Guiy de Montfort is an Anglo-French aristocrat who trained as a concert pianist and is fluent in seven languages. At 61, he has been a multimillionaire, a bestselling author, and a secret agent who fought off not one but two Siberian tigers with his bare hands. And now he has re-emerged as a charitable entrepreneur, who, while raising money for victims of September 11, has managed to lose a fortune - mostly his wife's. This potted history in itself would make him an intriguing character, but what is fascinating about his life story is that it may just be a figment of the protagonist's imagination. To his detractors, Guiy de Montfort is in fact "plain old Graham Leaver" of Dartford in Kent; a jail-breaking society con man accused of seducing a trail of women, breaking their hearts - and bank accounts.
Having refused to give a full and frank account of his past in over 20 years, I was hoping that Guiy's participation in my documentary about his controversial life would finally set the record straight. (How wrong I was.) En route to our first meeting at his modest home in northern France, I wondered what kind of man awaited me. At this point, I had gleaned nearly all my knowledge of "gap-toothed Guiy" from the tabloid press, which portrayed him as a stereotypical cockney spiv, complete with a Terry-Thomas moustache and a roguish, Roger Moore-like glower (the one with the eyebrows) that would encourage any father to lock up his daughters. It was hardly surprising, then, that the man whom I met turned out to be far more complex.
The most extraordinary facet of De Montfort's character is the tenacity with which he clings to the least believable version of his life. According to Guiy, his "bestselling novel" (there is no available evidence to suggest that it ever sold in meaningful numbers), All The Queen's Men, exposed details sensitive to the Royal Family. These revelations, he believes, have engendered a lifelong establishment conspiracy to destroy him. The appeal of conspiracy theories, of course, is that they are difficult to disprove and can be widely applied to explain any number of awkward scenarios. Why, in 1987, was Guiy sentenced to three years in jail for cheque fraud? Er... the powers that be wished to silence him. And what motivated him to escape from Leyhill Open Prison (reportedly dressed as a prison warder)? Er... to avoid a sinister quasi-Masonic plot. "I had someone come to see me, and he said, 'You've got to get out of here because your life is in danger, they've got you where they want you now'."
Of course, just because his explanations can't be substantiated, that doesn't mean that they are not true, but as Robbie Sherwood of The Arizona Republic explains, "all of these public officials, all of these sworn-in law officers, all of these innocent women are either lying in concert to bring this man down, or perhaps Guiy de Montfort is the one not telling the truth".
Guiy is not ashamed of the dozens of women (mostly beautiful and wealthy) that he has dated, but neither does he admit to the prime charge against him - that he has cynically preyed upon vulnerable divorcees before making off with their cash. One such woman is Candice Tetmeyer, who is a single mother of two. Following an isolated encounter with De Montfort at her home in Connecticut, she claims she received a letter of such romantic intensity that she was soon whisked off her feet. "Beloved Candice, you are an exceptional woman... you and I are like a lock and key... you took my breath away. What you patently need in your life... is a man who can support you properly financially." Unfortunately, Guiy's means of support were tied up in off-shore accounts, but Candice claims that she was soon sweet-talked into paying for the couple's romantic trip to New York; hotel bills and chauffeurs' tips were followed by blatant requests for cash loans. Such was Candice's insecurity at the time that she says she was trusting to the tune of $10,000.
Finally, news reports of an English con man operating in the US confirmed Candice's worst suspicions. When challenged, Guiy alluded to having been framed, and fled with a promise to pay her back. She is still waiting for her money. Despite numerous such claims from a string of women, Guiy remains unrepentant. "There's nothing more heart-rending for a media story than the poor little woman with stars in her eyes taken for a ride. Women are a bloody sight tougher than men, and usually a damn sight more ruthless."
I soon learnt that De Montfort's talent for convincing people of his reality is threefold. Firstly, he has an almost feverish desire to garner sympathy from anyone who will listen, and if his stories were true there would be a lot to feel sorry for: the mother lost in the war, the broken home, the first wife and child murdered by guerrillas in Africa. And then, of course, there is the ongoing persecution by the "establishment". After three or four days in his company, I have to confess to feeling some sympathy for his plight, although this was diminished by his inability to back up any of his claims with a single shred of hard evidence.
