Archive for December, 2011

John Sterling Barney, for many the real villain of the piece, was part of the Three New Yorkers singing group that came to London in 1927/28. They scored a significant success in the show “Many Happy Returns” and had residencies at the Kit Kat club and at the Cafe De Paris. They may be long forgotten, but they were “pop stars” in their day – introducing a slick, American vocal style to English audiences. That Elvira, with her love of the theatrical world and of all things fashionable and  modern, should have found them fascinating should not surprise us. Barney is usually presented as a seedy nobody, but the fact that Elvira’s party at her parents’ house in Belgrave Square included the group as part of the entertainment, along with three major stars of the day – Billy Milton, Lesley Hutchinson (“Hutch”) and Carroll Gibbons – shows that they were , however briefly, the talk of the town.

The marriage was, of course, a disaster, Barney proving himself to be both jealous and sadistic. He was back in America within a year and for many commentators Elvira’s journey into the wilder side of 1920s life can be attributed to Barney’s cruelty. I am not entirely convinced of this but what little we know of him is hardly endearing. For example, his major contribution to the trial was an offer to sell the story of the marriage to the newspapers. He then disappears altogether. His partners, Ross and Sergeant, continued the act in the states but seem not to have left any great mark on popular culture. 1928 in London was the highpoint for the trio  – and perhaps for Elvira too.

The Three New Yorkers made a few London recordings for the Metropole label – so here are two rare examples of an actual voice from the Barney case that we can access today. These are the sounds that captivated Elvira –

“Many Happy Returns” was a successful and significant show. Its historical importance lies in the fact that it included one of the iconic songs of the period,  “I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.”. Written by Herbert Farjeon, an important figure in London theatrical and revue history (and another cricket-writer of some repute),it encapsulated the Prince of Wales cult, then at its height, with some precision and remains a much quoted testament to those times.

“I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.
It was simply grand, he said “Topping band” and she said “Delightful, Sir”
Glory, Glory, Alleluia! I’m the luckiest of females
For I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.
My word I’ve had a party, my word I’ve had a spree
Believe me or believe me not, it’s all the same to me!
I’m wild with exultation, I’m dizzy with success
For I’ve danced with a man, I’ve danced with a man-
Well, you’ll never guess
I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.
I’m crazy with excitement, completely off the rails
And when he said to me what she said to him -the Prince remarked to her
It was simply grand, he said “Topping band” and she said “Delightful, Sir”
Glory, Glory, Alleluia! I’m the luckiest of females;
For I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.”
Herbert Farjeon
The song, which catches the mood of the era perfectly, was written about Edna Deane, ballroom dancing champion and populariser of the “modern” dances that Elvira and her friends all loved. Deane’s great dance-floor rival was Phyllis Haylor, part of the London gay set and later the lover and partner of film-critic Nerina Shute. Elvira would have known all three.
Tim Palmer and Edna Deane

I’m posting these links again as I’m told the previous one isn’t working

It is highly unlikely that Elvira gave even a passing thought to Dorothy Hall, mother of a small child and a chauffeur’s wife. Yet, had not Sir Patrick Hastings cast doubt on the accuracy of her evidence, she more than anyone would have been responsible for Elvira’s conviction.Mrs.Hall lived diagonally opposite from Elvira. The distance between the two dwellings was about 50 feet.

The defence went in pretty hard on Mrs.Hall’s statement – though much of the attack now looks like nit-picking  (had she actually called Michael “Chicken”‘? ). However, these uncertainties about the verbatim accuracy of the account seemed to work on the jury and by the time of Sir Patrick Hastings’  slick ruse, which appeared to prove that Elvira was right-handed not left Dorothy Hall’s narrative had lost much of its authority. In particular, Hastings argued persuasively that  the earlier shooting had not happened at all in the way described in the statement.

