One nightclub that features strongly in a variety of memoirs is the Florida. It was situated in South Bruton Mews, off Berkeley Square, and was open from at least 1926, with the odd interruption, through to 1940. It was very much at the upmarket end of London social life. Formal dress was required and the clientele was drawn almost exclusively from “Society”. Angela Worthington (later Fox) and Lady Marguerite Strickland were particularly taken by the place, not least because of the telephones at each table, which allowed for all kinds of flirtation.
Lady Marguerite Strickland by Gerald Brockurst 1939
The club seemed to specialise in gimmicks. It had a glass revolving door and, depending on which account you read, a glass floor, a revolving dance-floor and/or a revolving seating-area.It was also very dimly lit, all of which sounds like a recipe for disaster after a few Gin Fizzes.
The Florida has a special place in club history for two reasons – the Black artists who played there and the sometime owner Captain Gordon Halsey. Halsey was keen on black acts, having done well out of booking Layton and Johnson, very cheaply, for an earlier club he ran, The Quadrant (on Regent Street, I think). They proved very popular and Turner Layton remained a Mayfair favourite well into the 1940s.
Halsey’s greatest legacy to London night-life was his invention of the “Bottle Party”. This was a system devised to subvert the licensing laws. There were many variations but Halsey’s model was to call each night a private party. People would arrive and say that they had forgotten their invitations. A pile of invitation cards was kept at the door and on paying Five shillings and Sixpence members could gain entrance and drink alcohol that they had supposedly (and in some cases actually) pre-ordered.
It looks a little flimsy but it apparently worked (for the most part) and made Halsey wealthy. It was taken up with some vigour during the Second World War by a number of Soho establishments.According to Halsey’s friend and occasional business-partner Desmond Young (later a military historian and the biographer of Rommel). Halsey had been hit with a massive fine for breaking the licence laws at the Quadrant and was determined to avoid a repeat.
Young quotes the scarcely credible figure of £2000 and states that the incident arose because of Sylvia Hawkes (later Lady Ashley and Mrs. Clark Gable) and her party had insisted on “just one more round of drinks”. Sylvia Ashley was a model, Cochran chorus girl and stage actress. She was obviously forgiven as she was later a regular at the Florida.
Sylvia, Lady Ashley
Although, as its advertising stated, the Florida was “eminently respectable”. Halsey was charged in 1934 with using the “Bottle Party” ruse and allowing unlicensed dancing. This time the fine was nominal and only added to the mystique of the club.
The Florida had now, after a short spell as Toby’s, mutated into The Old Florida. Halsey booked Leslie Thompson’s West Indian band. This, historically significant, outfit was shortly taken over by the charismatic Ken “Snake Hips” Johnson, who was in residency for two years(1936-38) before moving on to the Cafe De Paris. Johnson, who was killed in the air-raid on the Cafe, popularised the new “Swing” style which came to dominate in the late 1930s.The music of Elvira’s era had been superseded and the Bright Young Era was definitely over.
Ken “Snakehips” Johnson
The final chapter of the Florida is, in some ways, the most unusual. In 1938 the club was bought by Adelaide Hall and her husband, making it the first black-owned nightclub outside of Soho. Hall, best known for jazz age classics such as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby””Diga Diga Do” and the exquisite “Creole Love Call”, was hugely popular in England. She had arrived in Europe, like so many others, with a Blackbirds revue (she replaced Florence Mills) and opened a club in Paris (“Le Grosse Pomme” – The Big Apple). In 1938 she moved to London to take the lead role in Edgar Wallace’s play The Sun Never Sets and her husband, Bert Hicks, negotiated the deal at the Florida.
Hall was a great draw through 1938 and 1939 and The Florida continued to be “the place to go”. Her band was led by the Nigerian, Fela Sowande, who later became a leading composer of choral and symphonic music. He too had played in Blackbirds revues but is perhaps best remembered in England as the organist on a number of Vera Lynn’s recordings.
The prestige of the Florida can be ascertained by the fact that the BBC made two fledgling television programmes at the venue in 1939.The number of viewers who owned television sets before the War was probably less than the Florida’s annual membership roll but the event is significant nonetheless. The programmes were entitled “Dark Sophistication” and “Harlem in Mayfair”. Here is the Radio Times listing for the latter.
“25 feb 1939 15.25-16.00 ‘Harlem In Mayfair’ a coloured cabaret from the Old Florida Club. With Adelaide Hall, Marko Hlubi and his Tom Toms, Esther and Louise, Eddie Lewis, and Felix Sowande with his Negro Choir and Orchestra. Presentation by Stephen Harrison.”
Adelaide Hall, BBC 1947
The final residents at the Florida were Felix Mendelsohn and His Hawaian Serenaders. Mendelsohn, a London born descendant of the composer, fused Hawaian guitar styles with Swing music and was incredibly popular throughout the forties. His band included stalwarts of the London jazz/danceband scene such as Ivor Mairants, the first great,if generally unsung, guitar hero in British popular music (see Ivor Mairants).
All this fun and musical fusion ended with the Blitz. The Florida took a direct hit and never re-opened. Adelaide joined ENSA and her wartime concerts are still fondly remembered (my father was a big fan). She remained part of the Mayfair and cabaret scene, and returned to the public eye with a series of retrospective concerts and TV interviews late in her long and productive life. She died in 1993, aged 92.
Hicks and Hall had actually acquired the Florida through leasing The Spotted Dog, a cocktail bar in the same building,and evidently part of the same business.A few years earlier this had been the Blue Goose, known to models,actresses and young socialites as “a good hunting ground for rich husbands”. In 1934 the manageress was Diana Caldwell,later Lady Broughton and finally Lady Delamere of Kenya. Her affair with Lord Erroll was, of course, the cause of his murder (1941) and the basis of the whole “White Mischief” saga.
Diana Caldwell in Kenya
Her time in London is surprisingly under-researched given the amount of books on the “Happy Valley” set. What we do know tells a familiar story. She was 21 in 1934, working as a model in a fashion house in the daytime and running the bar in the evening. At weekends she enjoyed hunting and shooting at various country houses. She had several affairs and not a few abortions.
In 1937, pregnant again, she married Vernon Motion. According to Leda Farrant,The child was not his. The marriage lasted about a fortnight and the pregnancy was terminated. Diana was already involved with Sir Jock Delves Broughton and left with him for Africa in 1940. The couple married in Durban.
Vernon Motion (1904-1980) is usually listed as a musician, a second pianist in Carroll Gibbons orchestra (Gibbons provided the music for Elvira’s Belgrave Square party). There is no evidence for this. Leda Farrant interviewed Gibbons’ widow and some former band-members and none knew the name. He was an engineer and a keen pilot and aircraft enthusiast (perhaps a member of the Aero club that regularly dined at the Hambone?). He was married four times – to Margaret Holden(1931),Diana (1937), Enid Cobb (1942) and Oonagh Brassey (1949). Oddly, in 1932 he was living in Kinnerton Road, just at the back of William Mews and so was a close neighbour of Elvira’s.The current Poet Laureate is Andrew Vernon Motion – I don’t know if there is a connection.
Vernon Motion, Royal Aero Club photo 1933
I’ll post some music related to the Florida next and I will return to the White Mischief crowd shortly.
UPDATE There are alternative candidates for the title inventor of the bottle-party. One is Sam Henry, associated with the Hell nightclub, and another is Ernest Hoey a friend of Kate Meyrick’s, who ran a Wine Merchant’s business with premises in Warwick Street and Rupert Street (both in Soho). He sounds a good bet.