As the daughter of very wealthy parents, Elvira Mullens had no need to worry about a career. She would have done “the season” . attended the usual round of balls and socially sanctioned sporting events – Henley, Eton v. Harrow at Lords and so forth. At the end of this, a suitably moneyed and,possibly, titled suitor would emerge.For some reason, this did not happen. Perhaps Elvira was already rebellious and disaffected; we know her home life was less than happy. Perhaps her personality told against her; could it be that her legendary rudeness and quick temper were already apparent?
Anyway, around 1925, having watched her younger sister marry a Russian prince, Elvira decided that she would try her luck as an actress.
Before the War being an actress had been seen as a possible route towards a title, as to some extent it remained throughout the twentieth century. In the 1920s however, the stage, increasingly respectable thanks to the growing number of theatrical knights, saw a growing number of the daughters of the well-heeled and ennobled treading the boards. An added glamour was provided by the likes of Lady Diana Cooper, pre-war member of The Coterie and considered England’s leading beauty,who from 1919 pursued a successful career on stage and in silent pictures.
Lady Diana Cooper
Many of Elvira’s social circle , including some attendees at the cocktail party, belonged to this new generation.Their immediate idol and inspiration was Tallulah Bankhead, whose sensational arrival on the London stage earned her not only adoring male fans but a legion of fanatical young female followers. Given that Elvira kept Tallulah’s picture by her bedside while awaiting trial, one can be sure that she was one of Tallulah’s would-be “groupies”. Tallulah was a key part of the Bright Young scene, knew “The Blue Lantern” and may well have attended parties at Belgrave Square.
Tallulah, in front as Borotra. Impersonation Party 1927
Preparatory to her new career, Elvira studied at Lady Constance Benson’s Acting School. Most commentators on the trial see something intrinsically comical about this, but it was a well-regarded establishment run by a leading Shakesperian actress (and wife of Frank Benson). The school’s most famous ex-pupil was, the then only recently graduated, John Gielgud. It was toward the end of her time there that she met Charles Graves (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/tag/charles-graves/ ) – a moment which, in hindsight, marks the beginning of her notoriety.
Elvira,as with most other aspects of her life, was not to make a success out of acting. The beginning was prestigious enough – a small part, probably in the chorus, in Rudolf Friml’s “The Blue Kitten” which opened in late 1925 at the Gaiety theatre and ran for 140 performances. The beginning, however, was also the ending as there is no evidence of any further public appearances for the would be starlet who, using her middle and her mother’s maiden name, called herself “Dolores Ashley”.
She did get to know a number of actors and actresses and Irene MacBrayne, who was at the cocktail party, knew her from that period.Like most socialites of the era she was a diligent “First Night” devotee. The police found many programmes for shows in her bathroom at 21 William Mews.Certainly there remained something decidedly “theatrical” about Elvira’s public persona.
It is perhaps not too impudent to wonder whether her perfectly rehearsed performance at the trial owed something to Lady Benson’s tutelage.