In the Roaring 20s, no one lived like Leslie Hutchinson. People came in droves to see the cabaret star’s performances—but the anarchy that went on in his crowds was nothing compared to the chaos and scandal of his personal life. From secret love children to one of the most infamous royal bedroom gifts in history, Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson’s story is as juicy as they come.
Born in Grenada at the exact turn of the century, Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson seemed destined to usher the stodgy Victorian world into a new era of sensual pleasure and thrilling scandal. In 1916, when he was still just a teenager, he moved to New York and ended up playing piano in a series of smoky, dimly-lit bars. It was the beginning of his notoriety, and it went from sweet to scary in an instant.
Hutch was good enough to land a position in an all-Black band that played across New York City for clients like the uber-wealthy Vanderbilt family. Yet with this fame came grave danger: Objecting to the racial mixing the band represented, the Klu Klux Klan swore vengeance on the group. Hutch, however, didn’t bat an eye. He just came up with a new, more glamorous plan.
By 1924, the fully-grown Hutch took himself off to Paris, hoping it was a less prejudiced mecca. Yet this was also a huge betrayal. Just months before his trans-Atlantic move, Hutch had married a humble, normal woman named Ella Byrd. He would have a daughter with her, Lesley, just a couple of years later. Although Ella followed him to France, Hutch still wasn’t the settling down kind. As soon as he got to Paris, he got himself into trouble.
See, Hutch knew how to take advantage of French living, and before he spent long on the Paris music scene, he had already become the illicit lover of the legendary songwriter Cole Porter. The sketchy morals of this relationship were nonetheless good for his career: Porter opened up even more doors for Hutch—and led him right to the woman who would seal his infamy.
During these heady days, Hutch rubbed elbows with none other than Countess Edwina Mountbatten, an English heiress and socialite who had a racy reputation for outrageous parties, affairs with just about anyone, and one wicked sense of fun. Naturally, she developed a liking for Hutch from the moment she saw him work a room on stage. Then the drama started.
Edwina was used to getting what she wanted, and at that moment, all she wanted was Hutch. At one of his infamous post-show parties, she set up an introduction between herself and the singer. It was certainly successful: Just a few nights later, at one of his shows, everyone watched as the married Hutch scandalously sang directly to the married Edwina in the crowd. Oh, but that was just the beginning.
If anyone was in doubt about the vibes flowing between Hutch and the Countess, his next move must have made jaws drop. He got close enough for Edwina to take off her scarf, loop it around his neck, and kiss him in full view of the public. As we’ll see, though, this was the least of the troubles Hutch and Edwina would get into. Besides, Hutch had another life-altering moment coming his way.
In 1927, Edwina Mountbatten convinced Hutch to take his Paris show on the road and make the hop across the channel to England. Once Hutch did, his already scandalous life dialed up to 11. He became a sensation from almost the moment he set foot in Britain; the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII, named him as his favorite singer, and Hutch was the highest-paid entertainer in the country.
Yeah, he was huge. But behind the scenes, things were reaching a fever pitch…and not in a good way.
Hutch was never a wallflower, but soon he was darn near out of control. He was a prolific lover, scooping up women and men like actress Tallulah Bankhead, starlet Merle Oberon, and the dark-eyed matinee idol Ivor Novello. And as his bedroom escapades rose, it only drew more and more stars to the tall, handsome rake. Yet with this attention came ever more danger.
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Hutch was single-minded in pursuit of his romantic quarry, and he didn’t always have the best judgment. Case in point: In 1930, one of his many mistresses, the achingly young and disgustingly rich debutante Elizabeth Sperling, had a little too much fun with Hutch and got pregnant with his child. In response, Sperling’s family concocted a hasty plan to marry the girl off to another man and let him think it was his child.
Well, this went wrong in every way possible.
Apparently, being richer than Croesus doesn’t make you any good at genetics, because no one in this marriage plot thought it through to the end. Soon enough, Hutch and his lover got an unwelcome surprise. When poor Elizabeth Sperling and her new husband actually had the child, a daughter named Gabrielle, she was obviously mixed race. This did not go well for Hutch.
With the cat out of the bag, Elizabeth Sperling’s new husband refused to raise Hutch’s child as his own, and Hutch was apparently unwilling to do the same, forcing the newlyweds to give poor little Gabrielle up for adoption. But if Hutch thought he got off scot-free, he was very wrong. Elizabeth’s outraged father ended up suing the entertainer. Hutch was in hot water, and the saucepan was about to boil over.
