Netley Lucas was a minor celebrity in the 1920s and 1930s. A fraudster and thief, he extended his conman career into the literary world as a publisher, biographer and plagiarist. He wrote a number of well-received books and claimed to have ghost-written books for others but at least one of his two autobiographies was ghosted for him and it is likely that other books he claimed as his own were by other hands.
The problem with Netley Lucas is that he made a career out of lying, so finding authentic information about him isn't so easy. You may have to take some of his claims with a pinch of salt.
Netley Lucas was named after Netley harbour, Southampton, where he was born in 1903 on a yacht. His mother died in childbirth and his father reputedly left for Paris on the money he inherited and died mysteriously soon after. Lucas was placed in the hands of foster parents.
At the age of 14, Lucas was expelled from public school for stealing and forging his housemaster's signature, and quickly drifted into a life of petty crime. He was arrested and charged with obtaining money under false pretenses from the secretary of a London club and soon stood before the first of many magistrates. He was remanded to Brixton Prison, having lied about his age, but on his next appearance in 1917 was found guilty and sent to a remand home in West Drayton, although he soon ran away. He was subsequently bound over in 1918 for begging and, shortly after, re-arrested in the Strand where he had become embroiled with a particularly vicious local group. This time he was sent to the reformatory ship Cornwall at Purfleet, Essex, but, in August 1919, escaped yet again.
In June 1920 he was arrested yet again for stealing cheques and obtaining credit from various establishments by fraud. Although still only 17, he claimed to have served as a Captain in the Navy during the war and, masquerading as the son of 'Lady Lucas', the Hon. Netley Lucas hired various cars from Harrods, driving friends down to Brighton, and staying at the Grand Hotel. He was arrested at the Imperial Hotel, Russell Square and, found guilty, sent to the original Borstal Institution near Rochester on August 27, 1920, for three years.
Released on license in 1922 after 20 months, he returned to petty criminal activities within a few days. Still in his teens, he had cultivated a gentlemanly accent and manners which, coupled with his natural good looks, he used to defraud young women by offering them bogus jobs. Dressed as a naval officer, he claimed his father was an influential man looking for a secretary. He was returned to Borstal. In October 1922 he travelled to the south of England, where he committed numerous cases of larceny and forgery, for which he was sentenced at the Old Bailey in June 1923 to 10 months imprisonment, the judge describing him as "nothing but a mean sneaking railway and hotel thief."
In 1924, Lucas went to Canada with another man, where they were soon arrested for running a crooked employment agency, serving his 30-days' sentence at Toronto’s Gaol Farm before being deported.
In 1924, his earliest known articles began to appear in Detective Magazine, a series of reminiscences (almost certainly ghosted by Richard L. Dearden) which served as the basis of The Autobiography of a Crook (1924). A number of other titles about criminology followed over the next few years, including Criminal Paris, Crooks Confessions, London and its Criminals and Crook Janes, the latter a study of female criminals.
After publishing a single novel, Lucas began writing for boys’ papers. A series of stories featuring Anthony Grex, the human bloodhound appeared in Golden Penny Comic; and another series published around 1927-28 featured “Tom Mex, Reporter – Detective”, and listed Lucas as the author of “The Borstal Boy” and “Crime Club”, etc., etc.
A literary career should have proven quite lucrative if the list of titles that Lucas contributed to is to be believed: Daily Mail, New York, Ideas, People, New York American, Star, People, Sun, Chronicle, Worlds Pictorial News, Pearson's, Sovereign, Detective Magazine, Mystery Story Magazine, Popular Magazine, Action Stories, Glasgow Weekly Recorder, Birmingham Mail, Yorkshire Evening Post, South Wales Echo, Bristol Times & Mirror, Union Jack, Competitor's Journal, Everybody's Weekly, Humanist, Police Review, Motor Cycle, Motor Boat, Cycling, Motor Transport, Granta, Writer, Wireless, Car Topics, etc.
