Â After the 13th Duke of Manchesterâ€™s marital misdemeanours were aired in the High Court, his (very) extended family talk about the trials that the ignoble aristocrat has put them through.
The chequered life of Alexander Montagu, the Australian-born 13th Duke of Manchester, has been thrown into the spotlight by a High Court ruling last week that instructed family trustees to re-instate monthly payments to his two American children, offspring from a marriage that had been declared â€œbigamous and voidâ€.
Even by the sometimes ignoble standards of the aristocracy, the clanâ€™s fall from the grace has been as spectacular as it has been tawdry.
Today, after the far-flung marital misdemeanours of the errant 48-year-old aristocrat reached the High Court in London, new details about the Duke â€“ who has served jail time in Australia and been deported from Canada â€“ can now be revealed.
The Dukeâ€™s three wives â€“ two past, one present â€“ as well as the dukeâ€™s teenage son and long-presumed heir, cast light on the misdemeanours of â€œLord Alexâ€, as the disgraced peer calls himself.
His first wife, Marion Stoner, 61, said she was not even aware that he had married again before divorcing her until she was contacted by The Sunday Telegraph. She said their short-lived relationship in the early 1980s had ended when he tried to shoot her with a fishing speargun.
But the former Australian modelâ€™s marriage to the Duke was not ended legally until 1996, three years into his purported marriage to Wendy Buford, 44, a Californian law firm receptionist and mother of his two children.
Miss Buford, who in 1993 unwittingly entered into the bigamous relationship with the Duke, last week described her life with the peer as â€œ15 years of heartacheâ€.
Recognising her childrenâ€™s claim on financial support from their father, which had been stopped when the offspringâ€™s illegitimacy was revealed, Mr Justice Floyd ruled there was â€œabsolutely no doubt that at the relevant times Wendy reasonably believed that the marriage was validâ€, before their divorce in 2007.
Even the Dukeâ€™s 18-year-old American-born son Alexander, who has the title Viscount Mandeville, told this paper of his shock at learning of his and his sisterâ€™s illegitimacy. He also explained he is currently preparing to start his first job â€“ as a cook in a fast-food outlet in Orange County, California, specialising in chicken sandwiches.
However, Laura Montagu, 49, the current duchess and another former model, is standing by her man, despite the disclosures about his past, which she portrayed as youthful indiscretions.
The court saga is the latest sorry twist for a family that is a living lesson in ducal decadence. The dukedom of Manchester was created in 1719 by George I, but there is little now left of its estates or wealth.
Marcus Scriven, the society author, has detailed the familyâ€™s self-destructive descent over a century of profligacy, fecklessness and philandering in his book Splendour and Squalor.
The family seat for four centuries, Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire, was sold off by the 10th duke in 1950 while he was living in Kenya. Another estate, in Co Armagh, was also offloaded and is now the headquarters a potato crisp maker.
The excesses reached their apogee with the four-times married 12th duke, Angus, a conman who was jailed in the US for fraud, ran brothels in Australia and was so overweight when he died in 2002 that he had to be removed from his flat by a crane.
â€œIt was understandable that a newspaper should describe him as ‘a one-man argument against the hereditary rights of peersâ€™,â€ said Scriven. â€œAs a Kimbolton man who knew Angus in childhood puts it: ‘What Iâ€™m wondering is, where are the white sheep in this family?â€™â€
The 13th Duke has lived up â€“ or down â€“ to his genes. He was twice convicted of fraud in Australia and later deported from Canada for entering the country illegally, but not before striking up a relationship with an erstwhile stripper and falsely claiming to be a second cousin of Diana, Princess of Wales, and 52nd in line to the throne.
Wendy Buford was oblivious to all this when, aged 24, she met a dashing stranger with an Australian accent in the Crazy Horse bar in the Californian city of Santa Ana in April 1992. â€œIn retrospect, it was just one of those nights when you wish youâ€™d gone home,â€ she said last week.
Miss Buford, the only child of a waitress and construction salesman, was working at a law firm, with a part-time job as a waitress, when she went to the country and western bar with her best friend.
â€œAll of a sudden, there was this guy by my side. He was just a blur of action. He said heâ€™d seen me in the line to get in and needed to meet me. He insisted that he really wanted to see me again and gave me a card with his name, Alexander Charles David Drogo Montagu, in gold raised letters.
â€œWe spoke for barely five minutes, it was all so fast. He told me how beautiful I was and that he wanted to take me to dinner. And then he asked me for my number. That was my big mistake number two. I wasnâ€™t going to give it to him, but then I thought: ‘Whatâ€™s the harm?â€™â€
She was, she says, â€œswept off her feetâ€ by a man who introduced himself as Lord Alex and talked of yachts and mansions, even as he discussed selling off his title to make money.
