By far the best known of Elvira’s cocktail guests was Brian Howard.Even if Elvira can be consigned to the outer reaches of the Bright Young Generation, Brian Howard’s place at its very centre has never been questioned.
Howard embodies much of popular wisdom about the era – beautiful,gay,precocious,witty, hedonistic and needlessly self-destructive. Howard promised much but left little of substance other than memories of his own extraordinary personality.At 15 he was being hailed by Edith Sitwell as the poetic voice of his age and was primus inter pares of the schoolboys who formed the unfeasibly talented Eton Arts Circle. At Oxford, along with Harold Acton, he was the Aesthete incarnate. The rest of twenties was all parties, elaborate hoaxes and hints of a great work in progress, but by the time of Elvira’s party he was already beginning to be talked of in the past tense.Instead of the major novel or definitive volume of verse, it is for “The Bath and Bottle Party” and the “Bruno Hat” exhibition that he is best remembered. His fate was to be a memorable character in other people novels (especially Evelyn Waugh’s) rather than the creator of his own works of genius.
Howard attended Elvira’s party with Anton Altmann. Altmann is the “Toni” of “Portrait of A Failure” and was to be Brian’s lover and companion throughout the 1930s. At the time, Howard had just returned from the Continent, bringing back not only Toni but a newly acquired taste for drugs to add to his already fierce passion for alcohol. It is likely that his drug-taking stemmed from his association with Cocteau’s circle in the South of France. Interestingly, at the same time , August 1931,he had seen, but not spoken to, Elvira – almost inevitably in the Majestic Hotel in Cannes. Howard knew Elvira vaguely from parties at the Mullens’ home but was only introduced to her properly at Skeffington-Smyth’s party on the 26th or 27th May. He did not meet Michael Scott Stephen until the William Mews gathering on the following monday.
Given that he hardly knew the key figures in the case, why was his statement taken at all? Other guests, who were much closer to the couple were not questioned. Was Howard lying? Did the police think he knew more than he let on? Unlikely,I feel. What seems more credible is that the police were particularly interested in the suspicion of drug taking and the obvious air of male homosexuality that surrounded the affair and were using the case to trawl for information.
Howard’s statement does help to sharpen our picture of the evening. Moreover, it gives us something of Howard’s own personality. Finally, it also raises one or two questions in its omissions.
Howard gives the police his full name “Brian Christian De Claiborne Howard” – whether this was an act of precision or intimidation one can only speculate.His address is 39 Maddox Street, a place that looms large in the annals of the Bright Young People (it is one of Taylor’s dozen or so key BYP venues). Howard says he shares the address with Eddie Gathorne-Hardy and Altmann. He tells the police Gathorne-Hardy’s place of employment (the booksellers, Elkin Matthews) and describes Altmann as a “German Student of Language”. What he does not say is that Gathorne-Hardy was also at Elvira’s – at least two other witnesses attested so – he mentions only himself and Altmann. Why? If it is to keep Gathorne-Hardy out of the case (most writings on the trial suggest great reluctance on the part of the guests to come forward) then why mention him at all? We know that Gathorne-Hardy possessed an even more flamboyantly “camp” demeanour than Howard and we know he wasn’t interviewed by the Police . Very strange.
Howard then describes with, one would think, unnecessary detail what he drank at both Skeffington-Smyth’s and Elvira’s parties Given that at the first it was sherry and tomato juice cocktails and at the second sherry and grapefruit juice cocktails, one wonders why he bothers – or why the police saw fit to record it. Eighty years on, however, such exactness is both welcome and unintendedly endearing.
Howard’s statement also, and equally accidentally, draws an intimate portrait of the Mews party – the small room, a bar in the corner, the place crowded to the point of bursting, a gramophone playing. Some people danced and others just drank and socialised. It was, as he says, “quite an ordinary party, vivacious with lots of people talking” .What Brian considered “ordinary”, the public, perhaps including the interviewing officer, found scandalous and strange.Monday nights in England were not supposed to be like this.
He left the party with Sylvia Coke to eat at the famous Brice’s Restaurant and then on to Ruth Baldwin’s to her Mulberry Walk party. As a seeming afterthought, he adds that Altmann was with them. He then explains that his reason for going to Ruth Baldwin’s do was see some decorations by the painter John Banting. Quite why he thought the police would be interested in that piece of information I can’t imagine, but it is of a piece with describing himself as “Author” by profession.
Howard left Ruth’s at half past one with David Green of 12 Alfred Place and a “Mr.Carew”. David Green is almost certainly David Plunkett-Greene, brother of “Babe” and a key figure in the Bright Young gatherings of the late twenties. “Mr.Carew” is possibly Dudley Carew, devoted follower and sometimes friend of Evelyn Waugh as well as being a rather poor novelist and a rather good cricket correspondent (for the Telegraph). Howard returned home,from Alfred Place, at 3am. Again, Altmann gets no mention.
Of Elvira and Michael, we learn nothing. Of a fairly typical night in the life of the inimitable Brian Howard we learn quite a lot.
Howard spent most of the 1930s on the continent with Toni. He wrote little but did become one of the early voices warning of the evils of fascism. When in England he developed into a resident and acerbic older voice at the Gargoyle Club – itself rapidly losing the atmosphere of glamorous Bohemia that it had earlier exuded. To the public he became a creature of fiction,Anthony Blanche or Ambrose Silk.His wanderings continued after World War 2 until, worn down by alcohol and drugs and the recent loss of a lover, he committed suicide at the age of 52.
Both Taylor’s Bright Young People and Marie-Jacqeline Lancaster’s Portrait of A Failure offer full analysis of this intriguing, strangely sympathetic but rather sad figure.