However, I regard the statement as as trustworthy as anything to do with the case. The behaviour of the participants and their chaotic lifestyle show through vividly and feel right. If there are serious errors, they concern the night of the fatal shooting – the doctor’sand police time of arrival seem all wrong. Also the reference to the ladder incident errs in mistaking the breaking of a window for the sound of gunfire – but she does say “like a gun shot”.

Anyhow, see what you think –

” I am a married woman living at 10 William Mews, with my husband John Charles Hall, a Chauffeur. We have lived here  nine months.In no. 21 lived a woman named Mrs. Barney, she has been there about three years I think. Before living at No.10., my husband and I lived at No.1a which is at the other end of the Mews. When we first arrived at No.10 which is almost opposite  No.21, Mrs. Barney had a man, who I should think lived with her there. He used to go in with her late at night and would be seen again there the following morning. He was with her up to the latter part of last year, when he stopped coming.”

“Shortly, quite a few weeks, a man to whom she spoke as “Michael” went and lived with her. Until a fortnight ago he was there every night.There has been a number of quarrels in the flat between this man and Mrs. Barney and I have often heard her tell him to get out of the place, I don’t know the exact dates or how often. About a fortnight ago, I think it was on a Thursday (19th May) we were awakened. my husband and I, by a taxi-man shouting to Mrs.Barney about some damage done to the cab. I heard her say she was sorry, but we sleep in the back and when I got to the front window Mrs.Barney had gone in and I heard the telephone bell tinkle as if she had been talking on the telephone I heard her mention Michael and say she would not have him in the house again or give him any of his clothes, she would never forgive him and if he came near her she would shoot him. she seemed hysterical and was crying and screaming. When she had gone in (illegible) darkness and I saw her switch on the lights. This would be about three o’clock in the morning.”

“I went back to bed and I heard some shouting again of Mrs.Barney and I went to the front again and Michael was ringing the front door bell at No.21 and a taxi was waiting. She looked out the window on the first floor in front. I heard him ask “Let me have some money, Vera”. She said !Clear away or I shall send for the police.” and he got into the taxi and went off. This was about quarter of an hour after the previous incident. I went back to bed but in about another quarter of an hour I heard her shouting “Will you please go away from my house” and I saw her shut the window as I had gone again to my front window.

He still rang the bell – there were no other people in the Mews. She took no notice and he started to walk away.He got almost opposite my door, she opened the window and screamed “Laugh baby for the last time”. she was right undressed then and I do not think she had anything on. I saw her put her left hand out of the window nearest the landing – she leaned out down to her waist -she had a small bright revolver which she pointed at the man and she fired. She then seemed to slide down inside the room and was looking out the bottom of the window.”

“The man looked up at me and said “I am sorry.” I was cross and said, “Why don’t you clear out the Mews, you are a nuisance.” He said “I’ve been away an hour and am afraid to leave her longer, I don’t mean to do her any harm. I won’t leave her for good as I’m afraid she might commit suicide as she is so hysterical”.I said, “She’ll never do that she is too wicked”. I noticed he ha a black eye (right one I believe) and his face was badly swollen and so was his lips. Mrs. Barney then again looked out of the window but seemed to slide back all of a heap. He said, “Good God, she’s shot” and he ran towards the door.

There was no noise of any shot that would make him believe that. He banged at it shouting “Vera, for God’s sake let me in.” but she took no notice and he walked off and got into a van that was in the Mews and settled down. This was going on till half past five, I went to bed again then. I next saw Michael about a quarter to eleven the same morning when he went to the house and was let in. About half past twelve I saw Mrs. Barney and Michael go out together seemingly quite happy.”

William Mews Today

“I don’t think anything was heard from 21 until the morning of the 31st of May.On monday 30th May about 7 o’clock in the evening people commenced arriving at 21 and continued to arrive till 8pm. There were about 25 of them, the party lated until about 10 o’clock when the last one left. About half past ten Mrs. Barney went off with Michael in her Delage car and nothing more was heard of them until about twenty five past four, when my little girl woke me up and I heard quarrelling. I went to the window and heard her screaming “Get out of my house at once, I hate you. Get out, Get out, I’ll shoot you.” I heard him mumbling something like “I’m going” and then I heard a shot, she screamed immediately in a hysterical manner and I heard him shout as if in pain “Oh Good God what have you done.”

