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The Trials of Eric Mareo

Chapter Four — Who Was Eric Mareo?

page 64

Chapter Four
Who Was Eric Mareo?

She accompanied him to the orchestra entrance where, in a few minutes' time, they were joined by Leila Garland and Luis da Soto - the perfect platinum blonde and the perfect lounge-lizard.… As for da Soto, he looked harmless enough, and did not seem to have any pressing reason for doing away with Alexis. One never knew, of course, with these slinky people of confused nationality.

—Dorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase (1932)

Although Mareo Was something of a minor celebrity before his arrest, many Aucklanders would have distrusted him. The size and isolation of New Zealand no doubt generated enthusiasm for visiting 'theatricals', but it also would have fuelled suspicion. Two days before the opening of the first trial, the Herald observed in a context unrelated to Mareo that, while '[t]he idea that all musicians, artists, and actors are temperamental, inconsistent, eccentric in their private lives' was a 'fallacy', it had 'increased rather than diminished during the last few years', at least according to the wife of a 'popular English dance band leader'.1 In the same year the Weekly News could proudly remark '[t]hat what may be roughly indicated as the jazz elements in social life have hardly touched New Zealand', and that as a consequence most New Zealanders were content to dine early and at home, their once-in-a-lifetime reward of 'seeing Europe' meaning 'Great Britain with a few contiguous foreign places of interest'.2 No doubt it was largely from such 'foreign places' that musicians and actors came. For, as the Herald's music and drama critic complained in the year of Mareo's arrest,

[w]hen the child of uncompromisingly British parents shows an instinctive desire for music his father frequently does his page 65best to eliminate it. Music, to the British mind, is always suspect. It is manly enough and respectable enough to be a merchant, or a lawyer, or a grocer, but there is some taint of femininity about the arts - something wild and long-haired and unbusiness- like. Many a young man has been forced by a fat-headed father to drop the musical career which would have kept him interested and happy, either for this reason or because there is 'no money in it'.3

Accordingly, the Wellington Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Leon de Mauny, the Dunedin Philharmonic by Signor Squarise and the two Christchurch orchestras in the first three decades of the century by Benno Scherek, Alfred Biinz and Angus Gunter (as well as Alfred Worsley).4

Mareo seems to have fitted the foreign stereotype perfectly. After the trials Truth remembered that he would walk up and down the main street of Auckland 'cheerily greet[ing] his acquaintances with "Hello, hello"'.5 On such occasions, according to the Observer, he would often be seen with

a cigarette holder in one hand, a cane and gloves in the other. That long white cigarette holder was by itself sufficient to attract attention to the man. He used to walk down Queen Street with one end of it in his mouth, the other sticking out rakishly about a foot in front of him.

It was typical of Mareo that, when the success of his symphony concerts made him a well-known figure in the city, he persuaded a well-known Queen Street tobacconist to place in his window a large photograph of himself, with cigarette holder. Underneath ran the legend: 'We stock the Mareo cigarette holder.'6

There were many such stories told about Mareo. For example, one newspaper reported that

during lunch in a North Island country hotel the other day, a correspondent has written to 'Truth', the inevitable subject of Mareo arose. A young traveller joined in the conversation, saying he spent three months in the same boardinghouse as the page 66Mareos in Auckland. That was in the days before they went to the Tenterden Avenue house that was to be the last home for the actress-wife.

The traveller said the boarders noticed one peculiarity in particular in Mareo, who, it was said, would rise in the morning and attire himself in a dress suit, even to the white bowtie.

He would go out on the front lawn and walk up and down, smoking a cigarette in an exceptionally long holder. The cigarette completed, Mareo would return to his room, remove the dress suit, and have his shave and bath.7

Although no doubt initially an affectation, the cigarette holder seems to have become a habit with Mareo. According to the ambulance driver who took Thelma to the hospital (but who was not called at the trials), Mareo was 'smoking a cigarette in a long holder' when he arrived at Tenterden Avenue.8

Such theatricality carried over into his concerts. The Observer reported that '[t]ouches of showmanship contributed to the popular success' of the Mareo Symphony Orchestra's concerts:

[T]he stage was decked in crimson roses. Every music stand trailed its garland. Busts of great composers stood in the background and the name 'Mareo' was outlined in flowers. For the first time, a battery of bright lights was hung low over the orchestras, as at a wrestling match, while the rest of the hall was darkened. When Mareo entered, the players rose and clapped him. Some of them felt rather self-conscious about this, but Mareo had explained beforehand that he expected it not as a personal tribute but as part of the general scheme of showmanship which he considered indispensable in 'putting it over'.

