The police described Mary Ashliman as “a dance club hostess”. She herself preferred “manageress and hostess”. The term “Hostess” had then and retained through the forties and fifties rather ambiguous connotations. Ruth Ellis, the most notorious “hostess” of the post war period, insisted on being called the manageress of The Little Club.
Miss Ashliman lived at No.6 Regents Park Road, two doors up from from Cecil Sharp House – home of the English Folkdance and Song society, which had opened its doors in 1930. She is listed in the 1932 London phone directory but other than that seems to have left no trace on recorded history.
6 Regent’s Park Road
Her police statement tells us that the club secretaries of The Blue Angel (52 Dean Street) were John Bell of 75 Anlaby Road, Hull and Frederick John Hicks of 37a Dennington Park Road, West Hampstead. The only Frederick Hicks in the phone books of the era is, tantalisingly, a dispensing chemist.
The statement goes on to say,
“I know Mrs.Barney. She is not a member of the club but has been there three or four times.The first time was on the 10th of May, when she was signed in by a Mr.Hugh Wade, 64a King’s Road, Chelsea.The second time, on the 24th of May, When she was signed in by Mrs. Heather Pilkington of St.Mary’s Cottage, Farnham Common, Bucks., and the third occasion was last night, the 30th of May, when she came in with Mr.Stephens and Mr. Arthur Jeffress, who is a member and signed both Mrs. Barney and Mr.Stephens in.On one occasion Mr.Stephens came to the club with Mr. T. Skeffington Smith, 19 Orchard Street, who is a member.
On the 30th May, Mr. Jeffress,Mr.Stephens and Mrs.Barney came to the club between 11.30 and 11.45. They had a pair of kippers each. To drink they had two double whiskeys each. They all three left the club at about 12.40 am. The party appeared to be quite friendly and they had no quarrel while they were in the club. They did not say they were going anywhere else. They all appeared to be sober.”
The interesting name here is Heather Pilkington. She was the original of the character “Bracken Dilitor” in Marjorie Firminger’s ill-fated roman a clef “Jam Today” (Obelisk Press 1931).Firminger, a minor actress – like so many of the young women in this circle – had co-hosted a number of parties with Olivia Wyndham. More unwisely, she had become infatuated with Wyndham Lewis. Lewis was possibly a genius but also one of the most unpleasant figures of the English modernist movement. He had asked Firminger to introduce him to some genuine Lesbians (or Sapphists,as he termed them). Firminger obliged and chose Heather Pilkington. She also tried to impress Lewis with a “warts and all” novel using thinly disguised real people. Lewis had,of course, just done the same thing in the magnificent (but largely unreadable) “Apes of God”.
In the novel Pilkington is described as “mannishly suited and with cropped hair, often to be seen in Chelsea driving her huge car, her dalmatian alongside, probably en route to her beloved, the wife of a theatrical manager.”
That wife was Wyn Henderson, friend and collaborator of Nancy Cunard, and subject to an equally blunt portrayal in “Jam Today” – which novel, it is fair to say, ruined Firminger’s social life, lost her a lot of friends and was no success artistically. Nor did it impress the odious Lewis. Wyn was the mother of Nigel Henderson whose surrealist-inspired photographs of the East End owe much to the pre-war artists her mother introduced him to.
Going back to the Barney affair, once again, we find that Elvira is closer to the artistic and lesbian Bohemia of the era than is usually imagined. The “mannish” woman who leaves the cocktail party with Michael to replenish whisky stocks was thought by neighbours to be Joe Carstairs. I think it was Ruth Baldwin but it is just possible that it was Heather Pilkington.
More on “Jam Today” in Neil Pearson’s book on the Obelisk Press, “Obelisk”, which cannot be recommended too highly.