In 1975 an eccentric old lady who lived near Brighton, England, with a Pekinese gave a taped interview about her affair in 1930 with Scott Fitzgerald. Recent Fitzgerald biographers have mentioned the evocatively named Bijou O’Conor and quoted bits from the tape, but no one has discovered anything significant about her background, appearance, or character.
The husky, upper-class voice on the tape intrigued me, and I wondered what had brought them together and how Fitzgerald had fitted into Bijou‘s life. Happening to be in London last summer, I tried to find out more about her. As I have often discovered, someone who seems utterly obscure, dead, and forgotten can be brought to life once you tap into the institutions that survive her: in this ease, her family, an Oxford college, and the Foreign Office.
I began with the Who’s Who entry on Bijou’s father. Sir Francis Elliot (1851-1940). Grandson of the second Earl of Minto, he rowed for Balliol College, entered the diplomatic service, served as consul-general in Sofia from 1895 to 1903 and as minister in Athens from 1903 to 1917. Debrett’s Peerage adds that Bijou, whose real name was Violet Marie, was born in 1896 (the same year as Fitzgerald), the fourth and youngest daughter of Sir Francis. In 1920 she married Lieutenant Edmund O’Conor, R.N., of Charleville, Dunleer, County Louth (the O’Conors are no longer there), who died in 1924. Though widowed at age 28, she never remarried.
I first telephoned the present Earl of Minto, whom I imagined pacing the armor-lined corridors of his crumbling castle in the Highlands. Instead of the servant I had expected, the Earl himself answered the phone. Though he had not heard of Bijou, his curiosity was aroused by my questions about his family. He spoke to me for a leisurely 20 minutes and shrewdly suggested various lines of inquiry. Following the Earl’s advice, I wrote to the records department of the British Foreign Office, which sent me the address of Bijou’s niece in Exeter. Debrett’s provided the address of the Honourable Mary Alington Marten, O. B. E., the daughter of Bijou’s friend Napier Alington. But Mary Alington was only 11 years old when her father died and knew nothing about Bijou. William Furlong, who had conducted the taped interview with Bijou, had heard about her by chance through a mutual friend in Hove, near Brighton. He characterized her as a mysterious and rather ruthless woman, who responded to male attention and seemed genuinely concerned about the welfare of Fitzgerald’s daughter, Scottie. Furlong promised to look through the original transcripts and to send me any new material he could find.
My first breakthrough came from Claire Eaglestone of Balliol College, who was intrigued by my query about Sir Francis and, putting my letter on the top of her correspondence, rang me at once. Though Sir Francis had no sons, his grandson had (as I suspected) gone to his old college. Captain William Elliot-Young (1910-42) had been killed in the war, but his son, the 10th baronet. Sir William Neil Young, reportedly lived in London. When he did not answer my letter (which had been forwarded to his new home in Edinburgh), I rang him at the Saudi International Bank. They told me he had moved to Coutts Bank, which put me right through to him.
Sir William was in the midst of his work but, like the Earl of Minto, was fascinated by his great-aunt and disposed to chat about her. He described her extravagance, her alcoholism, her mythomania—and her wooden leg. Most importantly, he put me in touch with Gillian Plazzota, the former wife of Bijou’s son. Mrs. Plazzota told me more about Bijou’s striking appearance and bohemian character, and about Bijou’s son, Michael O’Conor. He had been abandoned by his mother, brought up in the south of France by his stern Scottish grandparents, and eared for by a nanny until he was sent to school in England. She gave me his phone number, but suggested I “be gentle with him, and ask about photographs and letters before requesting information about Bijou.”
Though slightly suspicious at first, Michael O’Conor—curious about why I was so interested in Bijou, amused by the circuitous trail I had followed to find him, and eager to hear what I knew about Bijou and Fitzgerald—agreed to see me the following morning in Surrey. He had been educated at prep school, Radley, and Oxford, become a petroleum engineer, and worked for the Kuwait Oil Company and for Shell in Venezuela. Many of the oil wells he had built and supervised had been recently destroyed in the Persian Gulf War. He showed me a photograph of Bijou’s Pekinese, a pet he had inherited on her death but, significantly enough, did not have one of his mother. Michael said that the most serious of Bijou’s numerous lovers was a Russian photographer. Vladimir Molokhovcts (the spelling is uncertain), who had a studio on Wilton Street in Belgravia. Hoping his family might have letters from or a photograph of Bijou, I searched for his name in reference books and rang the photographic department of the National Portrait Gallery, but was unable to find any trace of him.