His second great talent, and the most exhausting one to experience, is his capacity to answer even the most straightforward question with an anecdote so long-winded and complex that you soon forget what it was you were grasping to discover. (Can you answer the question, "What is your name?", with a 15-minute soliloquy?) Guiy's greatest talent, however, is much-cited but not so easily quantifiable - charm. This predominantly consists of fixing his admittedly piercing blue eyes intensely upon yours, not so much in a way that suggests you have his undivided attention, but as a way of ensuring that he has yours. For those in need of the former, the two could perhaps be easily confused.
But it was De Montfort's desire to charm that rebounded on him one bright morning in 1983. Spotting the former Daily Mail columnist Nigel Dempster on a Chelsea street, Guiy approached him with an invitation to the launch of his novel, All The Queen's Men. It was one of those chance encounters that can change the course of a life. The party was a lavish affair at Guiy's favourite haunt, Claridges, and the £20,000 bill was apparently paid in full. According to Dempster, the gathering was populated with a selection of high-society figures enjoying the champagne and canapés but clearly unsure as to why they had been invited. It was soon evident to all that nobody knew each other, let alone their mysterious host. According to legend, Dempster sat between two women, both of whom claimed to have had professions of love and promises of marriage from the budding author.
Intrigued by this eccentric new character on the London set, Dempster delved deeper into the identity of De Montfort, and was no doubt professionally delighted by his discovery; a working-class con man on the make. No mean social climber himself, Dempster was supposedly infuriated by this patent infiltration of his élite clique, and subsequently determined to undermine this "phoney viscount" in some 47 articles in the Daily Mail. Despite a string of allegations against him, and a raft of seemingly indisputable evidence, to this day Guiy maintains his innocence, and insists that "Graham" is the invention, not "Guiy".
His agreement to participate in the documentary was apparently based on a desire to clear his name, yet he manifestly failed to prove his detractors wrong. He frequently invited me to check out his past but became infuriated when I did. During the course of our filming, he offered to provide proof of his origins by taking us to a Parisian memorial to his mother, Céline de Montfort. After barely an afternoon in Paris, Guiy became incensed with me for asking him difficult questions, and found an excuse to return home. "I'm certainly not going to take you to my mother's grave and then you turn around and say, 'Actually, how do we know it's her?'. What do you want me to do - dig up the fucking body and get the DNA for you?"
The following day, I called him from Montmartre in the hope that he could point us in the direction of this testament to his supposed origins. Considering its significance to his claims, and the effort that we had made in coming to France, it was curious when he suddenly claimed not to know of its whereabouts - "It's so long since I've seen it..." Minutes later, he changed his story again, stating that he simply didn't wish us to view it in his absence. "I know where it is and I wish to be there."
Towards the end of the film, Guiy raised the notion of taking a lie-detector test. When we secured the services of a man with a polygraph machine, he was less enthusiastic but, surprisingly, kept to his side of the bargain. Initially, Guiy was in good spirits when he returned to England for the showdown. Like a man dressed for a court appearance, he was more debonair than ever, clad immaculately in a tweed suit, pencil moustache groomed to perfection.
Perhaps he was right after all; maybe he was the victim, or at least one of them. In reality, no machine is capable of discovering "the truth". A polygraph machine simply measures a body's response to a question. If you knowingly tell a lie, your body will betray you. Suddenly angered by the indignity of being wired to a judgemental computer and permitted to respond with only a "yes" or a "no", Guiy nevertheless sat to answer a set of painstakingly negotiated questions. As the needle monitoring his pulse began to flicker in anticipation, I eagerly awaited the final moment of truth.
Guiy was unphased when the adjudicator gave his verdict: "The bottom line is, Guiy is telling the truth." But far from providing closure, the results only raised more questions. In my pocket was a copy of his birth certificate clearly stating that he was christened Graham Leaver, and that he was born in Dartford, Kent. His mother is registered as being named Elsie Sybil, not Céline de Montfort. His indignation at my discovery was clear, yet he refused to acknowledge its relevance, opting instead to allude to his trusted defence of subterfuge - "Birth certificates, like anything else, can be falsified". Perhaps the truth of Guiy de Montfort's life is simply the most believable version of events, and they remain open to interpretation.
'Notorious: The Professional Charmer' is on BBC 2 tomorrow at 9.50pmReuse content