Tag Archive: Alan Pryce-Jones


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.

 c

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

BABE PLUNKET GREENE

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  .

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Eddie Gathorne-Hardy

Both Hugh Wade and Denys Skeffington Smyth list Eddie Gathorne-Hardy as being at Elvira’s  cocktail party. Oddly, his close friend Brian Howard does not, although he does mention him in his statement. (see  https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/tag/brian-howard/

They were both living at 39 Maddox Street at the time.

I’m sure he did attend. even if he did not go on to any of the later functions. Hugh Wade would have known him from The Blue Lantern and, anyway, the highly distinctive Eddie was not a figure you’d be likely to mistake for someone else. How well he knew Elvira or Michael Scott Stephen is hard to say.Not intimately, I would suggest, although he did have a fondness for rogues and scoundrels, so Michael may have intrigued him. He also shared a mutual friend with Elvira, the ubiquitous Viva King.

Hon. (Ralph) Edward Gathorne-Hardy; Hon. Robert Gathorne-Hardy; Eardley Knollys; unknown man, by Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1926 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

He was the second son of the  3rd Earl of Cranbrook  (Gathorne Gathorne-Hardy – yes,really)  and, at 31, was older than all of the other named guests, apart from Olivia Wyndham. At the time of the party he was working for the booksellers Elkin Matthews (Eddie was a respected antiquarian – an expert on C18th Literature). He was also somewhat impoverished, maintaining a hectic  lifestyle by charging everything to his elder brother and, allegedly, subsisting on the mushrooms that grew up the stairs of 39  Maddox Street. His passion for botany may have helped him out there.

One of the central characters of the Bright Young People, he is the main model for Miles Malpractice in Vile Bodies, Gathorne-Hardy lived closer to the edge and more outrageously than most of his contemporaries, with the possible exception of Brenda Dean Paul. Though there is no great evidence of drug-taking, it is unlikely that he was sober for one day of his adult life . However it was his very open (loudly and frequently proclaimed) homosexuality that marked him out as the gayest of a pretty gay set. The police, while never taking action, were well aware of him.

With Gathorne-Hardy we can trace a link between the Bloomsbury circle and Elvira’s world. He knew Lytton Strachey and Ottoline Morrell and possibly D.H.Lawrence. Curiously, in 1929, Lawrence’s artwork which, was seized by the police , had been exhibited at Dorothy Warren’s gallery  which was on the ground floor of 39 Maddox Street. I don’t think Howard or Gathorne-Hardy had moved there yet but they would have got the connection. Eddie was certainly familiar with the Carrington-Strachey menage at Ham Spray in Wiltshire, as he was photographed in the garden by Frances Partridge.

Eddie in the garden at Ham Spray –  c 1932

But it would have been Eddie’s hedonistic side that Elvira more probably identified with. Alan Pryce-Jones provides a useful snapshot,

“One often saw Brian Howard with Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, whose monocle gleamed searchingly over manifold occasions. Eddie was a distinguished bibliophile, a caustic wit and a constant source of both worry and pleasure to his relations. Night after night at the Blue Lantern, he ran out of cash for the taxi home, and night after night he rang up Daimler Hire, in the name of his elder brother, Lord Cranbrook, whose bills for Eddie’s peregrinations after midnight were prestigious. He also had a maniac streak, as on a Blue lantern night when he ordered a brandy and ginger ale in the small hours after the bar had closed. The barman brought the ginger ale only, so Eddie, choosing his moment, climbed behind the bar and snatched from the shelf a bottle of brandy, upon which, for the next hour, he became drunk.”

Alan Pryce-Jones by Horst

Alan Pryce-Jones 1931 Paris

As it turned out the “brandy” was actually only coloured water, proving that erudition is not everything in this life.  That Eddie was at the Blue Lantern “night after night”  surely indicates that the equally bibulous Elvira must have been known to him.It seems equally unlikely  that his penchant for “rough trade” was not a subject for gossip at William Mews.

From 1935, Eddie’s “peregrinations” took him much further afield than London nightclubs and Bohemian retreats. He lived in Athens, Cairo and the Lebanon. His work at various colleges and  with the British Council was always being threatened by his behaviour but he had staunch defenders in the likes of Lawrence Durrell and other expatriate writers. It remained a chaotic and debauched existence, but though in poor health he managed to return to England in the late 60s, dying in 1978 at the age of 77. Few would have put money on such longevity.

In “Bright Young People”,  D.J.Taylor devotes considerable space  to Eddie as the epitome of  the  Bright Young homosexual. Having surveyed the scene in general,  he concludes that  “nearly all  these trails lead back to the willowy, epicene and impossibly languid figure of Eddie Gathorne-Hardy.”  For Taylor, Eddie is a combination of  fine qualities, he was “companionable”, famously loyal – not least to Brian Howard – and an extreme selfishness, with a penchant for puerile antics – thus making him a perfect exemplar for the whole sub-culture.

Stephen Tennant

Somehow, Gathorne-Hardy’s life, though dissolute, seems rather richer in achievement, and fun, than the better known Brian Howard or Stephen Tennant. For all his sense of superiority he seems less pretentious and certainly less lonely. He was, it appears, pretty comfortable with his own sexuality and less prone to anger or self-disgust. It is a pity that some of that did not rub off on Elvira . Of all the guests at the cocktail party, it would be  particularly interesting to know what Arthur Jeffress made of him. Jeffress, though younger and wealthy beyond Eddie’s imaginings, shared a taste for high art and low company which would at least have made for some rich conversation.

A useful article on Eddie can be found here  http://www.bookride.com/2010/08/eddie-gathorne-hardy.html.

See also Taylor Bright Young People, Pryce-Jones The Bonus of Laughter, Lancaster Brian Howard and Jonathon Gathorne-Hardy Half an Arch