Archive for February, 2012


Those Uneasy Years

The brief interlude between two cataclysmic wars provided a chilling but convenient framework for historical and cultural analysis. Our fondness for thinking in decades really begins with this period. The Twenties and Thirties become not simply markers of an expanse of time but seem to develop a character, an ideological coherence and an aesthetic peculiar to themselves. They can be compared and contrasted, condemned or celebrated but above all understandable, once subject to this form of periodisation.

Whatever its merits, this process has led to a stereotyping of both decades. The Twenties are fun but frivolous, the thirties grim and dominated by politics. Despite the more nuanced approach of recent writers such as Juliet Gardner and Martin Pugh, this view still dominates. It is a position that has all sorts of implications beyond the concerns of this blog but it does impinge on our reading of Elvira and her corner of The Bright Young People. They are condemned to be out of time, living a Twenties’ lifestyle in a Thirties’ environment. This works reasonably well at some levels – essentially those to do with the transience of youth – but what of the younger members of the set, those born around 1910 say? The characters who populate Terence Rattigan’s superb threnody, “After The Dance”, are distinctly middle-aged but the  1935 regulars at The Nest, The Shim Sham Club or the Mayfair Hotel did not see themselves as hangovers from a lost age but as young, adventurous and as hedonistic as their immediate elders.

This is not to deny the economic and political crises of the 1930s. But the twenties were hardly a Golden Age for most working people – for instance, my English grandfather, a mill-worker, was out of work for much of the decade and as for my Irish grandfather, you’d rather not know. The withdrawal from the Gold Standard and the knock-on effect of the Wall Street Crash did change the landscape but the most disruptive event , in England, between the wars was probably the General Strike – which, of course, merely features as a diverting “blip” in the standard 20s versus 30s narrative.

The first commentaries on the period tended to look at the whole era as one unfolding tale. The best-known, and I think the best, is “The Long Weekend” by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge. It appeared in 1941 and has lost none of its immediacy and interest. An early manifestation of what we now call Cultural History, the exemplary work of David Kynaston and others owe a great debt to it. However, it was only one among a number of retrospective accounts of an era  brutally book-ended by War.

Although you need to be a cricket fan to enjoy it, Dudley Carew’s “To The Wicket” (1946) is the most charming and the most elegaic. Carew who we have encountered before (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/12/13/anthea-rosemary-carew/ ) includes a homily to the “Brightness of The Bright Young Things” as well as a warning about what will be lost in forgetting the values of the pre-War world. His is a fairly lone voice. Most writers are condemnatory, seeing the period as narrow and selfish – the term “wasted years” crops up frequently. Others take a more traditional attitude – the whole experience simply representing a decline from the more noble and glorious times before Ypres and the Somme.

County Cricket Between The Wars

Typical of the latter type is  Percy Colson’s “Those Uneasy Years” (1946). Colson was what used to be called a “man of letters”. He was a biographer of repute and an influential music critic,  his championing of Sir Thomas Beecham did much to cement our image of the  formidable conductor. Although his tone is largely one of harumphing disapproval, he was no Philistine and wrote perceptively on modern trends in the arts and literature. However he was a product of an essentially Edwardian/Georgian cultural milieu and found much to decry about the inter-war period.

Colson had certain blind-spots. These, unhappily, included everything associated with the Bright Young People. He didn’t approve of   the cinema, dancing, jazz, homosexuals and (apart from Dame Nellie Melba) women. “Culture” for Colson was something best left to post-prandial discussion over port in exclusively male, but determinedly “straight”, company. He also had an antipathy, which perhaps explains his low profile today, for Jews  – who he blamed for the popularity of dancing, jazz, the cinema and, I wouldn’t be surprised, homosexuality and women.

Young Woman – probably fond of dancing

He is of interest to me because he devotes time to the Barney trial. In fact, he sees it as one of the pivotal inter-war episodes.  Sandwiched between a self-satisfied dismissal of psychoanalysis and some observations concerning “the slump”, he states,

” In 1932 the Mullens case caused great excitement, especially in night-club circles. Sir John Mullens, who was stockbroker to the government, had two fair daughters, the elder of which was charged with the murder of Michael Scott Stephen, found shot in her flat in Wilton Street mews after a cocktail-party. Both of them belonged to that small set of post-war degenerates, obsessed with sex, drink and hectic excitements, Stephen was also a homosexual, He and Mrs.Barney had a violent quarrel – was it a case of a woman scorned? But whatever it was, Mrs Barney was arrested, and the jury acquitted her on the grounds of there being insufficient evidence. Her siater married Prince George Imeretinsky; a nice boy, I knew him when he was a bank clerk at Mentone. The marriage was afterwards dissolved.”

This is marvellous. Colson says openly what everyone else only whispers or hints at. Michael was homosexual. He also encapsulates the general perception of Elvira’s set – degenerate, sex-obsessed and given to the pursuit of “hectic excitement”. For good measure, I think there is also a dig at Elvira’s sister. He gets the street name wrong but he understands the social dynamic of the case completely.

