Tag Archive: Blackbirds


Blackbirds Revue of 1926

Throughout the inter-War period moralists, puritans and prudes found much to deplore. The objects of their opprobrium were often reduced to key symbols of decadence, the very mention of which sufficed to demonise a whole series of, often though not always, innocent activities.

Elvira’s trial saw this process go into overdrive. Every phrase associated with her world  became a symbol of waywardness. As we have seen  “Cocktail Party” was one useful catch-all term for the new degeneracy (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/cocktail-parties/ )  . Equally, the very word  “Nightclub ” carried with it a sense of wickedness much exploited by the press and popular literature. As what would now be called “Gender Roles” caused endless worry and the term “Flapper” had been imported to indicate all that was untoward regarding that particular social crisis. “Bright Young Thing” had largely replaced that term by 1932 but the meanings, as far as the strictures on female behaviour were concerned, remained little altered. A closely associated panic developed around  “Masculine Women, Feminine Men”, of whom Elvira’s gang had more than its share.

Most famously,Clothes and hairstyles became highly politicised in the era. Every visible sign  was mined for its contribution to “Immorality”, by which was meant sex, newly invented apparently. Even the seemingly neutral term “Youth”, not for the last time in the twentieth century, became a suspect category. And let us not forget drug use, specifically “Cocaine,” any hint of which was guaranteed to strike vicarious frissons of terror among the respectable classes.

But there was one word that managed to encapsulate all that was deemed disruptive, chaotic , dangerous and modern in the above fears and fantasies. That word was “JAZZ”. Jazz became the short-hand signifier of everything that worried mainstream society and thus, inevitably, acquired a glamour and a mystique among those who saw themselves as part of the “New Age”.

We don’t actually know what music was played at Elvira’s parties but all the accounts assume that “Jazz music blared out from the record player”, annoying the neighbours and presumably frightening the ghosts of the horses that had previously inhabited the Mews. In the Dance Band era any arrangement with a whiff of syncopation  counted as Jazz – so it is no surprise that artists who appeared to be, or actually were, “the real thing” became heroes among the young record-buyers,  party-goers and dancers of the time.

Jazz  incorporated not only all that might be deemed “New”, it added the twin “evils” of race and rampant sexuality to the mix. No matter how “refined” the arrangements of Debr0y Somers,  Bert Ambrose or Carroll Gibbons might have been, somewhere underneath could be detected the rhythms of an alien culture. However much the disguise – Jazz was  ineluctably  “black” – or in the language of the day Negro or Coloured. In a country still very much defined by Empire and “The White Man’s Burden”, that a musical form associated with “the inferior races” should provoke such hostility amongst the many-  and such adulation amongst the rebellious  few is hardly surprising.

The year of the General Strike, 1926, is of particular importance regarding this relationship between black music and white audiences. In January the first journal devoted to dance-bands and “hot” music appeared, in the spring a painting was exhibited and then withdrawn from the Royal Academy and in the autumn a show arrived from New York that was to become an essential part of Bright Young mythology.

The journal was Melody Maker and for much of its long life it was the only place for musicians and fans to find out about Jazz. It also, from its earliest days, encouraged fierce debate regarding the merits of the music and, indeed, the very definition of “Jazz”. Its combative editor, Edgar Jackson held some peculiar ideas about music and race and was initially, oddly perhaps given the paper’s future promotion of Ellington, Armstrong et al, keen to distance his notion of “hot” music from any association with the “primitive” sounds of Black America.

John Bulloch Souter The Breakdown 1926

The controversy surrounding a painting at the annual RA show particularly exercised Jackson. The Scottish artist John Souter presented “The Breakdown” for exhibition at what was then still an important event within the British Art world. The painting shows a black musician playing a saxophone (and therefore jazz) to a naked, ghostly white woman. He is sat on the broken statue of Classical art, which his music is presumably deemed to have destroyed. Whatever Souter intended, and this work is not typical, he captured in the most melodramatic manner many of the cultural and moral fears of the time. Its themes are those of many a contemporary editorial.

Jackson was not alone in his fulminations. After much outcry, the picture was quickly withdrawn. According to one account  this was on the orders of the Colonial Office which brings an interesting political (and Imperial) dimension to the affair.

