The Victory Ball
On the night of November 27, 1918 at about 7:30pm, twenty-two-year old actress Billie Carleton left her apartment at Savoy Court Mansions (an annex of the extravagant Savoy Hotel) to travel the short distance to the Haymarket Theatre where she was appearing that evening in Walter Hackett’s patriotic nautical comedy The Freedom of the Seas. She carried with her a decorative “Dorothy” bag in which she normally kept, among other personal items, a little gold and jeweled vanity box. On this occasion, however, the little box was accidentally left behind.
Miss Carleton promptly telephoned her lady’s maid, Miss May Booker, and instructed her to deliver the special box to her at the theater. Booker promptly took the box (which she later testified had been completely empty) to the theater, deposited it in the Dorothy bag and left it in Miss Carleton’s dressing room. She then waited backstage until Billie finished her performance at around 11:15pm in order to assist in dressing her for the Victory Ball, London’s grand celebration of the armistice which ended fighting on land, sea and air during World War I, at the Royal Albert Hall. Earlier that day, courtesy of an older gentleman friend, John Darlington Marsh, she had redeemed from a pawnshop at the cost of £1,050 some lovely jewelry to wear for the ball.
Miss Carleton left the theater at around 11:30pm in the company of her friends, Dr. Frederick Stewart and actress Fay Compton. They dined before continuing on, by cab, to the ball.
Billie remained at the grand celebration until the wee hours of the morning, spending time as a guest in Fay’s private box along with a very young Noël Coward. She was seen several times during the evening in conversation with her favorite costumier and dress designer Raoul Reginald “Reggie” de Veulle.
When the ball began to break up at around four, some of her young clique of Bohemian friends were offered a lift home in her waiting taxicab.
Sharing the ride with Billie were fellow actors Lionel Belcher, Olive Richardson, and Fay Compton, an army officer friend of Miss Compton, and Dr. Stewart.
They drove first to Miss Compton’s residence, and there dropped off the actress and her officer companion. Next, they delivered Dr. Stewart to his home in Knightsbridge, just south of Hyde Park. The three remaining passengers returned to Miss Carleton’s flat where the party continued. Billie ordered breakfast for the three of them, before excusing herself for a short time to visit her friend, American dancer Irene Castle, in an adjacent apartment. Billie wanted to get a closer look at the stunning dress that Irene wore at the ball, which had cost around £500–a staggering sum in those days.
They played dress-up, Carleton trying on Irene’s turban and some hats. They admired each other’s breathtaking jewels. “She was going out to Hollywood in the fall, and she was a little apprehensive about it,” Irene recalled. “You’ll be wonderful there. They love blondes,” Irene reassured her.
On her return, Miss Carleton slipped into her nightgown and ate breakfast in bed with her companions, wearing a kimono as a robe. Lionel and Olive talked with her a while, then left her to sleep off the bustling day’s activities and departed for the home that they shared nearby.
Roughly between 9:30 and 10:00am the following morning, Miss Carleton phoned her friend, Violet Chown, to cancel a date to have tea with her that afternoon.
When Billie’s maid May returned to her mistress’s apartment at 11:30am, she found Billie in a deep slumber snoring. She checked on Miss Carleton from time to time then became alarmed at around 3:30 in the afternoon when the young actress’s breathing seemed to have stopped. She summoned Dr. Stewart by telephone.
The panicked physician went immediately to the apartment where he found an unresponsive Miss Carleton in bed in her night dress. He injected her with strychnine and brandy and tried artificial respiration. Billie’s life had slipped away from her. He pronounced his young friend dead. Another doctor later examined the body and deduced, from her blown pupils, that death had been caused by narcotics poisoning.
Miss Katherine Jolliffe, an aunt of Miss Carleton, later formally identified the body.
The little gold box, which was known to have been empty when delivered to Miss Carleton at the theater on the Wednesday evening was found on her dressing table the following day still containing an amount of cocaine two or three times enough to constitute a fatal dose. There were also some sachets of veronal (a barbiturate used for sleeping).
A coroner’s jury was assembled. A long inquest at Westminster Coroner Court, presided over by the coroner Samuel Ingleby Oddie, began one week after the tragedy. The jury’s verdict would decide how, when, and where the deceased died and if any foul play was involved.
