Archive for March, 2012

Mrs. Mullens of Wellington Court

It’s probably nothing but there is a Mrs. Mullens listed in the London Phone Directory, appearing first in 1935 and disappearing in 1937.  The address is 18 Wellington Court.We know Elvira had at least one post-1932 address in Belgravia and Wellington Court is just a quarter of a mile from William Mews (and half a mile from her parents in Belgrave Square). No forename or initial is given and if Elvira did change her name then “Mrs. Mullens” is hardly an impenetrable  alias.

Flats at Wellington Court

Wellington Court was, as far as I can tell, home to a lot of  single and retired members of the establishment. It also housed a fair few Bridge clubs. If Elvira did live here, she was hardly down-at-heel.

In Dance With A Stranger,.the 1985 film made about Ruth Ellis, Wellington Court was used to shoot the exterior of Ruth’s drinking club. “The Little Club” was actually on Brompton Road, a few doors up from where Michael Scott Stephen had lived.


After the car crash on the road to Cannes (see ) Elvira faded from the headlines. According to Cotes she changed her name (to what, I don’t know) and, although she stayed in hotels and at least one flat in London, spent most of her time in Paris with periods in Corfu and Mallorca, which appear to have replaced the South of France (where she was probably now unwelcome) in her affections.

Paul Cadmus Self Portrait, Mallorca 1932

Mallorca, in its pre-Mass Tourism days, is usually associated  (in English minds) with Robert Graves, who moved there with Laura Riding in 1929. But he was only one of several artists and writers who lived there in the early thirties – Robert McAlmon and Paul Cadmus being two of the better-known..Even by the standards of Expat Bohemia, Mallorca had a pretty wild reputation. Ethel Mannin, herself no shrinking violet, described the place thus, “it was infested by every kind of foreign undesirable, drug addicts, dipsomaniacs, crooks, idle rich, and every kind of Parasite.” These, dare I say it, sound just like Elvira’s sort of people.

Ethel Mannin

Mannin was in Mallorca, intermittently, between 1932 and 1936. She concludes ” There were too many bars and too much drinking; it might have been Montparnasse”.This is singularly apt, as Elvira spent part of her last night on earth in Montparnasse.

On the 2th December 1936 The Sunday Dispatch carried this piece


Since her acquittal, Elvira Barney spent her time between London and Paris. She lived in West End Hotels and later in a Belgravia flat.

The trial left its mark on her. Although still young, she looked middle-aged.

She tried to get work.

“I am fed up with doing nothing, ” she told me when I met her at a West End night club. “I could do with the money.

I want so much to forget what happened, but I am never allowed to. Wherever I go I feel that people are looking at me and talking about me.

The only people who want to know me now seem to be the type of person who wants to be seen with “the notorious Mrs.Barney”.

I am reconciled to the fact that I will never be really happy again. That is why I want a job that will help me forget.

I used to think I could kill the past by getting around and having a good time, but it just didn’t work out.

I am tired of clubs and parties. I just want a chance to settle down and live a reasonable life.

At present I am thinking of going into a flower shop, but I rather doubt whether it will come to anything.”

I asked her whether the rumours that she was to marry were true. She said she had considered remarriage.

“But I have a feeling that my hoodoo. I somehow feel that I’m not fated to be happy,” she said with tears in her eyes.

Elvira with Flowers 1932

Now, this all may be perfectly genuine. But remember, Elvira had died on Christmas Day, which the paper knew -hence the past tense in the headline. It does seem rather prescient of the Sunday Dispatch to have sent a “Special Correspondent” to interview her shortly beforehand.It was also a bit cheeky, since it was Elvira’s ghost-written memoirs in that paper that had really turned the populace against her.

The article itself is strikingly similar to those which appeared periodically about Elizabeth Ponsonby and Brenda Dean Paul, the more famous “Bad Girls” among the ex-Bright Young set. They too were full of contrition and regret and also featured the subjects’ attempts to find gainful employment. All of them strike me as geared to the general public’s wish to see a price paid for too much adventure and excitement. Middle-Class morality rather journalistic accuracy is the name of the game.

