Archive for January, 2012


Hugh “Hetty” Wade

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.

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Was Elvira a Bright Young Person?

Just by way of a bit of catching-up, I thought I’d use the following to summarise a few of my thoughts so far.

Every commentary that I’ve read on the Barney case maintains that, while she helped bring down the curtain on the whole Bright Young era, Elvira herself was not and never had been a Bright Young Person. Writers from different decades and with disparate agendas, such as Osbert Sitwell, Peter Cotes and D.J. Taylor, are all in agreement on the matter.

And, to a certain extent, they are correct. Elvira does not properly qualify as a Bright Young Person for a number of reasons. For a start, had Elvira been a central figure then her name would crop up more often than it does, either in contemporary newspaper reports or in the many volumes of reminiscences of the period. In contrast, even after the shooting, the Times felt the need to link her to Brenda Dean Paul simply to indicate to its readers what “set” she belonged to.

Secondly, most of the Bright Young People, in between the rounds of parties and alcoholic excess, did something creative – or at least had aspirations in that direction. Elvira, stage-training notwithstanding, hardly fits the bill.Thirdly, although she is of the right age, she appears to have emerged on the scene just a little too late – the golden age had been and gone before Elvira’s excesses began to take flight.

If we are to take the BYP experience as a proto-typical youth culture, as John Savage and others would have us to, then, to borrow a term from a later instance, Elvira was never a “Face”. However, this does not necessarily  mean that she was not one of the supporting cast. Despite Elvira’s pre-trial anonymity, everything about her lifestyle comes straight from the BYP book of cliches, as it were. If we add to that the circle of friends and acquaintances, then she qualifies easily – with a few cocktails to spare.

Let us take some of the accepted requisites for membership.

Social Class – Elvira was from a very wealthy background. True, her connections were not aristocratic but parents who could call themselves Sir John and Lady Mullens and who lived in Hanover Square (not forgetting an estate in the country) cannot be considered anything other than Upper Class, in the general scheme of things.

Bohemia – She seems to have been introduced to Chelsea Bohemia by Viva King through a schoolgirl friendship with Georgia Dobell.  Both of these women were very much “insiders”, by any measurement.How much interest Elvira had in “The Arts” is open to doubt, although Hodgkin’s portrait does suggest a taste for the aesthetic life.

Sexuality – Elvira was, by the standards of the day, promiscuous and was also almost certainly bisexual – she was, unusually, relatively open about these things , which marks her out as part of the new, wilder set.

Modernity – “Fast” was a key word in the period, whether it applied to cars, sexual relationships or the modern world in general. Elvira embraced every aspect of the pursuit of the “New” , be it in Art, Entertainment or Technology.

Hedonism – Anybody who can organise a party on the day of their acquittal on a murder charge can hardly be deemed a Puritan. The two most prominent features of 21 William Mews were a cocktail bar and a radiogram, which says it all really.

Drugs – Elvira was by 1932 a heavy user of cocaine and (although I had no idea when I started these researches) her set constitutes a distinct drug subculture within the wider scene.

If we add to this the knowledge that two of the four organisers of the Bath and Bottle party were at the cocktail bash on the 30th May (Brian Howard and Eddie Gathorne-Hardy) and she almost certainly knew the other two well (Elizabeth Ponsonby and Babe Plunket Greene) then Elvira moves a little closer to the centre-stage. That foursome are often regarded as the only true Bright Young People, Others have plumped for Olivia Wyndham as the “Original”  Bright Young Person – and of course she was at the party as well. On top of this, the guests at that party include characters from most branches of contemporary developments in modern cultural practice – photography, popular music, literature, the theatre and painting. The requisite combination of decadent lifestyle and devotion to the Arts (in their widest sense) that characterised the “Children of the Sun” could hardly be better represented.

 

Apart from people, certain key places and cultural spaces mark out the BYP from general society – particular clubs, foreign destinations etc. The Blue Lantern was one of the key ports of call for the less respectable end of the Smart Set and Elvira and her friends were regulars there (and, in Hugh Wade’s case, the  resident musician). Away from London, Elvira’s favourite haunts were Paris and The South of France. For those on the more adventurous wing of the Bright era, the South of France, and Cannes in particular, was the essential playground and home to every excessive aspect of the culture.

