Archive for May, 2012

80th Anniversary

Tomorrow (30th May 2012) marks the eightieth anniversary of the cocktail party that Elvira held at William Mews ( see

According to Peter Cotes the couple stayed in bed till noon, having attended a party on the previous night (Sunday 29th). They had rowed on the Saturday about Michael’s gambling but were friendly enough on the Monday and had lunch in the West End (possibly at the Park Lane Hotel) accompanied by a fair amount of alcohol. They returned to the Mews to prepare for the party and Michael rang a number of people with last minute invitations. It was, for them, a fairly normal day.

In the wider world, the Bonus Army was gathering in Washington, giving the American government its first large-scale confrontation with the issue of mass unemployment and introducing the term “Forgotten Man” into popular culture. In Germany, Heinrich Bruning resigned as Chancellor and the Weimar Republic effectively entered its final phase. It is unlikely that Elvira either knew or cared about either event.

She is more likely to have followed the aftermath of Amelia Earhart’s transatlantic solo flight. Earhart had landed in Derry on May 20th after a 15 hour journey and the papers were still full of images of the intrepid aviatrix. Or maybe, Kate Meyrick, who had received her last custodial sentence earlier in the month, and having promised to have nothing more to do with night-clubs returned in triumph to the “Bunch of Keys” (the old 43). Like every English newspaper reader, she would have been amused by the continuing coverage of the disgrace and downfall of Harold Davidson, the Rector of Stiffkey, whose exploits dominated the popular press that year.

Larry Gains signing a contract at the Piccadilly

The big sporting event in London on May 30th was the fight between Primo Carnera and Larry Gains. Both were feted by West End society, Carnera as a Soho night-club regular and Gains, the first boxer to challenge British boxing’s colour bar, as an associate of Ernest Hemingway and the Parisian set. Gains’ “training camp” was often at the Piccadilly hotel and several fashionable folk went to watch him there before dancing to the Hotel’s chic cabaret (Syd Lipton et al).Leonie Fester told the police that Elvira and Michael attended boxing matches together. I’d put money on the Gains-McCorkindale fight at the Albert Hall in january 1932 (which broke the colour bar ruling) as one. The occasion was one that resonated with many a Bohemian and socialite, who were there in surprising numbers. Boxing and boxers were great favourites of the fast set, Gwen Farrar, Dolly Wilde and friends were listening to a title fight when Ruth Baldwin, an attendee at the Mews party, overdosed and died.

Gains won on points. In the light of the events of the early hours of tuesday morning, Michael and Elvira might have been better off vicariously enjoying violence rather than engaging in their own deadly combat.

Michael Scott Stephen died at 4.45a.m. on Tuesday 31st May.


The 1911 Census gives us some idea of the social order within which Elvira was raised.

Although John Ashley Mullens signed off the form, he and his wife were away at the time, staying at Ossemsley Manor near Christchurch.

The Mullens offspring remained at the family’s London home, which was then at 31 Lowndes Square  (a couple of hundred yards from Elvira’s Mews terrace). Lowndes Square was in 1911, as it is now, a singularly expensive location. Roman Abramovitch has property there, which should give you a flavour of the area.

The census lists the three Mullens children

Cyril John Ashley Mullens 14
Elvira Enid Mullens 7  (I do wonder when exactly Elvira ditched the rather prosaic Enid for the more exotic Dolores – she is Dolores from at least 1924 onwards.)
Avril Ivy Mullens 1

and then, what one could term, a sufficient retinue of servants

Frederick Scott Holder 51
Amy Frances Holder 51
Alfred Rewes 30
Ada Ellen Roper 32
Winifred Lawrence 24
Alfred Back 18
Lizzie Hyde 31
Violet Willett 16
Frank Bennett 24
Joseph Lane 21
Bessie Holmes 21
Lilian Mau 19
Ada Smith 19
Olive Alice Reading 21
Elizabeth Glendon 30
Ellen Phillip 42
Emily Davis 35
Annie Kempshall 30
Clementina Taylor 48
Edith Alice Payne 25
Elisa Flora Gukenbuhl 29
Annie Fry 35
John Henry Herford 24

All very Upstairs, Downstairs, I think you’ll agree. I presume it was fairly standard but it does make me wonder if Elvira’s notorious high-handedness with taxi-drivers, police constables and such-like was less down to her temperament and more to do with simply growing up in a world where there were hot-and-cold running minions, ministering to every need.