However, Lucas did not confine himself to straightforward writing. In 1925, a number of American papers serialised The Underworld of Paris by Lucas, "whose knowledge of criminals and their life was gained during the years that he spent as a famous character in the underworld of New York, London and Paris." This was based on the memoirs of Alfred Moraine the Prefect of Police in Paris, whose The Underworld of Paris. Secrets of the Sûrete appeared in translation from Jarrolds in 1930.
In January 1928, Lucas found himself the centre of attention in America when it was announced that he was to marry the notorious gun-woman 'Chicago May' Churchill. 'Chicago May' was born May Duignan in Ireland, arriving in America in 1890 at the age of 19 where she combined prostitution with robbing her clients. She was most notorious for her association with Eddie Guarin who, in 1901, attempted to rob the American Express Company. He was captured and sent to Devil's Island, but escaped, with the aid of Chicago May, to England in 1905 where he lived under the names Thomas Garen and Edward Thomas Garin. The two fell out and in 1907, May, under the name May Vivienne Churchill, and Charles Smith (real name Robert Considine) were charged with attempting to murder Guarin. May was sentenced to 15 years penal servitude.
Lucas claimed that he had met May in Canada whilst investigating the drugs trade. May, also staying at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto, had it in her mind to rob him but decided not to as the two became more familiar. He was able to use some of the material he gleaned in Crook Janes, released in the USA as Ladies of the Underworld in 1927. Lucas then joined the League of Nations as part of the team investigating slave trafficking before returning to the United States where he tracked down May once more.
Their engagement was simply another example of Lucas's flair for self-publicity: May was more than twice his age, although, as Lucas explained: "Well, she’s a blonde, and a man in the toils of a beautiful, fascinating and unscrupulous woman has no power to control his own actions." Elsewhere he admitted "She is very charming and I am fascinated by her. Further than that, she is a gold mine of crime stuff. It is partly a business proposition. My publishers practically insist on it. We have all sorts of fine offers. It's too good a thing to turn down."
At the same time Lucas denied his criminal past, saying that he had never spent any time in British reformatories and that his five volumes of "confessions" were an invention, based on his experiences as a police reporter on The London News and partly on reading up on the subject.
I made a mistake when I started to confess, but now that I'm in that line there is nothing to do but to keep right on with it. In the first place, I started to write my confessions as third-person fiction. That was in England. The publishers hounded me into putting it out in the first person and under my own name. It had a tremendous sale. I made £450 out of my first set. I confessed enough for two or three lifetimes in that first book, but it went so well that I have just had to confess, confess and confess ever since to everything that I could find that was interesting.Chicago May had been living an impoverished life in Detroit until being rediscovered; the story of her career had been revived and published in installments in 1927 and as Chicago May: Her Story by May Churchill Sharpe (New York, The Macaulay Company, 1928). Lucas promised that her confessions were nothing compared to what he was planning to write once the married couple had settled, probably in Hollywood.
Recently I have been writing about other criminals and underworlds of big cities, throwing in confessions of my own here and there as I went along. It's rather enjoyable work and the readers like it.
It was all a publicity stunt that fizzled out fairly quickly. Lucas returned to England and Chicago May died on 30 May 1929 after being admitted to the Philadelphia General Hospital for an operation for an abdominal disorder. Her final wish had been to marry Robert Considine
Not that Lucas could have married her as he was already married, in 1925, to Elsie M. Liggins. Although separated, the two were not divorced until 1938.
Lucas disappeared from literary sight after the publicity generated in America by his engagement to Chicago May; however, before long a new writer by the name of Evelyn Graham began to make a name for himself, announcing in November 1928 that he was in the process of writing a biography of the Queen of Spain. Part of the proceeds from the sale of the book were to fund a campaign against tuberculosis in Spain.
Evelyn Thomas made his debut in 1929 with a series of impressive and seemingly authentic biographies. Windsor Magazine carried his illustrated ‘Life of the Prince of Wales’ and he contributed to Britannia and Eve magazine.
