Archive for April, 2012

David Hicks

While trying to get my head around the world inhabited by Simon Fleet and Nicky Haslam (see ) I stumbled upon this list, taken from the 1998 obituary of interior designer David Hicks. I’m assuming this refers to the 1950s  – Hicks was born in 1929.

“Other friends were mainly of the more sophisticated world, headed by Bunny Roger, Arthur Jeffress, Barry Sainsbury and those veteran, inveterate matchmakers Chips Channon and Peter Coats.”

Typical David Hicks design

Apart from my satisfaction in seeing Bunny Roger and Arthur Jeffress in the same sentence ( I’m told the two knew each other from the time of the Red and White party (see ) it made me wonder about the unbroken link between pre-War and 1960s  “Dandyism”, as typified by Mayfair and Kings Road boutiques like “Mr. Fish”  (see

Dandy in Aspic ).

This ought to (but won’t) lead to a questioning of the myth of the democratic and egalitarian origins of “Swinging London” and the sixties in general. In Chelsea and Belgravia, A wealthy, often gay, High Bohemia held cultural sway, much as it had done in Elvira’s day.Even some of the names are the same – Hicks was married to a Mountbatten, Mary Quant to a Plunket Greene. I don’t want to downplay the impact of Vidal Sassoon,David Bailey et al but for every Chris Stamp there was a Kit Lambert (son of Constant). The figure of Christopher Gibbs is every bit as emblematic of the period as any member of the new rock star-aristocracy.

Alexander Plunket Greene

Off topic, but perhaps not really, two of the Beatles (George and Ringo) briefly lived in William Mews in the mid-sixties, just a few doors down from Elvira’s former residence.

More on post-War Mayfair and a few Chelsea “Scallywags” in a forthcoming post.

P.G.Wodehouse and Elvira

On August 13th 1932, P.G.Wodehouse wrote to his old school friend Bill Townend. Wodehouse was living at Auribeau-sur-Siagne, just north of Cannes in the South of France. Much of the letter is about the iniquities of the British and American tax system, something of an obsession with the hardly down-at-heel Wodehouse – it is why he spent so much time “abroad”. However, there is some gossip too. Amongst which  is this vitriolic gem,

We now have Mrs.Barney in our midst! I haven’t seen her, but I’m told she haunts low bars  in red pyjamas and talks to everyone at the top of her voice. I can’t see what it matters whether she actually slew the young drug-fiend or not, – they ought to have hung a woman like that on principle.”

Whether “in our midst” means that Elvira was also in Auribeau, or was in the general area (probably Cannes) is unclear, although the footnotes to the letter do claim that Elvira had just moved to Auribeau.


What is more significant is the hostility to both Michael and Elvira. Michael is a “drug-fiend”, whose death is practically welcomed. Where did Wodehouse get “drug-fiend” from? The trial reports hinted at debauchery and dissolution but stopped short of that accusation. Rumours did abound, especially among those “in the know”. Wodehouse was well acquainted with Beverley Nichols, who was happy to tell all and sundry that Michael was a “pusher of cocaine”, so maybe that’s the source.

As to his take on Elvira, it firstly shows how quickly she had become demonised. Remember, just one month previously a large crowd had greeted her acquittal with jubilation and a quick burst of “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow”. Again, it is her lifestyle that is deplored, not whether she committed murder or not. I do wonder where Wodehouse picked up the authentic-sounding detail about “red pyjamas”. These would have been beach pyjamas, very much the thing in the South of France in the early thirties. Red then, as it does now, carried very definite overtones of sexual availibility.

Anyway, inappropriate dress, a loud voice and a fondness for low dives are obviously grounds for hanging (for a woman,anyway). Wodehouse may not have been speaking absolutely literally, but he was not being ironic. Supreme comedic writer that he was, there is barely a grain of humour in any of his letters. He was simply voicing what was becoming a general revulsion at Elvira’s all-too-public behaviour.

It is not easy to find anything redeeming about Elvira’s demeanour or personality. On the other hand,perhaps perversely, comments such as Wodehouse’s rather make me side with her. Beloved though he is, and I am a big fan of his writing, his own career in France was not, when all is said and done, exactly blameless.


