I do not mind what she does as long as she comes back to me in the end. - George Keppel
Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, who later became Edward VII of the United Kingdom, had an interest in women which is notable even by the promiscuous standards of noblemen. Naturally, among his dalliances were a plethora of professionals, among them Skittles and La Belle Otero. His first semi-official mistress was Lillie Langtry, whom we discussed in May; today I’ll introduce you to the last (and longest-lasting) lady to hold that position, from three years before his coronation until the day he died. She had a number of things in common with Lillie: an ability to get along with their royal patron’s wife, Princess (later queen) Alexandra; a gift for discretion so highly-developed that many people to this day don’t realize (or else deny) that they were whores; and most importantly, a similar motive for taking up the profession.
Alice Frederica Edmonstone was born on April 29th, 1868, the daughter of Sir William, 4th Baronet Edmonstone, and his wife Mary. Sir William was a retired admiral, and Alice (the youngest of nine children, all but one girls) grew up in Duntreath Castle on Loch Lomond, the home of her family since the 14th century. Her childhood appears to have been wholly unremarkable; none of the short biographies I consulted have anything at all to say about her personal life before June 1st, 1891, when she married George Keppel, son of the 7th Earl of Albemarle. But while her husband was of a good family with a long history of service to the Crown, he had very little money; had the two of them been content to raise their daughters quietly in the country his income would have sufficed, but both of them loved city life. It was expensive to keep up with London society in those days, and since Alice was strikingly beautiful (with an hourglass figure, alabaster skin and thick chestnut hair) the two of them soon hit upon a simple plan: she would take on wealthy lovers whose income would finance their lifestyle and provide George with business connections. He wasn’t her pimp, not exactly; she found her patrons and charmed them with her own abilities. George’s contribution was to stay out of the way and provide her with the appearance of respectability.
The historian Victoria Glendinning wrote that Alice had the “sexual morals of an alley cat…sexual faithfulness to her husband wasn’t a value to her.” But this is merely the ignorant attitude of an prudish amateur. Cheating “alley cats” hide their affairs from their husbands; Alice planned hers with George. Nor was he a weak cuckold sitting alone at home while his wife wandered; he also had many affairs, with Alice’s full knowledge and approval. Her daughters later described their parents’ marriage as a “companionship of love and laughter”, and though this certainly could be taken as a biased view, it must be pointed out that the Keppels remained happily married for 56 years and died within two months of one another; though there is some speculation that Violet (born 1894) may have been the daughter of a lover, Sonia (born 1900) strongly resembled George, so there is little doubt that he was her father. Though their relationship may seem strange to those outside of the demimonde, I’m sure every sex worker reading this will recognize it; they loved and trusted each other, and sex with others had no effect on that.
Alice’s first arrangement, with Ernest Beckett (later the 2nd Baron Grimthorpe), began less than two years of her marriage; it is Beckett who is believed to be the biological father of Violet. Next was Humphrey Sturt, the 2nd Baron Alington. There were a few others in the second half of the ‘90s, but on February 27th, 1898 she met “Bertie”, and the rest is literally history; within weeks she had replaced his previous mistress (the indiscreet Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick), and she remained with him until his death in 1910. The arrangement was extremely lucrative for the Keppels: though Edward was notoriously stingy (by courtesan standards) with direct payments, he enriched them indirectly in several ways. First, he gave her part ownership of a rubber company, from which she made £50,000 (about £3 million today); he also had his own top-notch financial advisers manage her investments, and got a high-paying job for George.
Even before she met the (then) Prince, Alice had acquired the reputation of being one of the most talented hostesses of her era. She was intelligent, witty, well-informed and never unkind or intemperate, and she brought these characteristics and others into her role as royal mistress. She was so discreet she even hated people to mention her relationship with the King a quarter-century after his death, and she was the only person who could bring him out of the black moods he often fell into. These traits made Queen Alexandra actually fond of her, thus smoothing what could otherwise have been an extremely difficult relationship: His Majesty insisted on having Alice in his entourage practically everywhere he went. This was not only for her companionship; she was noted for her wisdom and political judgment, and the King depended on her advice. Furthermore, so great was her skill at conversation he often employed her to feel people out on delicate topics, or to let his opinion be known without making an official announcement. The reverse was also true; when ministers or other officials wanted to further explain opinions with which Edward disagreed, Alice could present them to him in such a way that he would at least listen without getting angry.
But despite her influence, she was unable to convince the King to cut back on his smoking and heavy eating, even after his health began to fail. When he was dying in May of 1910 he asked for her to come to his deathbed, but apparently that was too much for the Queen; as soon as he lost consciousness she ordered the doctors to get rid of Alice, who reacted with uncharacteristic loss of composure. She became so upset and hysterical, in fact, that she had to be removed by the guards; from that point on she was no longer welcome at court. Alice had developed genuine feelings for Edward over the past 12 years; furthermore, she was by this time 42 and had become a bit plump, so she was no longer able to function as a courtesan. She and George decided it would be best to leave London for a while, so they spent two years travelling in the Far East (ostensibly for their daughters’ education). Upon coming home they bought a new house and returned to society, albeit more quietly; Alice also helped run a hospital in Boulogne during the First World War. In 1927 they bought the Villa dell’ Ombrellino near Florence and lived there the rest of their lives except for 1940-1946, when the Second World War forced them to return to the UK; they stayed in the country for a time, but then moved into the Grosvenor Hotel in London in spite of the Blitz. By the time they returned to Italy Alice was terminally ill with cirrhosis; she died at the age of 79 on September 11th, 1947, and George followed her two months later.
Famous harlots do not usually have interesting descendants, but Alice Keppel is an exception. Her elder daughter, Violet, became involved in a torrid lesbian affair with the poetess Vita Sackville-West; apparently, Alice’s sexual liberality stopped short of That Sort of Thing, so Violet was induced to marry Denys Trefusis and break up with Vita. Violet became a novelist and her affair appears in fictionalized form in a number of works, notably Virginia Woolf’s Orlando; she subsequently had other lesbian affairs, but because she learned to be discreet about them after Vita her mother had no objection. The younger daughter, Sonia, married Roland Cubitt and had a daughter, Rosalind, who in turn married Bruce Shand and bore a daughter, Camilla, less than two months before Alice died. When Camilla grew into a young woman she met and became involved with a great-great grandson of her great-grandmother’s most famous patron, but because he needed to make a political marriage, she instead married a cavalry officer named Andrew Parker Bowles. The tendency to be a royal mistress, it seems, runs in families, though unlike her famous ancestress the Duchess of Cornwall eventually married her Prince of Wales.