The biography of Princess Mary, published by Hutchinson & Co. was described as an intimate and authoritative life story by Miss Evelyn Graham, published with the approval of her Royal Highness. Hutchinson promoted two further books heavily, stating that The Queen of Spain contained “a number of exclusive photographs specially lent by the Queen for publication with this biography” and that Lord Darling & His Famous Trials was “an authentic biography prepared (for publication) under the personal supervision of Lord Darling” who was then Lord Chief Justice of England. The biography was given a mixed review in The Times, who said that “His [Darling’s] admirers would require a somewhat fuller treatment of his early days than that accorded by Mr. Evelyn Graham” although “they will have no other quarrel with this book.”
About the same time, Graham was assisting Sir George Aston with a biography of the Duke of Connaught and Stathearn, and writing further books on royalty.
In May 1931, a London literary agent received a letter from Lady Angela Stanley, the former lady-in-waiting to Queen Alexandra (the wife of King Edward VII, who had died in 1925), who had written an intimate portrait of Her Majesty. The manuscript was sold to Messrs. Harrap who, after enquiring if the book had the approval of the Royal Family, were assured by Victor Stanley, Angela Stanley's son, who enclosed a letter from Lord Stanfordham, the private secretary to King George.
At the same time, the Daily Mail began to investigate the successful Evelyn Graham, whose best-selling biographies had earned the author some £20,000; soon after, Chief Detective-Inspector Percy Smith of Scotland Yard was called in to investigate some of the allegations made in the articles, and quickly discovered that Evelyn Graham was none other than Netley Lucas, as were Lady Angela and Victor Stanley (and to which could be added Mrs. Charlotte Cavendish, Richard C. Dent and Robert Tracy, and the earlier Paul Evelyn and publisher Albert E. Marriott). Lucas, it was revealed, had forged any credentials needed to persuade his publishers that his books were as intimate and authorised as they claimed, and used 'ghost' writers to produce the books.
Lucas, who was then calling himself Leslie Graham and living with a girlfriend in a studio flat on the Kings Road, was arrested in July 1931 and charged with obtaining money under false pretenses, specifically £225 from James Pinker, a literary agent, and attempting to obtain £52. 10s. from Margery Hamilton, the assistant editress of Weldon's Ladies' Journal, for the serial rights of the Queen Alexander biography. Unfortunately, enquiries were made by the publishers at Buckingham Palace and it was discovered that Lady Angela Stanley was not known there. Harrap, who had purchased the book, then discovered that the biography of the Duke of Connaught written by Lucas had not been authorised by the Duke despite the author's assurances. Further police investigation also uncovered a case of plagiarism when, in June 1930, Lucas had sold the exclusive rights to a biography of King George V to Macmillan. The New York publisher had the manuscript in book form before they discovered that it was almost identical to another book that had been published a year earlier (The Life Story of King George V by Richard C. Dent, New York, E. P. Dutton, 1930).
Lucas was tried before Sir Ernest Wild at the Old Bailey in September 1931 and was found guilty by the jury without having to leave the box. He was sentenced to eighteen months with hard labour.
Shortly before his arrest, Lucas had, with another man, set up a publishing company of his own at 37-38 Golden Square, London. Albert E. Marriott produced an interesting selection of books over the course of 1929-30 before the enterprise failed. The following may be incomplete:
The Airway to See Europe. A woman round the airways of Europe by Eleanor Elsner [1879- ]. Feb 1930.
The Biography of H.M. Queen Mary by Charlotte Cavendish [Netley Lucas]. Apr 1930.
The Biography of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales by W. & L. Townsend. Sep 1929.
The Biography of His Holiness Pope Pius XI by W. & L. Townsend. May 1930.
The Biography of President von Hindenburg by A. M. K. Watson. [A revised version of the book of the same title by Rudolph Weterstetten and A. M. K. Watson, New York, Macmillan & Co., 1930]
Black Cap. Murder Will Out by W. & L. Townsend. 1930.
Dress of the Day. War-and-after reminiscences of the British Navy by William Barnett Logan. 1930.
The Elizabeth Gift Book. 1931.
Ex-Husband [anonymously published, reprint from New York, The Macaulay Company, 1929]
Ex-Mistress by Dora Macy [pseud. of Grace Perkins Oursler, 1900-1955; reprint of title originally published by New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1930]. 1931.
