Thursday, 18 October 2012
Is this the world's naughtiest aristocrat?
The 13th Duke of Manchester has a list of offences including bigamy, debt, deception and deportation. On the eve of his next court appearance in Las Vegas, Marcus Scriven records the trials of the disgraceful dukeThe Clark County Courthouse, Nevada, sounds as though it should be in a twohorse town marooned in wilderness; in fact, it’s in downtown Las Vegas. It’s here, on 25 October, that Judge William D Jansen will hear details of an alleged felony involving an unusual defendant – Alexander Charles David Drogo Montagu, 13th Duke of Manchester.
The 49-year-old, who sometimes styles himself ‘Lord Alex’, is, nominally at least, an eminent member of the British peerage, and undoubtedly the only one to have been exposed as a bigamist, as he was last year in the High Court in London. Twice imprisoned (in Australia), once deported (from Canada), he came to American attention first in 1988 when embroiled in the divorce of Lia Belli and her husband Melvin, a legendary attorney. That summer, an intruder broke into the Bellis’ San Francisco residence, firing twice at Mrs Belli but missing. Police interviewed Alex but did not detain him.
It’s from California that his latest case is being most closely monitored, by the woman with the doubtful privilege of knowing him better than anyone: the second of his ex-wives, Wendy Buford. They met in April 1992 at the Crazy Horse bar in Santa Ana, California, when Wendy, then 24, was juggling work at a law firm with parttime waitressing. With minimal knowledge of the aristocracy – her father was a salesman, her mother a waitress – she was ill-prepared for the whirlwind that struck her that night. It took the rugged form of a thick-set, good-looking 29-year-old, with an Australian accent and a card parading his name in embossed gold lettering. His charm was insistent and irresistible. Although they spoke only briefly, it was long enough for Alex to extract Wendy’s telephone number.
Days later, he’d installed himself in her apartment. ‘He told me I love you so much: “I love you, I love you, I love you”,’ she remembers. The words were matched by ‘hugging, holding hands’ and the first in a flood of cards signed ‘Eternally yours’. There were grand, if undefuned, plans and the reassurance: ‘You won’t have to worry about a thing’.
A practical, disciplined person, Wendy carried on working. Alex, who remained at home, focused on her car. ‘He said, “It doesn’t make sense, your car just sitting there all day, when I don’t have one”.’ She gave him the keys. He then wrecked it and replaced it with a cheque. The cheque was a dud, but Wendy forgave her man, who elicited her sympathy by explaining that he had no relationship with his father, Angus, the 12th Duke, whose closest friend, Kerry Cheeseman, was the founder of Aristocats escort agency. Later, Alex told her that his mother had died.
Wendy then became pregnant with their first child, Alexander Jr, who was born in May 1993, six days after they married in a civil ceremony that, Alex insisted, had to take place immediately and without guests. She was by then familiar with his volatility, his effusive proclamations and his need for control. She was forbidden from checking the mail and his rejoinder to her many enquiries was: ‘It’s being taken care of’.
But in those pre-internet days, she gave him the benefit of the doubt, unaware of his marriage in 1984 to an Australian model, Marion Stoner, who had considered him ‘a real gentleman’ until ‘the spear-gun incident’ (Alex had fired at her but missed), or of his front-page appearance in a British Sunday newspaper (declaring his willingness to marry any woman who’d pay him £25m), or his nine months in prison in Australia in 1985 (for obtaining money by deception), or his second incarceration in 1991 (for hiring a rental car in one State and selling it in another), or his deportation from Canada (for entering the country illegally) where, in Vancouver, he enjoyed a relationship with Katie Lynch, a former stripper.
Wendy was similarly unaware of the family tastes for gambling and alcohol, or that the 8th Duke had been declared bankrupt, as had the 9th, or that the Montagus had lost four country seats, including the splendid Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire, where the 10th Duke’s Duchess, a beautiful, libidinous alcoholic, had converted the chapel into a bar stocked with glasses decorated with ‘pornography of the most interesting kind’.
Wendy and Alex’s residential arrangements were more constrained, a succession of two-bedroom (and, after the birth of their daughter Ashley in 1999, three-bedroom) apartments. The rent was one of the things that Alex ‘took care of’, courtesy of his income from a family trust. But his attention wandered to televisions, which he regularly acquired, one of them being described by a visitor as ‘the size of a small car’. These investments led to the non-payment of rent, which, combined with a talent for antagonising neighbours – ‘speeding up and down the street, yelling at their kids’ – meant that they were constantly on the move, ‘probably 13 different places in 15 years’, including a stint in a house that, Wendy believes, had been earmarked for demolition (‘we couldn’t occupy the upstairs because it wasn’t safe’). As they departed, Alex ‘took a crayon and wrote on a wall, “The Montagus were here”.’
When, finally, they bought a house, Alex failed to pay the mortgage. He consoled himself, pre-departure, by draining the swimming pool, before removing ‘the dishwasher, the airconditioning unit and the wardrobe’s mirrored doors.’ A police officer later pointed out a detail that Wendy had missed: ‘Alex poured cement down the drain’. It was pardonable that her mind would be on other things. Awaking one night, she found her husband on the phone – to his supposedly long dead mother. Then there was his spell in hospital, financed by her health insurance, for a back operation. ‘I went in just after he came out of surgery,’ Wendy explains, ‘to ask one of the nurses how his back was.’ His back, replied the nurse, was fine; the operation was for colon reduction.
Only ever fleetingly employed, Alex concentrated instead on taking Alexander Jr to Disneyland, eating Wendy’s cooking – prepared after her return from work – and surreptitiously enrolling with dating agencies, giving his status as ‘single’. His father’s death in 2002 led to his succession as 13th Duke, and inheritance of the Montagu ermine robes and family jewels. These he sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, a windfall that he was disinclined to share. Then, in 2007, he sought a divorce. After a protracted and often vicious battle, during which Alex crashed his Avalanche truck, ‘he accused me of cutting his brake cables, but ended up being investigated himself’. Wendy secured custody of the children.
Alex subsequently told her that he had never divorced Marion, meaning that their marriage had been bigamous, and telephoned their daughter, Ashley, saying that he had photographed her naked mother asleep, and had sold the snaps. ‘He claimed, to Ashley, that I wanted to model naked,’ says Wendy, incredulously.
Her spirit and humour are wonderfully undiminished, but she holds out little hope for Alex, now married to a blonde whose professional commitments have generally been in Las Vegas. Even if he goes to prison again – for buying a car with an (allegedly) dud cheque – he will never, she says, take responsibility for his actions.
Splendour And Squalor: The Disgrace And Disintegration Of Three Aristocratic Dynasties by Marcus Scriven, is published by Atlantic Books, priced £12.99.
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