The were many perils in pursuing a wild and unconventional lifestyle.Some of these were legal, some medical and some a mixture of both. In all of these matters, sympathetic and/or amenable members of the medical profession were invaluable, if not always reliable, allies.
For those addicted to opiates, a compliant doctor was essential.Several such would be even better. Brenda Dean Paul’s downward spiral can be read off from her many prescriptions – and her misuse and modifying of them. But a co-operative medico could also appear in court for you – arguing for a “rest cure” rather than a custodial sentence (as with Brenda and Elvira’s close friend Leonie Fester). At Alma Rattenbury’s trial in 1935 her doctor managed to dismiss any hint that Alma drank excessively or used drugs, despite what, today, seems very clear evidence to the contrary. Similarly, the police at Elvira’s trial felt that Dr. Durrant was very much acting as a Defence witness and some suspected him of co-creating Elvira’s account of the “accidental” shooting (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/12/01/detective-inspector-winter-is-unhappy/ ).Doctors to the well-to-do were, if not quite family friends, then confidants and occasional dinner guests (in Alma and O’Donnell’s case – weekly). This, combined with the rules of patient confidentiality, not to mention financial dependency, ensured that many secrets remained safe.
Many of those secrets were sexual in nature.Questions about contraception or the treatment of venereal disease – both totally taboo as topics for public discussion – could be raised in the privacy of the consulting room. The private doctor may have disapproved but would usually at least offer advice. Many doctors heard evidence of physical abuse or confessions of infidelity that were otherwise kept hidden.
One thing tested the limits of this relative openness – requests for the termination of an unwanted pregnancy.There were some doctors who were approachable- variously motivated by political views, friendship or just plain greed – but on the whole a rather different system came into play.
Abortion is still a highly controversial issue and the history is too wide in scope for this blog to explore with any adequacy.However, while recognising that this is a subject which affected every tier of society, I feel it deserves a mention in this narrow context for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is as much part of the story of Bright Young culture as drug-use or after-hours clubs. Secondly, it was a dilemma that many (most?) young women who lived the “fast life” had to face at some point. Thirdly, it has, with some notable exceptions, been rather marginalised in histories of the scene (it does not quite fit the care-free, glamorous image). Finally, I think the phenomenon of the “Harley Street Abortionist”, a phrase which occurs repeatedly in the debate running up to the 67 Act, is closely related to the moral and social upheavals of the inter-War years and remains only partially understood.
At one point in Michael Arlen’s Green Hat (1924), the heroine, the iconic Iris Storm, is recuperating in Paris from “septic poising”.The more clued-up female readers would have taken this to refer to the after-effects of an abortion. A year or so later, in the real world, Yvonne Kapp, a twenties regular at the Cave of Harmony, The Blue Lantern and other clubs contracted septicemia after just such an operation.This was no “back-street” affair; it had been carried out by a doctor from within her circle of friends. Kapp was married with one child already and did not want to undergo the procedure but was told by her artist husband that they could not afford a second child. Kapp’s world at the time was one of Chelsea Bohemia and Radical Politics so the episode is a telling mixture of modern mores coupled with old-fashioned male authority.
A more typical incident, one which would have been familiar to quite a few women of Elvira’s acquaintance, concerned Rosamond Lehmann. Again she was pressured by her husband, who comes across not so much as patriarchal but simply barking mad ( he was prepared to let her have the baby as long as she said it was someone else’s). Unlike Kapp she did not know what to do. So she asked her cousin Nina, “a known socialite”, who gave her the name of a Mr.Osborne, a “physiotherapist” with a practice in the West End who sorted the matter (as he had earlier done for the unmarried Nina) for the considerable amount of £100.
“Mr.Osborne” was one of what was to become a distinct species – the “Harley Street Abortionist”. Not every one of them worked in that street but all had practices in fashionable areas Their clients were actresses, dancers, night-club hostesses and “fashionable ladies”. They often referred to themselves as “osteopaths”, “physiotherapists” and the fee was generally between £50 and £100. Some wrote a statement confirming that a pregnancy would cause severe psychiatric damage to the patient and got a second doctor to do the same and then a third party would carry out the termination. This conferred a dubious legality on the proceedings. Others simply performed the operation with no questions asked.
