In early May 2016, a story appeared in a number of British newspapers detailing a wager placed by Lord Lucan, the infamous peer on the run following the murder of his children’s nanny in 1974. That the bet – a £2,000 wager on an amateur golf tournament – was significant was in large part because it was the last the peer placed before he absconded. Study the lord’s gambling life and you might conclude that the wager was every bit as significant for being successful.
Yes, for a man nicknamed ‘Lucky’, Richard John Bingham, the seventh Earl of Lucan, was for the large part a mug punter. He owed his sobriquet to an exceptionally good night at a casino in Le Toquet in the early 1960s where he scooped £26,000 – an extraordinary sum of money at the time – playing chemin de fer. Though champagne flowed that evening, most of the time Lucan hit the casino, it hit back – hard.
Born into incredible wealth in 1934, the future Lord Lucan’s love of gambling first took hold at Eton where he developed a passion for horseracing. Poker then replaced the ponies when Bingham performed his National Service. His army days behind him, he took up a post with a leading merchant bank in London only to find the buttoned-down world of finance a poor substitute for the excitement of the city’s gambling dens.
It was the life of a punter Bingham wanted to pursue and, as a blueblood, he had just the connections to turn his dreams into a reality. A friendship with backgammon player Stephen Raphael led in turn to Lucan becoming part of the Clermont set, the well-heeled public school-educated playboys who found a home for themselves at John Aspinall’s Berkeley Square gambling club. Life was good, or rather it would have been had Bingham been a better gambler. Sure, he fared well at some skill games such as backgammon – at one point, he was ranked among the world’s 10 best players - but at the poker and the roulette tables the money scurried away from him so fast, it wasn’t unknown for him to drop £10,000 in a single evening.
Had he been less flighty, Bingham might have seen he was on to a loser and quit the Clermont. But being someone who believed the world owed him a living, the lord wasn't going to let debt derail his fantasy life. And besides, all it took was a lucky run like the one he had at Le Toquet to turn the tables in his favour.
Would that his wife was more understanding. Unfortunately, for his Lordship, Veronica Lucan suffered terribly from post-natal depression and so found nothing to delight about in his follies. A man who spent his days jogging, smoking, playing the piano and cruising Mayfair’s clubland, Bingham might have made a decent 007 – a part Bond producer Cubby Broccoli actually asked him to audition for – but the dual role of a bill-paying, bread-winning husband and father was well beyond his range.
A string of failed racehorses, ever mounting gaming debts, a plethora of unpaid bills – Bingham’s life was now a full-blown nightmare. And things got even worse when the Lucans separated, sparking a custody battle that would see the man of the house lose access to kids and upwards of £20,000 in legal fees. His world spiralling out of control, Lucan was a man close to the edge. Then, on Thursday 7th November 1974, he plunged headlong into the abyss.
“Help me!" screamed a blood-caked Lady Veronica Lucan as she crashed through the doors of the Plumbers Arms public house, Mayfair. “My husband’s killed our nanny and he’s tried to kill me!” The Lucan’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, had indeed been bludgeoned to death with a lead pipe. It is now widely believed that her death resulted from a case of mistaken identity, the real target being Lady Veronica. And the culprit? Her husband the seventh Earl of Lucan.
What happened next has consumed conspiracy theorists for the better part of 40 years. Did Lucan’s Clermont acquaintances spirit him out of the country? Did Bingham commit suicide while crossing the Channel, overcome by the horror of his crimes? Did he hole up in West Africa or South America? The authorities’ refusal to grant a death certificate until April 2016 only added fuel to the often fevered speculation. And on every continent, stories about Lucan’s whereabouts made the papers. From drying-out clinics in the Southern United States to trackside at the Melbourne Cup, Lord Lucan was everywhere and nowhere.
Even in death, Lord Lucan retains his power. Why else would the tabloids report on a long-forgotten amateur golf tournament unless it had connection to the man of mystery and his equally elusive luck? If Lucan was fortunate – he was born to exceptional wealth and means – it appears that he was something of a slave to chance. A lord nicknamed ‘Lucky’ – how could he ever lose?! Had he the humility to appreciate fortune’s fickleness and the instinct to know when to call it quits, he might now enjoy a reputation similar to gambler-turned-wildlife advocate John Aspinall (above, at one of his world-renowned zoos). Instead, Lord Lucan is destined to be remembered in the same breath as Jack The Ripper as the perpetrator of terrible acts who vanished into the mist of time.