Nancy Oakes von Hoyningen-Huene
Wilful heiress catapulted into a colourful life of glamorous celebrity by the mysterious murder of her plutocratic father
IF EVER proof were wanted that money cannot guarantee happiness, it could be found in abundance in the life of Nancy Oakes von Hoyningen-Huene, who, as a 19-year-old heiress, was a central figure in what Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason, called “the greatest murder mystery of all time”.
The whirlwind of publicity, gossip, mental torment and tragedy in which she found herself caught up began on July 8, 1943, with the discovery of the body of her father, Sir Harry Oakes, Bt, in his beachfront house outside Nassau, in The Bahamas. Oakes, the owner of the largest goldmine in the Western hemisphere, had been battered to death, his corpse partially incinerated and strewn with feathers.
The killing of its most prominent private citizen presented the islands’ Governor, the Duke of Windsor, with a considerable problem. He believed that the local police lacked the expertise to investigate the crime and, it being wartime and thus difficult to bring detectives across the Atlantic from London, he turned instead to two American policemen he knew in the Miami force. It was to prove a fateful decision.
Within a day and a half of their arrival, Captains Melchen and Barker had arrested Oakes’ son-in-law, Count Alfred de Marigny, a tall, amusing Mauritian. Already twice divorced, he had eloped with Oakes’s eldest child, Nancy, some 14 years his junior, in May the previous year and had married her (without previously informing her parents) the day after she attained her majority. De Marigny, who had admitted to being near Oakes’s house on the night of the murder, was known to be on bad terms with the multimillionaire and was said to be short of money. All Nassau was convinced of his guilt. He was committed for trial, and a rope was ordered for his hanging.
When her husband was arrested, Nancy de Marigny was in Vermont. She returned to Nassau and began to help to organise his defence and to sustain his morale while he remained on remand in prison. With her auburn hair, deep-set eyes, fine figure and mild resemblance to Katharine Hepburn, the young countess soon became a favourite of the dozens of reporters sent to cover the case. Newspapers in Europe and America vied to break fresh developments in the story, which provided exciting headlines for readers weary of the war.
At the trial itself, the chief piece of evidence against de Marigny was a fingerprint of his which Barker claimed to have found on a screen near the bed where Oakes had been killed. Since de Marigny had not been to the house for many months, and prints deteriorated quickly in Nassau’s humidity, this promised to be conclusive evidence against him. But in cross-examination, de Marigny’s counsel, Godfrey Higgs, gradually prised apart the Crown’s case that his client had killed to get his hands on Nancy’s vast inheritance.
In particular, it transpired that the print produced in court had, claimed Barker, been lifted clean off the screen by him so that no trace of the powdered original remained. Nor could he show convincingly where on the screen it might have been. This lent force to the defence’s suggestion that Barker had framed de Marigny with a print of his taken from a glass.
Though de Marigny’s alibi and witnesses also proved shaky, his wife Nancy did not, braving a fever and the opprobrium of her mother (who believed de Marigny guilty) to testify for him. As the last person to be called, she made a considerable impact on the jury (as had her well-chosen selection of dresses throughout the trial). With a finely honed sense of the dramatic, she appeared almost to faint while giving evidence, and later walked out during the Attorney-General’s closing speech, claiming she could not bear to hear “such filthy things” said against her husband.
Within two hours of being sent out, the jury returned their verdict – a sensational one that acquitted de Marigny by a majority. There were wild celebrations outside the courthouse, and he was chaired aloft by the largely black crowd.
The uproar that greeted the decision had drowned out a rider added by the all-white jury which recommended that de Marigny and a friend, the Marquis de Visdelou, should be deported from the Bahamas. De Marigny had alienated the colony’s officials and mercantile class with his contempt for their conventionality - less than tactfully he described the Duke as “a pimple on the arse of the Empire” - and four days after his acquittal the Governor’s executive council (with doubtful legitimacy) approved his deportation. Nancy de Marigny followed him into exile, their first stop being the Cuban home of his friend Ernest Hemingway.
The murder of Sir Harry Oakes has never been solved, although it has given rise to theories embracing Mafia hitmen, black magic and Nazi gold. The crime inevitably remained the dominant event of the life of Oakes’ daughter, which, even after de Marigny’s acquittal, continued to be a troubled one.
Nancy Oakes was born in Toronto in 1924, the eldest of five children, three of whom would meet untimely deaths. Her oldest brother, Sydney, who inherited the baronetcy after their father’s murder, was killed in a car accident aged 39. Another brother, Pitt, died of an overdose at the age of 28 after several years of mental instability. Nancy’s only sister, Shirley, was also involved in a crash in middle age that left her in an irreversible coma.
Only Nancy’s youngest brother, Harry, was not the victim of such a fate, although because of disagreements about the administration of the family’s assets the pair were barely on speaking terms for much of their later lives.
Nancy spent her first years at The Chateau, Oakes’ log cabin at Kirkland Lake, northern Ontario, where the US-born prospector had struck gold in the years before the First World War. By the late 1920s, he had become the largest contributor to the Canadian revenue, and by his death had taken some $45 million (around $500 million today) in profit from the mine. Such wealth made him one of the richest people in the Empire of which he became a citizen, and of which he was created a baronet in 1939, principally for his gifts to charity.
In 1935, for tax reasons, he had moved to Nassau, then a backwater and whose infrastructure and economy he did much to enhance. Nancy, meanwhile, was schooled in England, Switzerland and New York, and also travelled to South America, Australia (her mother’s country) and Indonesia with her parents. Nonetheless, she was not close to them - both were rather domineering – and perhaps in de Marigny she saw her chance to escape. Their bond was strengthened when he nursed her through several life-threatening operations after she had contracted trench mouth (acute necrotising ulcerative gingivitis) on honeymoon in Mexico.
The gilt of their marriage, however, had begun to tarnish even before her father’s murder. Though she believed him innocent, and stood loyally by him, it was already apparent that each wanted different things. Somewhat surprisingly, he craved stability, while Nancy, who rather had her head turned by her press coverage during the trial, did not want to be fettered. They separated in 1945, and were divorced in 1949, with her insisting on an annulment.
By then she was living in Hollywood, where she enjoyed
romances with a string of actors, most notably Richard Greene, the television
star of Robin Hood. Her wealth and temperament always made it easy
for her to attract admirers, rarely to her advantage. In 1952, she
married Baron Ernst von Hoyningen-Huene, but they were divorced in 1956.
Six years later she married Patrick Tritton and moved to Mexico, though
when that union was also dissolved she reverted to the von Hoyningen name
and style. Thereafter, ‘the
Baroness’, as she liked to be known, divided her time between London and the Bahamas, where she still retained considerable holdings.
Reckless, selfish and not a little vindictive, she consoled herself in an old age increasingly blighted by frailty and blindness with an occasional lawsuit. Sometimes she hinted darkly that family advisers had been behind her father’s murder, but since she drank more rum than was good for her, and could perhaps no longer distinguish between the truth and what she thought she remembered, such asides were of dubious value. They were always delivered with charm, however, especially if the recipient was a young man.
She is survived by a son and a daughter.
Nancy Oakes von Hoyningen-Huene, heiress, was born May
17, 1924. She died on January 16, 2005, aged 80.