Tag Archive: barbara cartland

More about Cars and Women

Women and Fast Cars have begun to form an unexpected sub-section of this blog (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/21/of-cars-and-car-crashes/ and others). In the light of this, the following passage seems worth mentioning.

The greatest motor-racing hoax of all time took place at Brooklands and the novelist Barbara Cartland and a group of her friends very nearly pulled it off. As women drivers became more successful, some wildly exaggerated claims were made about them in the media. Some, like Victoria Worsley, complained that they were continually being accused of ‘flirting with death’ and ‘dicing with their lives’. Even the least glamorous of them were described as “ravishing”, or they were ‘dark-haired, blue eyed beauties’ and everything they said or did was blown up out of all proportions. Victoria told one interviewer, ‘Actually, we are a modest, unassuming group of women, who just like driving fast cars and want to get on quietly with the job of doing so. Most of us are highly embarrassed about all the fuss being made about us. Their popularity, however, was looked upon with a certain amount of envy by some women, who longed to be like them and were envious of their celebrity status.”

Victoria Worsley in MG

“That was why in 1931 a group of ten society women arranged to be filmed taking part in their own private race at Brooklands, but without actually putting themselves at any risk. Barbara Cartland planned the event following a remark a male guest had foolishly made at one of her house parties. She persuaded some of her friends to take part in the event to show off their driving skills and even suggested that the Society Ladies’ Private Handicap might become a regular event at Brooklands. Ten MGs had been borrowed for the occasion, which was filmed by British Movietone News. Princess Imeretinsky was to be announced as the winner with Lady de Clifford acting as her racing mechanic, and they were filmed crossing the finishing line a few feet ahead of the Hon. Mrs Joan Chetwynd, who it was claimed was heavily handicapped because she was the only driver taking part who had previously raced at Brooklands. Third place went to Miss Paddy Naismith, who claimed the distinction of having driven the prime minister on several occasions.”

Paddy Naismith

“Barbara Cartland and her friends got the publicity they were seeking and their hour or two of glory, until Motor magazine in its issue of 1 December 1931 revealed what had really happened. According to the Motor report, when each competitor arrived at the track she was issued with some white overalls and asked to pose in front of a row of MG Midgets borrowed specially for the occasion.
The scene was then ‘shot’ several times by the newsreel cameramen and Barbara Cartland announced over the microphone that they were there to prove that women drivers were every bit as good as men. It was then decided that more still photographs should be taken of the competitors before they got into their MGs and drove off to the Railway Straight, where they were again filmed lining up on the starting grid. The handful of onlookers who happened to be there were rather puzzled that there didn’t seem to be any effort to handicap the cars if it was meant to be a proper women’s handicap, particularly as three of the MG’s, including the one driven by the Hon. Mrs Joan Chetwynd, were supercharged and at least one other was brand-new and one of the latest models.”

Mrs. Joan Chetwynd
“They were even more surprised when the starter’s flag fell and all the cars, with the exception of one, which stalled because its handbrake was still on, tore down the finishing straight and began cutting each other up in a most alarming fashion for the benefit of the cameras. Since a large section of the Members’ Banking was being repaired and there was barely enough room for one car to pass, even slowly, as soon as the cars reached that point they were forced to brake rather quickly. Princess Imeretinsky managed to get into a skid in doing so spun her MG completely round, giving her what she reported later to be ‘a delicious thrill’. Her passenger’s verdict when asked about the spin was that it was ‘too, too marvellous, my dear !’”

Dorothy, Lady De Clifford

“The first part of the filming being over, it was suggested that the race needed a close finish and so everyone returned to the Railway Straight, where they were restarted, and, with the cameras whirring away, shot across the finishing line bonnet to bonnet. Princes Imeretinsky was then hoisted onto the back of her car while the other drivers gathered round. A microphone was produced and she proclaimed to an imaginary crowd that she had ‘derived infinite satisfaction from winning the contest’.
The Motor’s report resulted in a spate of letters condemning the event.. Some blamed the Brooklands authorities for allowing it to take place, while others complained that it made women look foolish and was an insult to the genuine women racing drivers. One reader asked whether the ‘ so called society ladies’ had expressed shame over their silly Brooklands escapade.”

from John Bullock, Fast Women. The Drivers who Changed the Face of Motor Racing Robson Books ( 2002 )

There are still sources which dispute that this was a hoax, but, whatever the truth, the episode did not help the image of women racers of whom there were many and who had a keen following , not least among female sports fans such as Elvira.

