Category: People

Some time ago I asked if anyone could translate an article about Elvira that appeared in the French magazine Photo Journal (see Photo Journal 1951  )

Almost by return of post I received two fine English versions of the piece. The content is remarkable, to say the least, and not a little perplexing. If true, the whole Elvira story needs revising. Unfortunately, what is revealed is almost completely a work of fiction.

As the Barney trial is already prone to anecdote, falsehoods and wild speculation (some of which I have on occasion unwittingly added to) I was reluctant to doing anything further with the article. However, although innaccuracy and downright lies do nothing but harm, the “myths” that this piece generates are part of the story so have a certain interest of their own.

The premise upon which this sensational account is founded is shared by nearly all the commentators  on the scandal, contemporary with and subsequent to the trial. Basically, Elvira symbolised a decadent and parasitic ruling class, partying ever more wildly, while around them the suffering of the masses was growing worse by the hour. This view, found across the entire political spectrum, is not entirely without merit and certainly is one reason why the case has continued to fascinate.

The thesis is overly reductive, though, even in its more sophisticated formulations (see Osbert Lancaster or Giles Playfair). When formulated as crudely as it is in the Photo Journal report it breaks down completely into tired cliche and exposes itself as lazy generalisation masquerading as political insight.

Anyway, here is the article. I’ve included both versions (which seemed only fair, although they barely differ); partly to say thank you and partly because some of the “information” is so bizarre that it takes two reads to fully appreciate how outrageous a fiction it largely is.I suggest you either amuse yourselves by attempting to tally up the number of factual errors or merely console yourself that, Leveson notwithstanding, journalistic “licence” knows no national boundaries.