After reviewing all the evidence and interviewing all of the knowledgeable witnesses and experts, the jury concluded that the Miss Carleton’s sudden death was not from any natural causes. It was from poisoning by an illicit drug–an overdose misadventure. It was also not a case of suicide. It was manslaughter. A suspect was named. Coroner Oddie ordered an arrest and detainment, pending a grand jury action. Reggie de Veulle, her dressmaker was taken into custody.
Le Bal des Quat’z’Arts
“Girls should be obscene and not heard,” was one of the early comedic lines that set the stage for the 1908 drama-comedy-extravaganza, The Queen of the Moulin Rouge, produced by Thomas W. Ryley (who also produced the wildly successful Florodora), written by Paul M. Potter, with music by John T. Hall and lyrics by Vincent Bryant.
The musical is about Prince Sacha of Orcania (played by Carter de Haven) who, in a plot to keep him from the throne by the villainous General Bonnivard, is taken to the red-light district of France’s capital in order to tempt him into a scandal that would bring about his dishonor and consequently the repudiation of his people.
The prince quickly falls in with a battalion of wildoat sowers. His disheartened betrothed, the Princess Marotz Rakovitza (played by Miss Flora Parker), foils the dastardly plans, when, disguised as the Queen of the Moulin Rouge, she lures him back from the debaucherous life he craves.
A company of 100 danced and sang along the Place Pigalle, through cabarets, gaming houses, and the famous “Rat Mort” (Dead Rat) café, winding up on the roof of an art school. It is during the Rat Mort scene that Monsieur Reggie de Veulle introduced a Paris sensation, stole the show from all the players, and set society’s tongues wagging.
Paul Potter’s play takes place largely during the night of Le Bal des Quat’z’Arts, an annual themed ball held for the students of the four branches of architecture, painting, sculpture, and engraving of the École des Beaux-Arts. The balls were held in several major venues around the French capital over the years, with most taking place at the Moulin Rouge, the Salle Wagram, and the Parc des Expositions Porte de Versailles. Overtly erotic invitations were designed to match the spectacle of the events and correspond to that year’s theme–Greco-Roman, Egyptian, orientalist, exotic, primitive…
Surrounding the caravanserai was a carnival of unleashed Bohemians from Montmartre and Montparnasse and from the Paris Underworld. They paraded through the streets in pantheistic intoxication–an eruption of tangled semi-nude bodies more variegated than a fairy peacock’s tail. Enthusiasts dressed in helmets made of cake molds, painted scrap metal, crimson coats, green silk breeches and silver-lamé bras. By the end of the evening, in drunken revelry, they shed off most of their clothes.
The Cincinnati Enquirer raved, “Paul M. Potter has set a new mark and a new pace in musical comedy. Nothing more sensational has been seen on any stage in America than The Queen of the Moulin Rouge, as produced at the Circle Theater.”
Every reviewer remarked about the sensational dancing in the play which included a realistic “dance of the underworld.” Commonly called “the Apache dance,” this acrobatic mock fight between a pimp and his whore was zealously performed by Joseph C. Smith and Louise Alexander.
The most popular dance of the night “The Kicking Polka,” or “Le Kic Kicking,” was executed by Reggie de Veulle and his partner from the Folies Bergere, Odette Auber. According to a Washington Times reviewer, the risque dance, “fairly takes the breath away.”
The Brooklyn Citizen called the action of The Queen of the Moulin Rouge, “rapid and exhilarating, frothy and melodious…”
The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “Such an array of magnificent costumers, such a brilliant harmony of color scheme and such a glorious aggregation of beauty has rarely been assembled…it is kaleidoscopic in movement.”
Not everyone enjoyed the rollicking French romp.
The Queen of the Moulin Rouge, according to a very vocal minority, appealed to the most debased instincts of the public. These detractors called for the musical to be barred from any place of public amusement. An astounded reviewer from The Bangor Daily News complained of the cheap scenery and “twordy” equipment, the raunchy songs and the various levels of undress on the parts of the female performers:
There was a song entitled “Take That Off, Too,” which represented half a dozen windows behind which girls were seen taking off their street garments down to their most abbreviated underclothes. During this disrobing act the lights were turned off and on to heighten the vulgar effect.
There was a supposed interior of a studio, in which women wandered about the stage in the scantiest fleshling that have ever been seen on the stage in this city. In response to the applause, when the curtain again rose, half a dozen young women were revealed posing in gossamer tights that revealed every line of their figures and offered every suggestion of the nudes.
