Since the Press could only make hints and not directly refer to that which both fascinated and (supposedly) appalled its readership about the Barney social circle – this world of bisexuality,promiscuity and narcotic excess- then a whole series of inanimate objects came to be imbued with a wicked and mysterious symbolism. The Mews flat, the specially built bar, cocktails and cocktail parties, unnamed books and paintings – all of these came to serve as metaphors for rampant decadence.
Today, London Mews apartments, especially those in Chelsea or Knightsbridge, connote wealth and a luxurious lifestyle. The are expensive and eminently respectable. This was not yet the case in the 1930s and,because of the Barney trial, Mews-living retained an air of Bohemian licence for several decades.
21 William Mews
The story of the modern Mews begins with the conversion of stables (traditionally Mews buildings were adjuncts to large urban dwellings built in the C17th or C18th) into garages, as the motor car replaced the horse and carriage. William Mews serviced Lowndes Square. By the time Elvira moved in, half the Mews consisted of garages pure and simple and the rest garages with the chauffeur and family living above. Apart from Elvira, there was just one other middle class resident, a solicitor.
So Elvira’s very address was seen as a statement of de facto Bohemianism. The implications were that Elvira should have, on separating from her husband, returned to the parental home in Belgrave Square.The newspapers made much of the fact that No.21 was “exotically furnished” and even thirty years later Giles Playfair could write, “No doubt, she did want a greater measure of sexual freedom than she could have enjoyed living under the watchful eyes of her parents.”. A mews address, particularly one that was “exotically furnished” meant only one thing – excessive, and possibly illicit, sex.
After the trial the very word “Mews” acquired a particular frisson. A favourite night-club of the time was The Florida (much frequented by Angela Worthington and Sylvia Coke). This venue, with its telephone at every table, was in Bruton Mews, in the heart of Mayfair. That it was tucked away in a Mews, albeit in a most prestigious environment, allowed it to be both “Society” and a little bit risque. Added to this was the presence of black bandleaders such as Ken Johnson (later killed in a bombing raid on Elvira’s favoured eating place,The Cafe De Paris). A Mews address meant excitement, and the promise of pleasures unafforded elsewhere.
Next door to the Florida was The Blue Goose Cocktail Bar, whose manageress Diana Caldwell was to meet Lord Broughton there. Her subsequent marriage to him, and her involvement in the scandal surrounding the death of Lord Errol in Kenya, before her final transmutation into Lady Delamere, are famously documented in the book White Mischief. Lady Delamere’s time as a cocktail hostess in a Mews bar was a source of much gossip in London and Nairobi and shows how weighted the terms “cocktails” and “Mews” had become. Unlike Elvira, Diana outrode her scandal, though she remained a suspect in the shooting of Lord Errol until her death. The Happy Valley set share much in common with Elvira’s circle – drink,drugs,promiscuity (and possibly murder), but I have yet to establish any definite connections.
After World War 2 there was an attempt to stress the normality of Mews life – while attempting to hold on to the sense of freedom and non-conformity hitherto associated with these residences. The most evocative example is in the film Genevieve (1953). The McKims (John Gregson and Dinah Sheridan) are a young, respectable and newly-married couple – perfect examples of 1950s domestic optimism. Yet they are not suburban but Mews-dwellers, idiosyncratic and – within bounds – free spirits. Dinah Sheridan buys aubergines and peppers and their house (actually in Rutland Mews) has modern paintings and a vaguely continental feel. Here, Mews-living is no longer beyond the pale but it still has an excitement to it.
South Rutland Mews 1953 and 2010
The sleazier image of the Mews persisted however. In The League of Gentlemen (1960), ex-officer and now night-club pianist cum-gigolo, Brian Forbes (a character staight out of The Blue Angel) is suitably callous towards his older mistress. His early morning arrival at their Mews dwelling is redolent in meanings easily recognisable to the followers of the Barney trial. Mews flats were still the site of bad behaviour.
The last great example of the Mews as a place of iniquity arrives courtesy of the Profumo scandal. Stories of a defence minister leaving by the back door minutes before a Russian embassy official arrived at the front , not to mention West Indian drug dealers firing up at the windows, kept the British public enthralled throughout 1963. We are, of course, now talking about 17 Wimpole Mews, home to Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davis (rent paid by Stephen Ward). Sex,drugs,guns – the upper classes behaving badly – the ghost of Elvira must have watched with interest.
Just after the Profumo Trial, the archetypal 60s’ adventure series The Avengers commenced its run. It starred Patrick MacNee as John Steed,an establishment figure but also bon viveur and man-of-the-world. Inevitably, he lived in a well-appointed London Mews.
Duchess Mews, home of John Steed