Two of the most  fascinating letters to Hugh Wade (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/hugh-wades-friends-and-well-wishers/) were sent, respectively, from the Colony Rooms and The Romilly Club. Both were written on headed paper and have a historical value independent of their main subject matter.

The Colony Room letter is dated February 14th 1949. It is in pencil (“Muriel can’t afford to fill her pen”) and consists of four short, affectionate notes to Hugh. The writers have been listening to Hero (Hero De Rance, I think) play a medley of Hugh’s tunes on the piano and the tone, while attempting to be cheery, is inevitably nostalgic and a little sad. The signatories are Dolly (Mayers), Muriel Belcher,  Rose ( possibly Lady Rose McLaren) and one that I can’t work out (Donald or Ronald Story?) but could be from the barman ( he pleads great poverty).

Colony Room 1962 Michael Andrews

The Colony is such a central part of post-War, particularly1950s, Bohemia that I do not need to go into its history in any detail. Muriel Belcher was the legendary owner and Francis Bacon its most famous regular. When the letter was written it had only been open a few months. Bacon was already a member, having been introduced to the place by Brian Howard the week it opened. Probably John Deakin was around already, which brings in another Elvira connection, as he had a long, if unlikely, relationship with Arthur Jeffress.

Muriel Belcher by John Deakin

Situated at 41 Dean Street (about a 100 yards from the old Blue Angel), the Colony Rooms began life as a fairly exclusive and smart club aimed at a well-heeled, largely gay clientele. Membership was relatively expensive and subject to the whims of its owner. Muriel Belcher had been part of West End club life for at least ten years. She started the Sphinx in 1936 or 37, with Dolly Mayers. They then ran the Music Box at 4 Leicester Street (off Leicester Square). The date given in various histories is 1937 but it doesn’t appear in the London phone-books until 1941.

It was certainly very popular during the War, James Lees-Milne has a much repeated anecdote of going there with Sandy Baird (of “White Party” fame). From the two letters it looks like Hugh Wade was the resident pianist. Again from the letters, we can surmise that Dolly and Muriel had a falling out, with Muriel staying at the Music Box  and Dolly going to the Romilly (at 11 Orange Street, very close to Ciro’s). By the time they wrote to Hugh they had settled their differences (“Dolly and I have made up and she pops in regularly”).

Dolly Mayers is far less well known than Muriel Belcher.The Romilly Club, too, barely registers in public memory. It was, in fact, the re-named Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit, the most luxurious and fashionable “Gay” club in wartime London. Known in the 1930s as “Molly’s”, it had been run by Teddy Ashton and the resident pianist was Leonard Brackett (a veteran West End composer and cabaret performer). It was here that Guy Burgess was hurled down the stairs and knocked unconscious (some sources suggest that Brendan Behan did the hurling). Despite this incident, Le Boeuf was on the whole a rather classy, decidedly upmarket place. We tend to hear the term “night club” and assume a seedy, rather sinister environment. The Music Box, Le Boeuf and, in its early days, The Colony had more in common with the BYP venues of the 20s and 30s than the the Soho dives of 1950s B movies.

Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit took its name from the legendary Parisian cabaret-bar, famously patronised by Cocteau et al (see Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit ), which gives an idea of the desired, if not necessarily achieved, ambience. The Romilly lasted for about ten years and was a prime example of the “discreet” approach that characterised the era (see London Clubs 1940s )

Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit Paris 1922

Dolly’s note to Hugh, is a mixture of news, gossip and messages from well-wishers. Hugh was obviously a well-known and favoured part of the “scene” ( “Hugh who made the piano talk at the Music Box”). I’m still trying to decipher the text and work out who some of the folk mentioned are, but one name leaps out. Peter Lacy, through Dolly, sends his regards to Hugh. Lacy, was the love of Francis Bacon’s life and for a time the resident pianist at the Colony Room. Something of a wild and dangerous fellow, he is supposed to have been a Battle of Britain pilot ( I can’t find his name in the Roll of Honour). He ended up playing piano in a bar in Tangiers.

Peter Lacy

These letters offer a tantalising glimpse of a particular culture at a specific moment in history. It is one about which, despite the work of several historians, we know little, and understand less. It also shows that Hugh was as liked and respected a figure in this world as he was in the show-business circles ( there is of course some overlap). Most gratifying to me is the link that Hugh, by chance,  provides between the bright Bohemia of the 1920s right through to its final, somewhat lugubrious, phase in the Colony Room (Belcher died in 1979, Bacon in 1992).

What is really needed is a complete membership list for these clubs. Elizabeth Smart compiled one for the Colony Room (where can that be found?) but I would love to know who listened to Hugh at the Music Box. I’m sure Sandy Baird wasn’t the only ex-BYP to have been around.

More on this anon.

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