On a far more positive note, in September the” Blackbirds Revue of 1926″ opened at the London Pavilion. Starring Edith Wilson, Florence Mills, Gwendolyn Graham and featuring The Plantation Orchestra with its virtuoso trumpeters Pike Davis and Johnny Dunn, the show ran for 276 performances and had the same impact on fashionable London society that the Revue Negre and Josephine Baker had had on Paris a year earlier.

Gwendolyn Graham and Dancers, roof of London Pavilion

Florence Mills

The success of the show, which was not the first black show on the 1920s London stage, was due in no small part to its patronage by the Prince of Wales. A keen fan of dancing and “hot” music he attended, it is said, “night after night”. Very quickly the Blackbirds were taken up by the Bright Young People, attending parties, having flings and in some cases forging lasting friendships.Spike Hughes and Constant Lambert were ardent devotees and Evelyn Waugh, although he would later offer a cynical and rather unpleasant take on the whole phenomenon, was also a “repeat” attendee. A still very young Brenda Dean Paul fell completely for Florence Mills and declared she wanted  more than anything to be “a coloured dancer”. With a nice touch of diplomatic flattery, Florence told Brenda that “she could have been born in Harlem” so well did she dance. For Olivia Wyndham, Blackbirds and other similar shows were the beginning of a journey that would see her live for the best part of 40 years actually  in Harlem.

A version of the revue toured England in 1927 and a new show returned to the West End in 1928 .This introduced Adelaide Hall to an English audience and she would stay in London, living in Mayfair, running a night-club and performing at The Florida, The Cafe De Paris and other Elvira-friendly venues. Other musicians from both (and similar) shows would stay in Europe  becoming part of the pre-war club and popular music scene in ways that remain under-appreciated.

The revues were not without their critics. Plenty of newspapers deplored the perceived “cult of the Negro” that their success generated. In recent years the criticism has been rather different, pointing out the exoticising and primitivist impulses behind much of the white audience’s fandom. The shows themselves relied heavily on a number of crude racial stereotypes which are uncomfortable to modern sensibilities. They have also been somewhat written off by Jazz historians – being seen as lacking authenticity. Fortunately, although no singers recorded, the band made four sides while in London, so we can get some idea of what so thrilled Hughes and Lambert etc.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3YIwCXeW14&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyqqYjVNANI&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8G2cLeGWZuU

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENK54mmc3Lc

I’ll write more on this topic in a while but, in the meantime, two books are worth seeking out – Jim Godbolt’s A History of Jazz in Britain – an idiosyncratic but entertaining exercise and Catherine Parsonage’s more scholarly The Evolution of Jazz in Britain.

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Anthea Rosemary Carew

Another of Elvira’s friends who did time in Holloway ( see  https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/12/11/medical-officers-report-on-elvira-dolores-barney/ ) was Brenda Dean Paul, whose decline into addiction received more publicity than even Elvira managed. Brenda will pop up quite often on this blog but some of the people around also deserve mention. Not the least of these is Anthea Rosemary Carew, another probable member of Elvira’s crowd.

Described by Brenda Dean Paul as her “staunchest” friend and by others as her “fast friend”, Anthea Carew was prosecuted, together with her good pal, a couple of months after the Barney trial. She had been attempting to buy cocaine from a “French Countess” for Ms Dean Paul. The details can be found in the newspaper reports below.

Two Young Women on Parole Sep 1932

Alleged Attempt to Procure Cocaine

Torn Letter in Drug Case

Brenda Dean Paul with  Anthea Carew

The first thing that struck me was the reference to “Terrence” in the letter to the “Countess”. Could this be Terence Skeffington-Smyth? I do hope so and it would make sense in all sorts of ways. (See https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/terence-skeffington-smyth/ ). I am also slightly intrigued by the strange idea that cocaine was a good way of getting through opiate withdrawal. It does serve to portray Anthea as a Good (if somewhat unorthodox) Samaritan but I am not entirely convinced.A host of other questions spring to mind. How much was “any you don’t want”? How much would £60 worth have been in 1932 – not to mention £1200?  Who was the mysterious Countess?