So, I would argue that  Elvira should be accorded a place within the later phase of the Bright Young generation, definitely on its more disreputable wing,  perhaps not as a leading-light but as a significant hostess and a more than willing participant in most of its characteristic elements. I see no reason to accord her less symbolic value than her more iconic (but equally dissolute) friends Elizabeth Ponsonby and Brenda Dean Paul.

Debutantes

This documentary is only tangentially related to Elvira’s world but it does give a flavour of the period and provides a useful backdrop to the constrictions and expectations that “normal”  upper-class women between the Wars had to negotiate. This is a younger generation than Elvira’s but the mores, mannerisms  and metaphors are much the same. I think it’s available until next Saturday.

Debutantes

Napper at the Fitzroy Tavern

In my post on Anna Wickham, I was a little skeptical of Peter Cotes’ claim that she spent a lot of time with Elvira, post-trial ( see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/22/anna-wickham/) .What I may have missed is the fact that Anna Wickham knew Napper Dean Paul, the two having met in the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street. If there was a relationship between the two women, Napper may well be the link.

Fitzroy Tavern

The Fitzroy was the pub that bequeathed the name to the geographical and ideological space that was previously known as “North Soho”.  Although there were plenty of artists knocking around,It was predominantly a literary pub and drinking club culture, very different to Chelsea or the “raffish pseudo-smart Bohemia” of Elvira’s friends. Its most famous resident figure was Dylan Thomas, the most representative female denizens were Betty May and Nina Hamnett, its great chronicler was Julian MacLaren Ross and its highpoint was probably the years of the Second World War. Like many sub-cultural spaces, it was not hermetically sealed and the overlaps between Cafe Royal Bohemia,Fitzrovia, Soho Proper, Chelsea, Bloomsbury and the remnants of the Bright Young People are many and various.

According to Hugh David, in The Fitzrovians, the impulse which created “Fitzrovia” (the name came later; ironically it was coined by Tom Driberg , a prominent Bright Young Person) was the the invasion, by Smart Society, of previous Bohemian haunts such as the Eiffel Tower Restaurant in Soho. Genuine Bohemians, principally Augustus John and Nina Hamnett, turned to certain pubs which they thought would not appeal to the fashionable and frivolous. This may well be true but the example David gives is unfortunate.

He states “By 1927 the Eiffel had become just another place to eat.” and then proceeds to illustrate this by quoting Nina Hamnett’s listing of some of those “ordinary” diners.Included in this list are some of Elvira’s cocktail guests,

“At the Eiffel Tower one evening I met Ruth Baldwin, whom I had known sometime before. She shared a house with Jo Carstairs, the motor-boat racing girl.”

Now, if Hugh David thinks that Ruth and Jo represent mainstream smart society , then he just hasn’t done his homework. To me, the quote actually illustrates an even more complex relationship between the different strands of “alternative” London in the period than generally assumed. Nonetheless, it is true that a section of (largely male) artists and writers deliberately distanced themselves ( publicly at least) from the more “Mayfair” aspects of the High Bohemia of the twenties.

William Roberts’s portrait of the Eiffel Tower in its Vorticist heyday

Part  of impulse for this move was down to an overt rejection of  the decidedly upper-class ambience of both Bloomsbury and Mayfair, part of it was simply a shift in cultural mood between the 1920s and 1930s. In some cases, it was purely economic, pub life being somewhat cheaper than the life on the salon and night-club circuit. For Napper, it was probably the latter, as these were very lean years for him.

Brenda and Brian

Although the newspapers of the 1930s focussed on Brenda’s exploits, Brian Dean Paul’s tribulations were every bit as dramatic and his decline every bit as steep.Never in possession of much money, he was now reduced to borrowing from his dwindling band of friends, shoplifting and stealing objects from the homes of anyone foolish enough to let him stay with them.Many found him an unsavoury figure some were sorry for him (the phrase “poor Napper” crops up frequently) . One or two people do appear to have genuinely liked him.

