In my post on Anna Wickham, I was a little skeptical of Peter Cotes’ claim that she spent a lot of time with Elvira, post-trial ( see
) .What I may have missed is the fact that Anna Wickham knew Napper Dean Paul, the two having met in the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street. If there was a relationship between the two women, Napper may well be the link.
The Fitzroy was the pub that bequeathed the name to the geographical and ideological space that was previously known as “North Soho”. Although there were plenty of artists knocking around,It was predominantly a literary pub and drinking club culture, very different to Chelsea or the “raffish pseudo-smart Bohemia” of Elvira’s friends. Its most famous resident figure was Dylan Thomas, the most representative female denizens were Betty May and Nina Hamnett, its great chronicler was Julian MacLaren Ross and its highpoint was probably the years of the Second World War. Like many sub-cultural spaces, it was not hermetically sealed and the overlaps between Cafe Royal Bohemia,Fitzrovia, Soho Proper, Chelsea, Bloomsbury and the remnants of the Bright Young People are many and various.
According to Hugh David, in The Fitzrovians, the impulse which created “Fitzrovia” (the name came later; ironically it was coined by Tom Driberg , a prominent Bright Young Person) was the the invasion, by Smart Society, of previous Bohemian haunts such as the Eiffel Tower Restaurant in Soho. Genuine Bohemians, principally Augustus John and Nina Hamnett, turned to certain pubs which they thought would not appeal to the fashionable and frivolous. This may well be true but the example David gives is unfortunate.
He states “By 1927 the Eiffel had become just another place to eat.” and then proceeds to illustrate this by quoting Nina Hamnett’s listing of some of those “ordinary” diners.Included in this list are some of Elvira’s cocktail guests,
“At the Eiffel Tower one evening I met Ruth Baldwin, whom I had known sometime before. She shared a house with Jo Carstairs, the motor-boat racing girl.”
Now, if Hugh David thinks that Ruth and Jo represent mainstream smart society , then he just hasn’t done his homework. To me, the quote actually illustrates an even more complex relationship between the different strands of “alternative” London in the period than generally assumed. Nonetheless, it is true that a section of (largely male) artists and writers deliberately distanced themselves ( publicly at least) from the more “Mayfair” aspects of the High Bohemia of the twenties.
William Roberts’s portrait of the Eiffel Tower in its Vorticist heyday
Part of impulse for this move was down to an overt rejection of the decidedly upper-class ambience of both Bloomsbury and Mayfair, part of it was simply a shift in cultural mood between the 1920s and 1930s. In some cases, it was purely economic, pub life being somewhat cheaper than the life on the salon and night-club circuit. For Napper, it was probably the latter, as these were very lean years for him.
Brenda and Brian
Although the newspapers of the 1930s focussed on Brenda’s exploits, Brian Dean Paul’s tribulations were every bit as dramatic and his decline every bit as steep.Never in possession of much money, he was now reduced to borrowing from his dwindling band of friends, shoplifting and stealing objects from the homes of anyone foolish enough to let him stay with them.Many found him an unsavoury figure some were sorry for him (the phrase “poor Napper” crops up frequently) . One or two people do appear to have genuinely liked him.
One of those, improbable as it may seem, was Dylan Thomas, another associate of Anna Wickham and himself not always the most gracious of house guests. The following anecdote, from Andrew Lycett’s biography of Thomas, illustrates something of the chaos of Dylan and Napper’s existence. It takes place at the beginning of the War in the London home of the South African writer, Lorna Wilmot.
“Having unfettered access to a handsome mansion block property went to Dylan’s head. Unhinged by drink and depression he invited two low-life friends to join him. The upshot was that several of Wilmot’s prized possessions, including silver, furs, a gramophone and a typewriter, went missing. When she returned home, she was incensed to find not only had these items disappeared, but also her flat was strewn with half-eaten meals, and with love-letters belonging to one of Dylan’s friends, a Fitzroy denizen known as Mab Farrogate, and the clothing and make-up of another, the cross-dressing Brian Dean Paul.”
Brian and Brenda in more opulent times
“Over the previous three years there had been strong indications that Dylan had been taking drugs. His paranoia following his trip to London in December 1938 strongly suggests a reaction to a bad drug experience. His association with Napper Dean Paul confirms his involvement with London’s prevalent drug sub-culture.” - which was news to me but does make sense.
All this took place after Elvira’s death but if Napper, Anna and Dylan had all met prior to 1936 (which is likely) then Elvira might also have been around. I still can’t see her sitting comfortably in the Wheatsheaf or the Fitzroy but their clientele included familiar faces such as John Banting, Barbara Ker-Seymer and, occasionally, Brian Howard, which might have made her feel more at home.Remember, Elvira post-trial was something of an outcast herself and the louche and the liquor-fuelled were never exactly anathema to her.
Curiously, during his Fitzrovia period Napper married (disastrously, I imagine) Muriel Lillie. Muriel was the elder sister of comedienne and cabaret star Beatrice Lillie, who though now Lady Peel, had her own history of association with drug scandals. Early in her career she had been a close friend of Billie Carleton, whose death by overdose after the 1918 Victory Ball had triggered the first great “moral panic” over women and cocaine use. The ghost of Billie Carleton hovered over the whole inter-war drug scene, the scandal inspired Coward’s play “The Vortex” and her name cropped up in many a discussion about the presumed imminent demise of the wayward Brenda.