The Disappearing Act of Muriel Perry

Photograph of Muriel - Original - Secret Orchard

Image of Muriel Perry, courtesy of the J.R.Ackerley Estate

Seldom do we encounter a living person who seems to have come from nowhere. Granted, this introduction was partly by accident and part of a literary study, but the circumstances of which are entirely exceptional. Diana Petre’s compelling memoir, The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley tells the story of her unusual childhood and explores the identity of her mother, Muriel Perry. Diana was the illegitimate daughter of Roger Ackerley, a director of the fruit-importing company, Elders & Fyffes and was known as ‘the banana king’. He was called Uncle Bodger by his children (twin daughters, Sally and Helen, born in 1909, and Diana, born in 1912) and during his lifetime they did not know the truth of their paternity. Muriel informed the children shortly after his death in 1929 – Diana, told after the twins, was delivered the news in a luxurious hotel room in Vienna, the tickets having been purchased before his demise. ‘Are you pleased?’ Muriel asked her. ‘Yes,’ she replied. Finally, the fragments of her life appeared to be slotting into place.

From an outsider’s perspective, Muriel was a beautiful, glamorous woman, with black hair, dark expressive eyes, alabaster skin, and an enviable wardrobe. ‘Anyone could tell she was full of secrets. You only had to look at her to feel the mysteriousness of her. She was a fascinator: one of those creatures who seem to come from nowhere and to be going nowhere, but who permeate the mind as a serum gets into the bloodstream,’ Diana wrote in her memoirs. Those who knew of Muriel’s predicament, and there were not many at the time, would have agreed she was a woman who had accepted her lot in life. Always the mistress, never the wife. But life is not as simple as that, and although little is known of Muriel’s background, her situation with Ackerley was a complex one.

From the beginning, having met him when she was barely out of her teens, Muriel believed there was a Mrs Roger Ackerley, who was the mother of his three children: two boys and a girl. Despite there being a so-called wife, Muriel began to refer to herself as Mrs Perry and on her children’s birth certificate a Mr George Perry was listed as their father. Incidentally, when Sally married Gerald Grosvenor, who became the fourth Duke of Westminster, her biography in Debrett’s repeated much of the aforementioned. In those days illegitimacy was a social taboo and, although it was common in high society, Muriel felt ashamed. Aged twenty and pregnant, Ackerley had placed her in a small flat with a nurse to care for the twins (a stillborn son had been born the year before). She took her exercise after dark and avoided her neighbours. Perhaps they thought her aloof – she looked the part – and she hoped they would mistake her for a widow or a divorcee. She was soon pregnant again, this time with Diana, and now the father of six children with two separate families (his secret orchards), Ackerley had had enough. His mistress, although still young and beautiful, was not as attractive when up to her elbows in baby paraphernalia. A friend, who was living a similar lifestyle, advised her to forget the children and to devote herself to Ackerley; she wouldn’t want to lose him, would she? And so, despite loving her infant children (she was fond of newborn things), she left. It was a means of survival, rather than neglect. But the children did not view it that way.

When questioned about her background Muriel would dissolve into tears and protest that Diana was wicked to pry. She was born Muriel Haidée Perry, around 5 March 1899, or so she told Diana, but there was no such record of her birth at Somerset House. She abandoned her middle-name when she was old enough to make up her own mind. It was believed, by Diana, that she had dropped the Haidée for fear of mispronouncing it. Adding to this fictional childhood, Muriel said she had spent her youth in Clifton and was raised by her step-brother, an artist named Henry John Foster, who had known many famous painters. Diana dismissed Muriel’s statement, claiming she showed no appreciation for art, and there were no traces of a well-known artist by that name. She concluded that Muriel had grown up in an orphanage. However, Muriel had offered Diana a snippet of information: she had come to London in her teens and, according to Muriel herself, found work in an office. Another story presented itself when Muriel let slip she had no choice but to move to London after she and Ackerley were spotted in a box at a theatre in Bristol. Later, when she was old and sick, she spoke of a pub at a hotel, The Tavistock, at Covent Garden, where she was employed as a bookkeeper. Diana pointed out that Muriel could barely do sums, so this seemed to be another one of her fantasies, or embellishments. Her job was to stand at the desk and tick off the patrons’ who came in late, and to ensure the scuttles in the bedrooms were stocked with coal. On one occasion a gentleman checked in and teased her relentlessly. It was Roger Ackerley and she did not take kindly to his teasing. She went to his room to check the scuttle and found him in bed. As she stood in the doorway, he said: ‘Why don’t you come in and get warm?’ And she did.

For the greater part of Diana’s childhood she did not know her mother, nor could she recall any memory of her. Muriel left for ten years, four of which were spent helping with the war effort. The children were placed in the care of an elderly Scottish governess, known as Auntie Coutts, who hoarded the money Muriel sent via Ackerley to care for the children. Thus, Diana and her sisters were undernourished, poorly clothed, and somewhat feral. Their mother, however, was having the time of her life; she claimed to love the war and sometime between 1914-18 she founded the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Free Buffet at Victoria Station, at which servicemen were fed at the cost of one penny. Whilst operating the buffet she had also fallen in love: the man in question was Pat de Bathe, a war hero, and a husband and father. Despite being married, he proposed and she accepted. Muriel failed to mention her connection to Ackerley, and her children, but de Bathe was a jealous man prone to obsessions and he discovered her secret family and their whereabouts. A scene on the platform of Victoria Station ensued, and he seized her hand to remove the engagement ring and broke her finger in the process. Then, in disgrace, Muriel drove a motor-kitchen to the Front, in aid of the Italian Red Cross. In Italy she fell for Emanuele Filiberto, the Duke of Aosta and a scion of the House of Savoy, whom she met after being one of two women presented to him. A short while later she wrote him a letter, and uncertain of how to address royalty, she wrote ‘Dear Man’ and this charmed him. Although he was old enough to be her father, and married, their romance appeared harmless and he placed Muriel in a convent in Trieste after she developed dysentery. Several weeks later, she returned to London but not to her old life. It was 1919, and the war was over, but Muriel’s career was not, and she went to Belgium to organise a rehabilitation centre for wounded soldiers. The relationship with the duke faltered, but her reputation did not and she was decorated seven times for her war work, which included an OBE.