It was a lucrative business. In the early thirties, club hostess Norah Turner (later Lady Docker) got pregnant by her wealthy boyfriend and soon to be firat husband Clement Callingham. A friend at the Cafe De Paris gave her a Harley Street address.She was referred to a dingy surgery in Tooting. In the waiting room she was surprised to recognise all the other women there – either as fellow nightclub dancers and hostesses or regular visitors to the Cafe De Paris.
Lady Docker 1950s
The doctors not only made a lot of money, they wielded considerable power and it is incorrect to think of them as lurking in the shadows, shunned socially. An odd example of this can be found in the unsolved Brighton Trunk Murders of 1934. A prime suspect in the first, still unsolved, murder was Edward Massiah, an abortionist with practices in Brighton and London. When confronted by the police he calmly took a piece of paper and wrote a list of names on it, suggesting that these people would not approve of any further enquiries in his direction. Such was the prestige and influence of the names on the list that Massiah was not questioned further. At about the same time, in an entirely different context, the irrepressible Nerina Shute became engaged to the distinctly raffish “Charles” even with the knowledge that he had been struck off the medical register for performing an abortion. “Charles” was no stranger to the Bohemian life and took Nerina to a “Chelsea orgy” to demonstrate what her “free love” ideals entailed in practice. (see http://suegeorgewrites.blogspot.com/ )
Nerina Shute and “Charles”
The best known and most intriguing “Harley Street Abortionist” was Edward Charles Sugden.He was usually referred to as “Teddy” and his surgery was in Half Moon Street. His fame/infamy is mostly due to his close involvement with the Profumo/Keeler scandal but he was born in 1902 and was certainly active from the mid-1930s if not before. Depending on which source you go to, he was either a creepy and perverted villain or a progressively minded man with ideas ahead of their time regarding female sexual emancipation. This latter view is a bit hard to take when you discover that his main source of income, apart from actresses and society women, came from the Messina Brothers. The Messinas were the dominant force behind prostitution in London from the late thirties to the mid fifties and Sugden spoke up for them (and the women) in a number of court hearings.
None of this stopped him being a familiar face on the London nightclub scene.The set that included Sugden, Stephen Ward (b 1910) and Hod Dibben (b 1904) were in many ways a continuation of the louche culture of pre-War years but without the arty and Bohemian trappings. Sugden had a weekend party house at Bray, where naturism and orgies were the order of the day – many of the female guests were Sugden’s clients. Viva King states that Elvira had something similar at Henley (or more likely,Taplow )- the “Thameside Riviera” had a wild reputation from the early 20s to the early 60s before the Profumo scandal shifted the landscape. It was Sugden who provided Ward with the Nembutal that he committed suicide with – perhaps in response to the knowledge that if the police didn’t win on the immoral earnings charge they were going to pursue one for procuring abortions which would have caused Sugden no little amount of trouble.
Ward and friends at Cliveden
If this is all starting to sound somewhat flippant, be assured that I am not trying to downplay the heartache and trauma involved in the whole business. Some women lost their lives and others had theirs ruined (it is possible that Brenda Dean Paul’s addiction was triggered by a botched abortion). What I want to state is that abortion was an ever present feature of the world of clubs, theatre and “fast” society (and, lest we forget, of “respectable” society too).The possession of a name of someone who could “help out” was an integral part of surviving in a world before the Pill – and in many instances, long after that.
I will pursue this further with a post on Ethel Mannin and the world around Miles and Joan Malleson – for whom the issue was much more one of sexual politics. For Elvira’s circle it was more the case of a “necessary evil”. Debates over the morality of the whole process are not my concern, but I think the addition of another element of illegality – along with drug use, homosexuality etc. – adds to our awareness of the dislocation between themselves and conventional society that the people into whose lives I am intruding felt.