I will return to Colson’s  erudite but jaundiced take on the era shortly. I also want to investigate the relative lack of prejudice towards  Jews or Black people within the “degenerate” world that Elvira inhabited – it is striking, given how prevalent anti-Semitism ,in particular, was in mainstream society. For now, I’ll just ask you to ponder what forms of excitement might not be considered hectic.

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The Bat Club, 13 Albemarle Street

When I posted on Albemarle Street (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/01/17/elviras-delage-and-albermarle-street/ ), I failed to mention two important nightclubs. Both were expensive and catered for the “after hours” crowd. One was the 500, which cultivated a laid-back, relaxing atmosphere, the other was The Bat, an altogether livelier affair.

The Bat features in several reminiscences of the period, including those by Barbara Cartland and Margaret, Duchess of Argylle. It was very “Mayfair” rather than “Chelsea” but it had a rather “racy” reputation which met with some disapproval. Its initial fame came about through its patronage by the actress and cabaret star, Teddie Gerard. She liked to sit in with the band on drums (something The Prince of Wales was also wont to do)

Teddie Gerard (1890-1942)

Gerard  (born  Teresa Cabre, in Buenos Aires) was, in some ways the original version of the wilder women of the 1920s. Virginia Nicholson describes her as “a hard drinking, promiscuous adventuress with a drug habit”. She had shocked and thrilled Broadway audiences in 1915 by wearing on stage a very revealing, backless dress. She was a regular on the London theatrical circuit throughout the 1920s and became a friend and  a kind of role-model to Tallulah Bankhead. Others in her set included Dolly Wilde and Gwen Farrar.

The Bat encouraged this intimate relationship between audience and performers by booking what were, by the standards of the day, risque cabaret acts. The best known of these was Dwight Fiske, a Harvard drop-out who played very accomplished piano over which he performed a series of monologues consisting entirely of sexual innuendo. These were much nearer to the knuckle than the work of Douglas Byng who also was a favourite of the BYP. However, like Byng’s insufferably twee campness, they have dated badly and come across today as simply juvenile. Nonetheless, at the time they were considered deliciously naughty and helped launch the forgotten phenomenon of the “Party Record” – a private subscription disc service which served to enliven many a cocktail party and late night gathering.

Dwight Fiske by Carl Van Vechten 1937

The well-connected Fiske’s success at the Bat Club was ensured by the support of Tallulah Bankhead who was a regular in the audience during his residency – and where Tallulah went many followed. But the real coup for the club was the securing of Harry Roy as the regular bandleader.

Harry Roy 1900-1971

Harry Roy was born Harry Lipman in Stamford Hill. Like so many of the West End Dance Band leaders and musicians, his family were Jewish. He played at all the right places – The Cafe De Paris, The Embassy and the Mayfair Hotel (all favourites of Elvira)  and by the early 30s was a big star. At the Bat Club (as Harry Roy and his Bat Boys) he could play more “hot” music than elsewhere and his versions of “Tiger Rag” and “You Rascal You” became better known than the originals. He still had an eye on what the crowd wanted and what the crowd at the Bat wanted was, to put it bluntly, smut.

Roy’s Bat Club outfit released a number of jazz pieces on the label Oriole. This was set up by Levy’s of Whitechapel to cater for the small but growing audience for genuine “hot” music. Oriole also issued, privately in 1931, the Bat Club’s unofficial anthem. the puerile and very rude “My Girl’s Pussy”. This was apparently sung with much gusto by the whole audience on certain, more “carefree” nights. It is rubbish but in its own way remarkable and shows the licence that was granted to certain sub-sections of “Society”, once out of sight of the general public. Do not click if you are offended by double entendre,casual sexism (or banality, for that matter) but here it is –

Harry Roy was a particular favourite among High Society women. In 1932, at a Mayfair cocktail party, he met Elizabeth Brooke, the most wayward of three wayward daughters of the “White Rajah of Sarawak”, Sir Charles Vyner Brooke and the Ranee, Lady Sylvia. Having been presented at court, Elizabeth (known to the press as “Princess Pearl”) had become part of the “fast” crowd – attending clubs, partying and drinking all night. She also enrolled at RADA, which might make her a contemporary of Sylvia Coke et al. After flings with such high-profile figures as Jack Buchanan, Elizabeth settled on Harry Roy and the couple married, to much public fanfare, in 1935.

Wedding 1935

This “pop star weds society beauty”  was an unusual event and there was some unfavourable comments – many as motivated by racial as class issues. It is a sort of precursor of a number of factors we normally associate with the 1960s and beyond. For a few it proved that jazz, cocktail-parties and night-clubs were indeed a threat to social hierarchies – for most it was simply thought of as highly romantic.

