Tag Archive: Actress

Sunday Wilshin

I am still wondering about the identity of the unnamed  woman who Sylvia Coke took to  Elvira’s cocktail part. That she was an actress or somebody of high social status is almost certain. We know that she was a “close.personal friend” of Sylvia’s. This would seem to suggest either Angela Worthington or Barbara Waring (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/08/sylvia-coke/ )

It is probably wishful thinking but there is a remote possibility that Sunday Wilshin could fit the bill. A Forgotten name now, she was a prominent young actress at the time and was part, if not of Elvira’s immediate circle then, of the glamorous world half way between the stage and high society. She had had a much higher profile in 1932 than Worthington or Waring, and therefore would have had greater reason to avoid the unwelcome spotlight that the shooting would have turned on her. She famously features in recent Bright Young reminiscences as simply “a girl called Sunday Wilshin” who was assaulted by Brenda Dean Paul at Arthur Jeffress’   ” Red and White Party”. (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/the-red-and-white-party/ ). This does her something of an injustice.

The oddly named Sunday Wilshin  actually started life with the even unlikelier appellation Sundae Mary Aline Horne-Wilshin . Born in 1905, she was a child actress, appearing regularly in the West End from the age of ten. Throughout the twenties and thirties she was much in demand, both for her good looks and her skills as a character actress. By 1930 she had formed a deep friendship with another beauty, the slightly older Selene Moxon, who for some reason acted under the stage name Cyllene Moxon. Their partnership lasted well into the 1960s.The two were also close to the actress turned author, Noel Streatfield. All three, having shared a dressing-room at the Kingsway theatre during the run of a light comedy called Yoicks (1924), became regular fixtures on the London night-club scene and remained friends for life.

Cyllene Moxon, by Bassano, 1922 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Cyllene Moxon

Noel Streatfield

Noel Streatfield

Wilshin’s connection with  Elvira Barney herself is impossible to prove and may well have been non-existent. Had she not had a clump of her hair pulled out by Brenda Dean Paul I would not even be  speculating about her. If we only knew what the fight was about we might be able to make a few reasonable inferences. Yet,  there are certain traits that she shares with elements of the Mews cocktail crowd. An actress, almost definitely lesbian or bisexual, well known on the night-club and party circuit and with connections to high society (both Lady Violet Paget and Barbara Cartland designed dresses for her), if she didn’t exactly move in the same orbit she would at least have been known to Mrs.Barney.

Sunday Wilshin in a dress designed by Lady Paget

By the 1930s Wilshin was a familiar face on the British screen as well as on stage (she was in Hitchcock’s Champagne in 1928 but her film career only really took off with the advent of talkies). However, like Streatfield, she had ambitions above and beyond looking decorative. In 1938 she turned her attention to radio drama and began a long association with the BBC, working firstly as an actress then as a producer. She is best known for her work with the overseas service, making documentaries and a series of interviews with writers and artists. She replaced George Orwell as the BBC’s specialist on India  and was responsible for the corporation’s output during the sensitive run-up to Independence and Partition. Some of Orwell’s last correspondence is to Wilshin – she was trying to persuade him to contribute a talk on poetry.

Popular with her staff, she was fondly, if a little patronisingly, remembered by Hallam Tennyson (another Indian specialist and an intriguing character in his own right).

“Our boss was the delightfully dotty Sunday Wilshin. Sunday was one of the few women executives I have met who enjoyed her ‘feminine’ qualities and who made use of them in her work “.  He noted her continued preference for a kiss-curl hairstyle and felt she was still a Pre-War starlet at heart.

Apart from her radio work, she wrote books and, with Selene, edited and proof-read the work of others.She also made the occasional foray into television –  presenting “Asian Club” in 1955, surely the first such venture in the West.

Where did her interest in India come from? Funnily enough, this question might lead back to the party-world of the early thirties. By1932  Selene Moxon had tired of the social whirl of London. In July, just as Elvira was winning her case, Selene and Sunday acquired a cottage in Little Saling in Essex. They became became part of the Gurdjieff/Fourth Way study group set up by Maurice Nicholl, two miles away, at Lakes Farm, just north of Braintree. The mysticism and search for spiritual peace that characterised these communities had a particular attraction then, as it did in the 1960s, to those seeking a way out of addiction and many more who were just  no longer fulfilled by the endless round of late-night excesses. Tantalisingly, a year later Denys Skeffington Smyth moved out of Mayfair to Great Bumpstead, less than ten miles away.