Simon Fleet

Along with Edgar Blatt, the driving force behind the ill fated “To and Fro” was Simon Carnes (c1913-1966). He wrote a number of Revues in the 1930s, including “One of Those Things“(1934), ,“All’s Well” (1936) and “Back Your Fancy” (1938). He was also an actor and a set designer. Although primarily a lyricist he  seems to have also done some composing and, unlikely as I find it, is credited with providing the music for the 1935 Fortune theatre production of Elmer Rice’s “Not For Children“. The Revues seem to have been generally well-received but they peter out at the end of the decade. Simon Carnes, like so many others, disappears from the records, a small footnote to theatrical history.

36 Wardour Street today – Carnes’ flat upstairs on the right (in the 1930s the Vietnamese restaurant was Mrs.Brown’s Little Tea Shop)

Except  it wasn’t quite like that. Simon Carnes vanishes but Simon Fleet was born.Carnes had lived in Wardour Street  (two minutes walk from Hugh Wade’s flat) throughout the 1930s and was evidently already something of a “character”. Tall, handsome, very much a dandy, he was taken up by some very influential friends.The two most important were probably Sophie Fedorovich and Lady Juliet Duff.

Sophie Fedorovich was a Russian-born artist who was part of the circle that included Barbara Ker-Seymer, Olivia Wyndham, Marty Mann and Lucy Norton. She was also very close to Frederick Ashton. Although a gifted painter, it is for her costume and set designs for the Ballet that she is best remembered. When she met Simon is uncertain – her name is on the programme for “To and Fro” so it is likely that they knew each other from the mid-thirties.

Costume Design by Sophie Fedorovich 1940

Equally significant was his relationship with Lady Juliet Duff, a socialite and patron of the Arts (particularly Ballet) to whom the adjective “extraordinary” is customarily applied. Lady Juliet was thirty years Carnes’ senior and he was to be what Viva King terms her “cavaliere servente” for many years. She provided Carnes with an income – he seems not to have been independently wealthy – and encouraged his transformation. He was a constant presence at her house and as a companion at the theatre. Sir Francis Rose (of whom more in a separate post) describes Simon in the early days of his alliance with Lady Duff.

David Herbert, Juliet Duff, Cyril Ritchard (of “To and Fro”), Madge Elliot and Michael Duff 1941

“Simon Carnes, as he was called then, drifted about the house quietly, politely, and with sufficient personal fantasy to make him the most pleasing of modern and youthful eccentrics.”

During the War Carnes (whose real name is something of a mystery – Nicky Haslam says he was originally Harry Carnes, while Viva King thinks it was Kahn) changed his name to Simon Fleet. He was in the Merchant Navy at the time. He also changed his appearance, thanks to an experiment with plastic surgery that left him with a rather snub-nosed look, and his profession – moving from the world of the stage to Antiques.

Lady Juliet Duff, the Lunts, Chips Channon – Simon Fleet sat on the ground (Photo by Cecil Beaton )

Starting off as a Portobello Road stallholder , he was to eventually become the saleroom correspondent for various Arts journals and the Observer’s antiques expert. His good taste was legendary and his 1961 book on the history of clocks is still regarded as a classic.

But it was his persona and distinctive companions for which he is most usually remembered. As Viva King recalled, “His house was made gay by his great variety of friends – high, middle or lower class. Simon brought gaiety to his world and one was lucky to know him.”  These friends included Chips Channon, Cecil Beaton, Dickie Buckle and Oliver Messel. His appearance too, guaranteed that he was noticed. He had a fondness for thigh-length boots, which, in the 1950s, must have even caused Chelsea heads to turn.

The house in question was 22 Bury Walk. He had inherited this from Sophie Fedorovitch, who died there in 1953 – owing to a gas leak. It was known as the “Gothic Box” and was sumptuously and ornately decorated. Nicky Haslam, to whom Simon was an early mentor in all things stylish and sophisticated, devotes considerable space to affectionate reminiscences of the house and its owner in his autobiography Redeeming Features. Haslam, to me, represents the last link – through Simon – to the world of 1930s’  High Bohemia. See Nicky Haslam.

