Strange case of the missing peer who walked on the wild side of Cannes

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When the 10th Earl of Shaftesbury walked down the marble steps of the Noga Hilton hotel on to the spotless pavement of the famous Croisette in Cannes on the evening of 5 November, he faced a familiar choice: to turn left or right.

When the 10th Earl of Shaftesbury walked down the marble steps of the Noga Hilton hotel on to the spotless pavement of the famous Croisette in Cannes on the evening of 5 November, he faced a familiar choice: to turn left or right.

If he had turned right, the tall, 66-year-old English aristocrat would have found himself among boutiques selling Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Fendi, Gucci and Christian Delacroix, where the playboy millionaires of the French Riviera step off their yachts or descend from their Porsches for a new Rolex or diamond necklace.

It is the image that Cannes, city of film stars, festivals and moneyed sunseekers, likes to present to the world, conspicuously wealthy, cosmopolitan and impossibly glamorous.

But 20 days ago, the thrice-married Lord Shaftesbury did not head towards the boutiques where he had been a regular, showering expensive gifts on a succession of girlfriends. Instead, he turned left, up a side street leading from the chic Croisette and into a basement hostess bar or nightclub, a regular habit.

Within 24 hours he had vanished without trace, setting off an international criminal investigation amid a swirl of rumours, ranging from a nervous breakdown to murder. French police said the peer had been in a "fragile" state of mind after a row with his latest girlfriend on the eve of his disappearance when she had threatened to leave him because his once high-rolling lifestyle became ensnared in the more tawdry attractions of the Riviera.

Over the past 30 years, Lord Shaftesbury had been a regular at some of the most exclusive establishments in Cannes, the cigar room at the Carlton and the bar of the Hotel Splendid, holding court with expats and pan-European high society.

But more recently he had taken to a different type of watering hole. With names such as Pandora, the Carre Blanc and Le Paradis, they promise "American showgirls". Others advertise "private dances" and "hostess interviews". The hostesses come mostly from eastern Europe and north Africa. Drinks cost from €20 (£15) up to £300 for champagne.

This is the seamy side of Cannes, inhabited by bon vivants, chancers and conmen. It is also the world Lord Shaftesbury, born Anthony Ashley-Cooper with an aristocratic lineage that can be traced to William the Conqueror, entered that night for one final time.

One bar owner, who said he spoke briefly to the peer that evening, told The Independent that Lord Shaftesbury had seem preoccupied. The owner, who would give his name only as Guy, said: "He was charming, well-spoken and nicely dressed.

"But he had been coming more regularly, drinking more. He also seemed melancholy. He talked to a few of the girls. But that night I don't think he was interested in anything else other than to talk to them."

The day after, 6 November, Lord Shaftesbury left the Noga Hilton, a £130-a-night, glass-and-steel pleasure palace facing the Mediterranean with its own casino and select nightclub, and was seen nearby.

It was the last sighting of the debonair aristocrat, and the start of a mystery that connects the neon-lit hostess bars of the Riviera to the 9,000-acre family estate in Dorset, where previous earls have changed British society. The first earl founded the Whig party and the seventh was the Victorian philanthropist who helped stop child labour in mines.

Some people, including the present earl's sister, Lady Frances Ashley-Cooper, who lives in the south of France and believes her brother's eccentric nature has led him to disappear on a whim, rather than "a tragic ending".

Thierry Bensaude, the Nice lawyer representing the titled environmentalist and patron of the arts, said: "I am very hopeful that he has come to no harm and he will reappear soon. The idea that he has fallen victim to attack does not ring true; we would have found his body by now. Also I now think abduction unlikely. He has probably taken himself away for a few days."

Others are less confident. Lord Shaftesbury's mobile phone has gone dead, his bank accounts have been accessed and he usually contacts his family or friends every few days. British police said the peer's Barclaycard had been used to withdraw £200 in cash in the past week but they did not know where or by whom.The saga of le lord disparu has sent the French media into a frenzy, spawning reports of his kidnap by Mediterranean gangsters over a 200-year-old family painting to suicide by a man with a complex love life, haunted by money troubles which could not be drowned in alcohol.

The peer owns a house in nearby Antibes as well as a £1m flat in Cannes and a home in Paris, and the inquiry has ranged from East Sussex resort of Hove, where he rented a £500,000 Regency apartment, to the City of London, where a £1,000 gift was bought over the phone using the peer's credit card. But the focus remains on Cannes and its nightlife.

In Barracuda, another pick-up spot, the peer was claimed to have steadily drunk large amounts of vodka and other spirits on 5 November, provoking a row with his Moroccan girlfriend, Nadia, 33, who has two children. She said the peer planned to marry her and move her to Britain. She told the Nice Matin newspaper: "I argue with him about his night in Barracuda. I told him if he carried on drinking like that, I wouldn't stay with him. I wanted to provoke him, to make him react."

A French police source said: "In the hours before his disappearance, he had been made emotionally fragile by a number of factors. It is possible that just one upset would have been enough to push him to make an insane gesture." The peer had arrived in the Riviera on 3 November after telling Anthony, his 27-year-old son and heir, he wanted to "sort things out" with his estranged third wife, Jamila Ben M'Barek, an Algerian-Dutch nightclub hostess he married in 2002.

Lord Shaftesbury met his wife for lunch in Cannes on 5 November. Ms M'Barek, who has said she spoke to her husband of her concerns about the company he was keeping in Cannes nightspots, claimed he had been drinking heavily and complaining of money troubles.

The Eton and Oxford-educated aristocrat, whose fortune had been estimated "in the low millions", speaks fluent French and inherited his title at 22 from his grandfather (his father died when he was nine) and rapidly set about fulfilling both elements of the family motto, "Live, serve".

He was a pilot in the Royal Air Force and married his first wife, Bianca Le Vien, in 1966. She divorced him 10 years later for adultery and, the same year, he married Christina Casella, the daughter of a Swedish diplomat. The couple had two sons, Anthony, the heir, and Nicholas.

That marriage ended in 2000, then came a string of short-lived and expensive love affairs. During his two-year relationship with Nathalie Lions, a 29-year-old lingerie model and former Penthouse nude, he claimed to have spent up to £1m on gifts, including a £100,000 Rolex watch and an Audi TT sports car, and handed over cheques for £50,000. The relationship ended in 2002. The state of the peer's finances were said to be so extreme that Lady Frances had been considering legal action to take control of them. But M. Bensaude said: "To my knowledge, no such proceedings were envisaged or even possible."

But others insisted the man known in Cannes as "the count" had been plagued by insecurity. He had recently begun legal proceedings against four "conspirators" he had met in the Cannes night scene for the recovery of valuables from his Paris home, including furniture and a portrait "of great sentimental value" of his great-great-great grandmother, Mary Pleydell-Bouverie.

The case was put forward as a possible motive for kidnap after an increasingly maudlin Lord Shaftesbury complained of falling foul of conmen.

Those close to him spoke of his capricious nature, balancing the progressive attitudes of a man who is a former chairman of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and ardent environmentalist with what his lawyer described a "philosophical adventurer", in leather trousers, pink shirts and wearing large red and black spectacles.

Doubtless those praying for his safety will bear in mind the words of one ancestor. The 3rd Lord Shaftesbury, in his 1711 treatise, Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit, wrote: "The extending of a single passion too far or the continuance of it too long is able to bring irrecoverable ruin and misery."