Wilshin died in 1991. Although I doubt she has anything more than a tenuous link with the Barney affair, she epitomises the spirit of the age and, as a symbol of female modernity and the struggle for independence and self-determination, she is the equal of many better known young women of her time.I like her and think she is worthy of more biographical research.


One of Sunday’s few fashion gaffes – as “Coal” – designed by Barbara Cartland – and what looks like an early use of the bin liner, to me.


The Blue Kitten

Rudolf Friml was at the peak of his fame when “The Blue Kitten” opened in London in December 1925. 1924 had seen the premiere of “Rose Marie” and in 1925 came “The Vagabond Prince”. Hovering between light operetta and pop, these two shows were as popular as any in the inter-war years. Although we like to think of inter-war musicals as slick and jazz-influenced, most stage shows owed as much to European light musical tradition as they did to the new American sounds. Friml’s sentimentality was much parodied even then but remained a favourite with audiences through to the 1950s.

In some of its songs, “The Blue Kitten” had tried to adopt a more transatlantic tone but they were half-hearted affairs and the show is not now considered a highlight of Friml’s career. It had premiered in New York in 1922, to no great critical or commercial acclaim. However, Friml’s high-profile ensured that, three years on,  the London opening received full publicity and several cast recordings were made, unusual at the time.

Two publicity photos – Firstly, Francis St.Claire


Secondly, the dancing twins Billy and Patsy Irwin

Some of the cast recordings are available on “Rudolf Friml in London”


Check out the excruciating novelty song “Blue Kitten Blues” for a good period feel – sadly, it wasn’t all Ellington and Armstrong in the twenties.


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As the daughter of very wealthy parents, Elvira Mullens had no need to worry about a career.  She would have done “the season” . attended the usual round of balls and socially sanctioned sporting events – Henley, Eton v. Harrow at Lords  and so forth. At the end of this, a suitably moneyed and,possibly, titled suitor would emerge.For some reason, this did not happen. Perhaps Elvira was already rebellious and disaffected; we know her home life was less than happy. Perhaps her personality told against her; could it be that her legendary rudeness and quick temper were already apparent?

Anyway, around 1925, having watched her younger sister marry a Russian prince, Elvira decided that she would try her luck as an actress.

Before the War being an actress had been seen as a possible route towards a title, as to some extent it remained throughout the twentieth century. In the 1920s however, the stage, increasingly respectable thanks to the growing number of theatrical knights, saw a growing number of the daughters of the well-heeled and ennobled treading the boards. An added glamour was provided by the likes of Lady Diana Cooper, pre-war member of The Coterie and considered England’s leading beauty,who  from 1919 pursued a successful  career on stage and in silent pictures.

File:Diana Cooper01.jpg

Lady Diana Cooper

Many of Elvira’s social circle , including some attendees at the cocktail party, belonged to this new generation.Their immediate  idol and inspiration was Tallulah Bankhead, whose sensational arrival on the London stage earned her not only adoring male fans but a legion of fanatical young female followers. Given that Elvira kept Tallulah’s picture by her bedside while awaiting trial, one can be sure that she was one of Tallulah’s would-be “groupies”. Tallulah was a key part of the Bright Young scene, knew “The Blue Lantern” and may well have attended parties at Belgrave Square.

Tallulah, in front as Borotra. Impersonation Party 1927

Preparatory to her new career, Elvira studied at Lady Constance Benson’s Acting School. Most commentators on the trial see something intrinsically comical about this, but it was a well-regarded establishment run by a leading Shakesperian actress (and wife of Frank Benson). The school’s most famous ex-pupil was, the then only recently graduated, John Gielgud. It was toward the end of her time there that she met Charles Graves (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/tag/charles-graves/  ) – a moment which, in hindsight, marks the beginning of her notoriety.