It was a whirlwind relationship â€“ they met in April 1992, briefly split in July, and a month later she discovered she was pregnant â€“ a deliberate move by her to entrap him, he claimed last week.
â€œHe was a handsome man, charming and very well turned out. But he was also very controlling, wanted to run the show and could get very angry. And then there were the stories. There was always a glimmer of truth. But over the years, I came to realise it was only a glimmer.â€
In early May 1993, and several days overdue, Miss Buford came back from the shops to a stunning demand. â€œHe said: ‘We have to get married. Now.â€™ He was insistent. He said he was working on a bond deal and someone was trying to get him deported.
“He took me straight to the courthouse. I had tears in my eyes, I was thinking: ‘This is not the way itâ€™s supposed to be.â€™ I was huge and wearing a horrible maternity dress.â€
She felt no excitement at becoming a duchess, a title she never used, just embarrassment at being the bride in a shotgun wedding. And she says that within days of Alexanderâ€™s birth, her new husband was â€œdragging me around immigration lawyersâ€.
The Duke disputed her account, saying that he had got married at the behest of his mother in Australia, who had been telling him â€œto do the right thingâ€. Yet it now turns out that it was far from the right thing to do â€“ for he was still married to his first wife.
Last week, Ms Stoner expressed her dismay when she learned that she had been one of his contemporaneous wives during an interview with The Sunday Telegraph in the kitchen of her Melbourne council house.
â€œOh my God,â€ she said, struggling to contain her surprise and rising anger. â€œThat is shocking. Itâ€™s unbelievable. How dare he? I feel sorry for his wife â€“ I really do. Itâ€™s so cruel. How must she feel? Heâ€™s a cunning bâ€“â€“â€“â€“â€“â€“. She was as stupid as I was.â€
They married at a small civil ceremony in Melbourne in 1984, when she was 33 and he was 21. She said the marriage fell apart within months when he tried to shoot her with a speargun in their kitchen, but they never divorced.
Then, in 1996, Ms Stoner received an visit from the dukeâ€™s mother, Mary, Lady Angus Montagu, the daughter of a car dealer in Geelong. She had not previously met his family, but when the matriarch, accompanied by her daughter, Emma, asked her to agree to divorce her son, she happily agreed.
Ms Stoner recalled last week that she had a sickening suspicion that the Montagu family had an ulterior motive for pursuing a divorce after so long, suspecting that, perhaps, the convicted criminal had strayed again.
â€œI thought it was strange,â€ said Ms Stoner, shaking her head as she reached for another cigarette. â€œWhy would Lady Mary lower herself to come to a council area to ask for a divorce? I thought: ‘I bet he has done something.â€™â€
While recounting her various brushes with the Montagu family, Ms Stoner also express sorrow for the second wife of the dukeâ€™s bigamy. â€œI feel sorry for her, I really do,â€ she said, running her hands through her burgundy-tinted hair.
â€œI bet she didnâ€™t know anything about me. He has fathered those children, whether or not they are illegitimate. Those poor kids. I only hope they donâ€™t turn out like him.â€
Ms Stoner, 61, had two children from a previous relationship when she was introduced to the Duke by a friend who worked as a secretary for his guardian. â€œHe had charm but he lived in a fantasy world,â€ she said.
â€œHe was not bad looking. He made out he was a thorough gentleman but as soon as we got married he was different. He was used to having things. I became his possession.â€
For more than 20 years, the former duchess has lived in a small box-shaped house whose walls are adorned with black-and-white family photos, second-hand bric-a-brac and bouquets of faded plastic flowers.
She has kept no photos of the Duke or her marriage, but in a carton at the bottom of a bedroom cupboard, she found the receipt for a notice she put in a newspaper to say she would no longer be liable for debts incurred in his name.
â€œThese people with a title,â€ she said. â€œThey think theyâ€™re so good. It is just a name. What gives them the right to destroy other peopleâ€™s lives?â€
Much of what Ms Stoner recounted about hollow financial promises, bounced cheques and a life of debt, bore a resemblance to the experiences of the woman with whom she unknowingly shared a husband for three years.
Miss Buford said her 15 years with the duke were a â€œrollercoaster rideâ€. She said he rarely worked, that they were thrown out of countless apartments after he failed to pay the rent, and that debt collectorsâ€™ summons were a fact of life.