Over the next years, Hutch bed a whole series of lovers with almost self-destructive fervor—and apparently he didn’t learn any lessons from the Elizabeth Sperling affair. Although still technically married to Ella Byrd, he had six more children with five more different mothers. If it seems like he was running from something, maybe he was—because there was a grisly secret to his fame.
During his glory days in England, Hutch was commanding eye-popping prices just for a couple hours of his entertainment. Yet in this case, all that glittered was not gold. As a Black man, many establishments barred him from sharing the stage with a white woman, severely limiting his options for his performances. Tragically, though, that was nowhere near all he endured.
Although the limitations on Hutch’s performances were infuriating, the real insults came from behind closed doors. Literally. When Hutch first arrived to private homes to entertain at a lavish party, many of his patrons insisted he enter through the service doors because of his race, a request Hutch agreed to only with great (and justified) bitterness. I mean, is it any wonder he acted out?
As if to wave it in his racist patrons’ faces, Hutch quickly made England his bona fide home. And this being Leslie Hutchinson, he didn’t do it quietly. He bought an enormous house in the stylish neighborhood of Hampstead, then took to decorating his driveway with an immaculate Rolls Royce—all while dressed by London’s best tailors, natch. Sadly, however, nothing good can last forever.
Even at the apex of Hutch’s fame, there were signs that a downfall was coming. For one, in the exact opposite of “relationship goals,” his lifestyle was so lavish in comparison to his virtually unknown wife Ella, many of his neighbors who caught a glimpse of her assumed she was just his housemaid. Ouch. And as Hutch continued to grow out of his britches, white society got more uncomfortable. Enter: utter disaster.
Throughout this time, Hutch remained “close” with Edwina Mountbatten, though they now mostly kept their relationship on the downlow. After all, she had become quite the somebody herself, with her own royal connections. Her husband, Louis Mountbatten, was the future Prince Philip’s uncle, and thus uber-connected to the English throne. While this might seem like a good thing for Hutch, it turned out to be the worst thing that could have ever happened to him.
The first snag in Hutch and Edwina’s relationship was the tumultuous nature of her marriage to Mountbatten. Both bisexual, the Mountbattens engaged in and then fought about their many affairs, which eventually led to them opening up their relationship. Again, this should have been a good thing for Hutch, as now he and Edwina could parade around their dalliances once more.
Well, that’s just what they did…but it was most definitely not a good thing.
With Hutch and Edwina now able to cavort around with each other at parties, they took the bull by both horns. Their first moves were ruinous. At one evening bash where Hutch was playing, witnesses saw Edwina kiss the singer on the neck, stop his song, and then lead him into the dining room and close the doors. And let me tell you, I wish this story ended there.
In the next minutes, the crowd—practically all of them with their ears pricked toward the closed doors—heard Edwina give a loud shriek. She then exited out of the dining room, straightening her clothes in a very conspicuous manner. When Hutch came out, he reportedly looked like the cat that ate the canary…but no one could have guessed what really happened.
BBC producer Bobby Jay claimed that Hutch was “elated” after his little rendezvous, and he apparently had good reason to be. Hutch quickly made a stunning confession. According to Jay, the singer claimed he had sent Edwina flying across “the length of the dining-room table” with “one thrust.” He then went back to the piano and calmly continued his performance. If Hutch knew what was coming, though, he’d have never been so calm.
Up until this turn of his relationship with Edwina, Hutch had survived as a Black man in a white, rich world largely because of one principle. Namely, the upper crust’s “what happens in the manor stays in the manor” attitude. Moreover, this went double when the scandal involved people close to the royal family. But with antics like that dining room escapade, even the stiffest of upper lips were beginning to grimace. That’s how Hutch’s life fell apart with one headline.
In 1932, The People newspaper was the first to break under the weight of the rumors flying around London. The story sent shockwaves through polite society. In it, the paper gave an account of a high-society heiress cavorting about with a famous Black entertainer and getting caught in a “compromising position.” Yet as the details unspooled, the plot thickened.
