Tag Archive: Brian Howard


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.

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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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Babe Plunket Greene (part one)

Of the four figures who organised the Bath and Bottle Party in 1928 and therefore, according to a host of commentators from Viola Tree to D.J.Taylor, constituted the inner-core of the Bright Young Set, Babe Plunket Greene has received the least attention.

Brian Howard has long since passed into legend – in literature and in anecdote. Jacqueline Lancaster’s still-fascinating biographical scrapbook “Portrait of a Failure”  is as detailed a portrait as anyone could wish for.

Apart from the many contemporary references, Hugh Wade’s friend Elizabeth Ponsonby recently became pretty well the central female character in Taylor’s “Bright Young People“,  while Eddy Gathorne-Hardy has a smaller but significant space reserved for him in most chronicles of (and about) the times.

Elizabeth Ponsonby

“Babe” hasn’t fared quite as well. True, she doesn’t seem to have done much apart from giving and attending parties and getting involved in a series of short-lived marriages. But in that she was no different to several better known Bright Young Females (and not a few Males).

The name, though wonderfully resonant, doesn’t help. She sometimes gets confused with Teresa “Baby” Jungman  (see The Jungman Sisters) and/or her sister-in-law, Olivia Plunket Greene. Both of these women were unrequited loves of Evelyn Waugh, Olivia inspiring some of his best-known female characters ( Julia in Brideshead Revisited is partly based on her).

I also think that a certain snobbery surrounding  her background has had a lasting effect. At the time, she was seen as not quite out of the top drawer.Inevitably, Evelyn Waugh is an early commentator on her supposed  lack of social status. Waugh’s take is unsurprising. Whether a modern historian ( Julia Byrne in the generally excellent Mad World) should simply dismiss her as “the gold-digging step-daughter of a prominent bookie” is perhaps another matter.

I’ve no idea whether she was a gold-digger or not and, anyway, I’m not sure the term carries much meaning in the context of the 1920s marriage market. That she was the step-daughter of a bookmaker is true, but that intended slight does not tell anything like the whole story.

Her parents were Richard Murray McGusty, a member of a family of Dublin solicitors and himself a government agent in Canada, and Ernestine Marguerite, known as “Margot”. Margot was Scottish and her maiden name was Erskine. She was from a military family, her father was the second son of the Earl of Killie.  Babe’s birth name was Enid Margot or Marguerite Enid. I think she was born in 1907, although some sources say 1905 – she is listed in the 1911 census as Enid, aged 3. The dates are important as in 1907 Richard sued for divorce, naming Arthur Bendir as co-respondent. The divorce was granted in 1908. Margot married Arthur Bendir, but not until 1921. Babe therefore grew up as a child of a divorced (and presumably somewhat disgraced) single mother. There must also be the possibility that Arthur was her actual father.

Portrait of Mrs Bendir 1926 Sir William Orpen

Arthur Bendir is the “bookie”. He was in fact Chairman of Ladbrokes which he essentially founded in 1902. Evelyn Waugh writes in his diary of Babe’s “common father” and, indeed, he was of humble origin, having been born in Lambeth. By the 1920s he was immensely rich.He had a house at 43 Grosvenor Square and also owned Medmenham Abbey, a place of some historical notoriety. In the eighteenth century it had been the venue for some of the more outrageous antics of Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hellfire Club (see Hellfire Club).

Medmenham Abbey

Ladbroke’s in the period that Bendir was in charge was a very different creature to the high street and on-line organisation we know today. The laws around betting were both very strict (and somewhat arcane) until 1960. Off-course betting was basically illegal but if you had a bank account and membership you could place bets by telephone. In essence, this meant that the well-to-do could gamble legally, while the man and woman in the street were reliant on illegal street bookies. Arthur Bendir devoted his attention to the Gentleman’s clubs of Mayfair and the West End. It is said that he drew his clients exclusively from the pages of Debrett’s. This is a slight exaggeration,Ladbroke’s had a very successful on-course presence, but it is substantially true. The fact that Ladbroke’s headquarters were in Hanover Square and then Old Burlington Street gives you some idea of the milieu and sought-after image.

Up to the Second World War this made Bendir the real king of bookmaking. He added to his fortune by becoming the major investor in the innovative (and very lucrative) Irish Sweepstakes – the National Lottery of its day. His own wealth can be gauged by the fact that the salary he paid his on-course manager, uniquely a woman – the legendary Helen Vernet, £20,000 a year. However, given the English caste-system, wealth and respectability were not the same thing. In the inter-war years racecourse gambling meant the Sabinis or the Brummagem Boys ( both of whom, incidentally, had interests in Kate Meyrick’s clubs) – a world of razor gangs and protection rackets.

If you want to explore the strange world of pre-1960 betting, Carl Chinn’s book is invaluable.

So Marguerite “Babe”  McGusty came to adulthood as a wealthy young woman but with a certain stigma surrounding the source of that wealth. This was not helped by a scandal in 1924 over a horse, nominally owned by her mother. The Kildare Nationalist website says this,

“”For the 1924 Lincolnshire Handicap Margot Bendir’s Condover was backed to win thousands, but ran inexplicably badly. Reappearing in the Newbury Spring Cup, Condover was backed from 100/7 down to 4/1, winning easily. The press went mad. ‘Public betting is not the haphazard thing that it used to be – the man in the street is by way of being an expert – but when he is palpably outwitted and finds all his logical conclusions unexpectedly scuttled he is inclined to think that the game is not as nice as it ought to be.’

Margot Bendir and Wilfred Purefoy fell compelled to institute libel proceedings. A sensible jury found in their favour, but awarded them just one farthing in damages. Moreover, they were not granted costs.”