When I telephoned Sir William Young the following day to thank him for his help and to ask whether he had a photo of Bijou, he suggested I also see her first cousin, the elderly Edwardian gentleman Sir Brinsley Ford, a distinguished art historian and trustee of the National Gallery. Sir Brinsley told me family stories and his firsthand memories of Bijou. At one point in our interview his attractive granddaughter made a dramatic appearance and kissed his bald dome in greeting. She was delighted to learn that her second cousin had been Fitzgerald’s mistress and that her highly respectable family had included an eccentric rebel.
The conversations with Michael O’Conor and Sir Brinsley Ford enabled me to reconstruct Bijou’s life before she met Fitzgerald as well as to follow her strange career after their affair had ended. Bijou was born in Sofia while her father was serving there as British consul-general. A French nurse provided her nickname just after the baby was born. But when she presented the little Bijou to Sir Francis, he said that she looked more like a toad than a jewel. Educated privately by tutors and governesses. Bijou became an outstanding linguist. Though extremely intelligent, she lacked common sense. The daughter of a straitlaced Calvinistic Scot, and very different from her three older sisters, she passionately rejected her conventional family background.
During the Great War Bijou entertained her sophisticated friends, who would have been bored by their very proper elders downstairs, in her bedroom in the Athens Legation. Compton Mackenzie, then engaged in espionage in Greece, recalled her arty set in his First Athenian Memories (1931): “She was the youngest of Sir Francis’ daughters and the only one not yet married. In her room tucked away at the top of the Legation the social observer could have discovered the trend of the postwar generation’s decorative taste.” She represented, to Mackenzie, “the restless advance of youth in spite of the war.”
Bijou married Edmund O’Conor, a professional naval officer, in 1920 and accompanied him when he was stationed in China. She acquired an expert knowledge of Chinese and, claiming that she had been given two Pekinese by the Empress of China, developed a lifelong passion for the pets who followed her everywhere. Lieutenant O’Conor had been infected with tuberculosis during the war and died of that disease in Australia in 1924. Bijou’s son Michael was born after her husband’s death. During their rare meetings, Bijou always spoke French to the boy. He learned his first spoken word, merde, from listening to Bijou exclaim whenever she made a mistake in typing. Though Bijou felt sorry for the lonely and unsettled Scottie Fitzgerald, who had been ignored and rejected by her mother and brought up by nannies, she lacked maternal feeling for her own child.
Bijou was thin, chic, and jolie-laide, with fine features and soft brown eyes. Very social, a bit intolerant, and rather snobbish, she had rare charm and an air of mystery. She was a great character and an amusing raconteur who kept her circle of intelligent and often homosexual friends riveted by her fascinating conversation. She smoked heavily, enjoyed drinking binges, was wildly extravagant whenever she had any money, and always left a trail of debts behind her. She may even have served time in prison for this offense.
In about 1933 Bijou told Sir Brinsley Ford that Michael had a bad case of whooping cough and needed to recover in the mild climate of Penzance, and he gave her 50 pounds to take the boy on a recuperative holiday. A few days later a friend, who did not know where Bijou had obtained the sudden windfall, told Sir Brinsley that she had lavishly entertained a group of friends at the Ritz. The publisher Anthony Blond recalled (in a personal letter) that “she was quite small, quite sharp, and quite drunk.”
Bijou lived on a small naval pension and on whatever cash she could extract from her unwilling father. She may have caught tuberculosis from her late husband, spent some time in a sanatorium in Devos, and was also treated for alcoholism in Switzerland, where she met Scott Fitzgerald. In the fall of 1930, during his third and final trip to Europe, Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda had a mental breakdown and became a patient at Prangins clinic, in Nyon on Lake Geneva. Fitzgerald was living nearby in Lausanne, visiting her as often as possible and writing furiously to pay her expensive medical bills.
The wild, spendthrift Bijou—whom he had first met in the south of France and at the Closeric des Lilas in the Latin Quarter in the mid-1920’s—reminded Fitzgerald of his wife. And Bijou, like Fitzgerald, was often irresponsible, lived beyond her means, borrowed money, drank heavily, behaved scandalously, and did not care what people thought about her.
When Fitzgerald met Bijou in Lausanne he had just suffered the worst year of his marriage: Zelda’s devastating criticism of his sexual equipment and sexual performance, her balletomania, her emotional estrangement from him, her unnaturally strong attachment to her dancing teacher Madame Egorova, and her terrifying collapse into insanity. Though Bijou brought out the negative side of Fitzgerald—his uncontrolled drinking and wild behavior—she also, during a major crisis of his life, satisfied his deepest needs. She not only alleviated his tormenting guilt about Zelda, but also provided affection and sexual reassurance during their “roaring, screaming affair” in the Grand Hotel de la Paix.