In their effort to be discreet even while spilling all the beans, the newspaper made a fatal error: They put the story out wrong. Although everyone immediately and correctly glommed on to Edwina Mountbatten as the “leading hostess” involved in the affair, the newspaper hinted it was another uber-famous Black entertainer, Paul Robeson, who was her paramour. This despite the fact Mountbatten and Robeson had never met. Um, and there was one more very awkward thing.
The “compromising position” that Edwina was reportedly caught in at the time was rumored to be nothing less than “sexual locking,” i.e. a moment where Mountbatten and Hutch literally couldn’t get off each other even though they tried. Apparently, the couple had to get doctors to intervene and disentangle them. True? Almost certainly not.
The whole debacle was about as embarrassing as it could get, but the situation still got way worse—for Hutch, anyway.
In the wake of the scandal, the royal family took immediate action—and dealt Hutch a brutal double-crossing. All his friendly times with the Prince of Wales meant just about nothing in the face of Edwina’s precarious reputation, and while the royal family helped Edwina launch a libel trial against the paper, they did absolutely nothing to help Hutch out of his own scandal. And then they really rubbed it in his face.
Edwina Mountbatten and her husband eventually won the libel trial—because of course they did—and the very next day, the king and queen invited the husband and wife to dine with them, then later threw a big pseudo-Homecoming party for the prodigal couple. Once more, Hutch got nothing. Actually, correction: He did get something, but it was almost too horrific for words.
Despite the fact that it takes two to tango, and it definitely takes two people to launch someone across a dining room table in a fit of passion, only Hutch started to feel high society turn away from him. After all, even if the larger public didn’t know him from Paul Robeson, the aristocrats who had seen him and Edwina together certainly did. His punishment was brutal.
Suddenly, Hutch looked around and realized his career had come to a screeching halt. Patrons who once adored the risqué energy he brought to a room cut him entirely, and he had a difficult time getting gigs he used to be able to get with the snap of his fingers. Even the BBC dropped him and his songs from their programming. It was the beginning of the end, but he had much further to fall.
Perhaps most heartbreakingly, his long-time lover Edwina Mountbatten also dropped him like a hot potato once she was back in the good graces of the royal family. While they might have met up for a few steamy secret visits afterward, most believe Edwina cut off the affair completely and left Hutchinson to his own devices. She may have never regretted it, but Hutch did—and as always, he acted out, big time.
Although the Royal family expressly forbid Hutch from any Royal Command Performances, turning him into persona non grata in London, Hutch didn’t let that stymie his appetite for scandal. In fact, he got one bitter revenge. According to rumors, he simply took up with another member of the royal family in retaliation, bedding the queen’s aunt Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent. And he didn’t quit there.
Hutch wasn’t the “forgive and forget” kind, and he did neither when it came to Edwina and her relatives. Accordingly, he soon had his eye on another, even more outrageous conquest: Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister Princess Margaret. Some whispered that he managed to seduce the 25-year-old when he was 55. But that wasn’t the only way Hutch struck back.
Hutch hadn’t climbed this far to give up so easily, and he fought tooth and nail to keep his career and his relevance. He was actually one of the very first British stars to volunteer to entertain the men in WWII, traveling both abroad and entertaining the troops at home in Britain to bring some joy to the servicemen. As thanks, he only got a crueler betrayal.
The wealthy, white world had never been on Hutch’s side, but after his disastrous affair with Edwina Mountbatten and his fall from grace, they were all too happy to treat him as an enemy…when they thought about him at all, that is. As it happened, the government never even formally recognized Hutch for his services during WWII, and never granted him a single honor.
But in just a few short years, Hutch would be wishing that was his only problem.
In 1958, Hutch went through a devastating loss. That year, his wife Ella passed, leaving him truly alone for probably the first time in his adult life. Although he had been less than a faithful husband to her, she was the one constant in his high-flying world. Still, for all that Ella had given him, Hutch gave her back one utterly tragic send-off into the grave.
By this time Hutchinson was too immersed in the high life to change, and he couldn’t stop himself from spending lavishly in the same way he had before his gigs dried up. As a result, he couldn’t even afford a proper burial for his own wife. Poor Ella was laid to rest in an unmarked, pauper’s grave that cost just 12 pounds to dig. Even so, it’s hard to feel angry at Hutch—after all, karma came for him in the end.
