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.