Gothic Box

Apart from his writings on antiques, Fleet edited a tribute book to Sophie Fedorovich and an odd little booklet on Henry James at Rye. He befriended Lady Diana Cooper and appears to have had a similar relationship with her as with Juliet Duff. When the latter died in 1964 , she left him money in her will, a testament to their long friendshio. Thereafter he went into a serious emotional depression. His end was sad and undignified. Less than sober, he fell down the stairs at the Gothic Box and died as a consequence.

It would be interesting to know if Simon Fleet and Arthur Jeffress’ paths crossed. They certainly had mutual friends (Nicky Haslam knew both – but then again he has met everybody) both feature in Truman Capote’s letters ( but as with Haslam, ditto). The artist John Piper had correspondence with both men, but these seem strictly of a business character. Even so, it seems hard to imagine that two such flamboyant characters, both avid collectors, did not bump into each other at least once.

Sketches for the ballet by Sophie Fedorovich 1950 – donated to the V&A by Simon Fleet

One of the surprises for me since commencing this blog is the centrality of Ballet to any discussion of cultural life in C20th England. Starting with the impact of Diaghilev ( championed by both Juliet Duff and her mother), then the Ballet Rambert, through to the dancers and choreographers (Ashton, Tudor,Chappell) ,to the set and costume designers (Messel, Fedorovich,Burra) , the network that was created draws in a range of artists, Bright Young People, popular entertainers and West End socialites to an extent I had not begun to consider. I wish I knew more about the topic. A good starting point is Julie Kavanagh’s biography of Sir Frederick Ashton, Secret Muses but I feel the need to explore further – the reviews and critical writings of two of Simon Fleet’s friends Dickie Buckle (who gave the eulogy at his funeral) and Maude Lloyd (who danced in “To and Fro“) strike me as worth a look and I am going to hunt some of them down.


For the Revue To and Fro see

Arthur Jeffress’ 1933 Rolls Royce

I have mentioned this a  while back but this link has additional information.

Arthur Jeffress 1933 Rolls-Royce

I have rather neglected Arthur Jeffress of late, but I will return to him soon. It has occurred to me that he has been too easily dismissed in various accounts relating either to Elvira’s trial or his place in London social and cultural life. As with Hugh Wade, he could do with a bit of a reappraisal .Fortunately, someone much better qualified than myself is currently working on that very project.

It is true that his vast wealth and extravagant spending do not always make for comfortable reading. However, other aesthetes such as Stephen Tennant and Lord Berners are viewed as merely eccentric and somehow endearing for their indulgences – and there is no reason why Jeffress should not be seen in a similar light.

Arthur Jeffress, Audrey Grace Denison (née Bowles), Michael Sherard, Budge Fraser – the photograph was taken by White Party host Sandy Baird.

His post-War contribution to the Art world, as connoisseur, collector, gallery owner, funder of other galleries and supporter of artists, particular those working in neglected or unfashionable genres, has been sadly undervalued. The list of artists who exhibited at his gallery in the 1950s is both impressive and wonderfully eclectic.His bequest to Southampton City Art Gallery gives you some idea of his taste and individuality and is well worth checking out.

Arthur Tilden Jeffress by Graham Sutherland


I936 – Hugh Wade and Edgar Blatt

In 1936, Hugh Wade worked on two projects  with the lyricist Edgar Blatt. One was the Revue , To and Fro (see ), and the other was a song for a film. The film was “The Tenth Man” directed by Brian Desmond Hurst from a play by Somerset Maugham. Wade and Blatt provided the song “Night Must Fall” which was sung by Dinah Miller.

Brian Desmond Hurst is something of a cult hero today. This is thanks largely to the quirky but fascinating 2005 biography of him by Christopher Robbins.

