No phrase so instantly conjures up the modernity and the anti-Puritanism of the 1920s as “cocktail party”. Even today, albeit massively devalued, the term still carries a certain sense of sophisticated hedonism. Back in 1932, even though the whole country was familiar with the ritual through magazines and the cinema, there was thought to be something slightly wicked and un-English about the whole phenomenon. Newspapers, while carrying adverts for cocktail recipes, tended to pronounce sternly on such parties and the people who attended them.
Stone’s Ginger Wine cashes in on the cocktail craze – late 1920s
Elvira’s front room had a purpose-built, curved cocktail bar in the corner. This was a source of fascination both to the police and the press, so I guess it must have been unusual. Plenty of theatres and clubs were commissioning cocktail bars in this time but domestic homes had not really picked up on the idea - but then the “Love Hut” was hardly a typical domestic home..However, one of Elvira’s guests on May 30th, Ruth Baldwin, had in fact gone one better and converted her whole living area at 5 Mulberry Walk into a bar.
Alfred Thompson “A Modern Cocktail Bar” Saville Theatre 1931
The rise of the cocktail party is synonymous with the Bright Young People and The Smart Set. Like the sports car, it signified everything that was post-war, modernist, anti-Edwardian and young. The idea was American, emanating from St.Louis in 1917 and the cocktail itself grew in popularity because of the awfulness of much prohibition liquor.In Europe the situation was rather different and the cocktail party took on a set of connotations rooted in the more class-bound cultures of England and France. Its “American-ness” was important and those who railed against creeping Americanisation cited it, along with jazz and the cinema, as a sign of national decline. However there were other factors that made the cocktail party of particular value in symbolising the upheavals and contradictions in English society in the years after the Armistice..
Most importantly, it was one of many signals of the changing role of women in society.Attractive women drinking (and smoking) is the image that occurs again and again in the many representations of cocktail gatherings. From cartoons, advertising and the cinema the message is the same – here is something new, exciting but also slightly discomfiting. Although more men than women probably attended such affairs, the iconography is overwhelmingly female . Pubs were still very masculine and rather non-U places – it is telling how little they feature in BYP memoirs. Here, on the other hand, was a space were young women could “let themselves go” in a semi-public arena. It is no coincidence that the defining outfit of the era was Coco Chanel’s cocktail dress.
Coco Chanel Cocktail Dress 1926
The throwing of the first English cocktail party has been variously ascribed to three figures who have already featured in this blog, Beverley Nicholls, C.R.W.Nevinson and Alec Waugh. Waugh’s is the name most usually cited but he himself gave Nevinson the credit. The agreed year is generally 1924.If it was as late as that, then they caught the public imagination remarkably quickly for by 1926 they had become a byword for everything that constituted the generation gap – everything the old disapproved of and the young aspired to. Cocktail parties changed the cultural landscape. It is even said that the highly mannered (and loud) vocal intonations of the likes of Brian Howard and Elizabeth Ponsonby were developed to carry over the noise of the gramophone and the animated chatter of other guests.
By and large, these parties were the province of the rich and the theatrical. Most English people never attended one and most never even tasted a cocktail until the 1960s – but everyone knew about them. They moralised and glamorised, exaggerated and embellished, above all they associated them with the new sexual freedoms – real or imagined.
Hence the delight that the newspapers took in placing Elvira’s party at the very heart of the affair. For who knows what sins a woman a woman who held cocktail parties on a Monday evening, in a house seemingly designed for such a purpose, might commit?
The time allocated to a cocktail party was important – generally between 6pm and 8pm. It was not Afternoon Tea nor was it Formal Dinner.It was not, in fact, formal at all. That was the key. Guests popped in and out, some danced, some just chatted. Above all it was a Prelude to other events – the theatre, a night club or a late party, perhaps all three. In this, Elvira’s gathering, unlike so much in her life, was typical.
Nor were the drinks and food elaborate. Elvira provided gin-based grapefruit cocktails, sherry and, thanks to a quick trip to an off-licence by Michael Stephens and, probably, Ruth Baldwin, some whisky. Sometimes there was caviare or smoked salmon sandwiches, sometimes no food at all. It was the sense of a meeting-point that mattered – remember, Elvira hosted or attended two or three of these events a week. No formal invitations, a phone call or an verbal invite at the last such bash summoned the guests on May 30th. This combination of exclusivity and relaxed protocol made the cocktail party, to its devotees, such a statement. Everything conspired to say, “this is not how our parents’ did things”.
Claude Flight Cocktail Party 1936
What strikes me as peculiar is how the echoes of that original excitement linger still today. Whether in retro-party form or in cynical cheap drinks promotions, the mere word “cocktail” retains the traces of this original, and long vanished, context. Sadly, no amount of “Happy Hours” or absurdly titled concoctions can hope to emulate the sense of transgression the earlier incarnations embodied. They belonged to a very specific historical moment and remain beyond our grasp.