On the day of her acquittal Elvira apparently held a “celebration” party at the Berkeley Hotel. Some time after midnight, along with two friends -one male,  one female, she turned up at Smokey Joe’s, a basement drinking club in Gerrard Street. There she invited another customer, in fact her future biographer, Peter Cotes,  to dance. They shuffled around to a “blues” played by “a solitary jazz pianist”. Elvira then asked Cotes to join her party, but he declined. Unsurprisingly, his description of her is deeply unflattering – she “staggered” and had “a heaviness about the jowl”. He ends by saying that Elvira “danced no better than she shot”.

I was inclined to be a little suspicious of this anecdote, the chance encounter is a little too fortuitous. But Cotes was acting in the West End at the time and that Elvira would have gone on from the party to a late-night club hardly strains credibility.

The fictional sounding Smokey Joe’s was a real place and features in a number of autobiographical memoirs.

Variously spelt (Smokie,Smoky,Smokey), it had a pretty bad reputation but is fondly remembered by a number of very different characters from very different backgrounds. Safecracker (and Double Agent) Eddie Chapman lists it, along with the Nest, Hell, the Shim Sham and the Gaucho, as a regular haunt. The Irish aristocrat and humorist, Patrick Campbell recalls a late-night session there and for Gerwyn Lewis, shortly to leave England to become a teacher in Malaya and later a P.O.W.  working on the infamous Burma “Death Railway”, it was his “very favourite” night spot.

Lewis, a naive young man at the time, liked the fact that the place was always full of women. He later realised that this was because it was largely a Lesbian club. Violet Powell, the wife of Anthony Powell, took a less relaxed view, describing Smokey Joe’s as the bottom rung of Soho’s ladder of vice – not least because women danced openly with each other. I’m not quite sure why the Powells ever ventured into any arena less salubrious than a country house  weekend, as their respective memoirs consist of a series of well-articulated exercises in holding the nose when it comes to London clubs. Violet , after a couple of evenings slumming it at the Nest on Kingly Street, felt the need to have her coat destroyed ( I assume she was unfamiliar with the smell of marijuana – the Nest being reputedly the first club where “reefers” were openly smoked).

Joe Deniz, guitarist at The Nest, The Shim Sham Club, The Cuba Club and the Cafe De Paris

Most of these tales come from the late thirties. Whether the club catered to the same clientele in 1932, I can’t say. It definitely already had a reputation for ignoring the licencing laws and was popular with “theatrical” types. That it lasted throughout the decade is something of a marvel.

The most peculiar story concerning Smokey Joe’s is that Napper Dean Paul worked there, around 1939, as an” impersonation act”, presumably a drag act. Famously, his sister was reduced to being a waitress around the same time, albeit at the far more respectable Lansdowne Club in Mayfair. Given the amount of chicanery and petty larceny that Napper is accused of in the period, one can only assume that the wages weren’t great.

Brenda Dean Paul 1941

Gerrard Street was awash with clubs, many of which have achieved mythical status. Most were basement premises, a few were on the top floor. The best known is, of course, the 43, presided over by the “Queen of the West End”, Kate Meyrick.  Despite its appearance in many a Bright Young novel, its drug connections and patronage by the likes of Brilliant Chang and Darby Sabini, the 43 was relatively mainstream. More interesting are the “black” club Cuba ( later the site of Ronnie Scott’s), the mysteriously named and long lasting White Monkey, Bee Vee’s  ( possibly a gay club), the charmingly (and apparently appropriately) entitled Hell and the first venture into club-land by Muriel Belcher, The Sphinx. Belcher, in partnership with Dolly Mayers opened that venue in the mid-thirties before moving on to the Music Box in Leicester Square. Early members of which included Brian Howard and Sandy Baird. Belcher was to achieve lasting fame with the Colony drinking club after WW2 but it is often forgotten that her roots lay in the “raffish” 1930s.

Muriel Belcher with the Colony club’s most famous resident drunk, Francis Bacon. (Brian Howard first introduced Bacon to the place)

All in all, Elvira could have hardly chose a more fitting environment to round off her first night of freedom.

Advertisements