 

For more on the White Rajahs and Ranees of Arawak see “Sylvia, Queen of The Headhunters” by Philip Eade

Sylvia Brooke 1930 – her elder sister was “Brett” of D.H.Lawrence and Bloomsbury fame

Roy’s Bat Club days were well behind him and the club closed in the mid-thirties. . He still made the odd “blue” record – (She Had to Go and Lose It at the Astor) but they were much milder than the material performed earlier.

Some of Elvira’s friends would have thought of the Bat as a bit “hearty” and Hooray Henry-ish , but it would certainly have been one of her many ports of call. Given her evident fondness for all things late night and a little off-colour, I can easily picture her, in 1931, singing along with gusto.

Apology

Can I please say, in case there is any further misunderstanding, that I have no interest in denigrating anyone mentioned in this blog. I am interested in the people I write about, simply because they are interesting people.

Just because  my starting point is one woman, whose life might not have been as free of sin as a good Catholic boy like me might wish, does not mean that every person whose name crops up here is automatically evil, or associated with wickedness in any shape or form.

I want to add to my knowledge of  a particular period in English cultural life which I still feel, despite  the many books on the subject, has been stereotyped and generally undervalued.

At my most arrogant, I want to broaden the notion of Modernity as applied to England between the wars – to include theatre, popular culture, shifting social mores and literature beyond Bloomsbury and  T.S.Eliot  – at my most honest, I want to tell some amusing anecdotes and  rescue a few forgotten names.

I hope this makes sense. I have a fondness for rogues and rascals and will post on them a-plenty. However I am aware that not everybody who sipped a cocktail or two  in the early thirties did so after making a pact with the Devil.

Elvira’s Gun (Again)

After being acquitted of both murder and manslaughter, Elvira had to return to court to face a charge of unlawful possession of a firearm. The hearing was on the 21st July and was fairly brief. She was found guilty and fined £50.

Her demeanour at this trial was rather different from her earlier appearance. Though she was visibly distressed throughout the original proceedings and had been allowed to give her evidence while seated, she only broke down completely on hearing the “Not Guilty” verdict. She answered questions clearly and with no inconsistencies. She was also disarmingly frank when it came to the nature of her relationship with Michael Scott Stephen.

In contrast, she was in a state of high agitation during this less serious case. She wept constantly, her sobs almost drowning out the prosecution speech. She collapsed at the end and had to be helped from court. Given that the defence had pleaded guilty this could not have been through shock.

How one interprets this depends on how one views Elvira’s character and her state of mind. Although it was only three weeks since the crowd had cheered her at  The Old Bailey, the public mood had turned firmly against her. Her newspaper memoirs had been stopped after an MP had tabled a question in parliament and her lifestyle (and that of her associates) was being vilified in all corners of the press.

There was a possibility of a custodial sentence and she might have simply been acting, making her distress so apparent that such a judgement would have been seen as cruel and vindictive. She may, as her mother seems to have suggested, have been in the throes of a breakdown caused by the pressures of recent events.  She might have been genuinely unbalanced  – perhaps long before the actual horrors of recent weeks. Undoubtedly, if Elvira had appeared in court in modern times her psychological background would have played a more prominent part – both for the prosecution and defence.

What I find odd is the lack of curiosity as to why Elvira kept a revolver by her bedside at all. Was this not unusual? Elvira had owned the gun for the best part of ten years and had threatened to use it on more than one occasion. She admitted that it was kept loaded at all times but the most searching questions the prosecution asked where as to how Michael knew it was under a cushion in a chair at her bedside. Elvira said that it simply came with her from Belgrave Square along with her other possessions, but that seems unlikely given the relative sparsity of the furnishing of 21 William Mews. The whole matter is a bit puzzling.

The government ballistics expert, presumably a devotee of Freud, saw the gun as part of the fetishistic, sexual atmosphere he discerned in the Mews flat. However, given that he interpreted everything Elvira owned in that light, that might say more about him than Elvira. It does seem odd though, that her ownership of a gun should be deemed not to be in any way strange – in fact, it causes less distress to the media than Elvira’s fondness for Cocktail Parties.  I feel I am missing something here – was (unlicensed) gun ownership a less controversial issue in 1932 than it has since become?

Edward Burra Jazz Fans

Just about my favourite image of what I imagine to be the world in which Elvira moved (or aspired to move) is this pen and ink study by Edward Burra.

It is entitled “Jazz Fans” and is apparently from 1928 or 1929. Most internet references locate it in New York but I think it is London because Jane Stevenson’s biography states that Burra didn’t get to America until 1933. If it is London then some of the figures in this delightful drawing have probably already made an appearance on this blog.  Hugh Wade told the police that the prime reason for ending the evening of the 31st May at Arthur Jeffress’ flat was to listen to his newly acquired records. This is a different occasion but the sense of  pleasure and “In Crowd” exclusivity is surely similar.

Vinyl (or Shellac) Junkies from several eras will recognise this scene and the presence of a female DJ/Selecta  is a bonus.