How the Jealous Lady Elvira Shot Her Young Fiancé.
London. You need to go back to 1932, England was deep into a grave financial crisis, there were millions of unemployed, seaports were paralyzed, industry and coalmines at a standstill. The ruling class whilst living in selfish indifference began to be worried. Suddenly, in the month of May, an important scandal broke out. in high society. One of the most beautiful and elegant ladies of London is placed in the dock. The economic crisis suddenly takes second place. The newspapers seize the chance to report the private life of this lady who risks hanging. It concerns Lady Elvira Ashley Mullens, daughter of Lord John Ashley Mullens, financial consultant to His Majesty George V and at the same time the all powerful president of the Exchange Agents Corporation. Leader of the British and World exchange markets, Lord Ashley Mullens rules the roost at the Stock Exchange were everyone obeys his orders. The only person who he has not been able to tame is his daughter Elvira. Beautiful and turbulent she caused, from adolescence, grave concern by her adventures revealing a rather excessive “dynamism”.
At the age of 29, after three marriages, of which the last profoundly shocked English high society. Lady Elvira appeared to have no intention of calming down.
First of all let us look at what was her third experience.
Finding herself at the Warldorf Astoria, Lady Elvira, in the glory of her twenty seventh year had, despite prohibition, beaten all records in the matter of drunkenness. During one of her “bottle parties” she picked up John Sterling Barney, a mediocre tenor, better known for his physical attributes than for his singing voice. She removed and held him prisoner for some time in her magnificent villa in Newport News (the Cannes of the USA) and then trailed him before a minister who united them in marriage. The English aristocracy was outraged, Lord Ashley Mullens ordered his daughter’s immediate return to England, without husband, at the risk of having her allowance stopped.
Either the menace produced its effect or Elvira realized the mediocrity of her tenor but will she accept to return to London? She wanted nevertheless to spend some time in Paris to wait for her divorce to be granted.
Life in Paris at that time was very gay for those who had lots of pounds sterling. Patronizing the smart places , Lady Elvira meets a fellow countryman, Michael Stephens, a handsome young man of twenty three, somewhat debauched, who was used to escapades in night clubs and cashing cheques without funds which his father, a minor banker, paid to save the family name. Basically a good boy he had pleasantly whiled away his time in Paris thanks to a beautiful “danseuse” from the “Folies Bergère” who lived with him and subsidized him with her salary whilst waiting for the time he would see fit to marry her.
Onto this idyll the beautiful Elvira came, like a brilliant shooting star, deeply moving…….
Straight away she engages the pink faced blond Michael as private secretary and goes everywhere with him. Michael, who for the first time in his life earns money without having to beg from his father or girlfriend, feels happy.
He is able to dip freely into the cheque book of his new found patron….but at the same time his life becomes difficult. Not only does he have to fill his functions as “private secretary” of a very demanding lady but he has to keep calm the alarmed “danseuse” who is becoming jealous.
We know how similar stories generally end up. Elvira losing her head , offers her secretary her hand in marriage and a first class situation in London. Michael outlawed by his family allows himself to be easily persuaded. The prospects of going back to England with a substantial position and with the help of the City’s biggest financier made him forget the charms of his Parisian dancer.
Whilst Lady Elvira badgers her New York lawyers for a rapid divorce, the new fiancés live as a married couple. However, the mediocre tenor has no intention of giving way so easily, he threatens to reveal to the newspapers and courts the piquant details; he wants to exact a price for his consent. Lady Elvira appeals to her father in assuring him that her new marriage will settle her down. Her father forgives and pays up, but he makes it a condition that she returns to London and gives up the unhealthy life of the night clubs of Paris and America. He even obtains a splendid furnished flat in Mayfair where Lady Elvira will settle into, followed shortly afterwards by Michael.
In London she l takes up again her frenzied life of nocturnal amusements in the company of the most deranged elements of the aristocracy where she wants to involve Michael. At present, he despises this disorderly life and has only one wish and that is to return to Paris and find his Juliette again.
The discord begins, the rows follow and suddenly tragedy strikes.
One day, while Michael was washing, Lady Elvira discovers a photo of the dancer hidden in a watch left on the bedside table. She says nothing but decides to get rid of this rival;
Some time afterwards, the 30th of May around three in the morning, the couple having returned from a dance, prepare to go to bed, Michael decides to open the letters which had been waiting for him the previous morning. He finds a letter from Paris in which Juliette explains how Lady Elvira had managed to get her thrown out of the theatre where she danced. Michael demands an explanation but Lady Elvira sneers. At the height of indignation Michael wishes to get out to fly for Paris, but two pistol shots get him before he is able to reach the door.
Following this event Lady Elvira goes to prison. As one would predict the scandal was enormous. However all means were tried to stifle it. The press, no sooner won over, began to speak of the incident. The lawyers did the rest.
One month later the trial begins. The whole of English high society was there. Lady Elvira shows up in the dock dressed in black with two large white flowers at the waist. As always, beautiful and casual, she confirms the version of the story of accidental mishap caused by the revolver accidentally falling to the ground. It is in vain that her chambermaid declares that she heard her say “I am going to kill you”. It is in vain that the doctors in charge of the victim’s post mortem prove that the shots were fired deliberately at point blank range. The jury voted in her favour and amongst applause from the “snobs” in the public gallery, the judge acquitted her.
Only one person protests, a man who shouts in indignation and spits at the jury and is evicted from the court by the police as quickly as possible. It was the elder brother of the poor Michael.
It was necessary to use mounted police to disperse the crowd and it was under cover of darkness that Elvira was able to get out of the court unnoticed and leave for the USA where naturally she was received as a heroine.



We must go back to 1932. England is in the grip of a grave economic crisis with one million unemployed, ports paralysed, industries and coal mines stopped. The ruling class, living entirely in a state of self-centred indifference, began to be concerned. Suddenly, in May of that year, a grave scandal shocked the heights of society and one of the most beautiful and elegant ladies of London society was seen on the criminal bench. The economic crisis slipped into to second place and the newspapers were captured by the private life of this lady who risked being hung “by the neck until dead”.

This was the Lady Elvira Ashley Mullens, daughter of Lord John Ashley Mullens who was in turn a financial adviser to His Majesty George V and the all-powerful president of Corporation of Stockbrokers. Dominating the British and world financial markets Lord Ashley Mullens made the rain fall and the sun shine on the London Stock Exchange where everyone bowed to his will. The only person whom he could not dominate was his daughter Elvira. Beautiful and stormy, she had, since her adolescence, been a worry due to adventures that revealed a rather excessive “dynamism”.