She started screaming again and said “Chicken, Chicken, I’m sorry, Come back to me I’ll do anything you ask me”. This was during about five minutes. Then it was all quiet for about five minutes, then I heard her say “Michael,Michael”. Then all was quiet until the doctor arrived about five to six.

“She was at the door when he arrived and he rushed in. After about three minutes I heard her ask “What’s wrong” and the doctor said “He’s dead” and she again commenced screaming and said “Good God don’t say that I loved him. I adored him.” he told her to keep quiet and  heard him ask “Why did you not send for me before” and I heard her say “I got the operator and he gave me” or “I gave him the wrong number”. She looked out of the window and gave one scream and all was quiet and the doctor looked out of the landing window and spoke quietly to his chauffeur who went for the police.”

I forgot to mention that last Tuesday week I was awakened by my little girl abut three o’clock Tuesday morning and there was shouting in the Mews. I went and looked through the window and heard a bang like a shot from 21. There were three people outside the flat – two men and a woman.The front door was open but seemingly these people could not get in the room upstairs as somebody suggested getting a ladder and whilst they had gone someone came down and shut the door. Michael was not seen on that occasion. I did not see the people come back and all was quiet.

I have read this statement through and it is true”.

The prosecution coupled this statement with that of Kate Stevens but the discrepancy between them served to further muddy the waters. They would have been better advised to go with this one alone. I think it is fair to say that Dorothy Hall’s lowly social status and her evident (and very understandable) dislike of Elvira worked against her. It is worth mentioning that although Elvira was obviously a first-rate nenace at no time did Michael appear to be really afraid for his life. Even so, if even the gist of this account  is largely correct, Elvira was remarkably lucky to get the result that she did.

I will post Kate Stevens statement shortly.

James Laver, Iconographer

In the context of the era of parties and excess, James Laver is remembered mainly for an extract of comic verse entitled  “The Women of 1926” . This witty and insightful summary of, at least, one aspect of the 1920s features  prominently in both Marek Kohn’s “Dope Girls” and D.J.Taylor’s’ Bright Youmg People“.The poem has just the right mixture of satirical distance and insider knowledge to simultaneously valorize and deplore its chosen target. It is a tease   – but telling and achingly evocative, nonetheless.

“Mother’s advice, and Father’s fears,
Alike are voted—just a bore.
There’s Negro music in our ears,
The world’s one huge dancing floor.
We mean to tread the Primrose Path,
In spite of Mr. Joynson-Hicks.
We’re People of the Aftermath
We’re girls of 1926.

In greedy haste, on pleasure bent,
We have no time to think, or feel
What need is there for sentiment
Now we’ve invented Sex Appeal?
We’ve silken legs and scarlet lips,
We’re young and hungry, wild and free,
Our waists are round about the hips
Our skirts are well above the knee

We’ve boyish busts and Eton crops,
We quiver to the saxophone.
Come, dance before the music stops,
And who can bear to be alone?
Come drink your gin, or sniff your ‘snow’,
Since Youth is brief, and Love has wings,
And time will tarnish, ere we know,
The brightness of the Bright Young Things.”

But James Laver wrote far more than these few lines. In fact, he was a bit of an expert when it came to affectionately sending up the Manners and Mores of the Bright Young People. Apart from the racy 1933 best-seller, Nymph Errant – turned into a musical by Cole Porterm he produced three  long verse pieces that attained cult status. A Stitch in Time (1927) Love’s Progress (1929) and Cupid’s Changeling (1933) (collected together as Ladies Mistakes 1933) were three mock-Augustan pastiches chronicling the journey of various young women through the pifalls and perils of the Modern World. Imagine Alexander Pope among the Bright Young People and you get a sense of the mood. Considered quite saucy at the time, they remain an engaging social document and are still entertaining, even though the humour is a little forced. The marvellous  illustrations by Thomas Lowinsky make them even more attractive and worth hunting down.

