There were a number of parties thrown, by various Bright Young Things, in honour of the first Blackbirds revue. Oliver Messel, David Plunkett Greene and Anthea Carew’s brother, Patrick Gamble, organised three of the earliest. One that has found its way into several books took place on March 10th 1927.
Evelyn Waugh by Henry Lamb 1929
In Evelyn Waugh’s diaries he records going to a party given by “Layton the black man” at the studio of an artist called” Stuart Hill”. He comments “All very refined -hot lobster, champagne cup and music. Florence Mills, Delysia, John Huggins, Layton and Johnstone and others sang songs.” At this time Waugh was infatuated with Olivia Plunket-Greene, who in her turn was much taken with Blackbirds and black musicians and singers. Waugh was also seeing a lot of the free-wheeling Zena Naylor and thus her lover Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson. Contrary to some accounts, Waugh enjoyed the music. He was less keen on the social and sexual liaisons between black and white, which he lampoons (ineptly, I’ve always felt) in “Decline and Fall“.
The diary entry is worth unpicking a little. Layton was Turner Layton, who enjoyed great success in England, firstly with his partner Clarence “Tandy” Johnstone and later as a solo artist. Though his name is rather forgotten today, he was a significant figure and his compositions “Dear Old Southland”, “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” and, particularly “After You’ve Gone” are still performed today.
“After You’ve Gone” (1918) was a big hit for both Sophie Tucker and Marion Harris. They were the first white singers to make credible jazz records – Harris may actually be the first artist to have recorded a Blues. Marion Harris had a long residency at the Cafe De Paris in 1931 where Elvira would surely have seen her. She performed (she was briefly in Ever Green ) and recorded in London from 1931 to 1934 and remained in London throughout the decade, having married theatrical agent Leon Urry. Urry, depending on which account you read, was either the floor manager at the Cafe De Paris or the leading dance host there (his name has also been linked to Cafe hostess and soon-to-be film star, Merle Oberon). Urry and Harris’ London home was hit by a V1 rocket in 1944. She returned to America but died shortly afterwards – asphyxiation, she fell asleep with a lit cigarette.
Layton himself became something of a fixture at the Cafe De Paris (and Monseigneur’s Restaurant). Layton and Johnstone had first played the Cafe De Paris in 1924.Although they were initially known were known for more uptempo numbers (Way Down Yonder, Bye Bye Blackbird), it was Layton’s sophisticated balladeering that earned him a place in the hearts of Mayfair socialites. His style was similar to Hutch’s and the two are often confused. However, he lacked Hutch’s sexual charisma and concomitant notoriety. His partner Johnstone did become involved in a major scandal, through a much-publicised affair with the wife of Palm Court violinist, Albert Sandler. Layton and Johnstone found themselves being booed, particularly by provincial audiences, and Layton terminated the act, Johnstone returning to New York and obscurity. Layton proved even more popular as a solo act and was a great radio favourite in the War. He retired in 1946 but continued to live in London until his death in 1978.
Sandler, another musician in danger of slipping into oblivion, was a pioneer of the much loved and later much-parodied “Palm Court” sound – a mixture of light classical pieces and popular tunes played in a refined classical style.It was he who popularised Boccherini’s Minuet in E, used to great effect in the original, Ealing version, of “The Ladykillers”.
Turner Layton’s party was held at 41 Glebe Place, Chelsea in the studio of Alexander Stuart-Hill. This was two doors down from Olivia Wyndham’s mother’s London residence which was to be the setting for a rather wilder “Freak Party” two years later (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/freak-party-chelsea-1929/ ).