Born into a working-class Belfast family, Hurst (1895- 1986) was one of Belgravia’s last great Bohemians. His friends and neighbours included Moura Budberg, Elizabeth Welch and Hermione Gingold. An outrageous bon viveur, he was also a veteran of the Gallipoli campaign, his memoirs of which are just about the most harrowing account of war-time atrocities you will ever read.As a director, he is best remembered for Scrooge and The Malta Story although the list is a long and creditable one.

There is a website devoted to his career  here Brian Desmond Hurst.

Edgar Blatt is a less familiar name but, from what I can gather, of interest in his own right. His main musical partnerships appear to have been with Simon Carnes and Nat Ayer Jnr. I’ll do a separate post on Carnes, as he was a most singular character in a world not short of singularity. Nat Ayer Jnr. was the son of Nat D. Ayer, the composer and performer of “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” and “If You Were the Only Girl in the World“. Nat Jnr. lived most of his life in Pimlico, south London, and as a very old man was much sought after by popular music archivists as he was a mine of anecdote and information.

Blatt and Ayer provided the score for “Stop…Go”, a 1935 Charlot Revue starring Douglas Byng, for whom Hugh Wade also wrote, Dorothy Ward and the American film-star Mary Brian. Also in the cat were Richard “Stinker” Murdoch and Simon Carnes. Dorothy Ward deserves to be better-known. She was a Variety and pantomime stalwart for many years (more info here Dorothy Ward ). The playboy aviator, Jim Mollison, with whom Dorothy had a much-publicised affair (he was married to Amy Johnson) is exactly the type of chap Hugh Wade would have entertained at his Motor and Aviation club residencies. More on Jim Mollison here  Jim Mollison .

Dorothy Ward

Edgar Blatt was involved in a number of other revues including “All’s Well” co-written with Simon Carnes (again) and presented/produced by Gordon Harbord (the influential theatrical agent who re-named Diana Fluck as Diana Dors and Harry Skikne as Laurence Harvey). Edgar was throughout this period married to Corinna Vereker (Viscountess Gorst) and lived at the very upmarket address of 51 Sloane Gardens. Coincidentally, Corinna’s first husband was the governor of Malta during the period explored by Hurst in The Malta Story.

By 1939, Edgar seems to have tired of the theatre world and went to work for the BBC. During the War he was Transcription Manager for the overseas service, which puts him in the same department as Sunday Wilshin. Both appear in the correspondence of George Orwell. Blatt at this time became part of the Dover Castle regulars. The Dover Castle was the favoured watering-hole of a number of BBC executives, an erudite but rather hearty and sports-obsessed group. The most famous of the imbibers are Roy Plomley (Desert Island Discs) and Bob Danvers-Walker (the ultimate “Received English” voice of Pathe newsreels and innumerable radio broadcasts).

After the War, Blatt worked on the Dick Barton series – for radio and film – and was a founder member of the Lords’ Taverners. He appears to have emigrated to South Africa in the early fifties.

The fourth person connected to “Night Must Fall” is the lamentably neglected singer Dinah Miller. Described as a “rhythm singer”, of all the 1930s dance-band vocalists she was considered the one with the most authentic “Harlem” sound. Her story is remarkable – an Eastender, her mother was a black woman and she entered show-business as a tap-dancer before  becoming the favoured songstress for several of the leading “orchestras” of the period. She moved to Denmark in the 1930s and fronted a number of all-women jazz groups there after the War.

Dinah (Diana) Miller Group

There is more information here

So, where is Hugh in all of this? There is no indication that he knew Brian Desmond Hurst, but given Hurst’s fondness for hosting parties,  their paths may well have crossed  – socially as well as professionally.

You don’t collaborate on ( at least) four songs without direct inter-action,  so at the minimum he  had a working relationship with Edgar Blatt. Blatt appears to have alternated between Nat Ayer and Hugh Wade to put music to his lyrics, depending on the required sound.

Singers and songwriters were not necessarily acquainted so I wouldn’t expect much connection with Dinah Miller. He was, though, enough of an aficianado to have been pleased by her recording of his composition.

To finish – a couple of examples of Dinah Miller’s “rhythm singing”