At the age of twenty nine, after three attempts at marriage – the last of which had distinctly shocked English high society – Lady Elvira seemed to show no intentions of settling down.

But let us look first at that third marriage experience.

Finding herself at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, Lady Elvira – in all the glory of her twenty seven years – had, in spite of prohibition, broken all the records in drinking bouts. In the middle of one of these “drinking parties” she picked up John Sterling Barney, a mediocre tenor, better known for his physical attributes than singing voice. She carried him off and after holding him prisoner for quite a while in her magnificent villa at Newport-News (The Cannes of the USA) towed him off one fine morning in front of a pastor who married them. The aristocracy of England was outraged. Lord Ashley Mullens ordered her immediate return, without her husband, on pains of their lives.

Whether the threat worked or whether Lady Elvira began to realise the mediocrity of her tenor, she did return alone to London. She wanted, however, to stay a while in Paris until the divorce came through.

Paris, at that time, was particularly exciting for those with British pounds to spend: spending her time in elegant spots, lady Elvira met a young compatriot, Michael Stephens, a handsome young man of 23, a little lame, prone to occasional pranks in nightclubs where he presented cheques without any backing so leaving his father, a minor banker, to pay up in order to preserve the family name. Basically a good lad, he was made comfortable during his time in Paris thanks to a pretty dancer from the Folies-Bergere who lived with him and supported him with her wages waiting all the while for him to marry her.

The beautiful Elvira crashed into this idyll like a resplendent meteor turning everything upside down. First she dragged the pink and blond Michael everywhere as her secretary. To date Michael had never earned his own money always having to ask his father or girlfriend for money so he felt happy. He was able to plunge his hands into his “boss’s” cheque book. But at the same time his life became tricky. Not only did he have to perform all the duties of a “private secretary” to a demanding lady but he also had to calm the dancer who, awkwardly, had become jealous.

We well know how similar tales have ended. Elvira lost her head, offered to marry him and establish him at a high level in London. The idea of returning to England, properly sorted out and supported by a high ranking City financier enabled him to forget the charms of his Parisian dancer. While Elvira harassed her New York lawyers to expedite her divorce, the young engaged couple lived together. Bu the mediocre tenor had no intention of giving in easily. He threated to give the papers and the court juicy details; he wanted to be paid off. Lady Elvira told her father that her new marriage would calm her down. Her father forgave her and made peace, insisting only that she returned to London leaving behind the malign influence of Parisian and American nightclubs. He found her a splendid furnished apartment in Mayfair into which she moved followed shortly by Michael.

In London, she started her rounds of frenetic night time entertainment again with the most unbalanced elements of the aristocracy, wanting to drag Michael along. But he had changed. At the moment he was turning against this disordered way of life and dreamed of nothing more than returning to Paris to his Juliette.

Disagreements began; scenes followed and the tragedy gathered force. One day while Michael was dressing, Elvira found a small photo of the dancer hidden in his watch where he had taken it off and left it on a table overnight. She said nothing, deciding to get rid of her rival.

Sometime later, on 30 May, about 3am the couple came back after a dance and ready for bed but Michael decided to open the post that had been lying around all day. He found a letter from Juliette that said Lady Elvira had managed to get her sacked from the theatre where she danced. Michael demanded an explanation; Lady Elvira sniggered. In high indignation, Michael left to rush off to flee to Paris. But two bullets hit him before he reached the soil.

Following this Lady Elvira was taken to prison. As one might expect the scandal was huge. Attempts were made to stifle it but the press was pre-warned and reported the incident. The lawyers did the rest. A month later the case began. All of high society turned up. Lady Elvira took her place dressed in black with two large white flowers at her waist. Always beautiful and rather casual she confirmed the details of the unlucky accident, caused by the gun falling. In vain might her maid state that she heard her call “I’ll kill you.” In vain might the doctors in charge of the victim’s autopsy state the shots were point blank and deliberate.

The jury found Lady Elvira not guilty and, amid applause from the snobs who filled the gallery, the judge acquitted her.