The Bangor publication also commented on the depravity of the Apache Dance where, “a Parisian ruffian seized a girl and after hurling her about the stage, striking her and disarranging her hair and clothing, forced her to accede to his passion.”
Complaints mounted. Puritanical America was appalled by the Parisian Quat’z’Arts exhibition. The dances executed in Moulin Rouge were considered a menace to public morals. Joseph Smith, stage manager of the production and one of the Apache dancers, was met at the stage door early in the run at the Circle Theatre by Police Captain Michael Reidy of the West Sixty-eighth Street Station and served with a police court summons.
It wasn’t the brutal Apache dance that was being challenged. Captain Reidy wanted the courts to decide whether Auber and De Veulle should be allowed to continued to give their “Kicking Polka” in the Rat Mort scene “because of several disgusting incidents in it.” The dance in question was said to be replete with “wiggle movements and to be a variety of Houchee-couchee.”
The mayor of Boston wouldn’t allow Reggie and Odette and that devilish dance in his city. They quickly toned down the routine.
Author Paul M. Potter defended his story but distanced himself from the controversy. “I deliberately placed the scenes in a cabaret, at the notorious Rat Mort and in a famous gambling house conducted by a woman. The blame for that belongs to me. But I did not write the nearly nude models. I did not write the disrobing show girls. I did not write that wriggly French dance that brought down public protest, and I did not write the Apache dance. Those interpolations belong to the management and the stage director.”
Moulin Rouge was severely criticized, but that did not keep the crowds away from the Circle. It was filled every night from the first performance, and the advance sales of seats were large. The show toured the country. It was the most talked-of play of the season.
The Beau of the Ball
Reggie de Veulle’s naughty wiggle dance caught the attention of the naughty heiress Amy (later Aimée) Crocker and her young husband, songwriter Jackson Gouraud. As a reward for amusing the Queen of the Swagger Set, Reggie was invited to be her guest of honor at a supper at Manhattan’s exclusive Café Martin, which advertised itself as “the leading French restaurant in America.” This was no small honor. The Gourauds’ spectacular shindigs were like a Hollywood party at Romanoff’s or Spago or a Vanity Fair Oscar party. As renowned “first nighters,” Amy and Jack were monarchs on Broadway. A first nighter held a secured customary first or second row seat in the orchestra for all the big New York opening shows and only missed the first performance at any important theater when two plays opened on the same night.
These habitual first-nighters included, along with the Gourauds, the crème de la crème of Manhattan society: the Cornelius Vanderbilts, the J. Pierpont Morgans, the August Belmonts, the Chauncey M. Depews, the George Goulds, the Oliver H. P. Belmonts, Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell, Charles Schwab, Mark Twain, the Stuyvesants, the Astors, the DeMilles, and Congressman and Mrs. Francis Burton Harrison (Amy’s cousins).
The response of the first nighters carried more weight than the reviews of the critics to a play’s author, the acting troupe, and theater owners. They received more mentions oftentimes in the press than the actors, and none more than Amy and Jack. It was remarked that Amy was, “almost as familiar a figure on Broadway as the statue of Horace Greeley at Thirty-second St.” The Morning Telegraph abruptly announced the end of the theatrical season in April of 1904, after Mrs. and Mr. Jack Gouraud left New York to summer in Germany.
At Café Martin, Reggie entertained the elite crowd with his notorious Kicking Polka. The great Anna Held sang a few songs. Miss Valeska Surratt gave her “Three Weeks” dance as she never had given it on the stage before. She exhibited and pirouetted with her dozen or so pet snakes. Actors Edna Wallace Hopper and William Gould attended as did American showman Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., who premiered his fabulously popular long-running revue Ziegfeld Follies a year earlier. Amy danced the “Honolulu hoola,” which she learned from the natives.
The grand yet raucous ball at Café Martin may have been the highlight of De Veulle’s career in entertainment. Amy honored him again when she performed Reggie’s wiggle dance herself at the Hippodrome a few months later.
Billie Carleton was born Florence Leonora Stewart on September 4, 1896 on Bernard Street, off Russell Square in Bloomsbury, the daughter of Margaret Stewart, a chorus singer and an unknown father. When Margaret died Florence was taken in by her aunt Katherine Jolliffe, who was also a performer. Florence was well read, fluent in French and German, and an excellent pianist. She left home at 15 to go on the stage, later adopting the smart and sassy name Billie Carleton. Her meteoric rise from illegitimate, orphaned and hopeless child to West End leading lady was remarkable.