Elvira had, of course, a more personal interest in this event as the “winner” of the race was her sister, Avril ( see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/elviras-little-sister/ ). Not only that, Princess Imeretinsky’s partner, Lady De Clifford, was Dorothy Meyrick, the daughter of “The Queen of The Night Clubs” and regular Holloway inmate, Kate Meyrick. I”m not sure if Elvira had much to do with the Meyrick clubs but she would have,at least, been an occasional visitor and was possibly acquainted with some of the daughters, all of whom seem to have married into “Society”.

Dorothy’s husband was a keen racing-driver and was the last person to be tried “by his Peers” in the House of Lords – after he had been involved in a head-on collision and the other motorist died. He was acquitted, but it rather ruined his public profile as the leading campaigner for the imposition of speed limits on the public highway. For more see http://everything2.com/title/Edward+Southwell+Russell%252C+26th+Baron+de+Clifford.

Kate Meyrick, daughters and friends, celebrate her release from Holloway

Brooklands, with its banked track was one of the iconic places of inter-war modernity. Women racing drivers who competed there epitomised everything associated with the changes in gender roles, actual and perceived, that is such a feature of the Bright Young Era. Here are a couple of Britis Pathe newsreels from the time. The Movietone film of the Barbara Cartland stunt is still in existence but does not appear to be on-line.

Brooklands Ladies Race 1931

Women Speed Queens 1932

Eve at the wheel

a good blog on the history of women racers is this one


The Bat Club, 13 Albemarle Street

When I posted on Albemarle Street (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/01/17/elviras-delage-and-albermarle-street/ ), I failed to mention two important nightclubs. Both were expensive and catered for the “after hours” crowd. One was the 500, which cultivated a laid-back, relaxing atmosphere, the other was The Bat, an altogether livelier affair.

The Bat features in several reminiscences of the period, including those by Barbara Cartland and Margaret, Duchess of Argylle. It was very “Mayfair” rather than “Chelsea” but it had a rather “racy” reputation which met with some disapproval. Its initial fame came about through its patronage by the actress and cabaret star, Teddie Gerard. She liked to sit in with the band on drums (something The Prince of Wales was also wont to do)

Teddie Gerard (1890-1942)

Gerard  (born  Teresa Cabre, in Buenos Aires) was, in some ways the original version of the wilder women of the 1920s. Virginia Nicholson describes her as “a hard drinking, promiscuous adventuress with a drug habit”. She had shocked and thrilled Broadway audiences in 1915 by wearing on stage a very revealing, backless dress. She was a regular on the London theatrical circuit throughout the 1920s and became a friend and  a kind of role-model to Tallulah Bankhead. Others in her set included Dolly Wilde and Gwen Farrar.

The Bat encouraged this intimate relationship between audience and performers by booking what were, by the standards of the day, risque cabaret acts. The best known of these was Dwight Fiske, a Harvard drop-out who played very accomplished piano over which he performed a series of monologues consisting entirely of sexual innuendo. These were much nearer to the knuckle than the work of Douglas Byng who also was a favourite of the BYP. However, like Byng’s insufferably twee campness, they have dated badly and come across today as simply juvenile. Nonetheless, at the time they were considered deliciously naughty and helped launch the forgotten phenomenon of the “Party Record” – a private subscription disc service which served to enliven many a cocktail party and late night gathering.

Dwight Fiske by Carl Van Vechten 1937

The well-connected Fiske’s success at the Bat Club was ensured by the support of Tallulah Bankhead who was a regular in the audience during his residency – and where Tallulah went many followed. But the real coup for the club was the securing of Harry Roy as the regular bandleader.

Harry Roy 1900-1971

Harry Roy was born Harry Lipman in Stamford Hill. Like so many of the West End Dance Band leaders and musicians, his family were Jewish. He played at all the right places – The Cafe De Paris, The Embassy and the Mayfair Hotel (all favourites of Elvira)  and by the early 30s was a big star. At the Bat Club (as Harry Roy and his Bat Boys) he could play more “hot” music than elsewhere and his versions of “Tiger Rag” and “You Rascal You” became better known than the originals. He still had an eye on what the crowd wanted and what the crowd at the Bat wanted was, to put it bluntly, smut.

