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Mariella's bedtime reading was Bertrand Russell. She had been reading the chapter on Plato on her wedding night, when Hod so rudely interrupted her. At the age of 17, she had no interest in sex. She wanted instead to develop her intellect and foster an appreciation of the finer things in life. As a wedding present, 56-year-old Hod had given his teenaged bride a Queen Anne house in Hampshire. She took to the part of chatelaine with gusto. But she became stuck with a sexy role.

"Since my name was linked with extremely erotic activities, I decided to entertain on a large scale . . . and normally arranged for 24 to dine. I chose to concentrate on exotic food and fascinating personalities, and served about seven or eight courses. This combination stunned my friends when my sexual games completed the dinner parties. Within weeks my parties became the subject of gossip among the elite in London." Not all her dinner parties involved sex games. Some of these parties were designed to impress leading figures in the arts world so that Hod could sell precious objects to them. Not all these precious objects were truly precious. But when the parties did descend into orgy, "some strange incidents developed".

On this particular evening in December 1961, Stephen Ward, society osteopath and portraitist, descended the basement steps of 13 Hyde Park Square. Ahead of him was a well known female personality dressed as Juno in a silver mask, and behind him, an equally well known male dressed as a Viking in a bronze helmet with horns. The door to Mariella's flat was open and in the large through room was a crowd from another world: a Crusader in a tunic with a large red cross; a pair of lovely female savages painted black, in straw skirts; couples in evening clothes wearing sequinned masks; and Helen of Troy in a golden gown with crossed straps over a very bare back. This was Mariella, unmistakable because of her slight frame (she was four foot seven in bare feet) and distinguished by the lofty manner in which she carried her Fabergé lorgnette. Mariella was short-sighted, and her husband, Hod, did not like her wearing spectacles in company. Hod's costume was a hussar's frogged jacket, red and green, which set off his luxuriant sideburns and roué's leer.

It was difficult to move in the crowded flat filled to the brim with TV personalities, embassy officials, a famous one-armed barrister, and at least one MP. They gossipped and buzzed with anticipation among Hod's collection of fine art and antique furniture. Hod and Mariella had flawless taste. Hod was an expert in 18th-century furniture, some of which he restored, most of which he bought at country-house sales around the provinces. As if to prove a point, photographs in thick silver frames were grouped on occasional tables showing well-heeled individuals posing in front of their stately piles. Hod and Mariella collected titles, too. Their star guest for the evening was Lord "A", whose lean, stooping frame was swathed in silk and set off by a turban speared with a ruby brooch. He carried a pasha's wand crowned with a crescent moon. Two horses' tails dangled from the end, waiting to be swished.

Stephen Ward was a frequent guest of Hod and Mariella's, and a connoisseur of orgies. In the mid-1950s his friend, the Marquess of Milford Haven, had hosted sex parties in his flat at 35-37 Grosvenor Square in Mayfair.

"It would be humbug if I did not confess that I looked forward to the sex orgies," Ward wrote in his unpublished memoir. "I have been to every type of that party — those specialising in certain perversions and those given in an elaborate setting where all the formalities were observed."

The Marquess followed the tradition of observing formalities. It was important for the participants to feel at their ease and amongst like-minded men of the world. The evening at Grosvenor Square would begin with card-playing and then, when the drink had flowed for a while, women would make an appearance. The men nearly always tended to be older and wealthier than the women who were young and beautiful. The Marquess invited his guests to place bets on the women, who, one assumes, were paid for their time and allure. (It should be noted that women in these circumstances are generally termed "girls".) So the girls took part in games called "Chase the Bitch" and "Find the Lady". The winners were the men who bet on the right girl. The winning man won a bout of sexual intercourse in the master bedroom. Sex parties were popular among the more jaded members of the aristocracy, who at this time were usually involved in politics, and so were even more minded to unwind in style. But show business personalities also joined in, and at least one member of the Royal Family. All the participants felt the need to take their pleasures to the extreme and away from prying eyes. "Many of the people who attend are rich and famous - many faces that are seen in public life and on television. If their public could only see them like this," crowed Stephen Ward.