In no time the young starlet was leading an opulent lifestyle in a stylish flat in central London, the money coming largely from sugar daddy John Marsh. Her cash flow was monitored and metered by Dr. Stewart, her friend and doctor and de facto parent/guardian. He feared that her show biz popularity was putting her on a road of excess.
It was impresario Charles B. Cochran who gave Carleton her first big break. When Ethel Levey, ex-wife of Broadway legend George M. Cohan, left the leading role of Stella Sparkes in Watch Your Step (a role previously performed by Irene Castle), at the Empire in Leicester Square, Cochran lifted Billie Carleton from anonymous chorus girl to the top of the bill. It was a big production at a prestigious venue. There were songs by the great Irving Berlin and ballet interludes and to close the evening, a “Bioscope,” cinema show. A recording of Carleton singing Show Us How to Do the Fox Trot with costar George Graves survives. Reggie de Veulle designed all of Billie’s gowns for the show.
Next André Charlot, a chain-smoking French producer cast Carleton in a revue called Some More Samples! at the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand.
In The Boy at the Adelphi, Carleton played an “up-to-date flapper” by the name of Joy Chatterton. Tatler magazine appreciated her droll delivery and described her as “one of the most vivacious soubrettes on the musical- comedy stage.”
Billie Carleton and Fay Compton appeared together in a Broadway farce called Fair and Warmer, at the Prince of Wales’ Theatre. Carleton played the “extremely alluring maid.”
In August of 1918, Miss Carleton left for the Haymarket, to appear in the comic seafaring adventure Freedom of the Seas. Lightweight as the part was, it bumped her income up to £25 a week. She became the youngest leading lady in the West End. Billie starred opposite a young Marion Lorne, later the Emmy award winning actress who played Aunt Clara in the 60s campy Bewitched television series.
On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, after more than four horrific years of fighting and the loss of millions of lives, the guns on the Western Front at last fell silent. A cacophony of maroons, sirens, factory hooters, train whistles, car horns and church bells erupted in the streets of London after the armistice was signed at Le Francport France near Compiègne. The Great War was over and Great Britain swiftly turned her attention to celebrating. In the weeks that followed, grand fêtes and balls, carnivals and block parties were organized up and down the land. Foremost amongst the celebrations was the Great Victory Ball, held at the Royal Albert Hall. The event was sponsored by the Daily Sketch, which agreed to pay all expenses.
It was to be a fancy dress party for London’s elite and the military brass. Lionel, Olive, Fay, Irene and Billie were on the exclusive list as were Reggie de Veulle and his wife Pauline.
A newspaper reported that the Victory Ball “grew into a wild night. The end of four years of the greatest slaughter in history demanded relief for overstrained nerves, an outlet for pent-up emotions.”
Irene Castle recalled the ball as being one of the most joyous and dazzling she’d ever seen: “At midnight there was a blast of trumpets and a pageant unfolded with titled ladies playing the part of “Sun” and “Air” and “France” and “England” and all the Allies.”
A cohort of society women was led by Lady Diana Manners, as “Britannia.” Last in the parade of costumed divas was a woman dressed as “Peace,” riding on a chariot drawn by six ancient British shepherds, and followed by six tall maids carrying wheat sheaves and lilies. Rising star Billie Carleton arrived in a De Veulle dress called “The Laughing Cavalier.”
Carleton was reported by one newspaper to have “thrown herself with somewhat feverish energy into the affair and danced again and again. It seemed that every man there wished to dance with her!”
Another described her appearance:
“Her costume was extraordinary and daring to the utmost, but so attractive and refined was her face that it never occurred to any one to be shocked. The costume consisted almost entirely of transparent black georgette which revealed the flesh beneath to an extreme degree – to the limit in fact.”
Reggie went as Harlequin, in ruff and hose. Over five thousand persons were present, and the proceeds of the sale of tickets went to the Nation’s Fund for Nurses.
Billie had additional cause for celebration. She had just gotten the cover of two trade publications The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, and The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality and there was talk of an American theatrical tour, one that would surely have led the young actress into a career on the silver screen.