“Love’s Progress” is my favourite. It tells the sad tale of a young Suburbanite, Araminta, and her entanglement in the Artistic circles of Bloomsbury and Chelsea. The description of a Chelsea party and its guests conjures up the world of Olivia Wyndham or Viva King with uncanny accuracy,

The poem continues

“One girl, with more to show, wore even less,

And one young man came in a bathing dress.

Another man (though to describe him thus,

As masculine, is almost libellous)

Had shaved his eyebrows smoother than his chin

And painted more artistic eyebrows in.

One woman wore a short, divided skirt,

A black tie and a very stiff, white shirt

As if to show herself a thing apart,

And tell the world she carried in her heart

All Messalina’s wild desires, or worse,

And everything of Sappho – but her verse.

To you Fair Reader, sated as you are

With gin on tap in your own private bar,

This party would have offered nothing new,

Nor had to her, were Araminta you.

But she, poor girl, cut off from knowledge quite

Had passed her youth in grim, Suburban night;

And that instinctive preference for the best

That you by Nature, and at birth, possessed,

She knew not of, nor could she e’er have guessed

That these were what the gossip-writer calls

“All Chelsea’s smartest Intellectuals”.”

and so forth. There is more acute social observation in the hundred or so light-hearted pages that make up the trilogy than in any of the novels of the era, with the possible exception of Evelyn Waugh. More examples can be found at

Ladies’ Mistakes – Laver and Lowinsky

and for more on the illustrator see

Thomas Lowinsky

James Laver (1899-1975), who described himself as an “iconographer”,was nothing if not diverse in his interests. As a a curator and consultant at the V&A, he practically invented modern fashion history, bringing a psychological and what might be termed a “Cultural Studies” approach to the area. He was just about the first person to deem theatre design and stage sets worthy of scholarly interest and C20th Design History is deeply indebted to his pioneering efforts. He was a gifted translator of verse, an influential teacher and a useful journalist. He also contributed to the first forays into fashion and design programmes on television (both pre-war and in the 1950s). As a sideline he was an expert on the Occult and knew Aleister Crowley during the The Great Beast’s final days.

He was drawn into the world of Bohemia and all things theatrical through his marriage to the actress Veronica Turleigh.The couple lived in Piccadilly and then Chelsea. Always something of an outsider, his father was a printer and he was a “scholarship boy” at Oxford, he appears to have enjoyed slipping between different social worlds. In his autobiography “Museum Piece” he recalls, with some relish, “To my colleagues at South Kensington I had become a cigar-smoking, Savoy-supping, enviable but slightly disreputable character, hobnobbing with chorus girls and hanging round stage doors. To Gertrude Lawrence and her friends I was something ‘in a museum’, engaged in mysterious and apparently useless activities quite outside their comprehension; a character out of The Old Curiosity Shop, hardly fit to be let out alone.Perhaps unconsciously, I played up to both these delusions.”

Laver’s  classic textbook (still used by students)

He was an observer rather than a participator. He did know some of the leading Bright Young People (including Brenda Dean Paul) but he was never of that circle. However, through his novels, his satirical verse and his collaborations with the likes of Cole Porter, Oliver Messel, C.B.Cochran, Gertrude Lawrence and,even, Anna May Wong he found himself at the centre of Fashionable Modernity and to no little extent helped shape the way in which that world – in all its modes and manifestations – were perceived by the wider society.He was no moralist or political analyst but, as he himself put it, an iconographer – and often a very perceptive and playful one.

It’s difficult enough to find people who admitted to knowing Elvira. With the less well-connected Michael Scott Stephen, the problem is even greater.

Michael Scott Stephen

Apart from the witness statements and Beverley Nichols’  unflattering portrait, I have only been able to find one example . However, it is an interesting one as the person in question is H. Montgomery Hyde. Tucked away in one of his many books on crime and the law is the following observation regarding the Barney trial, “The case had a particular interest for me as some time previously I had met the unfortunate young man who lost his life at Mrs. Barney’s hands.”

