On Friday June 13th 1930 Evelyn Waugh’s diary entry refers to a party he attended organised by Olivia Wyndham and Ruth Baldwin aboard a Thames steamer.
“It was not enough of an orgy.Masses of Lesbian tarts and joyboys. Only one fight when a Miss Firminger got a black eye. Poor old Hat (Brian Howard) looked like a tragedy queen.”
Marjorie Firminger was the author of “Jam Today” ( see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/14/mary-ashliman-heather-pilkington-and-the-blue-angel/). The black eye may well have been delivered by Ruth Baldwin , although both she and Olivia had form here.
Both were at Elvira’s cocktail party and both were key figures in the “Lesbian Bohemia” of the time.I will post more about Olivia Wyndham shortly but let us for the moment look at the remarkable, but largely forgotten, Ruth.
Born in America in 1905, Ruth was the wildest of a wild set. Whether she herself was wealthy or not, I can’t ascertain, but, as Joe Carstairs’ lover and secretary, she spent freely and lived very much for the moment. She was a notoriously heavy drinker, converting her Mulberry Walk kitchen into a bar and I imagine that it was her, doubtless appalled at the choice of sherry or cocktails at Elvira’s party, who left with Michael Scott Stephen, returning with whisky. Apart from a prodigious appetite for drink, Ruth Baldwin used both cocaine and heroin.
She was big (her nickname in some quarters was “Fatty”), “immensely powerful” and with “a moon face,bold,naughty eyes and thick,auburn hair”.
Promiscuous and possessive in equal measure, her penchant for fighting inspired fear but her exuberance was a source of genuine affection. Edward Burra adored her and his description of what seems to me, a rather terrifying scene, at 19 King’s Road, is typical.
“Ruth was quite drunk and kept rushing at B (Barbara Ker-Seymer) and biting her. However after a bit more crashing and screams they went off.” Far from condemning this assault on his closest female friend, Burra continues, “Ruth Baldwin is my beau ideal.I think I like them fat. I can’t resist anyone that goes about with an aeroplane in diamonds where there ought to be a tie.”
Ruth was the great love of Joe Carstairs’ life. (See https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/5-mulberry-walk-chelsea/). Apart from her gift of the totemic doll, Sir Todd Wadley, she described Ruth, in many ways a very kindred spirit, as “The first person who ever meant anything to me.” The tears Joe shed on hearing of Ruth’s death were apparently the first time she had ever cried.
The lesbian subculture that Ruth moved included Marty Mann, another American, who nearly died of drink but went on to become an early member of AA – and in the fifties the movement’s most public figure. Mann’s autobiography mentions endless cocktail parties in London in the early 30s – were Elvira’s some of them?
Other notable figures of the London scene (Paris and Cannes are important too) were Dolly Wilde (Oscars niece), musician and comedienne Gwen Farrar, the above-mention Barbara Ker-Seymer and Audrey Carten. Carten , an actress and playwright, was rumoured to have had a bizarre fling with Elvira shortly after the trial – bizarre because the night of passion, it was claimed, also included Carten’s brother,Kenneth. This circle generally was more arty than either Elvira or Ruth ever claimed to be but there is undoubtedly considerable overlap because of a shared sexuality and a common liking for intoxicants of various types.
It was at Gwen Farrar or Dolly Wilde’s London flat that Ruth succumbed to a drug overdose and died aged only 31 (1937). Fittingly the assembled guests were listening to a Boxing Match on the radio. Her ashes were taken to Carstairs’ Bahamas island of Whale Cay, where a shrine cum small church was built. On Carstairs’ death in 1993 – the ashes of both women along with those of the doll, Wadley, were interred together.
It is unlikely that Ruth and Elvira were close but they did have friends in common and possibly lovers too. The least one can deduce from Ruth’s presence at the cocktail party was that much of Elvira’s world was held together by a mixture of narcotics,alcohol and what would have been seen at the time (especially post-Radcliffe Hall) as dangerous and deviant sexualities. This is what the papers and the police knew and pruriently hinted at.What is remarkable about the trial is that the defence managed to downplay all of this and the prosecution failed to exploit it.
The above information comes from “The Queen of Whale Cay” by Kate Summerscale and “Edward Burra -C20th Eye” by Jane Stevenson