The British car industry has had its eccentric characters, but few as extravagantly and ludicrously colourful as this. Words Dale Drinnon.
For the kind of press that can’t manage a single day without a lurid headline, preferably with an exclamation mark or two, the woman was a godsend. Naughty Norah! From Rags To Riches! Daring Lady Docker Dances ’til Dawn! For much of Britain’s 1950s and ’60s, she alone gave the gossip columnists enough material to fill a newspaper. And thanks to her third marriage, for a notable period she was the Extravagant Party Girl with a Saucy Hand on the Wheel of the Queen’s Own Motor Maker. If she hadn’t existed, the scandal sheets would have had to invent her.
Which they did, to some degree. Norah Royce Turner, pioneer reality star, titled and privileged as Lady Docker, was indeed upwardly mobile with a vengeance, although she hardly started from rags. Family legend, according to her admittedly self-serving autobiography, says they lived above a Derby butcher shop at her 1906 birth, but she grew up from toddlerhood in Birmingham where her father partnered in a car dealership. The household reportedly had servants, and she was privately educated to age 16 when her father committed suicide. While everything downsized thereafter, she didn’t exactly sell matches on the street corner.
Nor was she the stereotypical ‘showgirl’ that some accounts have implied. She did leave home at 18 to study dance in London, and was soon employed as a dancer at the Café de Paris. But this was London’s most exclusive Roaring Twenties night spot, not a burlesque club, with a clientèle that included the Prince of Wales and Cole Porter. Norah was a dance hostess, a ‘taxi dancer’; customers paid a fee to do the latest steps with her. She was beautiful and alluring, in a haughty way, and business was good.
What else those customers, invariably older, richer men, paid for is open to debate. Undeniably they financed her taste for pink Champagne, expensive clothing and jewellery, and Norah made no bones about it. ‘If men are rich enough to have money to burn,’ she said, ‘why not let them burn it on me?’
And if she was a social climber, a gold-digger and a monumental self-publicist, she was also ambitious, moved fast and struck hard. She used to maximum effect the tools that fate had provided – a little like Ayrton Senna, perhaps, or even Winston Churchill. It was a strategy that netted three millionaire husbands.
The first, alas, quicky expired, leaving her with a decent packet and a country home. The second passed quicker still, leaving her far more money and a title (Lady Collins). The third contributed her better-known title and, by Norah’s standards, surely the best prize of all: celebrity. Sir Bernard Docker was managing director of the BSA Group, he owned Britain’s largest yacht, he loved the Riviera lifestyle and he now had a trophy wife. From their 1949 wedding onwards, Sir Bernard and Lady Docker were tabloid catnip.
Norah played it large, too. Parties with the ‘right people’, splashing money at casinos by the Mediterranean, charity balls in diamonds and bespoke gowns, just enough drunken revelry and spontaneous arrogance (outbursts at head waiters, setting right jumped-up Johnny Foreigner) to guarantee regular front pages. Unfortunately, her arrogance extended to the automotive affairs of BSA, where Sir Bernard appointed her a director of bodybuilder Hooper with the mandate to ‘design’ special treatments for Daimler.
The first, launched at the 1951 Paris show, was a paragon of tasteless pretension mistaken for elegance. Popularly called the Golden Daimler, it had gold-plated brightwork and an exterior decorated with 7000 tiny gold-leaf stars. Four similar annual horrors followed, perhaps explaining why Britain’s Royal Family transitioned from Daimler to Rolls-Royce, until BSA sacked Sir Bernard in 1956. He had, it seems, been fiddling his expenses with major Norah-related spending and had kept the custom Daimlers for personal use.
They nonetheless enjoyed another decade in the spotlight. Norah’s feud with Prince Rainier was a particular media hit from those days (Lady Docker Banned From Riviera!) but by 1965 the money was running out. They sold the yacht and houses and moved to sedate tax-exile on Jersey. Bernard died in a Bournemouth nursing home in 1978, aged 81, but Norah moved to a small Majorca apartment and lasted five more years. She was found dead at 78 in what is now the Hilton London Paddington, having apparently lived there for a while, alone.