As the person who had spent the most time with Elvira and Michael on the 30th of May, Arthur Jeffress was the first witness interviewed by the Police. He had been at the cocktail party, then at the Cafe De Paris and The Blue Angel. He does not mention the late night party at his Orchard Court flat, to which Elvira was invited but declined to go
His statement is brief and relatively uninformative. He claimed no knowledge of any friction between the couple “beyond the ordinary tiff” and states that both were “quite sober and responsible” when they left The Blue Angel. He had known Elvira for five years and describes her as a “good friend”. Rather unnecessarily, one would have thought, he denies that there was any “intimacy” between them.Michael he had “known of” for a similar length of time, but only knew him to speak to since his relationship with Elvira had begun. some six months earlier. Jeffress had met him about six times at William Mews, always at cocktail parties.
For Jeffress, the Monday night was primarily a chance to catch up with people, as he had just returned from a three month trip to Italy and America. That he chose to spend the bulk of the evening with Elvira suggests that she was not simply someone he bumped into during the endless round of parties and social functions that made up his London life in the period. His willingness to appear in court also indicates that he was keen to support a “good friend”.
Commentators on the case, at the time and later, have taken his self-description as “of independent means” to dismiss him as one of an army of idlers that surrounded Elvira in her pursuit of general dissolution. However, there was a bit more to Jeffress than that.
He was the younger son of a very rich Virginia tobacco merchant. His family were American but he was born in England (1905) in Middlesex and was educated at Harrow and Cambridge. His father died in 1925 and Arthur, I assume, inherited a considerable fortune, which he took great delight in spending. His extravagance knew few bounds and the adjective that keeps cropping up in reference to him is “flamboyant”. His Red and White party of 1931 (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/the-red-and-white-party/ ) is the most notorious example of his excesses but his lifestyle generally is one for which the word “lavish” might have been invented. A personalised Rolls-Royce, a taste for Charles Xth furniture and a penchant for rare artworks were just some typical Jeffress traits.
Arthur Jeffress’ Rolls-Royce
To include Jeffress in Elvira’s crowd is to add another dimension to this particular “Gay Bohemia”. If Howard and Gathorne Hardy represent literary London, Wyndham and Ker-Seymer photography, the various actresses – stage and cinema, then Jeffress’ friends belong more to painting and fashion design.All of which indicates that this tiny group of people were involved in pretty much every aspect of the Arts in 1930s London, which seems to me quite remarkable. If Frederick Ashton and Billy Chappell also knew Elvira, which is more than possible, then we can chuck in ballet too. Decadent they certainly were but they left a distinctive mark on English cultural life between the wars.
Jeffress may have played some part in the commisioning of the above portrait of Elvira, by Eliot Hodgkin. This painting, which is so evocative of the era, was analysed (and eventually owned) by their mutual friend,Viva King ( see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/viva-king/ ). It was probably Viva King who introduced Elvira to Jeffress and Jeffress who introduced Eliot Hodgkin to Elvira.
There is a strong likelihood is that Elvira would have met all the people in the series of photos of Arthur and chums in the National Portrait Gallery archive ( see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/gay-young-people/ ). If they were not all actual attendees at either the cocktail party or The Blue Angel then they are at least representative of the young men who were.
Jeffress, Hodkin and friends
Jeffress also knew Beverley Nichols and many years later they reminisced about the Barney affair at a lunch with Peter Cotes. Nichols made some disparaging statements about Michael Scott Stephen but it is unclear what knowledge Jeffress imparted . He was, according to Cotes, “both witty and wistful”. The meeting would have taken place some fifteen years before Cotes’ book came out but given that he states that Jeffress was “a mine of information” about the case it is a pity that it is impossible to identify exactly the extent of his contribution to “The Trial of Elvira Barney” (Cotes 1974) .
Jeffress died in Paris in 1961, exactly 25 years after Elvira’s death in the same city. The intervening years were full of incident, anecdote and, unlike so many of Elvira’s peers, achievement. I will touch on a few of these in an upcoming post.