The aristocratic Bijou smoked cigarettes in a long amber holder, carried around a half-paralyzed Pekinese, and frightened all the hotel guests and servants. She later remembered Fitzgerald typing away in her hotel room, fueled by bottle after bottle of gin. Bijou claimed, in her taped interview, that she and Fitzgerald had visited Prangins—where all the patients dressed for dinner and sat between the doctors and nurses— though they could have precipitated another breakdown if Zelda had guessed they were lovers. Bijou also recalled that Fitzgerald bought a Persian kitten for Zelda who, in a moment of uncontrolled rage, killed it by bashing its head against a wall.
Fitzgerald portrayed Bijou and her friend Napier Alington—whose birth and death dates (1896-1940) would be the same as Fitzgerald’s—as the widowed Lady Capps-Karr and Bopes, the Marquis of Kinkallow, in “The Hotel Child” (1931). Alington, a dark, good-looking baron and wealthy landowner, belonged to a fast set and was regarded by some as a wicked man. He was painted by Augustus John in 1938 wearing an elegant smoking jacket and bow tie, with a long face, creased cheeks, full lips, and a prominent oval chin.
“Practically the whole damn [story] is true, bizarre as it seems,” Fitzgerald said. “Lord Alington and the famous Bijou O’Conor were furious at me for putting them in.” In real life, in about 1918, careless with a cigarette. Bijou had burnt the ceiling of the guest room in the house of Sir Brinsley Ford’s father. Bijou must have told Fitzgerald about this embarrassing incident, for in his story Lady Capps-Karr and the Marquis Kinkallow are ejected from a Swiss hotel for starting a fire while attempting to cook some potato chips in alcohol.
The satiric caricatures of Lord Alington and Bijou O’Conor, inspired by Fitzgerald’s reaction against Bijou after their stormy affair had ended, took more serious and substantial form in Tender Is the Night (1934). In that novel she reappears as the fragile, tubercular, decadent Lady Caroline Sibley-Biers, who performs a dance of death as the Sepoys assault the ruined fort. The phrase, and Lady Capps-Karr’s favorite expression, “After all, a chep’s a chep and a chum’s a chum”—Fitzgerald’s bizarre notion of a quintessential English expression, which both Michael O’Conor and Sir Brinsley Ford agree Bijou would never have actually said—occur in both “The Hotel Child” and Tender Is the Night, linking Lady Capps-Karr and Lady Caroline Sibley-Biers to their common model, Bijou O’Conor.
Sir Francis Elliot, Napier Alington, and Scott Fitzgerald all died in 1940. Most of Bijou’s possessions—including her Picasso drawings and the letters Fitzgerald wrote to her in the early 1930’s—had been stored in Druce’s furniture warehouse when her father returned from France in 1936 and were destroyed during the London Blitz in 1940. After transport routes had suddenly been changed during the Blitz, Bijou was knocked down one dark night by a bus. Her leg had to be amputated, and she was fitted with a wooden one. When she sued London Transport for reckless driving, the latter’s lawyer enraged the judge (who later became Lord Denning) by claiming she had suffered “a trifling injury,” and she was awarded substantial damages that supported her for many years. One of her louche friends once persuaded her to smuggle contraceptives into Ireland in the hollow of her artificial leg.
During the war Bijou—a notoriously indiscreet but highly gifted linguist in French, Russian, Polish, Greek, and Chinese—worked for the Russian department of military intelligence at the War Office in Northumberland Street, off Trafalgar Square. She became a great friend of Major-General Sir Guy Glover and of Major-General Edward Spears (whose wife, the novelist Mary Borden, had been Wyndham Lewis’s mistress before her marriage).
She resumed her luxurious but parasitic life in Monaco in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. At the end of that decade she spent several uneasy months with Michael, who had scarcely known his mother, at his home in Nottinghamshire. She planned but never wrote her autobiography, to be called Interlude in Attica. After living alone at 88 Eccleston Square near Victoria Station, she finally settled into a near-penniless existence with a circle of old-age pensioners in Hove, where she died shortly after her taped interview in the fall of 1975.
Christopher Clairmonte, who painted two portraits of the elderly Bijou, recalled the squalid end of her adventurous life in the Sunday Times Magazine of July 3, 1983: “She was nearly blind, and had an artificial leg as a result of an accident, so there was not a lot she could do for herself. We turned back a rug, and found it was a heaving mass of insects, so we took it straight out and dumped it in a skip. The place was a mass of dog messes because her Peke—she always had Pekes and adored them—hadn’t been able to get out regularly.”
Despite her brief appearance in Fitzgerald’s life, Bijou was more important to Fitzgerald than he was to her. Though he reacted against her arrogant attitude and reckless way of life, and satirized her in his fiction, he desperately needed her companionship and enjoyed her wit and charm. Fitzgerald was one of Bijou’s more interesting lovers. She recognized herself in his works, made him the subject of her own amusing stories, and survived to have the last word about their affair.