Only one person protested and spat at the jury until the police ejected him. He was poor Michael’s elder brother.

Mounted policemen were needed to disperse the crowd. And only under cover of night was Lady Elvira able to slip away from the court unnoticed and set off for thee USA where of course she was welcomed as a heroine.

It was in fashionable bars like this that Lady Mullens loitered in idleness. Barmen in London and Paris were well acquainted with this noble lady, one of their most assiduous customers.


NB Little of the above is true.


Elvira’s Needlework

I am very grateful to one very sharp-eyed and well-informed reader for pointing this out to me.

For sale: woman’s labour of love

“A PIECE of embroidery worked by notorious ”bright young thing” Elvira Barney, who was accused of murdering her lover in the thirties, will be sold at auction later this week.

Elvira Dolores Mullens, who became Barney when she married American

entertainer John Barney in 1928, was reputed to have inspired Noel

Coward’s Elvira in Blithe Spirit. She was the daughter of Sir John and

Lady Mullens.

With her marriage on the rocks, she continued on a round of parties,

drinking, dancing and drugs. She lived with dress designer Michael

Stephen for about a year before his murder.

He was found dead in her arms, a gunshot wound in his chest, in May,

1932. In a surprise verdict Elvira was found not guilty. Four years

later, at the age of 30, she died in Paris after a cerebral hameorrhage

caused by excessive alcohol. The embroidered sampler will be auctioned

in Edinburgh on Friday.”

Here is the article plus photograph

Glasgow Herald 1989

Now, even allowing for the depredations of time and the poor quality of the photograph, this does not appear to me as a glowing example of needlecraft. However, it is , I think, quite revealing  with regards Elvira’s character.

In the Hodgkin portrait there is what looks like a needlework sampler, which adds weight to the notion that the background  collage is meant to represent Elvira’s tastes and hobbies.

If the execution is less than the stunning, the style, content and attitude in Elvira’s “work” tell us quite a bit. It is a distinctly modern (perhaps even Modernist) take on a most traditional form of, largely, female creativity. The imagery – musicians, dancers, the telephone and the phonograph – is all very of the moment, very BYP and surely reflects Elvira’s life at the time..

I am struck by the fact that there are are six portraits included – I wonder who they are?

Although one could easily interpret this as a self-pitying and self-justificatory endeavour, I rather think it is intended as an exercise in wit. The traditional “No Place Like Home” motto is replaced by the more cynical and punning “What Is Home Without Another?”. This was a much used phrase, whose popularity had been spread by an influential book of aphorisms, which had, very heavy-handedly, teased Victorian  homilies to home and hearth.

see The Complete Cynic

The poem is the opening verse of A.P. Herbert’s  “SONG FOR A GENTLEMAN ON A COMMON OCCASION”, subtitled  “OR, TACTFUL REPLY TO A NEW LOVE ON HER REFERRING INDELICATELY TO SOME OF THE OLD”. This was from “She-Shanties“, an inexplicably popular book of light verse from 1926 (and one much re-printed in the late 20s).

“AH, call me not inconstant, who
Am constantly in love with two.
We know the frowns of Heaven fall
On him that never loves at all,
From which it follows, does it not ?
That he is best who loves a lot;
And so, my love, look not so blue—
I am too good to be quite true.”

Elvira has changed the “he” to a “she”. Can we read this as Elvira’s statement of her rights to sexual freedom, a claiming by one woman for that promiscuity generally reserved for men? I doubt that she would have considered it in such a high-minded fashion, but, in teasing form, the intention does seem to be along those lines. Viva King says that Elvira’s favourite slogan was “Always in Love, My Dear.” and this is in accordance with that declaration.Of course, bearing in mind what we know of Elvira and given that the “portraits” in the work include men and women, we could see this as a coded gesture towards bisexuality, but I leave that to those of you more at ease with psychoanalytical criticism to speculate upon.

The date is also significant. “Finished – Thank Heaven – April 1929”. This roughly coincides with the return of John Barney to America and the de facto end of Elvira’s unhappy marriage. A wry, comic valete? Why not?