Brenda and Brian Dean Paul

One of those, improbable as it may seem, was Dylan Thomas, another associate of Anna Wickham and himself not always the most gracious of house guests. The following anecdote, from Andrew Lycett’s biography of Thomas, illustrates something of the chaos of Dylan and Napper’s existence. It takes place at the beginning of the War in the London home of the South African writer, Lorna Wilmot.

“Having unfettered access to a handsome mansion block property went to Dylan’s head. Unhinged by drink and depression he invited two low-life friends to join him. The upshot was that several of Wilmot’s prized possessions, including silver, furs, a gramophone and a typewriter, went missing. When she returned home, she was incensed to find not only had these items disappeared, but also her flat was strewn with half-eaten meals, and with love-letters belonging to one of Dylan’s friends, a Fitzroy denizen known as Mab Farrogate, and the clothing and make-up of another, the cross-dressing Brian Dean Paul.”

Brian and Brenda in more opulent times

Lycett continues

“Over the previous three years there had been strong indications that Dylan had been taking drugs. His paranoia following his trip to London in December 1938 strongly suggests a reaction to a bad drug experience. His association with Napper Dean Paul confirms his involvement with London’s prevalent drug sub-culture.”  – which was news to me but does make sense.

All this took place after Elvira’s death but if Napper, Anna and Dylan had all met prior to 1936 (which is likely) then Elvira might also have been around. I still can’t see her sitting comfortably in the Wheatsheaf or the Fitzroy but their clientele included familiar faces such as John Banting, Barbara Ker-Seymer and, occasionally, Brian Howard, which might have made her feel more at home.Remember, Elvira post-trial was something of an outcast herself and the louche and the liquor-fuelled were never exactly anathema to her.

Dylan Thomas

Curiously, during his Fitzrovia period Napper married (disastrously, I imagine) Muriel Lillie. Muriel was the elder sister of comedienne and cabaret star Beatrice Lillie, who though now Lady Peel, had her own history of association with drug scandals. Early in her career she had been a close friend of Billie Carleton, whose death by overdose after the 1918 Victory Ball had triggered the first great “moral panic” over women and cocaine use. The ghost of Billie Carleton hovered over the whole inter-war drug scene, the scandal inspired Coward’s play “The Vortex” and her name cropped up in many a discussion about the presumed imminent demise of the wayward Brenda.

Billie Carleton

 

Two Rag Dolls

I quite like both the matter-of-factness and the lack of hierarchical evaluation in the police reports on the contents of 21 William Mews.

The knowledge that Michael Scott Stephen was wearing a yellow pullover when he was shot, the pointing out of an empty wineglass at the bedside and the mention of the telephone extension in the bedroom (unconnected)  are all details worthy of any period novel.

But these all pale in comparison to the information that the bedside chair was home to two, carefully positioned, rag dolls.

I don’t know why but this speaks, to me at least, of a sadness and insecurity that might possibly tell us more about Elvira than any newspaper report or doctor’s evaluation.

Ted Lewis  ” The High Hatted Tragedian of Jazz” was resident at the Kit Kat Club in 1930. Elvira would have heard this song there.

UPDATE It appears that much of the above is just sentimental tosh on my part and can safely be ignored. Jane Stevenson (see the comments below) offers a  far more likely explanation and one that fits Elvira’s lifestyle and character pretty well.

“In Grace and Favour: Memoirs of Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, p. 108, Loelia comments, ‘the girl who really got about had round her bedroom a row of dolls which she had acquired on gala nights … these trophies of the chase were very tall and decadent looking’. She mentions that they were often in Pierrot costume.” (from Jane Stevenson,

who also brought to my attention this wonderful, though, to my sensibilities, slightly unsettling, blog  Frau Wulf’s Boudoir Dolls – well worth a look. )

By the way, Edward Burra – Twentieth Century Eye  is a delight to read  and a mine of information on the artist and his circle – Barbara Ker-Seymer, Billy Chappell etc. Highly recommended.