Recent evidence, discovered in a provincial newspaper, lists the eighteen-year-old Doris as a pantry maid at an RAF hospital in Hampstead. This would be her first taste of freedom, and she never looked back. A year later she entered the rag trade, selling second-hand gowns to actresses, and during this period she met Gertrude Lawrence, known as Gertie. The mistress of a Household Calvary officer, Gertie invited Doris to live at her flat on Park Lane, Mayfair. Together the women drove around London in a Rolls Royce, they dined at Rules, and associated with the Prince of Wales. Her old life had become a distant memory, and she routinely touched her head, her neck, collarbone, and chanted: ‘Tiara, brooch, clip, clip.’
Along with Gertie and Barbara Cartland, Doris frequented the Cavendish Hotel owned by the formidable Rosa Lewis, one of the first celebrity chefs and mistress of Edward VII. Observing her loose morals and steely determination, Rosa advised Doris to write a book and call it ‘round the world in eighty beds’. It was there that she met Laddie Sanford, an American millionaire and polo player, and the two became a couple. Installing her in a house on Deanery Street, his generous allowance afforded her a Rolls Royce, a lady’s maid, and an expensive wardrobe: he showered her in Cartier jewels, and she developed a preference for Italian leather shoes, ordering 250 pairs at a time. ‘Idiotic to wear shoes more than three or four times,’ she said. The same philosophy was applied to her silk stockings, ordered from Paris, worn once and then discarded. But Laddie’s wandering eye could not be tamed and he moved on to Edwina Mountbatten. Adhering to her motto that an ‘Englishwoman’s bed is her castle’, Doris kept the house on Deanery Street and juggled several men at once, establishing her reputation as a demi mondaine, and the parents of prodigal sons despaired at their offspring associating with a woman like her. Prince George boasted that he had ‘got into trouble’ with his father, King George V, for attending one of her parties.
But a house on Deanery Street did not come cheap, and Doris had to find the money somewhere. Between living with Gertie and meeting Laddie, she had briefly worked as a chorus girl and hostess at the Grafton Galleries, a nightclub in the basement of a Mayfair art gallery. She became known as ‘the girl with the white gloves’, because she always wore white opera gloves – a habit she learned at the club. Nightclubs, she knew, were a haven for rich men looking for a good time, and she began to frequent the Cafe de Paris. It did not take long before someone took the bait, and her latest benefactor was Canadian stockbroker, Sir Edward ‘Mike’ Mackay Edgar. Their short-lived affair came to a halt when Mike filed for bankruptcy, and Doris was, once again, left to fend for herself.
At the age of 28 she met Valentine Browne, known by his title of Viscount Castlerosse. He was a celebrity gossip columnist for the Sunday Express and a close friend of Lord Beaverbrook, and such was his popularity that Evelyn Waugh used him as the inspiration for Mr Chatterbox in Vile Bodies. Doris, too, would serve as the muse for Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat. Together they would inspire Noel Coward’s play, Private Lives. Since their first meeting Castlerosse was smitten; he stalked Doris and lavished her with gifts, but she continued to see other men. Then, Castlerosse went a step further and stole the key to her house. They fought on a grand scale with Doris biting and scratching, and Castlerosse striking back. Upon seeing Doris’s bruises, Beaverbrook reproached Castlerosse, who rolled up a trouser leg to display the wound she had dealt. ‘Still, it’s not reason for you to belt Doris like that,’ said Beaverbrook. They refused to acknowledge how unsuited they were, and against the wishes of his parents, Castlerosse secretly married Doris at Hammersmith Register Office. They delighted in outsmarting their naysayers, but the laughter abruptly ended when Castlerosse’s domineering mother, Lady Kenmare, discovered the truth and cut him off. Doris never did meet her mother-in-law.
With Castlerosse’s inability to sustain Doris’s lifestyle she returned to her old ways of sleeping with men who could. She also worked for Beaverbrook as a ‘society spy’ and informed on her friends in exchange for money. It was rumoured that she slept with Winston Churchill at the Ritz in Paris, after which he said: ‘Doris, you could make a corpse come.’ Then, she moved on to his wastrel son Randolph, whom she nicknamed ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy’. Tom Mitford, too, became a conquest, but his lack of funds could not hold her interest. There was also an affair with Sir Alfred Beit, the diamond millionaire and Conservative MP, whom Castlerosse beat with his blackthorn stick to Doris’s cries of ‘Murder! Murder!’
Looking for love and attention, Doris found an unlikely paramour in Cecil Beaton, whom she had met at Lord Berners’s estate. Beaton responded to her flattery and, having scattered tuberoses on his bed, she told him to think of his sister’s wedding. ‘There’s no such thing as an impotent man,’ she said, ‘just an incompetent woman.’ Despite claiming she had slept with him to cure his homosexuality, she had fallen for Beaton. But Beaton, by his own admission, treated her badly and he eventually dropped ‘Doritzons’. She then took up with Robert Herber-Percy, known as Mad Boy. For his twenty-fifth birthday she booked a room at the Ritz and presented him with a prostitute and a whip, and ordered him to beat the woman to death. After his feeble attempt, Doris snatched the whip and delivered a welt. ‘I haven’t wasted my money for this,’ she said. During this period she had become enthralled in a long-winded and complicated divorce case. In a bid to gather evidence of adultery, Doris agreed to tour the Orient, where she would meet Sir William Rootes, the motorcar dealer. A friend of Castlerosse’s, it appears that Rootes had been roped into the arrangement. But Castlerosse’s efforts were to be in vain. In a spiteful mood she discovered the hotel Castlerosse was staying at, went to his room and jumped into bed. Thus, there was insufficient evidence that husband and wife were estranged.
In the mid-1930s, she befriended and then became involved with Margot Hoffman, a New York socialite. Although not a lesbian and possibly never in love with Margot, she made use of her millions. Besotted with Doris, Margot bought her the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Venice, later purchased by Peggy Guggenheim. Experiencing something of a renaissance she travelled the world with Margot, was painted by Sir John Lavery, and attended the coronation of King George VI. After almost a decade in the making Castlerosse was granted his divorce, and Doris announced: ‘I much prefer the life I am leading. Takes half the effort and earns twice the money.’
When WWII was declared, Doris followed Margot to New York. But even a millionairess had her limits and, exasperated by her behaviour, Margot left her. Lonely and lacking male company, Doris kept up her spirits by corresponding with Castlerosse and was pleased when he offered to remarry her. However, in her absence, Castlerosse was seeing Enid, Viscountess Furness, an Australian wine heiress and serial widow. Having run out of money, Doris pawned her diamonds and was awaiting payment when Winston Churchill secured her air passage to London.
As he had promised, when Doris returned to London, Castlerosse was waiting for her. It was dark when she stepped off the train, and he was cheered by her warm greeting. But when they reached the Dorchester, where she had taken a room, he was shocked by her haggard appearance. They dined together, after which he returned to Enid. Realising he would not keep his word, she pondered her future and sent a telegram to the pawnbroker in New York. Selling diamonds during wartime was illegal, and she was unaware her telegrams were being intercepted by Scotland Yard. The police came to question her, and the threat of prison played on her mind. Following a series of unfortunate events, she took a fatal dose of sleeping pills. She died aged 42. ‘You may think it fun to make love,’ Doris had once said. ‘But if you had to make love to dirty old men as I do, you would think again.’
By Lyndsy Spence