Ossemsley Manor

Ossemsley Manor was built in 1908 .  Confusingly, it is listed as the home both of Sir Alfred Cooper, a tea merchant, and Sir Stephen Gatty,  King’s Counsellor for Gibraltar.Sir Alfred’s son was there in 1911 at the time of the Mullens visit.It is best known as the childhood home  of Hester Gatty, who married Siegfried Sassoon in 1933. Sassoon was connected to the Bright Young People through his affair with the ( visually anyway) brightest of them all, Stephen Tennant.

Hester Gatty

Current guides to the Manor (now luxury flats) state that in the 1950s and1960s it was a country club cum night club  run by Walker Cup golfer Ernest Milward, and that it featured in the Profumo scandal as one of the sites of the liaison between the Minister for War and Christine Keeler. This may be true but it is not mentioned in either of the books on the Profumo scandal that I have read.

Rupert Furneaux

After her death, Elvira Barney’s name was kept alive only in the world of “True Crime” writing. She features in endless books bearing titles such as “Masterpieces of Murder”, “Crimes of Passion”, “The Murderer’s Who’s Who” and so forth. All tell pretty much the same story, concentrating on the Mayfair Parties aspects of the case and the brilliance of Sir Patrick Hastings for the Defence. All assume Elvira’s guilt. Apart from the routine comments regarding Society high-jinks at a time of mass unemployment, there is very little in the way of social or psychological analysis, a notable exception being  Giles Playfairs “Six Studies in Hypocrisy“. Peter Cotes’ introductory essay to the Trial transcription remains the fullest description of the events surrounding the shooting and is hard to fault, as far as it goes.

Cotes’ book benefits from his knowing people who knew Elvira and from his one encounter with her (see One other crime-historian also used a personal anecdote to enliven an otherwise standard narrative.

Rupert Furneaux was a prolific writer on various subjects – military history, unexplained phenomena and celebrated murder trials. He produced the first full length study of the Erroll/ Happy Valley case. His 1962 book “They Died By A Gun” covers a number of well-known cases (Ruth Ellis, Madame Fahmy etc.) and his chapter on Elvira  (“Laugh, Baby, Laugh” ) adds a couple of face-to-face observations to an otherwise conventional re-telling.

Of Elvira he says, ” though a leading member of London’s Smart Set, Elvira was neither “gay” or “beautiful”. I remember her as drab, coarse, rather fat and usually drunk.”  I’m not convinced that Elvira was a leading member of any “Set”, smart or otherwise but the unflattering adjectives certainly correspond to other accounts of the post-1932 Mrs. Barney.

He concludes his piece with the following comments, “After the trial Mrs. Barney returned to her old life, to be pointed out in sleazy clubs and notorious pubs as “That’s Mrs. Barney”, a fame which lasted until her death in Paris a few years later. I once asked her if she shot Scott Stephen deliberately. Mrs. Barney threw a glass at me. I’m sure she threw it intentionally.”

Amusing as this might be, I think it is probably a fiction. Furneaux was living in Kensington in the early thirties so he may have known Elvira. However, the lack of specifics (where did this take place?) and the reliance on cliche ( I am sick of the term “sleazy clubs”, which applies to very few of the venues Elvira favoured) do not inspire confidence. As to what constituted a “notorious pub” is anyone’s guess. The point is, of course ,both to boost Furneaux’ credibility and to leave the reader in no doubt as to the “truth” of the shooting.

Ruth Ellis

The most promising  aspects of Furneaux’ account are the parallels he attempts to draw between Elvira and Ruth Ellis This is a bit stretched as to the facts but has some strength in terms of thinking about Elvira’s character and the possible similarities between Scott Stephen and David Blakey. A proper comparative study would be quite enlightening. In the absence of which, expect  the odd digression concerning Ruth Ellis to crop up here in the not too distant future.