The trial reached the “Old Bailey” Criminal Courthouse in March of 1919. Reggie de Veulle was indicted on two charges–manslaughter and conspiracy to supply cocaine. The “grim and remorseless” Sir Richard Muir and Mr. Eustace Fulton conducted the case for the Director of Public Prosecutions; and Mr. Huntly Jenkins and Mr. G.F.L. Bridgman appeared for De Veulle.
In 1916, Regulation 40b was added to the wartime Defence of the Realm Act, which criminalized the possession or sale of opium and cocaine by anyone except licensed chemists, doctors and vets. Cannabis, morphine and heroin were not included in the new law. (Heroin was launched in 1898 by Bayer, the German pharmaceutical company, with the claim that it had the “ability of morphine to relieve pain, but safer.”)
Since the Coroner’s jury concluded that Miss Carleton’s death was caused by “cocaine snuffed up the nose,” how and when her little gold box in her Dorothy bag became filled with the drug in the course of the evening of the Victory Ball became central to the entire trial. Anyone handing Billie the quantity of cocaine that she had was doing an unlawful act.
The lineup of witnesses included a galaxy of stage favorites, a crafty Soho chemist named Woolridge, who sold forbidden poisons, Lionel Belcher a cocaine dealer and star of the kinema (British for cinema); Donald Kimful, an Egyptian opium dealer; Ada Lo Ping You, the Scottish wife of a Chinese opium resort keeper; and an Irish maid, Mrs. Hicks, who was known as “McGinty.” Sugar-daddy John Marsh died sadly of pneumonia on the 21st of March and was buried in a cemetery plot near Billie Carleton.
Interwoven through the testimony were pictures of the night life of London which were seldom exposed to public view. What was said and done in the opium parlors of Chinatown on the seedy Limehouse Causeway wasn’t often told under oath, nor were the happenings at the private opium smoking parties in actresses’ swanky apartments often revealed.
The Opium Den
Mr. and Mrs. Lo Ping You kept an opium smoking den at No. 24 Limehouse Causeway, part of the dock quarter of the East End of London. It was the city’s original Chinatown, adjacent to Whitechapel, the scene of all the Jack the Ripper murders, but didn’t quite share that district’s notorious reputation. (The Chinese in Limehouse were actually know for being peaceful, inoffensive and on good terms with their neighbors). The chief customers of the Ping Yous were Asian sailors and dock laborers, commonly called “Lascars,” but included many sailors of other nationalities, as well as an assortment of dock rats and riff-raff from both sexes. The Lo Ping Yous also often catered to people from the higher strata of society, who had exhausted the pleasures of West End resorts and yearned for novel and intoxicating forms of dissipation.
Much focus was given in court to an opium party held at Reggie de Veulle’s apartment on a warm September evening a few months before Billie’s death. The master of ceremonies was Ada Ping You, the attractive, fair-haired Scottish woman. Six people arrived at the flat at No. 16 Dover Street, located just north of Piccadilly in Mayfair, (an aristocratic quarter of London) to participate. At about nine o’clock Ada also came to the apartment, but she was shown into the drawing room while everyone else continued eating their supper.
The guests then changed their clothes, the men dressing in pajamas and the women in chiffon and crepe de chine nightdresses. The De Veulles, Reggie and Pauline, and their guests reclined on the many cushions and pillows placed around the room. In the center of the group, Ada then “cooked” the opium, a process whereby a small quantity of raw opium gum is rolled into a “pill,” about the size of a pea, which is then impaled on the end of an instrument resembling a knitting needle and heated in the flame of a lamp. When it starts to bubble, it is scraped into the bowl of the pipe. At about eleven, just as the pipe began to be passed around, Billie Carleton arrived.
Pauline de Veulle testified that she didn’t inhale at the opium party so it had no effect on her.
It was later reported that the party remained, apparently in a comatose state, until about three o’clock on the following afternoon, Sunday. Ada was later described in the press as “the high priestess of the unholy rites,” and suggested the rituals that her and her guests performed were strongly suggestive of the “devil worship” of other epochs.
Another key piece of testimony came forth when Dr. Stewart admitted to giving Miss Carleton morphine hypodermically for pain coming from her wisdom teeth about a dozen times. He also gave her veronal and trional for insomnia and influenza.
The prosecution presented several witnesses who offered damaging testimony against the dress designer. Dr. Stewart, actress Malvina Longfellow and Fay Compton had all pleaded with Billie to stop taking cocaine and asked Reggie to stop supplying Carleton with drugs.