â€œI am a very down-to-earth, straightforward person, but I just gave up complaining, as even my family and friends were sick of hearing about it.â€
He often dropped famous names with whom he said he was striking business deals, but only once did she meet a celebrity with him. When they attended a memorial event for Diana, Princess of Wales, in Los Angeles in 1997, he turned up with Michael Jackson â€“ â€œI was never sure about the connectionâ€ â€“ and subsequently took Alexander to meet the pop star at his Neverland ranch.
She says that he was addicted to prescription drugs; he counters that he took them for bipolarity, and that she was a hard-drinking â€œparty girlâ€ who left him in charge of bringing up the children.
The couple finally split after New Yearâ€™s in 2007. It was not until 2009, however, that he delivered the bombshell that, not only that he had been married before, but that the divorce from his first wife had not been processed until 1996.
â€œEven after all my years with Alex, I never saw that one coming,â€ she said last week. â€œIâ€™d been miserable and the kids had been put through so much, but I thought at least we were married. Even that wasnâ€™t true.â€
That news was devastating. But then she heard from the family trustees that they were halting monthly allowance payments of $3,000 â€“ around Â£1,850 â€“ a decision that left her once again on the verge of losing a home, before it was reversed last week.
For the peerâ€™s progeny, the court ruling was a welcome relief after the unnerving discovery two years ago. â€œIâ€™d heard the word ‘bigamistâ€™, but it was a total shock to learn my father was one and what that meant for me and my sister Ashley,â€ said Alexander. â€œBut then again, nothing is surprising about my father anymore.â€
He is an unassuming young man, with the typical focus of a southern Californian teenager â€“ as he spoke to The Sunday Telegraph, his friends waited for him to join them at the pool in their gated community in a commuter town in Orange County, in the baking hills south of Los Angeles.
But he also knows all about the excesses of his recent forebears. â€œI donâ€™t think itâ€™s rubbed off on me. At least, I hope not,â€ he said.
Indeed, while male Montagus have displayed a peerless penchant for playing fast and loose with the law and their legacy, he has down-to-earth goals for life. He wants to make his way as a chef and hopes to take culinary and business studies after finishing high school this year.
And he will get his first taste of that world as a cook next month at a local shopping mall franchise of Chick-Fil-A, the â€œgreat chicken sandwichâ€ outlet. â€œItâ€™s starting from the ground up, but you have to begin somewhere,â€ he said.
â€œIâ€™m not one to flash titles, unlike my father, who was always trying to get Ashley and me into theme parks for free, saying he was Lord Alex. That was so embarrassing,â€ he said.
â€œMy friends think itâ€™s cool Iâ€™m a viscount [he pronounces the word â€œvise-countâ€], but they canâ€™t figure out why Iâ€™m not living in a castle in England.â€
Although the High Court ruling restored the modest maintenance payments from the family trust, it does not establish the issue of succession. The young Alexander had been viewed as the heir presumptive, but the 14th duke will be determined by the House of Lords after the current peer dies.
Amid the controversy and condemnation, the self-styled Lord Alex has a staunch supporter in his third wife, the former Laura Smith, a Californian estate agent whom he married shortly after divorcing Miss Buford in 2007 â€“ in the correct order, on this occasion.
â€œHeâ€™s not a bigamist, he was just a young man who made a genuine mistake,â€ she told The Sunday Telegraph. â€œHe really thought he was divorced and this whole story is very upsetting for him.â€
She echoes her husbandâ€™s claims that he has been unjustly vilified by his last wife, and pillories the family trust for, she says, granting him a pittance.
And unlike Ms Stoner and Miss Buford, she is enthusiastic about her title. Indeed, in an online profile, complete with a picture from her modelling years, she describes herself as â€œa Duchess of pure positive energy and love!â€
The Duke, in a rambling interview from his apartment in Las Vegas, following last weekâ€™s court ruling, responded with a barrage of accusations blaming the family trust, Miss Buford and his mother for his predicament.
â€œI am pretty upset this is all going on, to be honest,â€ he said, his Australian accent still strong. â€œThis has all been conjured up by the trustees and Wendy.
â€œI am not a bigamist. There was no intent to commit bigamy. I believed I was divorced from my first wife. It was an error in the paperwork by my mother. She had told me she got it annulled. I canâ€™t stand my mother.â€
When asked about the alleged speargun incident, he told The Sunday Telegraph: â€œThis is a lie. If that took place, why am I not in jail? And why would I not just shoot her with my Walther P5? I never, ever miss!â€
The younger Alexander Montagu hopes to visit Britain for the first time later this year. For now, his only inheritance from his father is a black shirt bearing the family crest and its Latin motto, â€œDisponendo Me Non Mutande Meâ€ â€“ â€œYou may displace me but you cannot change me.â€
He added, matter-of-factly: â€œThatâ€™s it â€“ no castle, no jewels.â€