The bizarre tale of Mrs Smith Wilkinson
Described variously as ‘The Countess of Monte Cristo’, ‘The Queen of Diamonds’ and ‘Madame Aladdin’, Mrs Smith Wilkinson can be seen as a society con-artist and one of the first wannabe celebrities. She made a rather big splash in Paris in the summer of 1921 causing much debate and gossip in the press thereafter. Whatever was all the fuss about?
Mrs Smith Wilkinson (who was affectionately called ‘Peggy’) burst onto the social scene, completely out of the blue like a thunderbolt, about a year after allegedly marrying her third husband (no marriage details can be found). The youthful Edward Henry Smith in his early twenties of the Crescent, Matlock (Derby) adopted the name of Smith-Wilkinson at the end of January 1920 prior to marrying Margaret, who must have been at least 54 and at least 25 years his senior. Since he was tall and thin and she was short and dumpy and, given the age gap, they must have made a rather startling match. The fact that Peggy was a constant wearer of horned glasses and also talked exactly like a Bayswater cook must have made them a very odd pair indeed.
Their debut in society occurred in the summer of 1921 when they occupied the Royal suite at the Claridge Hotel in Paris. They immersed themselves in Parisian society and because of their appearance and extravagance were noticed immediately. The press, of course, were particularly intrigued, especially when it was revealed that in three weeks Peggy had spent a sum variously estimated between £40,000 – £150,000 ($200,000 to $750,000). She was promptly dubbed as ‘Mrs Monte Cristo’ and with reason. As Basil Woon commented, ‘it is no easy thing to spend $750,000 in three weeks.’ This did not include the items of finery that she had bought with her from London.
Her first extravagance was to order the entire re-decoration of her suite at Claridge’s even though she was only staying for a few weeks. She hired five limousines each with different coloured upholstery so that her car would always harmonize with what she was wearing. She then ordered hundreds of gowns from the most expensive dressmakers on the Rue de la Paix to match the limousines, which she wore with a range of glittering jewellery that she had brought from London. One report claimed Peggy had spent at least £16,000 on hats, £32 000 in gowns and £100,000 for loose diamonds. The figures quoted do not match other accounts or the account of Basil Woon and ones wonders if Chinese whispers simply exaggerated these amounts. Later Peggy did say ‘I am credited with having paid a fabulous price for a jeweled headdress. It is true that I bought one from a lady who was compelled to sell… but I mentioned to no-one the price I gave….’
Basil Woon first saw her at a Saturday night gala at the Pre-Catalan, the prestigious outdoor restaurant and cabaret in the Bois de Bologne. She was wearing on her head a crown composed of more than a thousand pearls and rhinestones. Peggy claimed she had bought it for £160,000 ($800,000) and had been owned by the Grand Duchess Xenia of Russia. Suspended beneath her chin was a cluster pearls that Peggy called the ‘famous Shrewsbury pearls’ and claimed that they were more than 300 years old and bought from the British museum so she could wear them in Paris. These were worth £100,000 although another report said it was a £1 million. Peggy also said her gown was interwoven with more than 300 genuine diamonds and other gems were set in her stockings and shoes. Altogether she estimated her entire outfit to be worth £300,000 ($1,500,000). Basil Woon also noted that Peggy had been giving jewelry as gifts to her new friends and this included a diamond bracelet that she gave the American dancer Harry Pilcer who had given her dancing lessons.
It became known that apart from just making a big splash with her ostentatious display of wealth she was determined to set a style at Longchamps. She said ‘French women have been the style setters long enough. I made up my mind I would show them what real sensations meant. I have a different gown for every day in the year. I never wear one twice.’ Thus, her new husband, who apparently was an aspiring dressmaker, went back to London to supervise the construction of gowns that he was hoping would be the triumph of Regent Street over the Rue De La Paix. The unveiling of his creation was set for the day of the big Longchamps race on 28th June 1921. He arrived from London by plane and brought with him six shapely mannequins wearing gowns to match Peggy’s. All the gowns were in black and white.
Peggy’s gown was white with huge black stripes and she looked like a zebra. She wore a black hat with an immense ostrich feather, her gloves were white with black fingers and one of her stockings was black the other white. Her shoes were studded with diamonds and she also had a necklace of black and white pearls. In one hand she carried an enormous six-foot sunshade and in another a black and white poodle that had been especially dyed for the occasion. The other mannequins followed in similar attire. She certainly caused a sensation but not one to her liking. Crowds gathered, loud remarks were made and many women were indignant with the common phrase ‘Quelle horreur!.’ One woman said bitterly ‘And the foreigners will think this is French art!’
As the attitude of the crowd became quite threatening, Peggy and her entourage had to take refuge in the ladies retiring room from which she did not dare emerge until after the races. As Basil Woon observed ‘If there is one thing Paris cannot stand, it is an exhibition of wanton bad taste.’ Black and white was definitely out of fashion that year.
Despite her faux pas at Longchamps, for some members of the press she had made Paris sit back and gasp at her ‘carnival of flamboyant extravagance’ and she became known as the ‘Best Dressed women in the World.’ Needless to say because of the press coverage one night there was a daring attempted robbery to steal Peggy’s jewels in her hotel, but the thieves entered the wrong room and left with nothing. Peggy said ‘at the time they came I was in bed with the million pound pearl necklace around my waist.’