Stewart wrote her: “I’ll do anything to save you from the bottomless pit of darkness, despair and depression. Some of your acts are disappointing and a great shock to me. Get over these lapses. Get over the influence and existence of this damned stuff. Leave it to do its useful work as a local anesthetic and kill pain, not people.”
During the run of Fair and Warmer, Fay Compton also implored Billie to stay away from cocaine when she found her addled from the addictive stimulant. “If you only knew how impossible it is to resist it when it is brought to me,” was Billie’s response. She confessed that it was Reggie who gave her the cocaine that evening.
Longfellow told the court she had asked De Veulle to stop supplying Carleton with drugs, and had told him on the night of the Armistice Day celebration that there “would be trouble” if he went on doing so.
Mrs. Mary Hicks “McGinty,” maid-servant for Mr. and Mrs. De Veulle, was inadvertently involved in a drug run the evening of the ball that involved collecting money from Miss Carleton and receiving cocaine from Lionel Belcher under Reggie’s instructions. McGinty testified that she got cocaine from Chinatown for De Veulle about three times. She also testified that De Veulle threatened her after the story of the drug overdose broke saying, “McGinty, if you give me away I will see your baby starve. I will get your separation allowance stopped.”
After much anticipation Reggie took the stand in his own defense to give his story. Raoul Reginald De Veulle, born in Le Mans in 1881, was the son of a diplomat and a grandson of Sir John De Veulle, at one time a High Bailiff of Jersey. He finished his education at aged 17 from the Kensington School of Art.
Although Reggie clearly could have made of go of a career on the stage after making such a spectacular splash on Broadway, dress design would become his true passion. In 1909, after his run on The Queen of the Moulin Rouge, De Veulle was hired to design costumes for The Flirting Princess by the creative team of Hough-Adams-Howard.
He was later employed as a dress designer at Tollmans in Paris. With the outbreak of war in 1914, De Veulle relocated to London and found work with Elspeth Phelps, a Mayfair costumier based on Albemarle Street and then moved on to Hockley’s House on Bond Street. It was in 1915 that he met show girl Billie Carleton who modeled his creations.
In July of 1916 Reginald married Pauline Gay, also a dress designer at Hockley’s, who was five years older.
In 1918 when a US lieutenant kicked down the door of Carleton’s flat in Longacre after she declined to marry him, she fled to the De Veulles. Pauline believed that Billie was a bad influence on her husband. She talked to Billie about keeping her husband out until 4 in the morning, and told her that she didn’t consider her conduct discreet. “Billie and Reggie acted very foolishly, and I resented it,” she said in court. She also testified that she never saw Reggie give her cocaine.
In 1916 newspapers began writing exposés with “dark stories in West End Bohemia” and the prevalence of “that exciting drug cocaine.” “It is so easy to take – just snuffed up the nose; and no-one seems to know why the girls who suffer from this body and soul racking habit find the drug so easy to obtain.” The Times’ medical correspondent vehemently denounced the drug writing, “Cocaine is more deadly than bullets,” and, “most cocainomaniacs carry a revolver to protect themselves against imaginary enemies.” The public was bombarded with stories of druggies and became frenzied by the time of Billie’s sad death and Reggie’s arrest for manslaughter.
De Veulle denied every piece of damaging testimony that came forth. He denied ever giving Billie Carleton cocaine. He denied threatening McGinty. He denied knowing that distributing cocaine was illegal. He denied knowing the seriousness of taking cocaine. When the prosecution showed Reggie a vial filled with what was considered a lethal dose of cocaine, De Veulle took a long look and then determined, “Then I ought to be dead.” He claimed that it was Miss Billie Carleton that was giving him cocaine.
A devastating character assassination was then executed by Cecil Hayes, Lionel Belcher’s counsel, who painted Reggie as a effeminate homosexual and therefore a degenerate. Reggie was forced to respond to a barrage of pointed questions designed to humiliate him: “How long have you been engaged in the gentle art of designing ladies’ dresses?”…”You were what we may call, without being offensive, in the chorus? How were you dressed—as a girl, or a boy?” …“Did you supply this photo to the paper [The Sketch]—the one with the arched instep, nicely poised?”
