Apart from Peter Hitchens and the people who post in the Daily Mail’s comment sections, very few people still believe that sexual promiscuity only started in the 1960s. However the extent to which “middle class morality” was flouted by both Bohemia and “The Smart Set” in the inter-war years, if it no longer shocks, remains a thing of wonder, and occasional surprise.
Ham Spray 1932
When I first read about Elvira Barney, she was presented as a possessive but heterosexual woman who was unfortunate enough to fall for a bisexual and philandering ne’er-do-well. While the description of Michael Scott Stephen may be accurate enough, we can say with some confidence, that Elvira shared with Michael exactly the same characteristics, plus the dangerous addition of jealousy and instability.
However, the retrospective label of “bisexual” , when applied to the Blue Lantern crowd, needs some explaining. Looked at from today, I think most of the figures in this landscape would be seen as homosexual - and Elvira’s cocktail party as essentially a gathering of male homosexuals and lesbians, with one or two heterosexual (but adventurous) young actresses thrown in. That these various adherents of “alternative” lifestyles should find themselves thrown together is very much part of a specifically English moral geography.
Unlike Paris or Berlin, there were no exclusively “Gay” public spaces in London. Predominantly gay clubs, such as the Florida, The Rumbaba, the Apollo and the Caravan club, advertised themselves as catering for the “theatrical crowd”. Basically they had to have a mixed clientele to keep their licences. Elvira’s favoured late night haunts, The Blue Lantern and The Blue Angel, though packed with a “gay” crowd would not have tolerated anything so outre as same-sex dancing. This meant that the gay men and women of the time formed a mutually beneficial alliance that perhaps happens rather less in the modern world. Add to this a certain class exclusivity, genuine bisexuality and the purely (or impurely) sexually curious and you get a remarkable adult example of Freudian ” polymorphous perversity” - displayed on the dance floors of Soho, parties in Knightsbridge and, in particular, throughout Bohemian Chelsea .
Inevitably, some rather interesting sexual encounters ensued.
The incorrigible Billy Milton ( see http://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/tag/billy-milton/ ) uses a term that I was previously unfamiliar with, “The Chelsea Sandwich”, to describe one aspect of this sexual co-mingling. Milton is the cabaret artist who arrived, so he says, one day too late to attend Elvira’s party. Of an earlier Bohemian encounter, he reports,
“One hot summer afternoon I was passing the courtyard that leads to the London Palladium. Taking the air was a perfect specimen of manhood. wearing a short white and gold tunic and breastplate, his magnificent brawny, brown body made him look to me like a Greek god. I was transfixed and willingly answered his call to have a chat, sitting with him on a prop basket. I told him a few things about myself and learned he was the principal dancer of the Marion Morgan Dancers from America. This meeting led to many experiments in the sexual sphere that could parallel Noel Coward’s Private Lives.”
Marion Morgan Dancers 1927
“He and his wife opened the door to a tumult of lovemaking and encouraged me to explore the many facets of sex: the one great gift that nature has bestowed on all of us. They believed that the lack of courage to explore love-variations caused the failure of many marriages. Their antidote was the threesome, or “Chelsea Sandwich”, and I subsequently learnt that I was just one of many to come between them.”
Typical Billy Milton – always an ear for a good punchline - but there is a purpose to his mischievous tale. He both describes real events (the male dancer was Vincenzo Loucelli – famed for his performance, believe it or not, in Le Coq D’Or), and offers both manifesto and justification for his youthful excesses.
Milton, in the late twenties, was a neighbour of Oliver Messel in Chelsea as well as being a friend of Elvira. The key point of his anecdote is that this was not a unique episode.
The best fictional version of the Chelsea Sandwich comes courtesy of Jocelyn Brooke’s Private View. This semi-autobiographical piece tells the story of the hapless, repressed homosexual Gerald Broadhurst, whose downfall commences at The Blue Lantern where he meets the amoral and hedonistic Veriny Crighton-Jones. Veriny is a Bright Young Person and a voracious pursuer of young men. She is undoubtedly a composite of (Brooke’s jaundiced vision) of the women who populated that club in the early thirties. Elvira would have been one such example. Broadhurst and Veriny have a doomed marriage, marked by absolute drunkenness on both sides. What finishes the relationship off, however, is Gerald’s discovery of Veriny in bed with two military men. The narrator’s very camp informant , Bertie Westmacott – think Gathorne-Hardy or Brian Howard - relates the episode with some relish,
“Well I do rather see Gerald’s point, don’t you. Cuckolded fore and aft, so to speak, and by the Black Watch , my dear…And after all, three in a bed is a bit of a crowd, and it was Gerald’s bed anyway. But oh” and here Bertie drew a long sigh and raised his eyes to the ceiling – ” but oh, my dear, isn’t our little Veriny a lucky girl.”
A letter to Lady Mullens from the enraged Gertrude Gamble, just before her suicide – shortly after Elvira’s trial, accused Elvira of an even more scandalous sexual threesome. Elvira’s mother was given the, presumably unwelcome, information that her supposedly distraught daughter had sought post-verdict solace in a night of passion with Audrey Carten and her brother Kenneth. Carten, an actress and playwright, was a well known Chelsea lesbian and an erstwhile girlfriend of Gwen Farrar. One wonders if this was the first time Elvira had been involved in such behaviour.
Indeed one wonders whether the rows about sexual partners, between Elvira and Michael, were all solely to do with Michael’s indiscretions. After all, one of Elvira’s letters to him does ask for him to be less jealous and more understanding. Finally, is it too fanciful to wonder whether the despised other woman (Dora Wright) had at one time also partaken, with Michael and Elvira, of the delights of the Chelsea Sandwich?
For, as later generations were to discover, “permissiveness” is not necessarily a guard against that most destructive of demons – The, age-old and ageless, Green Eyed Monster.