There was also the tinseled baton. Some musicians considered this to be in bad taste, but one man who worked with Mareo said the primary purpose of the tinsel was to make the baton glitter so that the players, not the public could see it.9

Needless to say, such a performer would have been distrusted in a country whose 'climate of opinion' at the time has been characterised by P.J. Gibbons as one in which there was page 67

on the one hand the existence of a tiny minority who held values opposed to those which generally prevailed, who were willing to express their opinions, and who had access to a forum in which they could be expressed; on the other hand the intolerance of dissent, even by a Labour Government whose members had once been feared as disloyal socialists, and the willingness of large number of New Zealanders to fight for race and empire.10

Moreover, a reckless spender like Mareo would have stood out in a climate of severe economic austerity. Although, like about 12–15 per cent of the New Zealand workforce, Mareo was out of work at the time of Thelma's death, there seems to have been little sympathy for his plight.11 Indeed, his desperate financial condition was only ever referred to as implying weak moral fibre and, more ominously, as a reason for murder. This is hardly surprising, given that in virtually all other respects Mareo was quite unlike the unemployed. One man who lived through the Depression later remembered that

[T]hings got very rundown… First of all the clothing was very bad and the old clothes drives started to disappear because there were no old clothes - people were wearing them. The obvious thing was, if you saw a photograph of a crowd, you could tell that those people were suffering.12

When the dapper Mareo walked down Queen Street — where just a year or two earlier the unemployed had rioted — his cigarette holder alone must have verged on a provocation for many.

Nevertheless, 'types' like Mareo were not entirely unfamiliar to Aucklanders. Although few New Zealand men were accustomed to wearing tuxedos in the morning, the social historian Danielle Sprecher has found that one department store during the early -1930s instructed its salesmen to recognise not just the careful and careless dresser but also what it called the 'sheik type' (albeit to 'give him all the rope he wants'!), a fact that rather 'throws doubt upon the ubiquity of the usual stereotype of the rugby-playing, hard-drinking bloke who did not care a page 68toss about what he wore or what he bought'.13 However, as the very term 'sheik' suggests, such flamboyant dressing, even when practised by a local, was associated with the 'foreign' or 'exotic'. Indeed, there can be no doubt that the use of the term here derived from two films, The Sheik (1921) and The Son of a Sheik (1926), both starring, significantly, that epitome of Italian charisma, Rudolph Valentino. Although Mareo did speak with a Received Pronunciation accent and the Observer described him before his arrest as a '[m]uch-travelled English-man',14 his Italian-sounding name and his frequently observed habit of speaking in an 'excitable', 'emotional' and 'rapid' manner had him marked as a somewhat dubious 'Latin type'.

In fact, Mareo's actual nationality became a topic of much speculation, as one would expect in a country in which during the 1930s only about 0.3 per cent of the New Zealand population were from the other side of the English Channel (Australia had twice and Canada ten times that percentage15). After the first trial, Truth reported that

[c]onsiderable curiosity has been aroused over Mareo's nationality… One man who has been in close touch with Mareo of late, when approached by 'Truth' to throw some light on it, replied that he knew, but that he would be committing a breach of trust if he divulged it.16

During both trials it was well known that he spoke fluent German, and after the first Truth divulged that it 'is informed elsewhere that Mareo's parents are Austrians, and his father and stepmother live in Sydney'.17 In fact, a police report revealed that Mareo's original names were Eric Joachim Pechotsch and that he had been 'born in Sydney, Australia, on 30th- September 1891 and attended school there. His father's name is Raimunda Pechotsch, a Professor of Music at Sydney.'18 This became known shortly after his arrest. However, while not much else was publicly known, it is worth briefly describing Mareo's family since it allows us to understand what kind of person he was.

Mareo's father, Raimund Leo Pechotsch, had arrived in page 69Australia with a Viennese band and settled there with his two brothers, Rupert and Adolf. Raimund worked as the director of the St Stephen's Cathedral Choir in Brisbane. Some years later he returned to Europe where he was the Musical Director of the Lyceum Theatre Orchestra in London, and then a Principal professor at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music, also in London. During this period the 13-year-old Eric began his musical studies in Berlin under the Polish composer and pianist Xavier Scharwenka, a man who is today largely forgotten but was, in his time, thought by some to be the equal of Liszt as a pianist, and his superior as a composer. Sometime before or just after the outbreak of war, Raimund returned to Australia where he worked as a private teacher of violin, singing and piano.

