled, instinct kicked in and Elvira picked it up.
With her right hand.
If witnesses were wrong about that, where other details of their testimony reliable?
What had Elvira shouted before firing the gun? And how many shots had there been?
It was up to the jury to decide which version of events they believed.
The verdict the returned shocked the courtroom, and the journalists waiting outside.
Elvira Barney was cleared of the murder charges against her and released.
Her trial had made the front pages of the country’s newspapers.
Now, Elvira stepped out of the public eye.
But only four years later, she was making headlines again when she was found dead in a Paris hotel room.
She’d had a haemorrhage following a binge on champagne and cocaine.
Years later, the judge at the murder trial wrote a book in which he claimed the charge against her should have been manslaughter…and if it had been, she wouldn’t have got off so easily.