Michael Harrison, in his biography of Rosa Lewis (Lottie Crump in Vile Bodies) wrote,
“The reign of the Bright Young Things…is generally spoken of as “the thirties” (?); but in fact the reign was over by the end of 1931, and we can give a day – 21st November,1931; the day on which Arthur Jeffress, later a successful dealer in paintings, gave his famous Red-and-White party in Maud Allan’s Regent’s Park house.”
This is taken up by Taylor in “Bright Young People” , who reproduces Harrison’s version of events and links them with the subsequent trial of Elvira Barney. Together they sound the death-knell for the Bright Young generation. How true this is is hard to tell but it is significant that Alec Waugh, who was present at Jeffress’ party, uses the same Harrison quote and draws the same conclusions.For Waugh, in two books – one contemporary, “Thirteen Such Years“, the other written in the 70s, “1931-A Time to Remember” – it was the timing of the party that was all wrong. The austerity-driven National Government had just been elected and the country’s sense of self-belief was still reeling from the reluctant abandonment of the Gold Standard. Such lavish shows of extravagance as “The Red and White Party”, which a few years earlier had captivated the media, now received only disapproval and, in some quarters, outright hostility.
That Arthur Jeffress should be a key player in both the Barney trial and the “one-bright-young-party-too-far” is a coincidence, but a fascinating one. Whether he was aware of the symbolic weight that was to be attached to each event or happily oblivious of his part in finishing off a glamorous youth culture, we cannot tell. That he was alert to symbolic resonances is not to be doubted, given his choice of venue for “The Red and White Party”.
For the Red and White Party took place in the West Wing of Holford House,Regent’s Park. The sole tenant was Maud Allan and the rent had been, for some years, mostly paid by Lady Asquith.
Built by Decimus Burton, of London Zoo and Kew Gardens fame, in the 1820s, Holford House was best known as the home of Regent’s Park College, until its relocation to Oxford in 1927.The dancer Maud Allan had lived in the West Wing since 19o9. An American, she had been the sensation of Edwardian society with her dance, “The Vision of Salome”. Its mixture of eroticism and a vaguely occult mysticism outraged many but brought her a devoted following which included the likes of Aleister Crowley and Ronald Firbank. She was a favourite of The Coterie and had a particular fan-base amongst gay young men and women.
In 1918 the virulently right-wing MP, Noel Pemberton Billing, published “The Cult of the Clitoris”. This essay accused Maud of being at the centre of some 47,000 sexual “deviants” whose immorality was part of a German plot to undermine the British war-effort. The subsequent libel trial was a sort of belated re-run of the Oscar Wilde casel and unleashed an equivalent avalanche of public homophobia. Despite a very dubious (to the point of perjury) defence case, Pemberton Billing triumphed and Maud Allan’s career was ruined.Philip Hoare’s “Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand” is a wonderful investigation of the whole shameful episode.
By the time of the party both the house and Maud Allan were in steep decline. Whether Jeffers was drawn to the location for these reasons, or whether he simply knew Allan as part of an esoteric, expatriate gay community, is hard to ascertain. That he was unaware of Maud Allan’s iconic status seems hard to credit.
The party itself was silly,vulgar and excessive – but no more so than any number which preceded it. Michael Harrison describes it thus,
“At this famous party, at which Arthur wore white angel-skin pyjamas, white elbow-length kid gloves, ruby-and-diamond bracelets and carried a muff of white narcissi, all the Bright Young Things turned up, everyone in red-and-white.
Evan Morgan was in a scarlet toga, his young gentleman friend was in a white ski-suit, with a white fur shako.Even the cigarettes were red as well as white, and only red and white things were there to eat: lobsters,strawberries, things like that.
Evan Morgan, Lord Tredegar (1893-1949)
The late Brenda Dean Paul, after having pulled Sunday Wilshin’s hair – for no reason except pure malice – was carted off for being in unlawful possession of drugs. The late Hugh Wade played Body and Soul on the organ in the empty hall, until Maud Allan, in a rage, sent down word that she had let the house, not the organ – and would they let her get some sleep? (At seven in the morning they still weren’t letting Miss Allan get some sleep.”
Sunday Wilshin (1905-1991)
This catalogue of excess is almost too good to be true but, in fact, is probably accurate. The eccentric Evan Morgan, former lover of Ronald Firbank, though a little older than the Bright Young set, was still an inveterate party goer. The unfortunate Sunday Wilshin, is testament to the constant presence of pretty, young actresses on the party circuit and Brenda Dean Paul did make one of her many court appearances a week or so later, charged with possession of dangerous drugs (when bound over rather than being sent down, she whispered to the judge, “You Darling.”) . The image of the once scandalous Maud Allan losing patience with her spiritual progeny is both amusing and a little sad.
The mention of Hugh Wade takes us to the heart of Elvira and Michael Scott Stephen’s world and begs the question, did they attend? The answer is almost certainly yes, as Jeffress admits to seeing plenty of them both in this period. In any case, it is hard to imagine them missing out on such an occasion.
The press inquest on the party was censorious in the extreme. Such “ill-bred extravagance” might push the masses towards Communism ,if not checked (so opined The Bystander). Such accusations were not new, the Second Childhood Party drew exactly the same quotes, but the uniformity of the denunciations did indicate a hardening of attitudes. There were to be no more public extravaganzas. Of course the rich still lavished money on balls and parties, but they were “Society” affairs that the middlebrow-press regarded with approval. The more outre gatherings would from this point take place away from the public spotlight. London would not again witness such openly “gay” gatherings for a couple of generations.
The fortunes of Holford House (and Maud Allan) continued to erode. By the end of the decade the place was almost a ruin. It suffered extensive bomb damage in 1944 and was pulled down in 1948. Maud Allan, who left the house during the war, never made her comeback and died, forgotten by all but a few ageing aesthetes, in 1956.
Finally, a letter to Eddy Sackville West from Raymond Mortimer is worth noting. He writes of having just been to a wild party in Regent’s park given by “a young Jew”, which featured “an excellent nigger band”. The language of the time is unsettling now, but the addition of racial to sexual otherness just might explain why this party was more than usually frowned upon.
The band could well have been Noble Sissle’s Orchestra, who were appearing at Ciro’s at the time of the party ( see http://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/ciros-orange-street-off-haymerket/). Jeffress was a known enthusiast of “hot” American music (his after-hours get-together on May 30th allowed him to play a stack of records he had brought back from New York.)