I’d love to see a better reproduction of this sampler. Who brought it to auction, who purchased it, where is it now? While wondering about this (and hoping there are more such knocking around somewhere) I am rather happy that Elvira, despite all her other faults, was not a stranger to playfulness and showed evidence of a mischievous, if not too subtle, sense of humour.


Apologies for lack of posts. I had a very bad fall a few weeks ago and it has taken a while to return to full health. I am on holiday at the moment and will resume the blog next week.

This enforced break has given me a space to review what I want to do with Cocktails. I think I have posted all I can on the Trial itself. I will summarise my thoughts on the verdict shortly.

I have been reading up on the visual arts in the era and hope to post something on that. I will also continue to explore the music and night-club world of the time. I have a variety of other avenues to journey down so I think there is some mileage left in the project.

Thank you for the various letters of support and snippets of information that people have sent me over the last few months. The period fascinates me, but my own ignorance of so many aspects of it has been an unwelcome revelation. I am extremely grateful for the education I have received from so many kind and better-informed folk.

Time May Change

We left Hugh Wade enjoying a “hit record” in 1946  (see

His life-style, in many ways, had resumed its pre-war pattern. He still lived in the heart of theatre and club-land. Between 1945 and 1948 his address was 80 Long Acre (before the war he had lived at 73 Jermyn Street).He continued to be involved with providing music for Pantomime and Revues and, although I can find no hard evidence, was almost certainly playing piano at late-night clubs. Although his health was fading, he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1948, William Wade’s photographs suggest that he was, to the end, a recognised figure on the club circuit.

Around this time, he collaborated with the actor/producer Leigh Stafford in the musical comedy “Maid to Measure”. This provided him with his second post-war success. This show was intended to be a comeback vehicle for Jessie Matthews. Matthews had been the most glittering of pre-war British stars but her career had been disrupted by scandal and controversy (see She also had a reputation for unpredictability and suffered more than one breakdown.

The show was not the triumphant return its producer had hoped it would be. It opened in Edinburgh to mixed reviews, toured, was very well received at the King’s Theatre, Hammersmith but failed to take off at its most prestigious venue, the Cambridge Theatre. Its West End run was only 36 performances.Part of the problem was Jessie’s health but mostly it was the overall structure of the musical, whose flaws a strong cast (including a young Miriam Karlin) could not quite overcome. What was universally agreed was that the highlight of the show was a song, sung by Matthews, “Time May Change”. This was Hugh’s main contribution to the endeavour and, happily, took on a life of its own , becoming one of the major hits of 1948.

Early review of Maid to Measure

“Time May Change” is a trademark late Hugh Wade piece. Sentimental, wistful and with a distinctly nostalgic tone. The lyrics are functional, maudlin in print but effective when sung well, and the melody has an elegance to it,old-fashioned (even for the time) but full of emotion.

“Time may change the secret of the ocean

Time may change the language of devotion

Who knows what fate may have in store for us

Let’s make it more for us than ever before

Time may change the colour of the pages

Rearrange the tempo of the ages

These changing years may disappear from view

But time won’t change my love for you”

As with Hugh’s other compositions, some of the leading acts of the day recorded it. Again we see how the dance-band leaders from Elvira’s day – Ambrose, Geraldo, Joe Loss, Lou Preager – still held sway in post-war popular music.

Anne Shelton Jun-48 Decca F8898

Anne Shelton
Archie Lewis with The Geraldo Strings Jun-48 Parlophone F2294

Archie Lewis


Rita Williams Jul-48 Columbia FB3407

(Rita Williams sang with Lou Preager in the 1940s – she later formed the Rita Williams Singers who performed in innumerable variety shows on radio and TV in the 50s and 60s)

Lou Preager
Joe Loss and his Orchestra (Howard Jones) Aug-48 HMV BD6015

Joe Loss
Jack Simpson and his Sextet (Dave Kydd) Sep-48 Parlophone F2309

( Jack Simpson had been the drummer in Ambrose’s orchestra. A multi-instrumentalist, had he not concentrated, very lucratively is it happens, on the now despised xylophone he would be rememembered as the first great English jazz vibraphonist.)