Brenda Dean Paul, Waitress at the Lansdowne Club 1941

If Elvira was tired of the night-life she had an odd way of showing it. On Christmas Eve 1936 she dined at  La Coupole in Montparnesse with a group of friends including Rene Cady. I’m trying to find out more about Cady, who is variously described as “Elvira’s fiance”, “a beautiful, blond young man”, a “homosexual”, “distantly related to French royalty” and someone “well-known to around Parisian Bars and Clubs”. He was probably all of these. The best candidate I have so far is Rene Jean Cady De Witte but I’ve nothing more concrete.

La Coupole was the most fashionable and Bohemian eating-place in Montparnasse. Opened in 1927 (with guests such as Jean Cocteau and Blaise Cendrars in attendance), it quickly became legendary. This from the restaurant’s own website ( )

“The pillars treated in imitation marble and the Cubist-inspired mosaics are listed on the Registry of Historic Monuments; the pilasters are adorned with paintings by the minor masters of the Roaring Twenties: La Coupole is the temple of Art Deco. It was brought to life in 1927 through the determination of two Auvergne natives, Ernest Fraux and René Lafon. Its grand opening was attended by the brightest stars of art, literature and nightlife: artists and their models, socialites and big spenders, easy women and impossible women.”

“The restaurant was off and running. Action flitted from the American bar tended by Bob to the rows of tables topped with linen or paper tablecloths. Painters such as Derain, Léger, Soutine, Man Ray, Brassai, Kisling and Picasso were elbow to elbow–sometimes with their fists raised… Aragon met Elsa and Simenon dined with Josephine Baker. Breton slapped Chirico and Kessel downed his glasses. An unknown writer with tiny round glasses, Henry Miller, took breakfast at the bar; Matisse sipped beer while Joyce lined up his whiskeys. When Mistinguett made her entrance surrounded by her boys, the room stood to applaud her. After France was liberated, the party began anew. The “Ladder” painters designed a fresco and work was displayed by artists from the School of Paris. Yves Klein wanted to paint the obelisk blue; La Coupole gave him a cocktail. César shared an intimate dinner with the bust of President Auriol, Camus celebrated his Nobel prize and Jean-Paul Sartre left hefty tips at his regular table, no. 149..”

“In May 1968, Cohn-Bendit climbed atop a table. Patti Smith played guitar on the terrace, Renaud busked and Gainsbourg and Birkin came for Sunday lunches. The years flew by… In 1984, Chagall celebrated his birthday at table 73; a few years later François Mitterrand sat at table 82 and ordered his last meal, a lamb curry. In 2008, the interior dome was decorated by four artists to reflect La Coupole’s original spirit – nature, women, celebration: Ricardo Mosner, Carole Benzaken, Fouad Bellamine and Xiao Fan. The world goes by and the enchantment continues.”

After La Coupole, Elvira and party went to Cady’s flat where, strangely perhaps, Elvira insisted on listening to a broadcast of Midnight Mass. They then hit Montmartre and were spotted in several bars and clubs, until Elvira, having already passed out once, pleaded tiredness and returned, alone, to her hotel room.

Cady arrived the next afternoon. Elvira was dead, still in her clothes from the night before. There was blood around her mouth. She was not quite thirty two years old.

Unlike Dorothy Sayers, who wrote an engaging  analysis of the Wallace murder in Liverpool, Agatha Christie is not usually thought of as a writer who was concerned, or drew direct inspiration from, “True Crime”. However, she did use actual criminality as a point of departure for several of her tales. The best known of these is the Lindbergh kidnapping (clearly discernible in “Murder on the Orient Express”). Others are explored in Mike Holgate’s “Agatha Christie’s True Crime Inspirations”. To me, the most interesting is “The Affair at the Victory Ball” (1923), an early Poirot case, with undeniable overtones of the Billie Carleton affair. This story concerning both cocaine and “fast” young women is one of the early fictional renditions of the set that Elvira was later to encounter.

Billie Carleton

Although not mentioned by Holgate, there is another Poirot story that may have been suggested by a real case – that of Elvira Barney. In her notebooks Christie writes,

“The Mares of  Diomedes

Old racing man – his “gals” very wild – one of them shoots someone – (Mrs.Barney?)”

