This is a guest post from Chris Hallam. Chris is working on a major project, examining British drug sub-cultures and the authorities’ responses to them from the 1920s to the 1950s. This work will shed light on a hitherto neglected history, taking us from the era covered by Marek Kohn in “Dope Girls” up to the much more extensively documented Sixties’ drug “explosion”. I am very grateful to him for taking the time to contribute this piece about the iconic Miss Dean Paul, whose exploits have hovered around the edges of this Blog since day one.
Tony de Gandarillas,“Napper” Dean Paul, Marjorie Firminger, Brenda Dean Paul and Jane Carlys – Chelsea 1929
On Brenda Dean Paul- for ‘Cocktails with Elvira’
Brenda Dean Paul, baronet’s daughter and Bright Young Person, was born in Kensington, West London in 1907, three years after her brother Napier (‘Napper’ Dean Paul). She would become (in)famous as the ‘society drug addict’ whose court cases blazed a trail of aristocratic decadence across the 1930s, 40s and 50s, dying in 1959 from- improbably enough- natural causes. Her drug using career, which was followed with avid interest by the national press, linked the aristocratic Bohemias of the 1930s- the sort of ‘set’ explored throughout these pages- to the jazz scene and beat subcultures of the 50s, when post-war affluence brought forth a flourish of new youth cultures.
Brenda’s drug use probably began with the regular use of alcohol and those ‘pick-me-ups’ available over the counter at pharmacies; she first used heroin in Paris in the late 1920s at a party held at an artist’s studio. This artist may or may not have been Jean Cocteau, enfant terrible of French culture, who came to be regarded as second only to Thomas de Quincey as drugs-corrupter-in-chief of gilded English youth. In her autobiography, Brenda tells us that a round of dissipation in the night clubs of Paris led to a collapse in her health, and that she acquired her celebrated habit while undergoing treatment with morphine in a Parisian clinic. Either way, whether by medicine or pleasure, Brenda appears to have been one of those individuals for whom opiate drugs represent a vocation, a kind of calling. Once called, Brenda never looked back. In the early years, there were many attempts at cures, it is true; countless times she would suffer the agonies of withdrawal in a string of nursing homes across London and the shires. But the cures did not take, and she always returned to her syringe and her drugs.
Brenda and Napper
It’s important to understand that the use of hypodermic morphine was prevalent in parts of the elite classes of England in the early twentieth century. Historian Virginia Berridge reminds us of the case of Lady Diana Cooper who, together with Katharine Asquith (the prime minister’s daughter-in-law), lay ‘in ecstatic stillness through too short a night, drugged in very deed by my hand with morphia’. Although the police cracked down on the street trade in cocaine in the capital during the Great War and the 1920s, they left the aristocracy alone. If the upper classes got into trouble with their drug use, they attended one of a number of private nursing homes that would treat their withdrawal symptoms with gentle reduction cures, bed rest and champagne. Lady Diana, though, was an occasional user. ‘I hope she won’t become a morphineuse’, wrote her husband Duff Cooper, soon to be Britain’s ambassador to Paris: ‘It would spoil her looks.’
Brenda in the 1950s
It did not spoil Brenda’s looks, though- she remained in possession of a singular beauty throughout her life; but her existence was to become difficult as the British state, which had hurriedly criminalised drug use under the ubiquitous Defence of the Realm Acts (and formalised this status in the 1920 Dangerous Drugs Act), began a remorseless pursuit of Brenda Dean Paul and her small circle of associates. This pursuit did not really begin until the early 1930s, when that circle included her brother Napier, her close friend and lover Anthea Carew, and various other members of a network which came and went, while Brenda sailed on, steadfast in her narcotic orbit.
As early as 1931 the Metropolitan police had her under almost continual surveillance. Brenda’s first drug prosecution occurred in late 1931, after her father had visited Scotland Yard to beg the police to stop his daughter obtaining drugs. By this time, a warrant had already been issued for her arrest on seven counts of receiving dual supplies of morphine (addicts could be supplied with heroin, cocaine or morphine by their doctors, but Brenda had gone to several doctors at once, which was frowned upon).
Detective Sergeant Griffey of Scotland Yard was tasked with arresting Brenda, but discovered that she had vanished from London. Enquiries traced her to Devon, where she had spent her childhood. On a cold November night, as Brenda waited in her motor car outside the local doctor’s surgery while her maid collected her morphine script (that’s how it was done in those days), a torch flashed in Brenda’s face. ‘Are you Miss Brenda Dean Paul?’ asked a harsh voice. ‘I am an Inspector Sergeant from Scotland Yard and I would like to speak to you…’ The detective issued her with seven summons to appear at Marlborough Street Police Court (as magistrates’ courts were then known) under the Dangerous Drugs Act. Later that night, Anthea Carew drove her back to Chelsea through the pouring rain as they frantically tried to prepare for the case, which might easily result in a prison sentence.
Brenda outside court 1933
In the event, she was bound over by the magistrate and ordered to stay at a London nursing home, and later at the home of her doctor, Dr Fleming, the latest in a long list of medical men (the term was current) to oversee her treatment. While she was unhappily incarcerated at Fleming’s Regents Park house, she was visited by Anthea Carew and other drug using friends. It was Fleming who informed the Home Office that he believed Anthea was smuggling drugs and syringes in for Brenda, and a warrant was in turn issued for her arrest. She left immediately for Devon; like Brenda, she had grown up there, her father being the Dean of Exeter cathedral. She sped off in a hired Daimler, for which the cheque later bounced. These women liked to travel in style.
The two had stayed together in the Park Lane Hotel, but the hotel management did not take kindly to hedonistic goings on within its hallowed interiors. The night porter was called to Anthea’s room and found the pair in a state of advanced intoxication, one in bed, the other sitting on the bed ‘in an almost nude condition’. The women were told that they were ‘not regarded as suitable guests and were informed that…their room was required’. They promptly shifted their base of operations to the Dorchester. While the years between the wars saw a growing acceptance of contraception and of the value of sex within marriage, marginal forms of sexuality remained tightly policed.
It is notable that authorities such as hotel managers and pharmacists were keen to collaborate with the Met in their surveillance of Brenda’s network; their drug taking and erotic practices transgressed cultural norms and created an ongoing scandal in interwar Britain. A series of inter-related court cases in the summer of 1932 saw both feature heavily in national and even international newspapers; in the US, Brenda was viewed as an example of the ‘Decaying Aristocracy’, those blue-bloods who ‘had drunk too deeply of life’s pleasures’ and now cut pathetic figures.
Brenda and Anthea Carew leaving court
Both Brenda and Anthea Carew served sentences in Holloway prison. For a tiny band of cultural subversives, they drew an amazing amount of attention from Britain’s authorities- from the Home Office, the police and courts, and the newspapers, largely because, as Marek Kohn has pointed out, drugs came to stand as a symbol for those aspects of social change which the conservative order found threatening and alarming.”