Though I have a fondness for Simpson’s version, it is the recording by Archie Lewis that was the most popular and, in retrospect, the most significant. Lewis is a sadly neglected singer and deserves to be re-instated as one of the important black artists in the London musical landscape of the period. A baritone, he was known as “the Crosby of the Caribbean” or “the black Bing Crosby” and had a string of hits with a rather lugubrious take on a number of ballads that appealed to the immediate post-war audience. The best known and most typical is “In the Land of Beginning Again” which captured the mood of the time perfectly.

In many ways he represents the last in a line of sophisticated black cabaret artists that includes the BYP favourites Hutch and Turner Layton. “Time May Change” was tailor-made for him. However, it would have been Geraldo, a friend of Hugh’s, who would have chosen the song. That it was a sensible decision is evidenced by this early review in Gramophone,

“”Time May Change”, from ” Maid to Measure,” looks like becoming one of the hit tunes of the year, and Archie Lewis made a good choice in being among the first to record it. Full marks on all scores for this side.”

The song was indeed chart-bound, reaching number 4 (on sheet-music sales) and registering in the top twenty for 14 weeks. Sadly, by the end of its run on the Hit Parade Hugh was in steep physical decline.He was to have one more successful composition with “Souvenirs De Paris”, before his premature demise on the 10th of April 1949.

Here is a short clip from the end of Paul Rotha’s MOI film West Indies Calling (full version available on YouTube). The musicians backing Archie Lewis are some of the mainstays of the West End club scene and would have been familiar to Hugh and his associates.


Jessie Matthews did not record Time may Change ,unfortunately. She has been treated rather harshly in some histories of popular culture and is yet another in need of a little revisionist appreciation. A useful site is this one – Jessie Matthews.

The Jack Jackson and Archie Lewis versions of TMC are available as downloads from Amazon etc.

The following is a picturesque and evocative snapshot of Bright Young rituals circa 1926-28.

“The 1920s were a good period for eccentrics. Self-expression was the note of the day;the rich had more money than ever before, and less inhibitions about what to express. Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies have been taken as satirical fantasies, but they describe a real manner of life with total accuracy. In those years I saw a great deal of another cousin, Elizabeth Ponsonby, who exemplified her period perfectly.The waste of time which took place was prodigious. One was always, in the silly world I moved in at the age of seventeen, dressing up for a party; indeed, one travelled with a dinner jacket and a matelot’s uniform, which we had found out to be the quickest and simplest form of fancy dress.”

Matelot Dress Pattern 1934

“Night after night, there was Elizabeth, often starting our evening with half a dozen of our friends in the Grosvenor Square house of Arthur Bendirs (whose beautiful and silent daughter Babe Bosdari – much photographed by Cecil Beaton – shook our cocktails and helped us zip up our disguises) before we went on to Florence de Pena, or Gracie Ansell, or whoever was the hostess of an evening which inevitably took in a stop at the Cafe Anglais, where Rex Evans sang at the piano, and an eventual eclipse at an unassuming nightclub behind Piccadilly Circle, the Blue Lantern.”

Cafe Anglais 1949

This passage  is taken from The Bonus of Laughter, the autobiography of the writer and long-standing editor of the TLS, Alan Pryce-Jones . It’s a joy to read and has exactly the right feel about it, though one or two of the specifics are a little odd. Babe would not yet be Bosdari and if she was much photographed by Beaton, I can’t find any examples.

Nonetheless, the picture of Babe, pretty, quiet and slightly in the background, corresponds to other reminiscences.Evelyn Waugh, no fan at all, says much the same and Tom Driberg recalled her as, in comparison to Elizabeth Ponsonby, “much more placid, round-faced and innocent-looking, with very little expression in her face, but very beautiful in a way”.The one dissenting voice comes from Elizabeth’s mother, who blamed Babe for some of Elizabeth’s excesses and was none too pleased about Babe’s marriage to and hasty divorce from her nephew David Plunket Grene. Dorothea Ponsonby described Babe as looking like “a forty year old procuress”, a phrase as striking as it was probably inaccurate.

