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Obituary: The Marquess of Bristol

"I HAVE a depressive illness," Lord Bristol said in 1989. "My father had manic depressions and my mother had them. I feel I am in a sort of grey, rainy late afternoon and nothing in the house has any features at all. There are no objects that are beautiful. Trouble is, I've gone too far down the road now. If you take coke for 10 years your metabolism alters. But it is very difficult to justify because, to the public, cocaine is simply a Class A drug and bad."

The Marquess of Bristol had been dying in public for many years. At first his audience was amused - they gathered in Deauville for grand house parties held at his expense; they shot grouse at Ickworth, his stately home in Suffolk; they rode around New York in his chauffeur-driven car, a dark brown Mercedes Pulman that had once belonged to Rod Stewart. They laughed when he said he had once wanted to marry Christina Onassis ( "Love her? God no! I wanted to run Olympic") and, having landed his monogrammed helicopter, staggered out of the cockpit with cocaine all over his face. They said he wasn't that bad really, quite funny actually, and took his drugs.

Thanatoid flamboyance commanded morbid respect until it became apparent that to be a member of Bristol's entourage was to experience the throes of his disorders. During a holiday in a villa in Porto Ercole the property developer Andy Pierce collapsed and died after a heavy drinking bout; Francesca Fisher, to whom the marquess was briefly married, was driven halfway over a cliff in the Bentley and left hanging there like the last scene of The Italian Job; the Peugeot belonging to an acquaintance was pulverised, on purpose, when Bristol drove his Cherokee Chief jeep into it.

Periwigged lordly decadence, the shadow of aristocracy in the Jungian sense, darkened the life of a man who wore his crest on his chest but was not protected by it. His was the profligacy that exiled Rochester, the privileged hedonism that, in the history of England's landed families, has always caused shame, bankruptcy and death. When asked if prison had changed him, the seventh Marquess said, "Christ no! What's it supposed to do anyway? Sure, it might work for stupid people but it's designed for the lower classes really isn't it?"

At various times in his life he was estimated to be worth between pounds 1m and pounds 30m but, in the end, he was just a junkie - scabrous, pathetic, helpless, desperate - in and out of court, almost penniless, usually friendless.

"John confuses money with character," his friend Nick Somerville once said. "He thinks because he is richer than people he must be better than them, but he loathes people who are richer than him." He was happiest, according to Somerville, when, as a young man existing on a small allowance, he lived in a one-bedroom flat and ran a company that sold hand-built Bentleys. Then there was potential for, according to Somerville, Bristol had "one of the most lucid and precise business minds I have ever come across".

There is something awe-inspiring about Bristol's criminal record, speaking as it does of monomania fuelled by indomitable compulsion unconstrained by either rehabilitation or remorse. In 1983, following the tapping of Frances Mullin's telephone, he was arrested for his alleged part in a New York-based conspiracy to import $4m worth of heroin and cocaine. He hired Thomas Puccio, who had represented Claus von Bulow, and subsequent charges were eventually reduced to a misdemeanour.

In 1988, found with 13 grams of cocaine, he spent a year in Jersey's La Moye Prison, where he met a car thief whom he later employed as a chauffeur. Released from La Moye, he was immediately arrested again, found with drugs and fined pounds 3,000. Observing that Her Majesty's pleasure had done little to extinguish the peer's appetite for narcotics, the magistrate Frank Allen became the first of many to urge him to break his addiction. It was, he warned, a matter of life and death. In June 1993 an enlightened and humanitarian Judge Stable deferred a five-month sentence in order to allow the marquess to attend a clinic only to be informed, five months later, that he had jetted to the South of France.

In May 1994 he was released from Downside open prison after serving five months of a 10-month sentence for possession. Two days later police flagged down his Bentley in Eaton Square and confiscated a quantity of heroin. June saw him selling off 2,200 acres of his estate for some pounds 3.5m and fighting an eviction order from the National Trust who were hoping to curtail his lifetime tenancy in the east wing of Ickworth. In September he received two years' probation for possession. Another judge had given him another chance.

Frederick William John Augustus, seventh Marquess of Bristol, also Baron Hervey of Ickworth, Earl of Bristol, Earl Jermyn, and Hereditary High Steward of the Liberty of St Edmunds, came from a line of fantastic oligarchs. According to the Dictionary of National Biography his forebears were, variously, "active and brave, but reckless and over- confident . . . greatly addicted to intrigue . . . of loose morals and sceptical opinions . . . effeminate . . ." Alexander Pope referred to one of them as "that milk-white curd of asses milk", but Dr Johnson thought them good company. "If you will call a dog Hervey," he said, "I shall love him."

John was, by his own account and by the accounts delivered by many defence lawyers, a lonely child damaged by a distant and semi-mad father. At Eton Victor Hervey once knocked a boy out with a knuckleduster, and he did not change. At the age of 23 he was sentenced to three years in prison for his part in planning a jewellery robbery. Amongst the many legends that arose around him was the story that, having worked as a financial adviser to Costa Rica, he stole the country's entire gold reserve, legged it to Monte Carlo and gambled it away. In 1949 he married Pauline Bolton, the daughter of a Kent businessman, and in 1954 their son John was born. Pauline then departed, claiming that she could not stand Victor's habit of keeping the radiators on all night, and married a Newmarket racehorse trainer, Teddy Lambton.

A ward of court, the young Earl Jermyn spent much of his childhood at Ickworth and was close to his stepmother, Lady Juliet (nee Fitzwilliam), until she too departed. After attending Hill House and Heatherdown, he went to Harrow.

Father and son, inextricably linked by the genetic curse, were locked in legislative warfare for many years. A large part of the estate and many treasures had already been handed to the nation's treasury in lieu of death duties. In 1975 Victor Hervey, by then the sixth Marquess, put the house and its contents on the market and John was forced to raise the pounds 2.6m required to buy back his home. Ickworth was, perhaps, the only thing he cared for, or dared to care for, and even that went in the end. The contents were sold at auction in 1996 for some pounds 2.5m, and the remaining lease on the east wing given up to the National Trust last year. The house had been in his family since the 15th century.

"Extreme emotions can be dangerous," Bristol told me. "I get bursts of pleasure from beauty. There was a fawn once that came into this house and I liked that because it showed that people had emotions. My father had no emotions at all really."

What was Bristol like? It was difficult to tell. I spent a weekend at Ickworth once. He had tailored suits cut in unusual hues, a megaphonic voice and eyes that rolled around, there were slurred conversations about his cars and his possessions and the jokes that he had played on people; there were servants and there were young boys who enacted affection. But the man? The man had become an exhibition. He sat in his stately dining room beneath his family portraits and he could not eat. He could hardly speak. An all- consuming misery underpinned his drug habit and he accepted both as inevitable rather than rectifiable.

"You can buy something that is self-gratifying," he said, "but self-gratification does not last long enough and it does not turn into happiness. I can tell you. I've tried it for a long time."

Frederick William John Augustus Hervey: born 15 September 1954; styled Earl Jermyn 1960-85; succeeded 1985 as seventh Marquess of Bristol; married 1984 Francesca Jones (nee Fisher; marriage dissolved 1987); died Horringer, Suffolk 10 January 1999.