Alexander Stuart-Hill (1888-1948) was a Scottish portrait painter who achieved some success in the inter-War period but is chiefly remembered for a secret engagement to Princess Louise of Battenberg, the future Queen Consort of Sweden and brother of Louis, Lord Mountbatten. Her parents vetoed the engagement pointing to the unsuitablity of the Princess marrying a known homosexual. All of which is slightly ironic, given the rumours about Louis (not to mention Lady Edwina Mountbatten’s long affair with the bi-sexual Hutch). Stuart-Hill had recently painted Turner Layton (I can’t find the image but it was exhibited at the RA spring show) and on the night of the party he asked Florence Mills (the undisputed star of Blackbirds) if he could also do her portrait. The result was this –
Florence Mills by Alexander Stuart-Hill 1927
The picture lacks something of the exuberance and ability to spread joy contemporary reports ascribe to Florence Mills, but it is elegant and dignified. It is also markedly free of the caricature and stereotypical motifs associated with the representation of black people in that period. This I find quite find quite refreshing and I rate it highly (I’m getting rather fond of “conventional” 20s’ and 30s’ portraiture).
Johnny Hudgins, Florence Mills rehearsing on Pavilion Theatre roof, 1926
The other names on Waugh’s list are deserving of elaboration, too. “John Huggins” has got to be Johnny Hudgins (1896-1990), the male comic lead from Blackbirds. He was a legend in Harlem and in France became known as the “Black Charlie Chaplin”. He was often called “The Wah Wah Man” because of his ability to vocally mimic the archetypal muted trumpet sound of 20s’ jazz. After London he worked with Josephine Baker in the celebrated Revue Negre. The reason for his absence from most musical histories may be down to the fact that he performed in “Blackface”. By the 1920s most singers and dancers did not, but comic turns were still expected to.
Fortunately we have a striking visual record of Hudgins as he starred in a bizarre, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi comedy, directed by none other than Jean Renoir (of Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game renown). Sur Un Air De Charleston (Charleston Parade) was made in 1927. It starred Renoir’s wife Catherine Hessling, a noted silent screen actress who had been a model for Matisse and Jean’s father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the great Impressionist artist.
The film is truly odd and its themes of race, female sexuality and the future of civilisation would keep a whole conference load of academics, semioticians and cultural theorists busy for a fortnight. Fortunately, it is on Youtube – watch and be amused/amazed/perplexed.
Hudgins was also the subject of a painting, also from 1927. It is more well-known and more controversial than the Florence Mills picture.
Kees Van Dongen Le Chanteur Negre 1927
I am going to post on Van Dongen separately, so will just leave you with this image as yet another reminder of the huge impact that Black performers had on European Art and Culture in the 1920s.
The last person mentioned by Waugh, “Delysia”, was a French actress, Alice Delysia (1889-1979), who was hugely popular on the English stage in the 1920s. C.B.Cochran (who else?) brought her over from Paris towards the end of the First World War. She sang in English with a strong French accent that London audiences found irresistible. They also loved her daring costumes. The Lord Chamberlain took a dimmer view and there were frequent early censorship battles.When the Morning Post disapprovingly commented, “Never can an actress have worn so negligible a dress”, her success was ensured.
She appeared in Cochran’s Mayfair and Montmartre (1922) but it was her performance of Noel Coward’s Poor Little Rich Girl in Noel Coward’s On With The Dance (1925) that confirmed r heas a heroine for the Bright Young People.She continued to be successful throughout the 1930s, worked for ENSA and supported the Free French Forces. After the War she married a French Consul before ending her days in a Brighton rest home. Ethel Mannin mentions her in her autobiography as epitomising both the sophistication and the naive sentimentality of her generation of young women (“We loved Delyssia, all diamante and ostrich feathers singing sweetly.”)
Delysia – Mayfair and Montmartre 1922
So, quite a gathering. It is a pity that Waugh did not name the other singers. I think we can assume that Edith Wilson (who the hard-core jazz fans, such as Spike Hughes, Constant Lambert and Edward Burra) preferred to Florence Mills, was there, and a number of musicians. Such an array of talent – and lobster and champagne too!
Let’s close with party host Turner Layton nine years later. He is introduced by Bert Ambrose and the clip is from the 1936 film “Soft Lights and Sweet Music” . This is the kind of thing they lapped up at Monseigneur’s and The Mayfair Hotel (where I think this is shot),