This seems little enough, but given Montgomery Hyde’s later prominence it affords us some room to speculate – more about Hyde than Stephen, it must be said.

Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery Hyde

Harford Montgomery Hyde (1907-1989) was a barrister, an Ulster Unionist MP and a prolific author. On the surface (and probably underneath) he was about as far removed from any “Fast Set” as it is possible to be. He was a man of the Protestant establishment and destined for a career that would be both respectable and highly rewarded. And so it  very nearly proved to be. He will always  be admired for his many books, a series of popular, well-researched histories and biographies, but his name is more instantly recognisable as that of a high-profile Member of Parliament who was unceremoniously deselected by his own constituency party.

For Montgomery Hyde, though no radical in most matters, held a number of surprisingly liberal opinions. He was an opponent of capital punishment, not exactly the dominant view in the circles in which he moved. More controversially, he was an outspoken advocate for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts and for the rights of homosexuals generally. It was his refusal to stay silent on this issue and in particular his very public backing of the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report that led to him being ousted by his North Belfast branch in 1959. In a long and bitter campaign, one of the participants in which was a young Ian Paisley, Montgomery Hyde was portrayed as immoral and a traitor to traditional Conservative and Unionist values.

Many of Montgomery Hyde’s books had dealt with high-profile trials involving homosexuals and even his more general writings on crime devote a fair amount of space to the injustice and absurdity of the laws regarding sexual behaviour. His dismissal  did not deter him and books and articles continued to appear throughout the 1960s, the most significant being his work on Roger Casement (which managed to offend traditional Republicans in the same way that he had alienated Loyalists) and his “History of Pornography” – a text much borrowed from public libraries at the time.

On account of his literary endeavours and his political stance, questions were raised about his own private life, the assumption being that nobody would dare raise their head above the parapet if they were not themselves homosexual.Montgomery Hyde, who was married three times, dismissed this and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. His friends did say he was very interested in sex particularly while at Oxford (whatever that means) and he once light-heartedly referred to a night where he shared a hotel room with Guy Burgess (Hyde was in Intelligence during World War 2).

Guy Burgess

Which brings us to the question – under what circumstances did he meet Michael Scott Stephen? They were both the same age, single and living in London but that is all they appear to have in common. Montgomery Hyde was academically-minded, studious and preparing to be called to the Bar whereas Michael was already firmly set on a life of empty-headed dissipation. Yet meet they did. Discussing the trial, Montgomery Hyde refers to Michael as “having early developed wild and extravagant habits. He had been turned out of his house by his father and now occupied a bed-sitting room in Brompton Road”. These facts could have been gleaned from available sources but the “bed-sitting room” was not mentioned at the trial and the “turning out” by the father is generally implied rather than, as here, boldly stated.This could suggest a more personal acquaintance with Michael – but I wouldn’t want to push it further than that.

As to Elvira’s social circle , Montgomery Hyde’s view was suitably conventional, “Both Mrs.Barney and the victim belonged to the gay set that gallivanted round London between the two World Wars, and whose members were known as the Bright Young People. They drank far more than was good for them, tore about the town in bright-coloured sports-cars and even brighter-coloured clothes, played absurd and sometimes unkind practical jokes, indulged in riotous parties, as well as promiscuous sexual intercourse, and generally made nuisances of themselves.”  All of which would seem to rule out the trainee barrister as a regular attendee at Elvira’s cocktail evenings.

Montgomery Hyde contributed greatly to promoting a more tolerant attitude towards homosexuality in British society. Although his scholarship has been questioned he is still worth reading and his analysis of the legal process is as good as any of his era. His major work is probably The Other Love: A Historical and Contemporary Survey of Homosexuality  (1970) but  his biographies are all enjoyable. As to his meeting with Michael and his own sexual orientation, no concrete evidence exists to confirm what might appear to be the obvious inferences.