Roy’s Bat Club outfit released a number of jazz pieces on the label Oriole. This was set up by Levy’s of Whitechapel to cater for the small but growing audience for genuine “hot” music. Oriole also issued, privately in 1931, the Bat Club’s unofficial anthem. the puerile and very rude “My Girl’s Pussy”. This was apparently sung with much gusto by the whole audience on certain, more “carefree” nights. It is rubbish but in its own way remarkable and shows the licence that was granted to certain sub-sections of “Society”, once out of sight of the general public. Do not click if you are offended by double entendre,casual sexism (or banality, for that matter) but here it is –

Harry Roy was a particular favourite among High Society women. In 1932, at a Mayfair cocktail party, he met Elizabeth Brooke, the most wayward of three wayward daughters of the “White Rajah of Sarawak”, Sir Charles Vyner Brooke and the Ranee, Lady Sylvia. Having been presented at court, Elizabeth (known to the press as “Princess Pearl”) had become part of the “fast” crowd – attending clubs, partying and drinking all night. She also enrolled at RADA, which might make her a contemporary of Sylvia Coke et al. After flings with such high-profile figures as Jack Buchanan, Elizabeth settled on Harry Roy and the couple married, to much public fanfare, in 1935.

Wedding 1935

This “pop star weds society beauty”  was an unusual event and there was some unfavourable comments – many as motivated by racial as class issues. It is a sort of precursor of a number of factors we normally associate with the 1960s and beyond. For a few it proved that jazz, cocktail-parties and night-clubs were indeed a threat to social hierarchies – for most it was simply thought of as highly romantic.


For more on the White Rajahs and Ranees of Arawak see “Sylvia, Queen of The Headhunters” by Philip Eade

Sylvia Brooke 1930 – her elder sister was “Brett” of D.H.Lawrence and Bloomsbury fame

Roy’s Bat Club days were well behind him and the club closed in the mid-thirties. . He still made the odd “blue” record – (She Had to Go and Lose It at the Astor) but they were much milder than the material performed earlier.

Some of Elvira’s friends would have thought of the Bat as a bit “hearty” and Hooray Henry-ish , but it would certainly have been one of her many ports of call. Given her evident fondness for all things late night and a little off-colour, I can easily picture her, in 1931, singing along with gusto.

A Virgin in Mayfair

I hope this doesn’t mean that I am going to have to wade through the entire oeuvre of Dame Barbara Cartland but if this is not a description of  somewhere like the Blue Lantern then I’ll eat my Green Hat.

“We went to several clubs and then on to the most extraordinary place called the Blue Lamp Club, which was all done up with red, and steel chairs, against white concrete walls.

The only decoration on the walls was a huge fresco of a naked man and a woman, and everyone kept  saying how thrilling it was to be there, and how they ought not to have come.

I could not quite see why, for it seemed to me frightfully dull.

The band was good, but the women were all in tweedish clothes, mostly with berets on very straight hair, and hardly made up at all.

They seemed to take no interest in the men, who were quite amusing, for they had absolutely fantastic clothes – red or black shirts, and yellow spotted ties.

One who was in evening dress had a huge orchid in his button-hole, and the most lovely jewelled ring. But they all seemed rather languid – not half as gay as some of the places I had been to on London.”

If anyone asks you how the term “Gay” has mutated over the years, I suggest you show them this marvel of misapprehension.

Barbara Cartland 1901-2000

The above passage comes from the exquisitely, if, in the light of what we now know about the saintly Barbara, inaccurately entitled “A Virgin in Mayfair” which appeared in 1932, the year of Elvira’s trouble with the law. It is as badly written as prejudgement would lead you to suspect but does contain an array of detail and commentary. both incidental and accidental, which is highly enlightening.

The novel tells of the journey of a young debutante through London society sometime in the mid-Twenties. It makes a sharp distinction between Mayfair (fun but essentially respectable) and Chelsea (louche and sinister). The heroine is at home at The Embassy, Quaglinos and the Cafe De Paris, but distinctly ill-at-ease at Bohemian parties in Chelsea or in after-hours clubs off Piccadilly. Elvira’s “sin” was that, as with many of her circle, she made no such distinction.

Cartland, who served her time as a Gossip Columnist and whose early and books plays had been considered “borderline” immoral, knew something of the world she wrote about in these years. Whether that justifies her prefatory comments to the 1976 reissue  -” The Night Clubs and most of the people in the story were real and the atmosphere is correct.” – is open to question. Modesty, other than that of the sexual variety, was never her strong point.

Quaglino’s today

As Cartland’s Deb era was the early 20s, this would seem to discount the Blue Lantern as the inspiration for the “Blue Lamp” night-club. However “Quags” only got going in 1929, so she seems to have kept in touch with later developments and, yet again, those steel furnishings point towards the end of the decade. The description of the club’s regulars, though seemingly devoid of insight,  corresponds pretty well with the more knowing reminiscences of Jocelyn Brooke and Anthony Powell.

I’ll delve into other portions of the book later but for now I leave you to speculate as to who the real-life models of those be-tweeded and beret wearing women might have been and which young men on the night-club circuit wore such flamboyant outfits.