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Though considered one of society’s “Bright Young Things,” the “morally dubious” daughter of Sir John and Lady Mullens was just a tempestuous coke addict who got away with murder.
Separated from her supposedly violent American singer husband, John Sterling Barney, and living with an “extravagant, bisexual waster” named Michael Scott Stephen in 1932, Elvira Mullens Barney gave a dinner party at her “prodigally furnished” Knightsbridge home – known as the ‘Love Hut’ – at 21 William Mews on the 30th May that year. Early the next morning, shouts of: “Get out, get out! I will shoot you! I will shoot you!” were heard in the mews followed by: “Chicken, chicken, come back to me. I will do anything you want me to.”
Undoubtedly the inspiration for Eveleyn Waugh’s character Agatha Runcible in Vile Bodies and possibly also Elvira in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, Mullens Barney’s single shot at close range with a .32 Smith & Wesson revolver killed her lover in the doorway of their bedroom. On her arrest, she launched into an “uncontrollable violent outburst and paroxysm of rage” and “slapped a policeman in the face when he suggested she put on a warmer fur coat.” She is said to have then added: “I’ll teach you to say you will take me to a police station. Now you know who my mother is you’ll be a little more careful in what you say and do to me!”
Placed in a private cell at Holloway Prison with a “telephone, powder-puffs and a grand tea-gown” whilst awaiting trial at the Old Bailey, Mullens Barney was ultimately surprisingly cleared of both murder and manslaughter on 5th July 1932. As he left court, the judge at the trial, Mr Justice Humphreys exclaimed: “Most extraordinary! Apparently we should have given her a pat on the back” whilst Mullens Barney was said to have headed to a celebration party and shouted: “I am the one who shot her lover – so take a good look at me” as she took to the dance floor.
To escape public and press outrage, “spoilt child of fortune” Mullens Barney moved to France. She was found dead on Christmas Day 1936 after “a typical long night of drinking and taking cocaine” in a hotel room in Paris with signs of haemorrhage around her mouth. Her sister, Avril, meanwhile made her third husband divorcé Ernest Simpson (whose ex-wife Wallis had become wife to Edward VIII in 1937) in 1948 and was killed in a car crash in Mexico in 1978.