Anthea and Patrick Gamble as children

Anthea Rosemary Gamble (1906-1960) and her brother Patrick  ( 1905-1956) were definitely part of the young “Smart Set”. Though not rich in the way Elvira was, they enjoyed high social status due to their father being Dean of Exeter. They were Belgravia born and bred, growing up in Sloane Street. Both children seem to have embraced with some enthusiasm the freedoms and pleasures that the twenties offered them..

Patrick hosted one of the early “Blackbirds” parties in Mayfair, for the all-black cast of the stage show that had such an impact on the Bright Young People. It may have been at this gathering that Brenda Dean Paul became enamoured of the idea of being a “coloured dancer” and suggests she was already a friend of the Anthea’s, who would have been there also.

Florence Mills and Blackbirds Chorus, London Pavilion Sep 1926

Patrick was a friend of Matthew Ponsonby, brother of the incorrigible Elizabeth, who was to become close to many of Elvira’s circle – Hugh Wade especially. Evelyn Waugh’s diaries describe his dining with Matthew and Patrick (Matthew is the real-life source of the “drunk and disorderly” car episode in Brideshead Revisited). They also record his misgivings about attending the wedding, in 1928, of Anthea to Dudley Carew.

Anthea, variously  described as “lovely” and “beautiful”, married the cricket-writer and novelist Dudley Charles Carew at Exeter.The marriage was not a success. Carew wrote many years later, “My whole whirlwind affair with Anthea, culminating in my engagement, had an air of unreality about it”. He compared their incompatibility and the marriage to Waugh’s own short-lived relationship with Evelyn Gardner but added that ” Evelyn’s lacked the touches of fantastic extravaganza that illuminated my own (to Anthea Gamble). Fantastic is the right word, and that element was heightened by a liberal attitude to alcohol”. The couple divorced in 1933 but had lived separate lives for some time before that.

He-Evelyn, She-Evelyn

Dudley Carew was an odd-character. A gifted writer on cricket, his “To The Wicket” is one of the finest works on the county game. It is also a nostalgic tribute to the inter-war years and includes a spirited defence of the , by 1946 almost universally despised, Bright Young People. His novels and poetry have lasted less well. He was at Lancing with Waugh and hero-worshipped him all his life. Waugh however, although spending much of the 1920s in his company, was at best patronising and later on completely dismissive of his acolyte. Carew, though hurt, continued to be a loyal advocate, going so far as to deny rumours of Waugh’s youthful homosexual escapades and even ridiculing suggestions of homosexuality at Lancing (where Tom Driberg was a prefect!).

Whether he was the “Mr.Carew” who ended the evening with Brian Howard and Plunket-Greene on the night of the shooting, I can’t be sure but it is more than possible. Whether he was in anyway related to the “Philip Carew” who died after a cocaine binge at a Chelsea party that Elvira attended shortly before that event, I cannot say as the incident, mentioned by Peter Cotes, has so far proved impossible to verify.

Anthea, in the meantime, like so many of Elvira’s friends was a young married woman with no husband in any real sense, and hence free to enjoy the party circuit. She and Brenda Dean Paul became closer and, although she undoubtedly indulged in her share of excesses. does appear to have done her best to look after her self-destructive friend. Her fine and the conditions of her probation, sent to Mowbray House under strict supervision, suggests that the court had no doubt that by 1932 Anthea also had a drug-problem. One Gamble who certainly did have was Gertrude, whose suicide in August 1932 after spending time with Elvira in France is one of the oddest aspects of the whole case. She was not, however, related, as far as I can tell.

Patrick Gamble married Basil Dean’s ex-wife, Lady Mercy Greville, in 1936 – but that too did not last. By the late 1930s both Patrick and Anthea had faded from public view and I can find no post-war references to either.

I will leave the puzzle of the Countess and the presence in court of the rather dubious Dr. Frederick Stuart to a later post.

Washington Hotel

Finally, it is perhaps worth noting that at the time of her arrest Anthea Carew was living at the impressive Art Nouveau styled hotel the Washington, Curzon Street, Mayfair. This hardly yells out poverty to me. For more pictures and information on this impressive building, still a hotel, see  http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/commercial/22.html