I am currently reading, with much enjoyment, Julie Kavanagh’s biography of the dancer and choreographer, Frederick Ashton.
Ashton, though reputedly less wild than many, was part of the Chelsea Bohemian crowd and could number Edward Burra, Barbara Ker-Seymer, Billy Chappell, Marty Mann and Olivia Wyndham among his friends and acquaintances. He also danced the Charleston with Brenda Dean Paul and met Brian Howard in Toulon. He, therefore knew a goodly number of Elvira’s party crowd and this is borne out by an anecdote concerning Hugh Wade and, of all people, W.B.Yeats.
In 1935, Yeats was entering a final phase of creative energy, supposedly brought on by various rejuvenation treatments. He was also worried about his spoken delivery, and believed Ashton, who had been working with Yeats’ then girlfriend, the actress Margaret Ruddock (aka Margot Collis), could help him.
Ashton was palpably unenthused by the whole encounter and found Yeats’ poetic diction forced and generally beyond redemption.On at least one occasion, after he had pointed out Yeats’ shortcomings, only for the great poet to begin again, Ashton admitted that “he would be “bored stiff” and impatient to join his friends at the Blue Lantern in Ham Yard, a popular club which had a dance floor and Hugh (Hetty) Wade playing the piano.” (Secret Muses p179)
This is a delightful snippet and indicates that the Blue Lantern was still going strong in 1935 ( I had thought otherwise) and that Ashton was very much part of the Blue Lantern (and hence Elvira’s) circle. Let us remind ourselves of Jocelyn Brooke’s description of the clientele
“They belonged for the most part to the raffish fringes of that pseudo-smart Bohemia which was perhaps the most characteristic (and almost certainly the nastiest) social unit of the period.” (Brooke “Private View” (1954) p87) .
It also tells us that Elvira’s friend Hugh Armigel Wade, to whom the adjective “epicene” is customarily appended, was known as Hetty to his mates, which I find strangely endearing. If it refers to Hetty King, then it is even better, summing up what Nerina Shute called the “ambisextrous” world they all inhabited.
Hugh Wade and Elizabeth Ponsonby
Hetty King was the most talented of the male impersonators that thrived in the last great days of Music Hall. She was particularly popular in World War One and we know that part of Hugh Wade’s repertoire was a medley of sentimental songs from that period, the horrors of which were probably responsible for the whole, and thus reactive, Bright Young culture. Less seriously, Hetty King’s most famous song was “All The Nice Girls Love A Sailor”, which was to become the inter-war camp equivalent of “It’s Raining Men”. Sailor and Matelot outfits were, unsurprisingly, the most popular “Drop of a Hat” fancy-dress costumes for “Smart Set” parties of the period.
I’ll post more on Frederick Ashton soon, as he seems a likeable fellow and the importance of Ballet and Dance to the Modernism that Elvira’s set embraced has been under-estimated – Diaghilev, Bakst et al being every bit as significant as Eliot and Pound. But a couple of connections/coincidences relating to Yeats are worthy of immediate mention.
Yeats’ rejuvenation treatments relied on the quackery of Serge Voronoff (monkey-gland transplants) and Eugen Steinach (vasectomy). Voronoff had been briefly married to “Jo” Carstairs ‘ mother ( Carstairs was allegedly at the William Mews cocktail party, her girlfriend Ruth Baldwin definitely was).
Margot Ruddock, Yeats’ young lover (she was 28, he 69) was a tragic figure – a manic-depressive whose periodic breakdowns culminated in suicide at the age of 44. Though a muse and collaborator, her relationship with Yeats was short-lived and she was replaced in the poet’s affection by the usually sensible Ethel Mannin.
A horribly neglected author, Mannin’s books (she wrote over a hundred) contain some of the earliest and best analyses of the Bright Young People and, for the time, very frank debates around the issue of female sexuality ( check out Confessions and Impressions or Young In The Twenties). She knew Brian Howard and Nancy Cunard but, though very much a Bohemian, represented a much more politicised and less aristocratic strand than that pertaining to Elvira’s world, with which she would have had little sympathy. Not all elements of Bohemia overlap, much as I would wish it so.
Ethel Mannin (by Paul Tanqueray)
To return to Ashton, it says a lot, I think, about the insouciance, arrogance and generational solidarity of the Bright Young People that the lure of the Blue Lantern should be greater than that of the company of the man who was probably the most distinguished and talented poet of the age. I just hope “Hetty” was on form that night.