Elvira,as with most other aspects of her life, was not to make a success out of acting. The beginning was prestigious enough – a small part, probably in the chorus, in Rudolf Friml’s “The Blue Kitten” which opened in late 1925 at the Gaiety theatre and ran for 140 performances. The beginning, however, was also the ending as there is no evidence of any further public appearances for the would be starlet who, using her middle and her mother’s maiden name, called herself “Dolores Ashley”.

Elvira 1926 - publicity shot for "The Blue Kitten" Gaiety TheatreFile:Gaiety1.jpg

She did get to know a number of actors and actresses and Irene MacBrayne, who was at the cocktail party, knew her from that period.Like most socialites of the era she was a diligent “First Night” devotee. The police found many programmes for shows in her bathroom at 21 William Mews.Certainly there remained something decidedly “theatrical” about Elvira’s public persona.

It is perhaps not too impudent to wonder whether her perfectly rehearsed performance at the trial owed something to Lady Benson’s tutelage.

What’s in a Name?

Peter Cotes, author of “Trial of Elvira Barney”, was at the time of the events in question acting in Noel Coward’s “Cavalcade”. Such was the size of the cast that it often seems that about half of the aspiring or stage-struck young thespians of the period were in the show. Barbara Waring, a possible cocktail party attendee and late night guest of Arthur Jeffress was, and Sylvia Coke and Irene Potter may well have been.

First nighters at Cavalcade 

Anyhow, Cotes reports that the Barney trial was quite a sensation and a nightly talking point  for the cast and suggests that Coward may have stored away the name to bestow upon one of the most endearingly mischievous female figures in British theatre – Elvira in “Blithe Spirit” (Stage 41-44, Film 1945). In fact, Cotes’ book is prefaced with Elvira’s lines from the play – “Why shouldn’t I have fun? I died young, didn’t I?”

Kay Hammond (1909-1980), who played Elvira in the stage and film versions was another late 20s’ RADA graduate  on the West End scene in the early 1930s.The daughter of Sir Guy Standing, she married the 3rd Baronet Leon – an Old Etonian and an Oxford contemporary of Evelyn Waugh – and got her major acting break in Rattigan’s “French Without Tears”.

It is certainly the case that, in Popular Culture, the hitherto rather obscure Christian name, Elvira, has become a shorthand-code for wickedness and/or general waywardness . In the world of z-grade horror films, Elvira crops up with monotonous regularity – usually as an excessively sexualised but essentially comic vampire.

Agatha Christie borrows the name for her murderess in “At Bertram’s Hotel” –  although it is Elvira Blake’s mother who more properly belongs to the “fast set” of the 1930s. The 1965 novel is redolent with nostalgia for a privileged -if not always entirely respectable – world that had by then almost completely vanished.

Kay Hammond as Elvira Condomine in Noel Coward’s film
Blithe Spirit 1945

Irene MacBrayne

Irene MacBrayne attended the cocktail party, left for work – she was appearing in the West End, dropped in at the Blue Angel and went to Arthur Jeffress’ late night gathering.

She thought there were about thirty people at the earlier party, mostly drinking cocktails although  some were drinking whisky – Michael Scott Stephen and (probably) Ruth Baldwin left the party briefly and returned with whisky.

Mrs.MacBrayne was separated from her husband, David, and lived at 88 Brompton Road with a girlfriend. Michael Scott Stephen had rooms in Brompton Road, possibly at the same address. Stephen had rung her up on the morning of May 30th to invite her to the cocktail party.

She was probably born Irene Ruth Potter in 1907 in Stalybridge, Cheshire. Her father was a Chartered Accountant. She refused to tell the police either her stage name or which show she was appearing in. It is more than likely that she was the young actress known to the public as Irene Potter, much seen (in small roles) on the London stage between 1927 and 1935. She starred in the musical  “Wild Violets”  in 1932 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. If she was part of the Theatre Royal set-up then there is a good chance that on the night of the shooting she was one of the large supporting cast in “Cavalcade”.


Irene MacBrayne married Geoffrey Holdsworth in 1936 and lived in Chelsea for the rest of her days. She became an author, best remembered for “Little Masks” – a rather twee book about her cats – and some typically 1950s’ travel writing, such as “A Taste For Travel”(1956). In these books, as in her wartime journal of her ATS experiences (“Yes Ma’am”), she adopts the persona of a single, independent,”society” woman.