This newspaper article written was written shortly after Elizabeth Ponsonby’s death is not, I imagine, untypical.

Milwaukee Sentinel Sep 1940

The narrative is familiar enough, apart from this sentence.

“She served for a time behind the bar at the Melody night club, run by Irene Meyrick of the famous night club family but she lost her job when she started drinking heavily again.”

This, if true, raises a couple of questions.

In Taylor’s “Bright Young People” he quotes Arthur Ponsonby from 1939 on his daughter’s recent acquisition of a job as a “manageress” -“she seems to have some curious club job”. Taylor goes on to say “Two months later Arthur gave Elizabeth and her employer (” a showy pretty friend who runs her club”) tea at the House of Lords”. This “friend” is presumably Irene Meyrick.

Gwendoline Irene Meyrick was the youngest of Kate Meyrick’s daughters. In 1939 she would have been 24 and got married in the May of that year to the Earl of Craven (most of Mrs.Meyrick’s daughters married into the aristocracy – often accompanied by controversy – see Kate Meyrick’s Children ).

Irene Meyrick (1914- 2002)

The Melody Club was at 19 Wardour Street and is listed in directories from 1937 to 1939 and as the New Melody to in 1941. If Irene ran it then the received wisdom that the Meyrick involvement with clubs ended with Kate’s death (1933) cannot be true. If she was a friend rather than just an employer, we can add another name to Elizabeth’s post-BYP circle.

Elizabeth and Denis Pelly – wedding day

The story of Kate Meyrick, her children and her clubs, has  been told repeatedly, but there are several unresolved issues. I have always wondered about the number of custodial sentences – fines were the usual thing for licensing offences. Her involvement with police corruption, drug scandals, Soho villains and the whole “hostess” thing suggests a criminality beyond merely serving a few drinks after-hours. On the other hand, her clientele was by and large wealthy and prestigious and she was held in high regard by many West End night-owls, dance-band musicians in particular.

Kate Meyrick

Her own autobiography, probably ghost-written, is relatively unrevealing, self-serving and little more than a list of famous names. Much more informative is the section in Judith Walkowitz’s Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (see Walkowitz Nights Out ).Immortalised in Brideshead Revisited as Ma Mayfield, the proprietor of Dalton’s, the 43, the Manhattan, the Silver Slipper and one or two more venues does have a real claim to be the “Queen of Night Clubs” and merits a full of biography.

Party at Silver Slipper

There don’t seem to be any surviving anecdotes associated with the Melody Club, so whether it was a dive, an exclusive drinking-club, had a band or a pianist, I can’t say. My guess is that it was a fairly small members’ club typical of the area and the era.

There was a 1950s club of the same name in Maddox Street, Mayfair but I doubt there’s a connection. In that same decade the Russian Spy Gordon Londsdale had a flat at 19 Wardour Street and today N.19 is the the “Old 97” , a Chinese Restaurant, much favoured as a late night eating-spot.

Matisse at the Gargoyle

The most celebrated night-club of the BYP era was, of course, the Gargoyle at 69 Dean Street. It was opened in 1925 by David Tennant, who claimed he just wanted a congenial place to dance with his girl-friend (Hermione Baddeley, who he married in 1928).It attracted artists,intellectuals, writers and young socialites in equal measure. With a membership that included almost everyone associated with London Bohemia, it remained a key location for thirty years and anecdotes about the club appear in almost every reminiscence of cosmopolitan cultural life of the period.

Gargoyle 1940

Brian Howard, Brenda and Napper Dean Paul were regulars – Howard seems to have taken up almost permanent residence during World War Two. In the 1920s, Elizabeth Ponsonby had horrified Frances Partridge with her drunkenness at one party (Bloomsbury and the Bright Young Set did not always mix well).The club’s initial manager was the singularly disreputable Harry Rowan Walker, as raffish a figure as any of Elvira’s set and who she may have known as the some-time boyfriend of Brenda Dean Paul (who also had an affair with David Tennant). These and others, feature in “David Tennant and the Gargoyle Years” by Michael Luke, an affectionate but by no means comprehensive, biographical study.