Full-scale orgies were taking place all over London. These were parties where no one was paid for their efforts. Stephen Ward was an eager attender of these, too. This was how his friendship with Hod had developed. Hod had been practising fetishistic sexual acts since the 1930s. Unlike his peers, however, Hod was entirely relaxed about anyone knowing it. Common factors at the orgies Hod and Ward attended seem to have been at least one naked woman and a steady stream of that most reliable of social lubricants, alcohol. Although at one party, Ward noted he "came across the host grinding up pills in a bowl which he put into everything we drank, whether it was gin, whisky, or just coffee. Benzedrine or Methedrine was used".

It is no surprise then that inhibitions were loosened and sensibilities dulled. "I really was curious in a sort of detached way," Ward wrote. "Looking back one sees how easy it is to be drawn into a situation out of simple weakness, to be horrified to start with and later to accept it all as normal behaviour or nearly so."

Drugs were enormously helpful in achieving this state of disengagement. Sleeping pills, appetite suppressants and amphetamines were widely prescribed by doctors. As a matter of course, Mariella, Stephen Ward and their contemporaries swallowed pills to avoid painful or uncomfortable feelings. If Bertrand Russell could not get her to sleep Mariella used barbiturates, powerful depressants that slow the central nervous system. If a cup of tea could not wake her up, she popped a black bomber, a cocktail of amphetamines and dextroamphetamines. Housewives and long-distance lorry drivers swore by them. In one of her earliest newspaper interviews Mariella admitted to using pills to help alleviate anxiety. They also helped close her mind to what she was doing. "The bizarre became normal for me," she wrote.

With her emotional life suitably deadened, Mariella developed an appetite for extreme and intricate acts of sadism. She was most ingenious. Her country weekends became the talk of the town. Lord Astor was a regular. The rake and gambler Lord Longford, the flying ace Count Manfred Czernin (aka "One of the Few"), the psychiatrist, Dr Eustace Chesser, who in 1940 had published a sex manual entitled Love Without Fear and was subsequently arrested for obscenity, were just a few who took their places alongside film stars and prominent personages.

Taking pride of place at tonight's party, in front of the fireplace, was another titled man. This one was naked except for a masonic apron and leather mask. He was strapped between two wooden pillars. Mariella had planned the evening very carefully, personally supervising the laying of the antique silver on old lace for the dining table, and the accountrements for pleasuring her man in the mask. "A flail or whip was in front of his naked figure. As each guest arrived they gave him one stroke, then left the man to join the party. When he was released before dining, he was ordered to remain beneath the long table, out of sight ".

Once the man in the mask had taken his place at his hostess's feet, dinner was served. This was Mariella's moment of culinary triumph. For dinner that night she had "cooked a pair of young peacocks for the main dish," she explains. She had "skewered their necks and heads in position, and added the colourful tail feathers of older birds."

Twelve guests, six on either side of the table, with Hod at the head and Mariella facing him, gasped at the gaudy dish set before them. "The Feast of the Peacocks," Mariella announced. This was the stuff of Roman Emperors and Tudor monarchs, but not everyone was impressed.

"When they were carried to the table, a girl became hysterical and screamed that [the peacocks] signified death," Mariella wrote. "She created havoc and had to be sent home, before she ruined the party." Mariella could have told her guests that the peacock, according to Saint Augustine, symbolises not death, but resurrection, because it replaces its feathers every year. As such, the peacock is associated with Christ. Ten years almost to the day after the Feast of the Peacocks, also known as the Man in the Mask party, Mariella was interviewed for the Sarasota Herald Tribune in the United States. She recalled the party, and in particular referred to the girl who had screamed. "We laughed at her, but five of the guests at the party — two of them titled — died within a short time." This was the atmosphere in which Mariella was cooking. Meanwhile, "under the table [the man in the mask] obeyed any order I gave him to please my guests."

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