However, as time went on, I’m not sure the Bendir daughter stayed too much in the shadows. Although no innovator, chronicler or artist, she exemplifies a certain mode of existence as well as any of her set.

Babe played a significant part in producing and cementing the image of the BYP as far as the press, the public and her contemporaries were concerned.She achieved (if that is the right word) this through her friendships with other women, her fleeting marriages and her attendance at, and her role in organising, the many parties that still remain central to our view of the whole phenomenon.

Her close female friends, Elizabeth Ponsonby ( a cousin by marriage), Olivia Plunket Greene (sister-in-law) and the incomparable Sylvia Ashley, personified Bright Young Womanhood and Babe was their equal in her dedication to the hedonistic cause. I will say something about Babe’s relationship to all three, but particularly Elizabeth, in the next post. .Her marriages, and her unusual husbands, will also be dealt with later.


Sylvia Ashley

For now, let’s just concentrate on a couple of parties.It is as one of the quartet who organised the Bath and Bottle Party that she earns her place within the BYP elite. Held at St.George’s Swimming Baths on Buckingham Palace Road from 11pm onward on Friday 13th July, 1928, it was the quintessential Bright Young gathering. Guests wore bathing costumes, a black jazz orchestra provided the music and, as D.J.Taylor reports, its “novelty and notoriety” surpassed all of the (many) other costume and “freak” parties. Moralists and gossip-columnists had a field day. If there was a single Bright Young highpoint, this was it.

Brian Howard

A few months later there occurred the other defining party of the period, Brian Howard’s overly-ambitious Great Urban Dionysia. This event, intended to be the ultimate in decadent glamour, was something of a failure, the reality falling far short of the concept. Guests were to come as characters from Greek mythology and were advised to research their designs at the British Museum. Willy King, Viva’s husband, worked there and helped Howard and others choose appropriate costumes. Viva was Sappho, Olivia Wyndham Minerva, Ernest Thesiger Medusa, John Banting Mercury, Mary Butts a Caryatid and so forth. Babe dressed in blue, her outfit modelled on a Nymph from a Greek vase. Her look was a success but many other outfits were over-elaborate and ponderous. Even worse, some were considered tawdry and, in a comment designed to give Howard nightmares, the whole affair was deemed by one columnist to be rather “suburban”.

The 16 inches long invitation, reproduced in Portrait of a Failre, with its list of Howard’s likes and dislikes is very revealing, but even that manages to both pretentious and rather adolescent. What tends to be overlooked is the name of the actual host.

The Dionysia Will Occur this Year

At 1 Marylebone Lane, Oxford Street

(Behind Bumpus’s) on the 4th of April 1929

At 11pm. Celebrated by


in honour of the 24th Birthday of

Brian Howard

and because the New Athens is sorry that

David Tennant

is going to Acadia”

This would suggest that, although the occasion was very much Howard’s endeavour, Babe was fairly integral to proceedings. I wonder whether she financed the event, as Brian’s income never quite matched his ambitions. Did she have any creative input? Probably not,but in later  life she was a patron to certain artists and a collector, so to assume that her presence was merely decorative is possibly a mistake.

False Dawn by John Tunnard (owned by Babe)

It is unlikely that Babe invested the “freak” parties with the sort of status Howard envisaged for them (early “Happenings” almost). But that she relished the mixture of outrage and aestheticism they aspired to is given added weight by the fact that not only was she involved in these two famous examples but that she, along with Elizabeth Ponsonby, had organised one of the early White Parties (white outfits, white decor, white food) that crop up throughout the period.If the Bright Young People are largely remembered in popular culture for the parties they threw then  Babe, with her fondness for dancing and cocktails, is, through her presence at and her participation in some of the era’s signature events, no background figure at all. The best known lines in Vile Bodies are these,

“Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity … Those vile bodies.”

This, without Waugh’s disapproving note, is the world Babe inhabited and helped create.

Incidentally, Bumpus’s, mentioned in the invitation, was one of the great London book stores, loved by bibliophiles, Bloomsbury and the more literary of the “smart set”. There are some splendid images of the place here  – Bumpus 1930  .