RUTH Ellis shot her errant lover David Blakely outside the Magdala Tavern, in South Hill Park, Hampstead, on the Easter Bank Holiday of April 10, 1955, just a week before I began work as a junior reporter on the Ham and High.
So her sordid story has stayed with me, the saga of the peroxide-blonde-nightclub-hostess-cum-prostitute as presented by the press was an open and shut case, to which she had openly pleaded guilty when the police arrived.
The jury at her trial took a mere 23 minutes to convict her and 50 years ago this month Albert Pierrepoint, the public executioner, put the noose around her neck in Holloway Prison – and she became, notoriously, the last woman to be hanged in Britain.
Outside the jail protesters prayed for her and demanded a reprieve. Nothing happened. In Hampstead that morning another reporter, Clive Cullerne-Bown, and I went down to the Magdala and talked to the regulars about the shocking murder on their doorstep. Clive wrote a front page piece which had the headline, Sick unto death.
And many since that day have been sick at the thought that Ruth Ellis was hardly given a chance to live, that not even a plea of manslaughter or one of diminished responsibility was considered acceptable.
Perhaps because of her hasty execution many wondered too whether she was guilty of nothing more than a crime passionnel involving betrayal, one that resulted in her squeezing the trigger and killing her racing car-driving lover who had so brutally kicked and beaten her.
There have been books and films and controversy ever since about Ruth Ellis, now an icon by those who, a decade later, rapturously applauded when the Hampstead solicitor and doyen Labour MP Sidney Silverman fought successfully to outlaw capital punishment.
But was it Ruth Ellis who shot David Blakely?
It is a question that has plagued her sister, Muriel Jakubait, who, although her brave attempts to get Ruth Ellis pardoned have failed, has now given the cause of justice being seen to be done fresh impetus. Her new book, written with the help of Monica Weller, is a sensation.
For she tells an amazingly complex and tangled tale of how Ruth Ellis was secretly mixed up with espionage, in particular with the Russian spies Burgess and Maclean, how she was manipulated by Dr Stephen Ward, the man behind the Profumo/Christine Keeler scandal that brought down the Macmillan government, and a woman whose friends included, surprisingly, the Hollywood star Deborah Kerr.
Jakubait comes to the remarkable conclusion that Ruth’s former sugar daddy lover, Desmond Cussen, himself mixed up with security, certainly involved in dubious dark double dealing, is the real monster.
After all, he gave her the gun with which she allegedly shot Blakely. But it was Cussen, claims Jakubait, who was the “third” man who actually fired the bullets after Ruth’s initial attempt that night – without any knowledge at all of how to use a gun – totally failed when she lost her nerve.
The whole thing, she dares, was no romantic accident but a murder plot deliberately organised like a military exercise by those seeking to stop some great secret being divulged. Ruth Ellis was the innocent victim of it all.
It is a hard and fanciful biscuit to chew, but then there are so many explosive holes in the Ruth Ellis story that they inevitably lead you to suspect the simplistic story of a lover’s treachery that ended in two deaths, one supposedly legal. Indeed, later the police did suspect that Cussen was the killer yet bizarrely decided it would be an injustice if he was charged years after Ruth Ellis had paid the sacrifice on the scaffold.
And the more you read about Jakubait’s years of painstaking research and its implausible and unproven results, the more, instinctively, you want to believe it to be the real truth. Yet fact and fiction are indelibly inter-twined, as are the myths of so-called history, and the final reflection at the end has to be that we shall never know.
She is too late to make the DNA connections.
It is not, inevitably and unhappily, a good book, because it is so passionate and personal and because so many members of the lethal cast are themselves now dead and cannot, even if they were willing, answer vital questions.
This means that Jakubait is forced, in the end, to rely too often on speculation and a heavy dose of wishful thinking, honest although it is, to protect her desired memory of Ruth Ellis as a martyr of the gallows.
Nevertheless, her book is enough, half a century on, to ensure that Ruth Ellis will not be forgotten. On infrequent visits to the Magdala, where the outside wall still bears the marks of a murderer’s bullets, I always quietly drink to Ruth Ellis – in remembrance of a sad lost soul, wrongly convicted or not.