The story. which appeared as “The Horses of Diomedes” in “The Labours of Hercules” (1947), is about rich young women and cocaine.

“One night, Poirot is telephoned for help by a young medical acquaintance, Dr Michael Stoddart. Going to the address given to him, Poirot finds Stoddart in one of the flats where a party had been taking place before the medical man got there. The flat is owned by a lady called Patience Grace and the party involved the use of cocaine. Mrs Grace had an argument with her boyfriend, Anthony Hawker, and she attempted to shoot him as he left the flat……Stoddart’s concern is for Sheila Grant whom he met at a hunt ball in the country. She is one of four daughters of a retired army general and there is every sign that Sheila and her three sisters are starting to go wild, getting into a bad set where the cocaine flows freely. Sheila was at the party, is still at the flat having just woken up and is feeling terrible after the high of the drugs.”  (from Wikipedia)

This does sound as if the germ of the plot was indeed the Barney case.

The original Horses of Diomedes fed on human flesh. In Christie’s version drugs and drug dealing fulfil the same function.

It has often been suggested that the mother and daughter, Lady Bess Sedgwick and the Honourable Elvira Blake, in Christie’s At Bertram’s Hotel are partly based on Elvira, for which a case, albeit a tenuous one, can be made.

There is nothing comparable to A Pin to See the Peepshow, by F.Tennyson Jesse about Edith Thompson, or Cause Celebre, by Terence Rattigan about Alma Rattenbury, that derives from the Mews shooting. But, given the sheer weight of detective novels churned out in the 1930s and the publicity surrounding the trial, it would not surprise me if  other works of fiction utilised some aspects of the case.If anyone can confirm this, I’d be more than grateful.

More on fiction here

Night and Day

Between July and December 1937, a weekly magazine called “Night and Day” attempted to find a niche in a crowded market. It modelled itself loosely on the New Yorker –  although its editorial tone leant towards flippancy and it exuded Englishness in every article. The editors were Graham Greene and John Marks. Greene was already held in high regard by his peers but not yet the household name he was to become. Marks was a Times journalist and translator (of Celine, in particular). Both were, of course, Oxford graduates and the magazine’s air of erudition worn lightly is a familiar one.

Graham Greene

It was not a Bright Young People venture (bit late for that anyway) but with articles by the likes of Patrick Balfour, John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly,Peter Fleming, Christopher Hollis, Christopher Isherwood, Constant Lambert, Osbert Lancaster, Anthony Powell, Maurice Richardson, Christopher Sykes and Evelyn Waugh much of its output reads like the 20s’ generation in adulthood – not exactly in their pipe-and-slippers phase but definitely grown-up, wordly and detachedly bemused by the changing cultural and political climate.

Constant Lambert by Christopher Wood

The over-all list of contributors was, in fact, terrifying. Of the regulars, Waugh did the book reviews, Greene reviewed films, Osbert Lancaster handled art criticism, Constant Lambert wrote on music, Elizabeth Bowen went to the theatre, Hugh Casson surveyed trends in architecture and Peter Fleming was the motoring correspondent. Two columns that have a special period charm were Herbert Read’s weekly round-up of new detective novels and A.J.A. Symons restaurant. reviews. Foreign correspondents included Alastair Cooke and William Empsom. Chuck in Pamela Hansford Johnson and Antonia White and illustrations by Felix Topolski and Edward Ardizzone and you have a fair cross-section of what once counted as English “Life and Letters”.

Despite this abundance of talent (and the list could be a lot longer, I assure you), “Night and Day” did not thrive. Sales were reasonable, but advertising revenue fell short of expectations and the magazine’s mixture of humour and critical commentary somehow failed to click with the public. There was a costly court case after Graham Greene had suggested that some of Shirley Temple’s middle-aged male fans were less than innocent in their appreciation of the precocious infant. Equally damaging, was a fashion review that was less than flattering about a company whose adverts featured elsewhere in the journal. After six months the plug was pulled.

So Britain did not get its own New Yorker. In the following year Picture Post did manage a very successful (and very English) version of Life, but it had a far more coherent editorial policy and was much more soundly financed. Night and Day was a (not ignoble) failure but,sadly, if it has any contemporary historical purchase it is only as a small footnote to a number of otherwise triumphant careers.