Mareo's elder brother, also named Raimund, was regarded as something of a child prodigy on the violin, and in 1897 performed at the Portman Rooms in London at the age of 14. After touring Australia with the American Concert singer, Belle Cole, he commenced a solo career, performing, composing and recording under the name of Jan Rudenyi (Mareo's penchant for pseudonyms was plainly a family trait). Later, however, Raimund junior was to abandon 'classical' music, joining the well-regarded Moss and Stoll Music Hall circuit, before his early death from complications of diabetes during the First World War.

Mareo's mother was born Elizabeth Mary Dolman and had recently been widowed when she married Raimund Pechotsch in 1880. By then, she already had two sons by her first husband, Peter Curtis, one of whom was later to become a well-known Australian King's Counsel and, presumably in his spare time, something of a librettist. Both Mareo's mother's maiden name and the name she took on her first marriage were later to provide the basis for two of Eric's alter egos – Eric Dolman and (on his release from jail) Eric Curtis.

In the course of their investigations in 1935, the New Zealand police identified a further five names by which Mareo was known in England: Edgar Martell, Guy Franklyn, Evan Marsden, Garry Foster and Leo Varney. Although it appears that these names page 70were true noms de plume, in that Mareo used them professionally rather than privately, their very existence appears to have deepened police suspicions about him. And there were other aspects of Mareo's life that did nothing to allay the police concern that they were dealing with a shifty and possibly criminal character. In addition to the speculation about and inquiry into the question of his nationality, to which we have already referred, his place and date of birth also became the subject of close official scrutiny.

Although Mareo's own statement as to his birthdate accorded with the information recorded in his passport, and was confirmed by his father, the police sought confirmation from the Registrar General in Sydney but found that the birth was not registered there. When this was put to Mareo's father, Pechotsch said he must simply have overlooked the registration 'owing to the pressure of business in 1891'. Still not satisfied, the police searched the parish register of St Francis's Roman Catholic Church in Paddington. Here they found Eric's baptism recorded on 18 October 1891, and his given date of birth confirmed.19

The police also instigated thorough inquiries into the rumours that were rife in Auckland at the time of his arrest about the existence of a previous Mrs Mareo. According to the application to have the second trial held out of Auckland, one of these 'persistent rumour[s]' was that 'Mareo's previous wife had died in peculiar circumstances'.20Inquiries of New Scotland Yard and of the Registrar of Deaths in the United Kingdom revealed that the woman concerned had indisputably died of 'tuberculosis in England in 1928' and that Mareo had nursed her through the final stages of her illness.

However the reports received from Scotland Yard also revealed less salutary facts about Mareo's English life. The summary of them prepared by the key police witness at the trials, Detective Sergeant Arnold Bell Meiklejohn, recorded that

[a]bout 1913 when Dr. Herbert Edward Gray, late of Esher, Surrey, and his wife were staying at the seaside they met Mareo page 71who is believed to have been pianist in a pierrot show and Mrs. Gray ran away with him. When Gray heard of his wife's pregnancy he insisted that the child should be born in his house. He took her to Esher where Elizabeth Patricia was born. She went back to Mareo and about four years later Gray heard his wife was ill and found her living with Mareo in squalid surroundings, and again pregnant. Gray again insisted that the child [Graham] should be born in his house and after the birth Mrs. Gray went away to live with Mareo. Mareo and Mrs. Gray rejoiced in the fact that both children were theirs and taunted Gray with this. Gray never divorced his wife. Gray made generous allowances to Mareo for the education and clothing of the two children. Numerous payments were made by Gray through Mr. Cam, Solicitor, to Mareo, mainly by cheque. In March 1930 Mareo demanded from Gray £91 about this time for Mareo to settle some debts for board for the two children. Instead Mareo spent all this money in purchasing a motor boat. Mareo left for Sydney in December 1930 owing school and hotel fees for the two children. He wrote Gray threatening action if £80 was not paid at once. Gray instructed Cam to cease remittances and liquidate all debts. One of Mareo's debts in England when he left was to a Mr. Larway when he owed this man £600 up to 1930.