Despite the excesses of some of the members, the general atmosphere was civilised and relatively high-brow.There is a wonderful, if a little too fawning, description of the place in Stanley Jackson’s “An Indiscreet Guide to Soho“. Written just after the end of the war, this is a little gem of a book which, though often patronising and unintentionally humorous,  captures the flavour of the area  (and the times) as well as any book I’ve read. This from the chapter “Clubs and Joints”,

“There are, of course, several amusing and well-run Soho clubs. I belong to the Gargoyle which has been running for twenty years. It was started by the Hon.David Tennant in one room and now occupies spacious premises at the top of a building which you reach by lift. The famous roof garden is temporarily out of commission but will doubtless revive.”

Tom Driberg

“Apart from Tennant, who runs the club in a charmingly offhand but efficient style, committe members include Augustus John (a founder member), Clive Bell and Philip Toynbee. Among its 2000 members are Sir Gordon Craig, John Sutro, Cyril Connolly, Val Gielgud, Tom Driberg, Sir William Beveridge, Hermione Baddeley and scores of BBC folk, writers and artists. The subscription id Four Guineas per annum and husbands and wives can save a guinea by joining together.”

Hermione Baddeley

“The decor is bright but tasteful and Matisse gave his expert advice. Several of his drawings of ballet girls grace the upstairs bar which is a cheerful spot always crowded with people discussing art, politics or women in the liveliest way. “My unpaid cabaret,” David Tennant calls them. The liquor is always of sound quality and the prices not too stiff. Nor will the barmen raise superior eyebrows if you demand half a pint of bitter and linger over it.  One of their specialities is a Pimm with a dash of curacao.

The restaurant downstairs seats 140 and its ceiling and general design have been modelled on the Alhambra at Granada. The mirrors are particularly attractive, unless you have drunk too much gin!. Here one can feed in comfort and a cheery, intimate atmosphere. Luncheon is served from noon until 3 p.m., and dinner from 6 p.m. until midnight.In the old days, when theatres ended at a civilised hour, the chef would put on a specialite de minuit, something tasty like onion soup with croutons. But even with present day shortages, the menu always shows imagination.

The last time I dined at the club I had a dozen excellent oysters, soup, duck and delicious ice cream. The oysters were extra, of course, but five shillings covered the rest. Tennant, I should say, has an eye for vintages, and his pre-war wine is a sentimental memory (fine Club “fizz” at 13/6 a bottle!); even today he manages to produce a dinner wine that is no insult to the palate.

The four-piece band led by Alec Alexander, suits the style of the club. It delivers lively, cheerful music that you can dance to without having your nerves torn to shreds. Alec knows all the members and seems to enjoy playing requests.”

Alec Alexander’s band was , in fact, a little bit of a joke to some of the post-war clientele (Lucian Freud and Henrietta Moraes were particularly scathing). Tennant for all his talents as a host was, unlike most of his contemporaries, not much of a jazz fan – by 1946 the Gargoyle was starting to be seen as a bit of a throwback. It never quite reclaimed either its pre-war glamour or its wartime popularity. However, it lasted a few more years and its 40s and 50s membership list remained impressive.

That earlier chic, even avant-garde, ambience is best summed up by the two Matisse paintings that Tennant installed not long after the club’s inception (I think Jackson is wrong about the “ballet dancers)”. The two works in question were “The Red Studio” and “The Studio, Quai St. Michel“. The former was hung in the bar, the latter on the stairs down to the area.

The Red Studio 1911

The Studio, Quai St. Michel 1916

These are two remarkable, and significant, works of art. To find them in a “night-club” gives some indication as to why the Gargoyle was seen as somewhere special, unique even.

There is much more to be said about the Gargoyle and its place in club history. David Tennant too – he has not quite been given credit for his role in the Bright Young phenomenon (unlike his younger brother, Stephen). However, it is Harry Walker who is intriguing me just now and I shall post something on him as soon as I have a little more info.