After further questioning by Hayes, it came to light that De Veulle had been involved in a previous homosexual blackmail case and that the gay novel Les Frequentations de Maurice featured an androgynous dandy and man about town character that was modeled after Reggie de Veulle.
On behalf of the prisoner, Reggie’s attorney, Mr. Huntly Jenkins, argued that Miss Carleton’s indulgence in drugs began before she met her dress designer. He also attempted to cast suspicion elsewhere, particularly on Lionel Belcher who admitted to being a trafficker in drugs and who was one of the last people to see Billie alive. Could he have filled her gold and jeweled box with the cocaine?
Mr. Jenkins described to the court Miss Carleton’s tiring day–a matinee in the afternoon, an evening performance, and then the Victory Ball, after which she sat up with Lionel Belcher and Miss Richardson until six in the morning. It was unlikely, Mr Jenkins told the jury, that she would have taken cocaine and it was more plausible for her to have taken a dose of veronal, given to her by friend, guardian and medical advisor Dr. Stewart to try and sleep. Perhaps it was the barbiturate that killed Billie.
It took 50 minutes of deliberation for the jury to come back in court with the verdict of not guilty in the charge of manslaughter. De Veulle pleaded guilty to the conspiracy to supply cocaine charge. Judge Salter addressed him saying:
You persistently procured quantities of this drug to satisfy the craving of yourself and another. It is perfectly clear that you well knew you were doing what was wrong. Traffic in this deadly drug is a most pernicious thing. It leads to sordid, depraved, and disgusting practices. There is evidence in this case that following the practice of this habit are disease, depravity, crime, insanity, despair, and death.
Salter sentenced De Veulle to eight months in prison, mitigated, because of his clean record and poor health, in that it came without hard labor. Before sending De Veulle off to Wormwood Scrubs, Judge Salter observed that it was “a strange thing to reflect that until quite lately these drugs could be bought by all and sundry like so much grocery. I earnestly hope that it may never be the case again.”
The other drug distributors in this case fared better than the effeminate dress designer. Ada Ping You, the the high priestess of the unholy rites received five months of hard labor for playing a leading part in the “disgraceful orgy.” Her husband Lo Ping You’s case was heard at Thames Police Court before Magistrate Rooth. He let him off with a £10 fine because it was a “national vice” that was almost universally practiced in his country. Lionel Belcher walked away with no charges, no fines and no jail time.
There was a piece of damaging evidence that never made it to the courtroom that ran counter to some of Reggie’s claims and established precedence. Back in 1908, ten years before the opium party and the cocaine controversy and the tragic death of Billie Carleton, when Mr. De Veulle was frolicking with First-Nighter and Queen of Bohemia Amy Crocker Gouraud, he had been the host of a dinner, a naughty “pajama dinner,” while living at Murray’s Roman Gardens in one of the 24 lavish bachelor apartments.
He was interviewed by New York’s Evening World:
“It wasn’t much of an affair. The only novelty was that as soon as a guest arrived he or she was shown in a dressing room where all their clothes were removed and a suit of silk pajamas put on.
Who were the guests?
Oh, really, now, I couldn’t, y’know. Oh, yes, it was rather jolly, but I’ve given much jollier ones in London and Paris. For instance, dear boy, in London I gave a “morphia dinner,” where every one took morphine with the liqueurs. It would have been a ripper, y’know, but one of the men had a weak heart and nearly died. Most unclubby of him. I intend to give some smashin’ original dinners while I am here.”
The Road of Excess Leads to the Palace of Wisdom
Efforts to give meaning and purpose to the tragic death of the young talented woman so filled with promise began immediately after her death. In 1920 England established a hard-line reaction to drug use. The Dangerous Drugs Act was passed, for the first time criminalizing the manufacture, possession and supply of heroin, morphine, raw opium and cocaine–punishable by heavy fines and terms of imprisonment.
Three plays with drug themes were performed in the West End the year after Carleton’s death–Dope by Frank Price, Drug Fiends by Owen Jones and The Girl Who Took Drugs (aka Soiled) by Aimée Grattan-Clyndes.
In Sax Rohmer’s novel Dope, the character Rita Dresden is based on Carleton. The Affair at the Victory Ball is a short story written by Agatha Christie in 1923 based on Carleton’s death. It was the first of a series of 12 short stories to feature the popular character Hercule Poirot. Billie Carleton was later immortalized as the inspiration for Noël Coward’s 1924 play The Vortex. Coward knew both Billie and Reggie.