… Six years prior to this (1920) Mareo met a Miss Nora Bailey, a professional violinist and he lived with her and she was known as Mrs. Mareo. He was usually away at weekends and thus it will be seen that for six years he associated with the two women. Mrs. Mareo (Nora Bailey) did not hear from him after he left England in 1930. From 1927 to 1930 he was continually in the company of a Miss Sexton in England but she cannot be traced.21

Meiklejohn had also learned that Mareo's relocation to Australia in 1930 had not materially altered his pattern of behaviour. His report went on to reveal that:

[w]hile in Australia Mareo conducted orchestras in Sydney on his arrival there but for about eighteen months he was out of work. While there he became engaged to a Miss Stone, a professional dancer, and while still engaged to her married Thelma Trott on 18th October 1933. During the engagement page 72he borrowed about £300 from the mother of Miss Stone. This woman says she practically kept Mareo and the two children for the eighteen months he was out of work. He contracted debts in Sydney and was also known as a heavy drinker. He was heavily in debt in Auckland and a persistent drinker.

A leading orchestra leader in Sydney told Mrs. Stone that Mareo was known to them as 'The Gentleman Crook'.

Miss Stone on being informed that Mareo had married in New Zealand became hysterical.

When the Stones' allegations were put to Mareo by the police after his arrest, his rather typical response was that they 'are crook spiritualists… [who] tried to blackmail me when I came to N.Z. but I sent a stinging letter in reply threatening police action and never heard any more'.22

In fact, the Stones were expatriate New Zealanders who clearly retained some affection for Mareo notwithstanding his rather shabby treatment of them. The statements they made to the New Zealand police in June 1935 are hardly vitriolic, with Mrs Stone saying: 'I knew from my observations that Mareo used to drink, but otherwise his conduct was well-behaved, and was all I could have desired for my daughter.' Similarly, Irene Stone rather wistfully told the police that '[f]or all the time that I was with him he was everything that I could wish for…'23 Interestingly, the Stones' capacity for a degree of forgiveness seems to have been shared by most if not all who were taken in by Mareo. Even in a time of economic depression, none of the many people who were owed money by him seemed particularly to begrudge the loans they had made, and, as we shall see, the devotion of Nora Bailey, who had been so cruelly abandoned by Mareo in 1930, was to last for nearly three decades.

As far as the Stones were concerned, it seems Mareo eventually did the honourable thing and requested the police to return those items of their property he had in his possession. In a mildly diverting epilogue to their involvement in our story, it seems that in Wellington in January 1936, Irene Stone married Barton Albert Ginger of Hataitai who had starred in the 1927 page 73New Zealand film Under the Southern Cross. Somewhat ironically, Ginger's character in the film, Robert Fenton, was an English fraudster who has 'framed' the hero for crimes he had himself committed in the 'old country'. However, after trying to marry the local heroine for her money, Fenton gets his just deserts and the hero gets the girl.

Nor does it seem that Mareo left his old habits behind when he came to Auckland and married Thelma. Melville Harcourt, a clergyman who wrote a book soon after the trials in support of Mareo called I Appeal, claimed that

Mareo's undeniable attraction for many women, his apparent willingness to philander when opportunity occurred, [and] his weakness for attitudinising didn't… commend him to the men of the community. The silver baton, the supercilious tilt of the head, the impeccable dress-clothes 'needled' the men. Perhaps they were a little envious, as much as it attracted their wives and sweethearts who were charmed by the music of this gaily-plumed bird that had alighted so unexpectedly in their midst. Mareo, unwisely maybe, was completely indifferent to the resentment of the men, and frankly flattered by the admiration of the women.24

Whether or not Mareo had affairs with other women in New Zealand we do not know. He may well have had the inclination, but not the ability to follow it through. His junior counsel at the time, Trevor Henry, told us that Mareo claimed that veronal had made him impotent.

Thus after his arrest it is not surprising that people believed him to be a bounder and a cad. His personality and his willingness to rack up large debts in pursuit of a glamorous lifestyle would have rankled some and produced resentment at a time when many were responding more frugally to economic hardship. His profession and nationality were, respectively, dubious and uncertain. But, above all, his marriage to a woman who had some money, and the ease with which he spent it, would have seemed consistent with what was known about his previous relationships with women.

page 74

Nevertheless, the kind of hostility that Mareo may have provoked was hardly sufficient to overcome the flaws in the Crown's case. One doesn't send a man to the gallows on the basis of that kind of evidence. And of course the dead woman and the Crown's principal witness were also theatricals about whom tales had been told. If the jury were all too ready to believe the worst of Mareo, it seems they were equally ready to give Thelma and Stark the benefit of the doubt. How was it that Mareo's lesbian accusation could be disbelieved and consequently held against him?