I’ll leave Charlotte Breese’s “Hutch” alone after this post but I do recommend it to anyone interested in the racial and sexual politics of the inter-war years – or anyone who wants to acquaint themselves with one of the true stars of British popular music in the sadly ignored decades preceding the rise of the Beatles. However there is a section on Elvira that is too tantalising to ignore.
“Typical of Hutch’s clients and/or lovers was Elvira Mullens, daughter of Lord and Lady Mullens. Three pianists – Hutch, Billy Milton and Carroll Gibbons – all played at one of her parties, which always featured modish theatricals. Appearing the same night was a close-harmony turn, The Three New Yorkers. Elvira was briefly married to one of them, a Mr.Barney. The marriage ended, and scandal erupted, when Elvira took a lover and shot him dead. Elvira was arrested and confined to the infirmary of Holloway prison, where, to keep up her spirits, she displayed a photograph of Tallulah Bankhead. At the same time, Mr. Barney tried to blackmail her father by threatening to expose details of her private life, including her cocaine habit. In the event, Elvira was acquitted. To celebrate she threw a huge party at the Berkeley. People were horrified and soon afterwards she committed suicide in Paris.”
There are some errors in this account, which is taken largely from Billy Milton’s “Paradise Mislaid” – is is doubtful that it was suicide, for example. However it is the “clients and/or lovers” that makes me wonder. Is this just a general statement about Elvira’s “typicality” or is something more being implied? Why choose Elvira as an example, anyway?
It is not far-fetched at all to speculate that Elvira could have had a fling with Hutch. So it seems did half of West End society, male and female. Elvira’s idol Tallulah certainly did and Zena Naylor (a friend of Brenda Dean Paul and Olivia Wyndham, if not Elvira herself) had quite a long-lasting affair with the singer. At one party, Brenda Dean Paul actually won Hutch in an auction. Another ex-Deb, Elizabeth Corbett (nee Sperling) was about the same age as Elvira and said to be the leader of “a smart set”. She gave birth to a child by Hutch in 1930. Hutch’s most famous relationship was with Lady Edwina Mountbatten, a somewhat less than clandestine romance and one which Elvira would have known all about. Edwina was drawing press attention at the same time Elvira was on trial. The People had hinted at an affair between Lady Mountbatten and a “coloured” entertainer. Fortunately for the Mountbattens, they picked on Paul Robeson as the likely candidate and Lord Mountbatten sued and won substantial damages. The unsuccessful defence case was conducted by none other than Sir Patrick Hastings, fresh from his triumphant handling of Elvira’s murder charge.
Although Hutch continued to be a cabaret favourite there was an undoubted behind the scenes campaign against him.After the abdication of friend and enthusiast Edward the Eighth he was rarely heard on the BBC and the Society invitations tailed off. He remained incredibly popular with female audiences throughout the country and staged a triumphant “Society” comeback as part of the nostalgia for the 20s that hit the upper-classes in the mid-fifties. His last years though were ones of absolute decline and make for very sad and somewhat disquieting reading.
Breese’s commentary on the motivations of those women who threw themselves at Hutch in the golden years, from 1927 to the mid-thirties, rather misses some obvious points, explored at length elsewhere in the book, but as an analysis of Elvira is worthy of consideration,
“Many of Hutch’s female lovers were rich and had nothing to do, and had little or no self-esteem.Desperate for affection, and attention, they lived in gilded misery, drifting from party to party and, inevitably, attracting men who despised, exploited and discarded them.”