Ex-Soldier. We Are Dead by William MacKay.
Famine Alley by Prudence O'Shea [pseud. of Jasmine Chatterton].
The Intimate Life of the Queen of Sheba. A fancy by Norman Hill [pseud. of Norman Hillson]
The Italian Artists as Men by Norman Hill [pseud. of Norman Hillson]
Meet Jane by Evadne Price [pseud. of Helen Zenna Smith]
Mother-in-Law India by Donald Sinderby [pseud. of Donald Ryder Stephens, 1898- ]
"Not So Quiet..." Step-daughters of War by Helen Zenna Smith. Apr 1930.
A petition for bankruptcy was made by printers Hazell, Watson & Viney and Mr. Justice Maugham ordered the compulsory winding-up of the company in December. Hazell, Watson & Viney, one of the creditors was owed £1,250. Helen Zenna Smith was also represented as a creditor, claiming £473 in respect of royalties. Lucas and his partner left the country in October 1930. Investigations into the company lasted until at least 1932.
After his release, Lucas reputedly returned to Fleet Street and started a number of literary agencies and journalistic enterprises but by this time was so well known that his contributions were barred by most reputable newspapers and publishers. In 1933, the American Weekly syndicated a series entitled 'Unblushing Confessions of a Versatile Rascal' and, under the joint byline Netley Lucas and Evelyn Graham, Arthur Barron published a colourful autobiography entitled My Selves (1934). Lucas then appears to have departed the literary scene.
In 1938, Lucas was divorced from his wife, Elsie, and that same year married Mavis J. Cox.
Around April 1940, using the name Robert Tracy, he rented a furnished house in Fetcham, near Leatherhead, Surrey, where he is said to have spent most of his time drinking. In June 1940, aged only 37, he was found dead in the partly burnt lounge of the house. His body was cremated at Woking.
The Red Stranger. London, Stanley Paul, 1927.
The Autobiography of a Crook [ghosted by R. L. Dearden]. London, T. Fisher Unwin, 1925 .
Criminal Paris, with a foreword by Dr. Edmond Locard. London, Hurst & Blackett, 1926.
Crook Janes. A study of the woman criminal. London, Stanley Paul, 1926; as Ladies of the Underworld. The beautiful, the damned, and those who get away with it, New York, J. H. Sears & Co., 1927.
Crooks Confessions. London, Hurst & Blackett, 1926; New York, George H.. Doran Co., 1926?.
London and its Criminals. London, Williams & Norgate, 1926.
My Selves, by Netley Lucas and Evelyn Graham, with a foreword by Sir James Purves-Stewart. London, Arthur Barron, 1934.
Non-fiction as Charlotte Cavendish
The Biography of H.M Queen Mary. London, A. E. Marriott, 1930.
Non-fiction as Richard C. Dent
The Life Story of King George V. New York, E. P. Dutton, 1930.
Non-fiction as Evelyn Graham
Princess Mary, Viscountess Lascelles. An intimate life story. London, Hutchinson & Co., Sep 1929.
The Queen of Spain. An authorised life-story. London, Hutchinson & Co., Oct 1929.
Lord Darling and his Famous Trials. London, Hutchinson & Co., Oct 1929.
His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn. A life and intimate study by Major-General Sir G. Aston, K.C.B., with the assistance of Evelyn Graham. London, G. G. Harrap & Co., Nov 1929.
Edward P. A new and intimate life story of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales. London & Melbourne, Ward, Lock & Co., Nov 1929.
Albert, King of the Belgians. London, Hutchinson & Co., 1929; New York, Dodd Mead, 1929; revised as Albert the Brave: King of the Belgians by Netley Lucas, Hutchinson & Co., 1934.
The Life Story of King Alfonso XIII. London, Herbert Jenkins, Aut 1930.
Fifty Years of Famous Judges. London, John Long, 1931.
The Biography of Marshal Foch by Major-General Sir George Aston. London, Hutchinson & Co., 1929.