As the glamorous couple made to disembark from the White Star liner, Olympic, at the pier in New York, an immigration inspector stopped them and posed a straightforward question.
“Is this man your lawful husband?” he asked the lady while pointing at her companion.
“No, he is not my legal husband,” she replied with some hesitation.
With that, the pair of them were duly marched back up the gangplank onto the ship and placed in custody. Marie Lloyd was detained for living with a man not her husband. Her travelling companion Bernard Dillon was charged with trying to bring a woman into America for immoral purposes. In October, 1913, the story made international headlines from Manhattan to London because the duo were, after a fashion, the Beckham and Posh Spice of their times. By one account, they responded by quaffing a bottle of champagne up on the promenade deck.
Once the hottest flat jockey in Britain, Dillon was a 24-year-old Kerry man who’d already lived a full life. He learned to ride at his father’s stables in Caherina near Tralee where Patsy Dillon had a reputation for unorthodox teaching methods.
To prepare his children for the rigours of the sport, he placed them up on yearlings, then tied their legs together beneath the horse so that every fall yielded a violent trashing and a disincentive to repeat the experience. Whatever the cruelty aspect, it worked. By the time Bernard departed to continue his apprenticeship in England, he was following in the professional footsteps of his older brother, Joe.
For her part, Lloyd was the biggest star of the British music halls and the darling of vaudeville. Specialising in popular songs like ‘Don’t Dilly Dally’ and ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van’, she had a repertoire full of what were then perceived to be scandalous double entendres.
She met Dillon for the first time shortly after he rode Lemberg to victory in the 1910 Epsom Derby and the fact she was already married and nearly twice his age didn’t stand in the way of their unlikely romance.
Rather scandalously, they soon shacked up together and, coincidence or not, Dillon had lost his license within the year. He’d been repeatedly warned about his fondness for betting by The Jockey Club and no amount of celebrity associations could save him from a ban. Indeed, his off-the-course activities may even have contributed to the authorities deciding to take away his livelihood.
Just five years after arriving in racing’s big time with a triumph in the 1906 1,000 Guineas, his competitive career was all but over. Still, his stint in the limelight was really only beginning. Lloyd was a star of such wattage that her wage for the controversial trip to America where they fell foul of the moral turpitude laws was an estimated $1,500 per week. By the time she hooked up with Dillon, she’d been performing for more than a quarter of a century and was arguably the most famous entertainer in Britain. Just like her partner, however, the association didn’t do her much good either. In 1912, she was mysteriously not invited to the Royal Command Performance. This slur was attributed to both her “immorality” and her pro-workers stance during an earlier Music Hall strike.
This then is the tumultuous background against which the star-crossed lovers headed off to America in the autumn of 1913. After the initial showdown at the quayside and a threat to have them immediately deported, the immigration officials eventually agreed to allow them into the country under certain conditions. Each had to pay bail of $300 and to give an undertaking to stay in separate accommodation for the duration of their trip. Before the tour ended, they were man and wife. Her second husband had died back in England and the nuptials took place at the British Consulate in Portland, Oregon in February, 1914.
This was no happy ending however. Within months, the world was at war and Dillon was serving in the British Army’s Machine Gun Corps’ transport depot in Grantham. By then an alcoholic, his partying tended to interfere with his military duty. When this happened, Lloyd would arrive at the facility to berate the officers involved for having the temerity to discipline her husband. Despite that capacity for outward expressions of devotion, the marriage also began to flounder. She grew as fond as he was of the bottle and together they squandered such a fortune that, eventually, her sisters had to give her the use of a house to live in.
The couple separated in 1920 by which time Dillon had become an abusive wife-beater who was also arrested and bound to the peace for assaulting his father-in-law. Two years after that, Lloyd died from exhaustion and 100,000 people lined the streets of London for her funeral, and their last chance to applaud the Queen of the Music Hall. TS Eliot even wrote a famous, poignant essay lamenting her passing.
There was no such public mourning or literary encomiums for her husband. At the time of his death in 1941, Dillon was working as the night porter at South Africa House in Trafalgar Square in London. Today’s running of the 1,000 Guineas marks the 100th anniversary of his second triumph in that race aboard Electra. As fitting a time as any to remember a life less ordinary.
(originally published in The Sunday Tribune, May 3, 2009)