Topolski cover

Fortunately, you can get a flavour of the magazine from an excellent compilation, edited by Charles Hawtree (1985), which is well worth hunting down. A particular highlight and an element dear to the heart of this blog is the “What’s On” style entertainments run-down.Art Galleries, Theatres, Cinemas, Sport, Restaurants, Cabaret Clubs and Bottle Parties are all listed with brief, helpful comments. Sport apart, the focus is not just exclusively London, it is exclusively West End and thus gives a useful snapshot of how the educated and well-to-do Londoner might have spent their leisure time that year.

I’m particularly interested in three sections – Restaurants, Supper Dance and Cabaret, and one called Bottle Parties. The restaurants listed are A L’Ecu De France,Antoine’s, Au Petit Coin De France, Berkeley Buttery,Boulestin, Cafe Royal, Chez Victor, Cumberland, Kempinski, L’Aperitif, Le Coq D’Or. Le Perroquet, L’Escargot  Bienvenue, Le Trianon, Majorca, Monseigneur, Overton’s, Prunier’s, Quaglino’s, Quinto’s, Salzburg Grill, Savoy Grill, Simpson’s In The Strand, Sovrani and (featuring floodlit animals and the Bamd of His Majesty’s Guards) the Zoological Garden’s Restaurant. Quaglino’s appears to be the priciest (Theatre Dinner ten shillings and six pence) whereas the Petit Coin (in Carnaby Street) is said to be “very inexpensive”. Lunch at the Cafe Royal, a mere three and six, looks a good bet too.

Many of the above establishments are iconic and you will find them mentioned in novels, memoirs and biographies of the period.  Some specialised in luncheon fare, some were cocktail bars (L’Aperitif) and some catered mainly for theatre audiences . Elvira’s favourite, The Monseigneur is remembered today for its music and cabaret so it is important to note that it was first and foremost a place to eat.

London Casino 1938

The Supper Dance and Cabaret entries are as follows  – Berkeley (“goes down with everyone from a debutante to a maiden aunt”), Cafe Anglais (“informal, stage people”), Cafe De Paris (“sophisticated atmosphere, good supper”), Dorchester, Grosvenor (featuring “stunt banjoists”) Hungaria, London Casino (Paris style stage revue -“conversation superfluous”), Mayfair, Quaglino (“midnight Cabaret – Dress”), Ritz (“crowded with the fearfully smart”), San Marco, Savoy  and Trianon. Unfortunately there are no prices listed but most of these places would have required both membership and an entrance fee.

Then we have the Bottle Parties ( “The Private Party system operates at the undermentioned. Order drinks 24 Hours in Advance.”) – Cocoanut Grove (“South Sea Island setting”) , Four Hundred  (“favourite haunt of the rich after 2a.m. Very subdued lighting, supper menu includes Chinese food”), Frisco (“the genuine pulse of Africa, migrating via Paris and Harlem – this is the real thing”), Havana (Cuban band, Rumbas – Breakfast”), Paradise and The Old Florida (“eminently respectable, supper menu and cabaret”).

All in all fair range to keep you busy from morning until very late at night, even if there are fewer fashionable spots than there would have been in Elvira’s heyday. The Nest, The Shim-Sham and other low dives are, of course, not mentioned – Frisco’s is as near as you get. Nonetheless, I am grateful to Night And Day for leaving us with this ephemeral but informative selection of venues. Magazines and journals have been under-used as a source of research into the past but they can sometimes capture an era more effectively than any other medium.

Incidentally,Elvira’s preferred “Entertainment Guide” was the very popular Bystander,  which carried extensive listings alongside reviews and fiction (Daphne Du Maurier got her start in its pages). The Bystander was one of the magazines Greene and Marks hoped to compete with. They may have dented its sales as it merged with the Tatler a year or so later.

Night And Day took its name from the Cole Porter song. In London it was particularly associated with Leslie Hutchinson, who sang it at several of the above restaurants, hotels and clubs. He was still bashing it out at Quaglino’s into the 1960s, but here he is at his peak, in 1933.

Another Party in Glebe Place

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.

Turner Layton

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”.

Albert Sandler

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  ).

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),