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Aly Khan, Armand Ellroy and a Royal Biography

October 26, 2019

Prince Aly Khan

On May 12, 1960, Prince Aly Khan was killed in a car crash in the suburbs of Paris. Khan was only 48, and the news came as a shock to everyone who knew and loved the man. Khan behaved like he was going to live forever. His friends would say, ‘He was too alive to die.’ A multi-millionaire Royal, playboy, sportsman, soldier and diplomat, Khan had no difficulty in seducing beautiful women. Although some, like his second wife Rita Hayworth, grew resentful towards him when they learned that fidelity was not part of Aly’s vocabulary.

Leonard Slater was a journalist who worked at NBC News, Time, Newsweek and McCalls. Born in Pittsburgh and educated at the University of Michigan, Slater became a foreign correspondent and had a fairly adventurous life himself, working in Paris, Prague, Tokyo and Hong Kong. In the US, he reported from Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles and once witnessed a nuclear testing at Frenchman’s Flat, Nevada.

Leonard Slater had got to know Aly Khan a few months before he died, ‘visiting him at his Chateau de l’Horizon on the French Riviera; travelling with him to his stud farms in Ireland’. In 1962, Slater decided to write a biography of the late prince. The formidable task would require hundreds of interviews with everyone from ‘Hollywood choreographers to Islamic scholars’. Slater’s research took him from ‘the primitive upcountry of Pakistan to the locked and guarded erotica collection of the British Museum.’ Slater admits that ‘some doors were slammed in our faces’, but he praises the many people who were willing to share their memories of the lovable rogue Aly Khan.

There is one interview I wish to focus on in this article. Slater interviewed a man who was Rita Hayworth’s former business manager and had arranged her wedding to Khan in 1949. He was the father of a little boy named Lee who would grow up to be the greatest crime writer of his generation.

His name was Armand Ellroy.

The Interview

Armando Lee Ellroy

In the early 1960s Armand Ellroy was out of work and, after the murder of his ex-wife, raising his teenage son alone. In his memoir My Dark Places, James Ellroy candidly describes how hard-up he and his father were at this time: ‘We were poor. Our apartment reeked of dogshit.’

Someone Leonard Slater talked to in the movie-biz, it may have been Rita Hayworth herself, suggested he should contact Armand ‘Lee’ Ellroy. An interview was set-up. Alas we don’t know where, but we can assume it was not at Armand’s decrepit apartment which would eventually be fumigated after he was evicted. Slater and Armand met in a cafe or a restaurant. They talked at length, and Armand is quoted several times in the biography.

Armand told Slater about meeting Rita Hayworth when she was a dancer at the Agua Caliente casino and he was a croupier:

“After the evening show,” he (Ellroy) says, “a gang would get together for hamburgers or to go swimming, but most of the time Rita couldn’t go. I can still see her mother sitting there, watching Rita rehearse and keeping her eye out.”

Armand described to Slater how, when he was working as Rita’s business manager, he rented a ‘pink stucco house on Rockingham Avenue (for Khan), opposite Rita’s red brick colonial on Hanover Street.’ Due to the media frenzy surrounding Rita and Khan, Armand had to shield them for reporters who were ‘popping up in the guise of plumbers, telephone repairmen, readers of gas meters.’ Hayworth and Khan usually travelled in separate cars while Ellroy ‘took on the job of transmitting telephone messages to foil eavesdroppers.’

Armand’s greatest coup as Rita’s business manager came when he arranged the movie star’s wedding to Aly Khan. Armand flew to Paris, then made his way down to the Riviera at Rita’s request as she feared the wedding day was going to be a disaster. Armand managed to impose order and clarity on the wedding plans, which leads to one of the most revealing anecdotes in the biography:

Two nights before the wedding, Aly invited Ellroy, who was staying at the Chateau, to accompany him on a 3 am excursion. They went to the Casino at Cannes for some gambling. Aly turned to Ellroy. “You’ve been here a week or so now, haven’t you?” he asked. Ellroy replied in the affirmative. Aly, the host who thought of everything, disappeared and came back a few minutes later with two attractive girls, one a breezy blonde. “Take your pick,” he offered. When Ellroy declined, Aly shrugged and disappeared with the blonde.

