About the time that Michael moved into 21William Mews another ill-fated match was taking place in London, this time between the singer Al Bowlly and the night-club hostess Freda Roberts. Al Bowlly was starting to make a name for himself through his recordings with Ray Noble and his work with Roy Fox at the Monseigneur restaurant, a favourite haunt of Elvira’s.
Freda Roberts was working at the Bag O’Nails, 9 Kingly Street, and other clubs. She had a “wild” reputation and, according to one source, was introduced to Bowlly at the Lyons Corner House ( where Hugh Wade ended up most nights). Trumpeter Nat Gonella made the introduction, describing Freda as “the hostess with the mostest”. She was red-haired and beautiful and something of a legend among the dance-band musicians (nearly 60 years later Gonella remembered her as “a really tasty bird”). Bowlly may in fact have already known her from the Bag O’Nails as he preferred the “jazzier” after-hours vibe of the place to the standard West End clubs. Some of the surviving Bright Young Things also found the club to their liking and Anthony Powell included it in his novel “Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant”.
The marriage did not begin auspiciously, as, in an echo of Elvira’s honeymoon, Bowlly found Freda in bed with another man on their wedding night. Within two weeks the relationship was over.
Bowlly went on to become the vocalist of the Dance Band era and a star performer at the Cafe De Paris.He had been sitting in with Ken “Snakehips” Johnson in the weeks prior to the bombing that killed the bandleader and put the final full stop on that venue’s inter-war reign as the premier meeting place for the upper-class “out on the town”, of whom Elvira had been the most notorious example. Bowlly himself was another Blitz victim when his apartment was also hit shortly afterwards.
Freda’s subsequent career involved a descent into drug addiction and some fame as the media’s “working-class” version of Brenda Dean Paul. Her rueful confessions appeared in the press and in books like J.A. Buckwalter’s sensationalist but once influential “Merchants of Misery” (1956).
There is perhaps a closer connection to Elvira’s world in Freda’s story than simply a metaphorical reminder that not only rich girls strayed from the path of morality and acceptable social behaviour in the 1930s. In Charlotte Bresse’s biography of Hutch, she quotes John Gardiner, a “rich young man” and almost certainly an associate of the “fast set” at the time of the trial. On his, seemingly, nightly round of clubs and restaurants such as Romano’s and the Blue Train, Gardiner accompanies Hutch to the Kind Dragon in Ham Yard – “and from the club next door we used to collect Freda Roberts, a beautiful hostess who married Al Bowlly, the renowned singer, who was bisexual of course.”
The best known club with hostesses in Ham Yard was the Blue Lantern, resident pianist Hugh Wade with members and regulars that included Terence Skeffington-Smythe, Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, Arthur Jeffress and Elvira Barney.All in all, Freda’s world of night-clubs, drugs, promiscuity and bisexual men does not sound a million miles away from the lifestyle of 21 William Mews.
It is worth noting that the Bag O’Nails was a jazz club in Soho and not to be confused with the pub of the same name near Buckingham Palace. The latter would have been more familiar to many of the male “members” of Elvira’s circle as it was the premier place for the picking up, by rich homosexuals, of Guardsmen, much favoured for their availability and discretion. The Soho Bag O’Nails, a key part of British jazz history, is now best remembered for its sixties’ connection with Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones et al, who probably thought they were pioneers in the fields of excess and decadence but were in fact merely continuing a well-established tradition.