Friday morning, September 7, 1923, dawned blustery in London, the first chill of autumn sweeping through after a warm late-summer rainstorm. Inside the gracious row house at 17 Artillery Mansions in Victoria Street, May Aylen, the wife of Ernest Vaughan Aylen, a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps, lay in her oak-paneled third-floor bedroom and waited to become a mother. When she felt the first of a series of sharp labor pains, she summoned Miss Hemming, the squat, earnest Royal Red Cross nurse she had retained to help her with the delivery.
The labor, excruciatingly painful, lasted for hours, complicated by May’s slim hips and the fact that this was the nearly forty-year-old woman’s first pregnancy. She bore the pain as long as she could, but when Miss Hemming left the room to summon the doctor, May reached under her pillow, pulled out her husband’s service revolver, and put the cold steel barrel into her mouth. Just as she was about to press the trigger, Miss Hemming raced back into the room and snatched the gun away from her.
“Such agony!” May later said of the labor, but it was nothing compared to her suffering during the delivery itself, which didn’t come until the late afternoon. The baby was large — nine and a half pounds — and in the breech position inside May’s womb. For nearly twenty minutes the doctor struggled to pull the infant — a boy — through May’s cervix, trying not to injure him, tugging at his feet as carefully as possible. When the child’s head was finally freed the doctor saw that the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and had almost choked him. The baby was listless, his left arm apparently paralyzed, his color poor. Out of earshot of Mrs. Aylen, the doctor told Miss Hemming, “He’ll be dead before midnight.”
“I wasn’t going to let that baby die,” Miss Hemming said years later. While his exhausted mother slept, the nurse labored over him most of the night, massaged his limp arm, rubbed and patted him, splashed him with brandy to get his circulation going. As dawn broke the next morning, the child revived, and he cried lustily as Miss Hemming handed him, bundled in a blue blanket, to his mother.
May Aylen was not overjoyed at the birth of her son. “I can’t stand babies!” she
said years later. “They run at both ends; they smell of sour milk and urine.” For the sixteen
years of her marriage, she had refused Major Aylen’s pleas that she give him a child.
When May finally did allow herself to conceive early in December 1922, it was not because she longed for the rewards of motherhood; nor was it so that she could make her husband’s fondest wish come true. No, this baby had been planned with an altogether less altruistic goal in mind.
Ernest Aylen was not present when his wife gave birth, because he knew the baby was not his child. The boy’s father was Aylen’s fifty-seven-year-old commanding officer, Lieutenant General Sir Sydney Lawford. As May had hoped, the birth of her baby — she named him Peter — would eventually result in her marriage to Sir Sydney. At that point, May, an inveterate social climber, would realize a lifelong dream, a goal so important to her that she had allowed herself to become pregnant despite the dangers for a woman her age and her abhorrence of children. As Sydney Lawford’s wife, she would be immediately elevated from merely Mrs. Ernest Aylen to Lady Lawford. And she would revel in what she called “this handle” for the rest of her life.