Everything James Ellroy has ever written about his womanising father makes me wonder if there is a little more to this story.

Armand Ellroy was a chronic liar, as his son would attest to. Did Armand lie to Slater? Possibly, but as a seasoned journalist one would imagine Slater was skilled at spotting lies. Armand boasted to his son that he slept with Rita Hayworth. There is no mention in the Khan biography of Armand having an affair with Hayworth. As Slater was sympathetic to Khan, then it would not have been prudent for Armand to bring it up. If Armand did sleep with Hayworth one wonders whether it was during her marriage to Khan.

Slater’s inteview with Armand is special for a number of reasons. It marks the only time, outside of James Ellroy’s published memoirs, that Armand’s words are documented in a book. The first biography of Rita Hayworth did not appear until 1974, long after Armand had died. All of Hayworth biographers would use Slater’s interview with Armand as a source to understand the planning of her wedding to Khan, and his role as Rita’s business manager.

Another reason the interview is important is that it very nearly never happened. Armand had the first of several strokes on November 1, 1963. He had to learn to talk again using children’s primer texts. He died in 1965. Slater began his biography in 1962. He was lucky he got the chance to talk to Armand. If he had delayed his plans to interview him, then Armand Ellroy’s role as Hayworth’s business manger may well have been lost to history. James Ellroy did not know the interview took place. He didn’t even believe Armand had been Hayworth’s business manager until years later, when he spotted his father’s name in a Hayworth biography. Of course, Ellroy would never have spotted his father’s name in that book if it had not been for the Slater interview.

The Biography

Once his research on Khan was complete Slater wrote the biography in a ‘draughty villa’ in Beaulieu-sur-Mer. It was published in June 1965, the same month Armand Ellroy died. Reflecting on the book years later, Leonard Slater wrote:

It appeared just as a new concept of morality was taking over from the Puritanism that had inhibited the USA from its earliest days. Sex had been something that consenting adults didn’t discuss in public, contraceptives had been sold under the counter, and books and movies about sex were censored, if not banned. But a new day was dawning in America, demanded by younger people, spurred by the invention of The Pill. TV networks began to take Elvis Presley’s pelvic gyrations for granted. “Hair,” a musical with lots of nudism was a hit on Broadway. Playboy magazine was sold openly on newsstands. The success of my book ALY was part of that new frankness.

Not all of the reviews were kind. The Kirkus Review wrote that the book was full of ‘tasteless speculation’, ‘shallow depth’ and filled with ‘meaningless round(s) of bedhopping.’

I regard the Kirkus review as too harsh. Slater skilfully adapts the key events in Aly’s life into narrative form. Khan’s birth in Italy, his peripatetic upbringing in France, India and England, his service with the French Foreign Legion during the war, his tumultuous love life and two failed marriages, and finally being passed over by the Aga Khan as the heir to the throne and finding a redemptive role as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, all makes for a compelling read.

If the book has a flaw it is that the constant boudoir antics occasionally read like a Mills & Boon novel. There is some attempt by Slater, for instance, to unravel one of the mysteries of the Orient. Khan was a practitioner of the sexual technique and philosophy of Imsak. I noticed my secondhand copy of the book was a bit dog-eared around these pages…

Leonard Slater died in 2005. His writing career was full of impressive achievements, including authoring an acclaimed book on the foundation of the State of Israel. But I am grateful most of all to Slater for giving Armand Ellroy a chance to tell his story. The interview allowed Armand to happily reminisce about Rita, Royalty and Hollywood’s Golden Age in what were his difficult final years.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 27, 2019 3:57 pm

    Interesting post! I learned a lot about something/someone new!

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