After the war, Muriel returned to London but not to her children. She shared a flat with Doris Delevingne, then a wily courtesan determined to scale the social ladder one bed at a time. It was unclear how they had met, and perhaps their paths had crossed when Doris, then an ambitious eighteen-year-old, was working as a scullery maid on behalf of the war effort at a London hospital. The wandering came to a halt around 1922, the year Doris moved in with Laddie Sanford, an American millionaire, and that signalled Muriel’s cue to leave. Knocking on the door of her children’s home she was greeted by her identical twin daughters, standing six-feet-tall and looking bedraggled. Diana, small and fair, had no memory of her mother. Each of her three girls treated her with disdain, although it was Diana who was the more inquisitive of the trio. The feeling was short-lived, for Diana was sent to a series of schools, none of which Muriel ever entered. Although Diana had never been warned to keep secrets, she instinctively knew her mother and their lifestyle were not the same as others. There was no mention of a father, but they had a house and an income, and so her worldlier schoolmates assumed Muriel was a divorcee. Diana asked her mother, and was told: ‘Why can’t other people mind their own business?’ The family moved again, this time to a home in south London, bought by Ackerley in Muriel’s name. He had also taken a substantial sum from her bank account to pay for his eldest daughter’s wedding and had promised to replace the money, but he never did. Muriel sensed the money was running out, but she continued to receive payments, which she spent on the children. She began to drink heavily; always at night, always when the children were sleeping. Stalking the landing after the midnight hour, she resembled a sort of Lady Macbeth, with her make-up dissolved by tears and streaked down her face, tripping over her feet. The children raided Muriel’s wardrobe and, behind the expensive gowns, they discovered bottles of booze. She went to a clinic and dried out, but her demons remained.

It was after the move that Ackerley had fallen ill with cancer of the tongue. The twins had run away, and when Muriel appealed for the authorities to return them she was told that illegitimate children came of age at eighteen, not twenty-one. Again, Diana remained oblivious to this clue of their parentage and was dismissed by Muriel with a flimsy statement that some children had different circumstances. She followed Muriel and Ackerley to hotels by the sea, an attempt to improve his health. During this period of hotel living his grown-up children visited their father, and Diana was introduced to her half-sister and half-brother (another half-brother had been killed in the war) for the first time, but not as their sibling, although, owing to a family resemblance, they solved the clue. Nancy was a divorcee with a young son; Joe was a writer and editor, and openly homosexual with a boyfriend who often accompanied him to visit his father at the hotel. They had little time for Muriel, who would make herself scarce when they arrived. Joe, the friendlier of the two, took Diana to a pub and asked her many questions, but she was too struck by Joe’s joie de vivre to engage in conversation. 

After the death of Ackerley in 1929, Muriel discovered two significant things: the money was gone and there was no Mrs Ackerley, as he had led her to believe. Although she had loved him, despite her view that all men were wretched, she must have felt a sense of freedom in the wake of his demise. The children now knew the truth, the twins were long gone, and Diana’s curiosity had been piqued. It also began a period of ill-health for Diana: she was prone to vomiting, fainting, and fatigue – this, years later, she self-diagnosed as a result of her deep unhappiness – and she, too, copied the twins and ran away. Muriel, now alone, met and married Lt.-Colonel Alfred Scott-Hewitt, a dull gentleman whose focus centred around the home. But adventure was on the horizon and the Second World War gave her the opportunity to escape England, her husband, and the troubles surrounding her grown-up children. Being abroad suited Muriel, and she thrived on nursing the wounded and dying. Hotels replaced a permanent residence, and she draped her pretty clothes around the furniture to give a sense of homeliness. The chambermaids became her confidantes, and she liked to drink brandy with her friends – she never overcame her alcoholism. After the war, she was, at least in the traditional sense, widowed once more and the death of her husband had little effect on her. ‘Never let a man know you care,’ she told her daughters. However, she had given up on men.

In her later years, Muriel lived with a female companion, who doubled as a nursemaid and, from Diana’s point-of-view, a jailer. It was a strange dynamic, but it filled a void during the periods in which she was estranged from her children. When she was dying, Sally took charge and Diana helped as best she could, though she harboured resentment for Muriel. ‘Why did you hate me?’ she asked Diana, shortly before her death. There was no direct answer; the past was too complicated to dissect during their limited time together. Discreet until the end, Muriel offered only one clue: ‘I think I should be a . . . prostitute. Of course, I’d be very choosy; I wouldn’t take anyone.’ She died on 5 May 1960.

The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley (ISBN: 978-1-906562-85-4, RRP £17.50) by Diana Petre is published by Slightly Foxed 

This feature was originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol V
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