Peggy was in fact born Margaret Wilkinson in Warwick, Birmingham in about 1866 (although later her place of birth was listed as Handsworth, Staffordshire). She was the eldest daughter of John and Catherine Margaret Wilkinson who lived at 50 Baker Street in Birmingham and had strange occupations as sword and match-makers. She was one of at least nine children and the eldest daughter. By 1891 and, at the age of about 23, she was married to Frank Dunk (aged 46 and born in Kent), a hotel or pub proprietor and was living at 1 Station Street, Victoria Hotel, Nottingham. A son, Henry was born in 1896.
Frank Dunk derived his income from successful hotels in Nottingham and Matlock and allegedly made a fortune by building the first temperance hotel in England. However, sometime after 1901 Frank died and by 1911, Margaret aged 45 had re-married a much young man called Thomas Harold Southerns (aged 29 in 1911, born 1882 in Sherwood, Nottingham) who was a hotel valuer and they lived at 6 the Poultry Nottingham (a public house with 16 rooms) with several servants. Sadly, Thomas Harold died in 1914. It was noted that in various press reports that Peggy had made her fortune in the hotel business in and around Nottingham and had been the proprietress of the Chesterfield House Hydro, Matlock. She had bought shares in one hotel for 3s 6d and sold at 33s 6d.
After her extravagance in Paris, in mid July 1921, Peggy re-appeared in her native town but a press report stated that few people in Nottingham knew anything about her, although some remember her as having been the landlady of the Poultney Hotel, which is a good sized public house. It was revealed that her new husband called her madam and was believed to be a dress designer. Further, it was suggested that she and her husband had masterminded a novel plan to advance their mutual interests by him designing dresses, which various dressmaking firms made and she wore them.
A little later the Nottingham correspondent of the Daily Mail met Peggy at home for an interview. She had already made several shopping excursions to London and was about to go on another one prior to her debut in London society. ‘Most of my best things have already gone to London’ Peggy said ‘what I have here does not include my latest purchases; besides I shall be buying more tomorrow.’ She explained that for her three week ‘society’ appearances she would need to appear daily in at least four different gowns, all of them unique, and many worth hundreds of pounds. She had estimated that she required at least 300 gowns, 200 hats, and 100 pairs of shoes besides opera cloaks and other necessities.
Some of the more notable models included: a velvet coat trimmed with a mysterious white fur from China that is like nothing else in the world; a real Russian sable cloak (costing £15,000) cascaded so that a definite pattern is formed by the furs; a coat of moleskin, the furs actually arranged in a flower pattern; a Peruvian Chinchilla fur insured for £8,000; a bird of paradise hat valued at £2,000; a cloak of Imperial yellow silk, hand embroidered, said to have belonged to an Empress of China and a gown, consisting of mother-of-pearl sequins, over silver cloth with platinum lace at the bottom. ‘If I am the best –dressed women in the world I have a reputation to keep up haven’t I? She exclaimed.
For their three-week visit to London in late 1921, they took the imperial suite at Claridges Hotel and later went to the Ritz. Seemingly, this time she did not have her rooms re-decorated. All day long at these hotels Peggy spent her time showing people her dresses and jewels and dancing. They attended to Victory Ball at the Albert Hall in November and also gained access to a charity ball at Devonshire House where she claimed she was wearing a £500,000 gown. Her ostentatious display resulted in much criticism but Peggy excused her vanity on the grounds that it provided work for women and girls.
In early 1922 it was announced that Peggy had decided to dazzle America but seemingly her plans did not materialize. By the following year, things were not good and her marriage came to an end when Edward her husband advertised for work. Peggy was on a trip to South Africa without him. He stated that he had left his wife, had decided to ‘let daylight’ into her supposed extravagances and wanted to reveal the true nature of their extraordinary life together. He claimed that after spending £150 a week at the Ritz Hotel they returned to a meal of bread and dripping at their Nottingham bungalow. He did all the housekeeping duties that included scrubbing floors, cooking meals, washing clothes and working in the garden as they only had only one servant who came in daily. He said that Peggy had promised him £1,000 and a cheque book when they were married, which he never got, and their wedding breakfast consisted of a cup of coffee at Derby station! He borrowed money both for the ring and license, and still owed it.
Despite her frugality with everyday living, Edward insisted she did spend £30,000 on clothes in London and Paris. However, the story of the jewelry was another matter and he said that the wonderful necklace supposed to have cost a million was bought for £80, and her Russian headdress supposed to have been bought for £346,000 cost £50. Edward complained that his wife never gave him any money, and that he only had an Army pension of 8s a week.
What made Peggy embark on such a curious adventure? She was a simple working class woman and not attractive to look at but she had amassed a rather large fortune through two enterprising and successful husbands. After the First World War and turning 50 she may well have gone through a mid life crisis. She must have always aspired to seeing life in high society and with money behind her she was intent on having the experience. One must assume that her third marriage was one of convenience rather than love and that Edward married her due to her position and money. She married him for obvious reasons and do not forget her second husband was also much younger than she. Perhaps Edward was indeed a frustrated dress designer and they did, rather foolishly, conspire to make his name in London and Paris society. She clearly conned everyone with regard to the true value and provenance of her jewelry, which must be seen as a means to attract attention and perhaps acceptance. Whatever the reasons, her flirtation with society did not last long and her fame and notoriety over in a flash.
In early December 1924 Peggy was in London, she had sold all her possessions in Nottingham and following an operation died in St Thomas’s nursing home. It was claimed she was 49 years old – she was in fact at least a decade older. It is not known what happened to Edward.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
The New York Times, The Daily Mail, The Melbourne Argus, The London Gazette
Basil Woon The Paris That’s in the Guide Books
Census 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911
Sketch by Lindsey Smith