After Reggie de Veulle was released from prison he continued to work as a dress designer in London, resuming a collaboration with Elspeth Phelps when she became head designer at Paquin. When Irene Castle came to perform at London’s Embassy Club for a few weeks in 1923, it was reported that De Veulle designed her dresses. The costumes for the 1926 stage musical Yvonne, starring Ivy Tresmand, were designed by Reggie.
In 1933, Jack Kahane’s Obelisk Press in Paris promised “a book of formidable revelations” by De Veulle. Both Reggie de Veulle and Amy Crocker’s autobiographies were advertised on the rear flap of the controversial gay novel The Young and Evil (1933) by Charles Ford and Parker Tyler. It read, “Two volumes of memoirs in preparation, by Princess Aimée (Crocker) Galitzine and Reggie de Veulle. Price not yet fixed.” The Obelisk Press published Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and other works that other publishers would not touch for fear of prosecution. De Veulle’s book never appeared. Amy’s memoirs, And I’d Do It Again, came out in 1936 from another publisher, Coward and McCann.
In 2018, on the anniversary of the death of Billie Carleton, the actress received a white plaque. It was placed on the wall of a house on Bernard Street, Billie’s birthplace, as part of a new campaign to draw attention to flaws in the so-called war on drugs.
The campaign had been launched to coincide with the British release of the film The House I Live In, co-produced by Brad Pitt and The Wire‘s creator, David Simon. The award-winning documentary examined how US drug policy treats drug addiction as a crime, rather than a public health issue.
Billie Carleton’s role as Britain’s earliest celebrity drug fatality was her biggest and most significant. It was a tragic, dramatic plot… a truly sad story. However, that fatherless, orphaned, drug addled, Bernard Street girl’s final hours were spent as a West End leading lady, a cover girl, a Hollywood bound starlet draped in jewels and surrounded by close friends and the highest echelon of London society. Billie was the Belle of the Victory Ball.
“Acquittal of De Veulle,” The (London) Times, April 5, 1919, p6.
“A Show That’s the Very Limit,” The Bangor Daily News, December 10, 1908, p3.
“Broadway Swagger Set Competes in Giving Costly ‘Freak’ Dinners,” The Evening World, December 22, 1908.
“Comedy with Paris Scenes,” New York Times, November 19, 1908, p9.
“De Veulle on trial,” The (London) Times, April 3, 1919, p6.
Eve Golden, Vernon and Irene Castle’s Ragtime Revolution, University Press of Kentucky, 2007.
Marek Kohn, Dope Girls: The Birth Of The British Drug Underground, (United Kingdom: Granta, 2003).
“Miss Carleton’s Death,” The (London) Times, January 3, 1919., p2.
“Miss Carleton’s Death,” The (London) Times, January 17, 1919, p4
“Moulin Rouge Queen in Trouble: Three Performers Summoned to Court to Defend Dances at Circle Theater,” New York Tribune, December 15, 1908, p9.
“New National,” Evening Star, November 22, 1908, p6.
“Operetta Full of Girls,” Brooklyn Times Union, December 8, 1908.
“Opium Party Preparation,” The (London) Times, February 15, 1919, p2.
“Queen of the Moulin Rouge Has Many Attractive Qualities as Shown for First Time Last Night,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 19, 1908, p5.
“Paul M. Potter and his Libretto,” New York Tribune, December 24, 1908 p7.
“Poisoned After the Ball,” The Philadelphia Inquirer Sun Jan 5, 1919.
“Rialto Comment: A New Shock Supplied to Audiences by The Queen of the Moulin Rouge…,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, December 13, 1908, p2.
Rob Baker, “‘Disgraceful Orgies’, ‘Unholy Rites’ and the Death of Billie Carleton 100 Years Ago,” Flashbak, November 27, 2018, https://flashbak.com/disgraceful-orgies-unholy-rites-and-the-death-of-billie-carleton-100-years-ago-408525/
“Snappy Musical Show at National Wins Audience,” The Washington Times, November 24, 1908, p8.
“The Actress and the Opium Den,”
“The Carleton Inquest,” The (London) Times, January 24, 1919, p3.
“What Happened After the Gay Victory Ball,” The San Francisco Examiner, (Eight week series), June 15, 1919 to August 3, 1919.