Less than a decade after Ella’s passing, it became clear just how much she might have been holding Hutch together at the end. By 1967, Hutch had spent what very little money he had left on gambling—and then some. In fact, he was in debt to the tune of over ten thousand pounds, and barely knew what to do with himself. Faced with ruin, he made a heartbreaking choice.
That same year, Hutch had to sell his beloved mansion in Hampstead, the place where he held his most extravagant parties and invited his most influential friends. The sale netted a little over 13,000 pounds, and nearly all of that went directly to his debts, leaving Hutch now all but homeless and penniless. If his life were a fairy tale, someone would come and save him now. Only, no one did, and Hutch couldn’t save himself.
While all of this was going on, Hutch got more reasons to be bitter about his old friends. After feeding him to the wolves, his old lover Edwina Mountbatten got a huge glow up. Most poignantly, while the government entirely ignored Hutch’s efforts in WWII, Edwina emerged from the conflict as a war hero, and even became the last vicereine of India. Not that Hutch was entirely blameless…
In truth, although wealthy society discarded Hutch more easily than they did a dessert napkin, the legendary and legendarily scandalous entertainer didn’t seem to learn from his own personal mistakes, either. Even penniless, he was always up to his old tricks, and even had another love child in 1965, a little girl named Emma, when he was well into his 60s. Sadly, Emma would grow up almost entirely without a father.
By the mid-1960s, a terrifying change came over Hutch. He had once been an Adonis who could charm nearly any man or woman into his bed, but after his downfall he had begun drinking more heavily than before, and the years had now completely caught up with him. Although he hid it under heavy stage makeup, his face was bloated, his teeth decaying, and his beauty gone. His time was running out.
As Hutch went into his late 60s, his health took a nosedive even if his virility didn’t take much of a hit. In the summer of 1969, the now frail-looking man, aged beyond his years, got hit with an intense bout of pneumonia. Suddenly, Hutch landed in Hampstead hospital. On August 19, 1969, he died, taking all of his remaining bedroom secrets with him. But he did not rest in peace.
Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson had seen the better part of an entirely new century, and he had set many of the trends and scandals for that century along the way. In the end, however, it was a thankless task. After selling off his house and paying his debts, Hutch never managed to make any of his fortune back, and he passed “virtually penniless.” And he had one final insult to go.
Even in death, Hutchinson’s reputation as a high society outcast didn’t disappear. In fact, this mark on his memory followed him to the grave. Tragically, only 42 people showed up for his funeral to pay their respects. Perhaps more upsetting is the fact that his career and life are little talked about to this day. There is, however, a glint of hope for Hutch and his memory.
In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in Hutch’s life and a reconsideration of the scandal that unfairly ruined him. The show Black and British: A Forgotten History centered an episode on him in 2016, and his large and sprawling family certainly kept him in their thoughts. In 2012, his daughter Gabrielle unveiled an iconic English Heritage blue plaque on Hutch’s old London home. Plus, Hutch also got the Hollywood treatment…
If you’re a Downton Abbey fan, chances are you already know a little about Leslie Hutchinson without actually realizing it. After all, creator Julian Fellowes based the rascally Jack Ross, played by Gary Carr, on Hutch and his scandalous bedroom exploits. In one episode, Ross dances with the intrigued Lady Rose after a performance. Not bad Hutch, not bad.
Although people in “polite” society didn’t necessarily talk about it openly, those intimate with Hutch thought they knew one thing about the singer that made him irresistible: He was enormously well-endowed. At least, that’s what Edwina Mountbatten claimed, and she was likely an expert on the matter. Also, Edwina had a scandalous way of showing her “gratitude” for these physical qualities.
Before the libel suit, Edwina Mountbatten was obsessed with Leslie Hutchinson, and she loved proving it to him with seriously excessive gifts. Among her lover-boy presents were a bejeweled cigarette case, a heavy gold ring, and a brilliant diamond watch. Evidently, she and Hutch had a taste for the expensive and shiny—but all this was nothing compared to her most infamous gift.
Edwina Mountbatten’s piece de resistance to Hutch is still talked about in hushed tones today, partly as rumor, partly as legend, and partly as a real possibility. And it deserves this shocked reverence: Some believe she gave the cabaret singer a custom-made, Cartier diamond-encrusted...codpiece. After all, as Edwina supposedly quipped, her lover could fill it out.
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