In the summer of 1932, the artist and illustrator Osbert Lancaster attended a party in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. The house had once been the home of James McNeill Whistler but was now the London residence of Bryan and Diana Guinness, the couple who represented the most exclusive, topmost tier of the “Bright Young People”.
The party was held for Unity Mitford, younger sister of Diana, and Osbert’s partner for the evening was another sister, Nancy (then Mrs. Peter Rodd). Under the aegis of the already legendary siblings, for the 24 year-old Osbert, this night was sure to be “a rather more interesting evening than most Deb-dances” of which he was already thoroughly bored.
Jessica, Nancy,Diana, Unity, Pamela 1935
But Osbert was in for an initial surprise.
“Our hostess’s connection with Oxford and The Bright Young People would ensure, I thought, the presence of some of the more picturesque survivors of the previous decade not usually to be found at such functions; and, by the same token, it seemed likely that the girls from the shires and the beefy young ensigns from the Brigade would for once be in the minority.
Nevertheless I was in no way prepared for the first departure from the customary routine. On catching sight of the usual small crowd of sightseers gathered on the pavement outside the gate, I braced myself to conceal the embarrassment invariably induced by the appreciative cooing which the appearance of the female guests normally provoked.”
Baba Beaton, Wanda Baillie Hamilton and Lady Bridget Poulett – “Coo, Ain’t they Lovely?”
“I need not have bothered. The smiles were sardonic rather than welcoming and instead of “Coo, Ain’t She Lovely!” we received solicitous but ironic enquiries after the health of Mrs. Barney and pious expressions of hope that the lady had not forgotten her gun.”
Mitford Sisters “Coo, Ain’t they eccentric?”
Osbert, balancing precariously between satire and snobbery, continues,
“The Barney Case, in which the verdict just announced had clearly not given any manifest satisfaction to the proletariat, had already produced a widespread revulsion of feeling that involved, I know realised, circles far distant from those in which that trigger-happy and rather sordid poor little rich girl normally moved. The Twenties, it was generally decided, had gone on quite long enough and the Bright Young People, of whom Elvira had never in fact been one, were to be swept smartly under the carpet. Hem-lines came tumbling down, chaperones were returning with a rush, and formality was, quite clearly, on the way back.”
This paragraph contains as succinct a summary of the general consensus regarding Elvira and the significance of her case as you are likely to find. To whit, Elvira was lucky to get off (“trigger-happy”), her lifestyle was immoral (“sordid”) and, though apparently nothing to with them, she hastened the demise of the Bright Young People. Furthermore, her actions affected the whole class system, causing a loss of deference amongst the “proletariat” and a scurrying back to traditional values of modesty and decorum among her own kind. Lancaster was writing 30 years after the incident, but the moral of his tale could not be clearer.
Lady Bridgett Poulett and Mrs. Charles Sweeny, Claridge’s 1938
Back at the party, Osbert was relieved to find that the Palace Gates had not, as yet, been stormed and all was as it should be.
“Once inside, however, it was not apparent that the critical barrage to which they had been subject on arrival had had any lasting effect on the spirit of the guests. As I had hoped the ilder generation represented by Harold Acton and Mrs. Armstrong-Jones were present in force, and of the current crop of debs only the most glamorous appeared to have received invitatations.”
“Iconic image of Harold Acton at Oxford (by Evelyn Waugh)
Mrs. Armstrong-Jones (Anne Messel)
“It would have taken more than a few snide comments to ruffle the mask-like composure of such reigning beauties as Miss Margaret Whigham or Lady Bridget Poulet even, which seemed unlikely, had they been fully comprehended. From the garden came the strains of “Peanut Vendor” played by one of the newly-fashionable rumba bands, and half way up the stairs our hostess, glorious as some Nordic corn-goddess wearing a magnificent diamond tiara slightly on one side and presumably quite unaware of the views being expressed by the man in the street, radiated beauty and enjoyment as she received her guests.”
Margaret Whigham, Lady Bridgett Poulett and Unity Valkyrie Mitford – all in 1932
Lancaster chooses his representative and emblematic markers of the period well – in fact,with the same precision he would later bring to his cartoons. Even the mention of “Peanut Vendor” is spot-on. Smart Set favourite, Ambrose had introduced it the year before sparking a craze for frilly shirts and Latin rhythms which lasted well into the 1950s and seemed to particularly appeal to the upper-crust (Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret’s patronage of Edmondo Ros being the classic example),
Harold Acton was the uber-aesthete of the Bright Young People, outranking even Elvira’s guest Brian Howard.There are still arguments over which one was the model for “Anthony Blanche” in Brideshead. Mrs. Armstrong-Jones was the beautiful Anne Messel, without whom no Bright Young weekend was quite complete. She was the sister of Oliver Messel, innovative stage designer and talented artist and the most neglected of the Bright Young inner circle. It was he who brought together the worlds of the literary, the theatrical and the visual arts – so well represented by Elvira’s pals. He was also a neighbour and friend of Billy Milton – the man who arrived at the cocktail party a day late.
Margaret Whigham and Bridgett Poulett are, equally, apposite and fascinating examples of the “younger generation”. Both born in 1912, they were the most photographed and fashionable Debs of the early 30s. I don’t know whether Lancaster is making a subtle social comment in mentioning them, but the former was to eventually cause a scandal that far eclipsed even Elvira’s tribulations. Alreadya veteran of a number of affairs (including,allegedly, an early pregnancy courtesy of a young David Niven), Miss Whigham was Deb of the Year and her marriage to Charles Sweeny the following summer was one of the last “great” society weddings. Her celebrity status was confirmed by appearance in the lyrics of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Tops”.
However, it was as Margaret, Duchess of Argylle in the 1960s (about the time Lancaster was penning these memoirs) that she achieved true notoriety, featuring in the infamous “Headless Man” divorce case. For some of the less than salutary details of this incident, which, incidentally, got collapsed into the Profumo scandal, see Headless Man.
Duchess of Argylle
Lady Bridgett Poulett, also did not quite fulfil the expected role, not marrying until 1948 and then to a Colombian diplomat, albeit a very wealthy and Cambridge educated one. Football historians will know Luis Robledo as the man who first instigated overseas transfers , as owner of Bogota Santa Fe he imported a number of English footballers from Stoke City and Manchester United, who found themselves in a strange climate and on wages not enjoyed by their English counterparts for at least a generation. As Lady Poulett, she is best remembered for the exotic photographs taken of her by Madame Yevonde, who also made portraits the wife of of Elvira’s close friend Terence Skeffington-Smythe.
Lady Bridget Poulett as Arethusa by Madame Yevonde
Of course, the real scandal of the evening, although as yet unrecognised, was that Diana Guinness had already embarked on her affair with Oswald Mosley which would lead to their marriage at the home of Joseph Goebbels in 1936, while the party’s raison d’etre, Unity. was about to embark on her journey to become Hitler’s most fanatical English follower.
If this was the new respectability, give me Elvira’s indiscretions every time.
Lancaster himself, with his university friend, John Betjeman, went on to forge a career sensibly defending Britain’s architectural heritage and, more problematically, portraying the Upper Class as a benign if somewhat amusing factor in English life. He also famously collaborated with Nancy Mitford and is as responsible as anyone, not least through his Daily Express cartoons, for the generally benevolent view we hold about our “social superiors”. That Elvira should seem to have been a threat to this happy state of affairs and that Osbert spotted it, speaks volumes about him and, probably, about all of us.