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The Squalid Drug Death of An 'oxford Set' Student Stuns the British Aristocracy

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Dressed in a traditional black suit under a formal academic gown, Olivia Channon, 22, daughter of a British cabinet minister and child of privilege, entered an examination hall at Oxford University early this month for a marathon final covering three years of course work in modern history. When she completed the exam late that afternoon, Channon was greeted by six friends, who pelted her with flour and yogurt and cracked open champagne—traditional boisterousness to mark the end of undergraduate stress. Walking through Oxford’s winding lanes, the group stopped briefly at George’s Wine Bar for a few more drinks. Then, at about 6:30 they made their way to the Christ Church College room of the elegant Count Gottfried von Bismarck, 22, great-great-grandson of Prince Otto von Bismarck—the Prussian “Iron Chancellor” who in the 19th century had united Germany. As the night progressed, Channon became drunk on a champagne-vodka-orange juice drink called “Heaven Can Wait.” While most of her friends were off in search of other parties, around 2:30 a.m. Channon fell asleep fully clothed on von Bismarck’s bed. Five hours later, she was found dead.

Post-final blowouts, known as “thrashing” among the bluebloods, are a hallowed tradition at Oxford. But when preliminary forensic tests indicated Channon died from cardiac arrest after consuming a deadly combination of champagne and heroin, the university city of “dreaming spires” suddenly seemed a school for scandal. Von Bismarck, good friend of Princess Diana’s brother, Charles (“Champagne Charlie”) Viscount Althorp, and the five other partygoers were questioned by the police. Channon’s cousin Sebastian Guinness, 22, a scion of the brewing dynasty, and Channon’s best friend, Rose Johnston, 22, niece of the deputy editor of the London Sunday Telegraph, were formally charged with supplying the heroin and with possession of cocaine. Nicholas Vincent, 24, a third-year student who discovered Channon’s body, was booked for possession of amphetamines.

With all the tangled family connections and rumors of upscale debauchery, the sad death seemed like a strange sequel to Brideshead Revisited. Channon’s father, Paul, a Guinness heir and Margaret Thatcher’s trade and industry secretary, is said to be the richest man in the Tory cabinet. Olivia was the first girl born into the Channon family in 150 years; her playhouse was an eight-foot-tall replica of a stately British home. As a teen, she dressed for parties in silks and furs and attended exclusive schools. Following her father-, she enrolled at Oxford in 1983 and settled into a $100,000 house that her parents bought for her off-campus.

Though a good student, Channon was a rebel. Her town house was frequently the scene of loud parties, and she had affected a punk style—wearing black leather, dark sunglasses and a spiky bleached-blond hairdo. Until recently, she frequented George’s Wine Bar almost nightly, often in the company of her buddy von Bismarck or Rose Johnston. Audrey Cartwright, the assistant manager of the bar, described them as “nice kids” who never got into fights. “They’d get boisterous and break a few glasses,” she said. “But that’s just high spirits.”

After Channon’s death, a three-page suicide note signed “Olivia” was discovered torn to pieces in a garbage can outside the home she shared with Rose Johnston. Written in red ink and addressed to “Dearest Rosie,” the letter read, “By the time you get this, I won’t be around anymore.” Blaming her troubles on a romantic breakup with a “Jeremy Hippy,” she asked Rosie to take $3,000 from her estate to give a party for their friends.

In a statement issued by his attorney, Paul Channon denied that his daughter’s death was a suicide. He said that the letter had been written months earlier, when his daughter had been depressed by an estrangement from Thomas Jeremy Barnes, a former Oxford student who ran a discotheque in Verbier, Switzerland. He said the couple had reconciled.

Whether she planned her death or not, Olivia Channon was widely seen in Britain as yet another casualty of an overindulgent way of life. Though her punk pretensions would have appalled her more fastidious forebears, in the end she took a cue from her late grandfather Sir Henry “Chips” Channon, an Oxford graduate and Member of Parliament. According to a 1949 entry in his diary, Sir Henry delighted in occasionally lacing beverages with Benzedrine, which, he said, “I always find makes a party go.” Summarizing his personal credo, he wrote, “I have come to the conclusion that I have no morals, no ideals, no principles whatsoever—except that of good manners—and that I have had a most enjoyable life.” Sir Henry died in 1958 at the age of 61, his granddaughter much too soon.