Jack Kahane’s Obelisk press had already published a novel by and about people associated with Elvira’s cocktail party. This was Marjorie Firminger’s “Jam Today”  (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/14/mary-ashliman-heather-pilkington-and-the-blue-angel/  )

Marjorie Firminger, in the middle in white dress, between Napper and Brenda Dean Paul

In 1938 the same imprint  published “Half O’Clock in Mayfair” by Princess Paul Troubetzkoy.This book is so rare as to be, to all intents and purposes invisible. Neil Pearson must have a copy though, as his excellent biography-cum-archival exercise, “Obelisk” contains the following,

“”Half O’Clock in Mayfair was  published in 1938. Kahane had been introduced to the author in the Castiglione bar. Troubetzkoy’s book was (according to Kahane) “the record in novel form of a famous scandal, involving a murder or at least some form of homicide or suicide, which had shaken London a year or so before…”

According to Pearson, the novel “is a highly competent dissection of London’s atrophied high society of the late 1930s, ten years on from the zenith of the Bright Young Things. No longer bright or young, yesterdays debutantes rush round London from party to party in an increasingly desperate search for a husband, usually finding nothing but a short-lived oblivion in drink and drugs.Troubetzkoy can write and she understands her characters in all their sad vacuity.”

This to me sounds like a fictionalised account of the Barney case – with a touch of Rattigan’s After The Dance thrown in. I’d love to see a copy and would also like to know if the Princess was writing from direct experience or merely from hearsay.

Pearson admits that it is difficult to find out who Troubetzkoy actually was. This is true. Unlikely as it seems, there were a number of Prince Troubetzkoys kicking around London and up to three that went by the name of Princess Paul.

However, I think the author of Half O’clock in Mayfair was born Rhoda Muriel Boddam in Suffolk in 1898. She was the daughter of a retired Indian Army officer and his much younger wife. She married James G.H. Somervell in 1917, but this seems not to have lasted. James, whose father owned and then lost, through  bankruptcy,  Sorn Castle in Ayrshire, then spent much of the 1920’s travelling to places like Ceylon and Argentina as a Political Agent. His address throughout the period is given as the Carlton Club.

Like several other young divorcees, some of whom hover around the Barney case, Rhoda, now apparently calling herself “Marie”, tried her luck on the stage.  Using the stage name Gay Desmond, she was a chorine  in Andre Charlot’s revues at the Alhambra (acting alongside Sunday Wilshin, Anna Neagle and, I suspect, a few of Elvira’s friends).

Charlot was an important impresario and from 1915 to 1935, mixing ballet and Broadway, brought a touch of Parisian glamour to the London stage. His shows depended heavily on  beautiful female performers and many a career started at the Alhambra.

Mr. Andre Charlot rehearses his chorus for the cabaret section of the Grand Ball at the Royal Opera House

Charlot and dancers in rehearsal, 1929

In 1931, Rhoda M.M. Somervell married the elderly Russian artist, Prince Paul Troubetzkoy. She then (if we have the right princess) took up a career as a writer, producing a number of novels between 1933 and 1943. Apart from Half O’Clock in Mayfair, the most intriguing is a dystopian fantasy Exodus A.D. (1934), written in collaboration with the English Futurist, War artist (and friend of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis),  C.R.W. Nevinson.

The Troubetzkoys lived in the heart of fashionable London, at a very exclusive address – 53 St.James Square. The Prince died in 1938 and Marie, as she now was, spent her time between a Park Lane flat and a residence at Iver, near Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. Until the war, she travelled frequently to the continent and particularly France. The Castiglione Bar in Paris, where she sold her her roman a clef to Kahane, was a favourite with English and American aesthetes and artists (including Olivia Wyndham’s friend, Carl Van Vechten). The fact that an already published author turned to Kahane suggests that the book might have been too racy or too libellous for an English publisher – and also that it may have contained some inside information. Even though Elvira was dead by this time, there were others keen to distance themselves from their involvement with the Fast Set.

Princess Paul Troubetzkoy, Park Lane 1940

The books dry up after 1943. Princess Paul  died after a fall in her  garden at Word Cottage, Iver in 1948. Her death seems a little suspicious but the inquest found nothing untoward. Although her novels appear to have been reasonably well received, they are all long out of print.She is genuinely a forgotten figure.

So, assuming we have pieced together the right Princess Troubetzkoy, did she know Elvira? She is a little older than most of Elvira’s set , her artistic circle belongs to a slightly earlier generation and she is very much Mayfair rather than Chelsea.Nonetheless, these circles overlapped and she is around at the right time, in the right place, and has the right professions (actress then author). If she didn’t know Elvira, she would have known of her and known women not dissimilar to her. She would have  followed the case with the same eager curiosity as the rest of Society.

A proper examination of the novel would reveal more – has anyone a spare copy?

Advertisements