Whether Babe was troubled or affected by any of the above is a matter for speculation but she emerges on the London social scene at this time, not yet eighteen but with a definite penchant for everything associated with the hedonism of the Bright Young People. Evelyn Waugh’s 1925 diary entry records her as “quiet, good-natured and pretty and well dressed with round eyes and rather a shiny nose”. For the next few years she is at the heart of the fast set, hosting two of the era’s most famous parties, constantly seen about town with her friend Elizabeth Ponsonby, marrying the likeable but luckless David Plunket Greene  and generally making herself the subject of much gossip and rumour.

William Acton, Margot Bendir, Elizabeth Ponsonby, Harry Melville, Babe Plunket Greene at David Tennant’s party 1928

I will look at this phase of her life in the next post.

UPDATE  Thanks to GH for spotting this – the birth of one Enid Margot Bendir is registered for November 1907  (London, Marylebone), which seems to settle the matter of parentage. Why she is Babe McGusty in Waugh’s diaries and Marguerite McGusty on her wedding to David Plunket Greene is open to question.

Anthony De Bosdari

Anthony De Bosdari and Babe Plunket-Greene feature prominently in the various anecdotes concerning “Bright Young People”. Both are seen as belonging to the disreputable end of the set and while this is not exactly untrue, they have, I think, been the victims of some rather unpleasant snobbery, then and now. Bosdari becomes “the bogus Sicilian Count” and Babe “the gold-digging daughter of a bookie”. As with others we have encountered, the truth is a little more complicated. It is also proving rather hard to unravel.

Tallulah Bankhead and Tony Bosdari

Tony Bosdari  (b 1899) was one of three brothers born to Maurizio De Bosardi. All three were entitled, apparently, to call themselves Count, which is, to say the least, confusing. Although much emphasis is put on their foreignness , Anthony was educated at Winchester and seems to have been the model English public schoolboy, winning prizes for Latin, editing the school magazine and, most importantly, excelling at cricket. He topped the batting averages in his final year in a side that included future England captain, Douglas Jardine (of “Bodyline” notoriety).

In the 1920s he became known as a man-about-town, a polo player of some repute and, take your pick, a “confidence trickster”,” a wheeler-dealer”, a “venture capitalist” or simply a “business man”. What is certain is that he worked for Brunswick’s UK branch and had a great impact on the “Bright Young People”, but not in the ways usually mentioned.

In 1926 he organised a demonstration of Brunswick’s “Panatrope” radio/gramophone ( fittingly,at the Cafe De Paris). This early “music centre” was considered a major leap forward in home sound-technology and was a key part of 1920s dance and cocktail party culture.

This from Gramophone, November 1926

“The Panatrope
The relationship of wireless and gramophone reproduction has decidedly taken a step into the limelight of the gramophile’s stage with the Panatrope. This American invention was described pretty fully a year ago (October, 1925, Vol. II., p. 226) under the heading “The Coming Revolution?” and though it has taken a good while to reach this country, there is no reason to doubt that it opens up all the vista of future development which was then indicated. The combination of wireless, films and gramophone in the home is now appreciably nearer, and though only wealthy modernists can take more than a detached interest in the matter for some time to come, the whole subject is one of vast interest to all speculative minds.

The Café de Paris

Our representatives had the privilege of attending the first demonstration of the Panatrope at a hmcheon given by the British Brunswick Co. at the Café de Paris on October 4th. Count Anthony de Bosdari, who introduced the Panatrope with a very clever speech, deprecated the idea that it was intended in any way to compete with the gramophone. He left it to the Daily Telegraph to call it a “super gramophone” ; in fact, he claimed nothing for it except what was abundantly justified by the subsequent records played upon it.
An American Report

A propos, one of our readers, Mrs. Caesar Misch, of Providence, Rhode Island, writes: “Last week I put a band record on the Panatrope, using the second stage of amplification. The windows of the music-room were open and I soon saw my chauffeur run to the front of the grounds, thinking a band was passing! The sound had to travel 125 feet back to the garage where he was working, and that through windows at the front of the house, and that with only the second stage. This seems to me a significant comment on the ‘real-ness’ of the reproductions.”

The tune is one of the hits from Blackbirds of 1928

At the same time Bosdari was putting jazz on the UK map. Said to be the “best dancer in London”, he was one of the first to pick up on Fred Elizalde’s Quinquaginta Varsity jazz band and persuaded the Savoy to book the young composer as resident band-leader – he then arranged for him to record  for Brunswick. Elizalde’s work is still considered the most sophisticated and jazz-oriented of UK dance bands of the era. (see Fred Elizalde)

Bosdari  also  secured Society favourites Bert Ambrose’s Mayfair Hotel Orchestra for Brunswick. He would also have had a say in Brunswick UK releasing “hot” music by the likes of Red Nichols, King Oliver and Irving Mills’  above-mentioned Hotsy-Totsy Gang. Therefore the Count played a significant part in providing the soundtrack for the jazz-mad party set of the period.

Just prior to this, he had been working in Selfridge’s marketing department ( he was a friend of fellow Wykehamist, Gordon Selfridge Junior). It was Bosdari who had introduced John Logie Baird to the store  in 1925, thus giving the public the first real viewings of “television”. The equipment was so provisional and ramshackle that it was not a great success but it does show a remarkable sense of foresight on Bosdari’s part. Bosdari obviously had a feeling for all things modern, he appears to have had dealings with the German film company UPA  and Klangfilm, pioneers of film sound equipment.

He must have continued his association with Selfridge’s too and appears to have tried to get Brian Howard a job there as a display designer (unsurprisingly, for Howard, nothing came of it).  Howard also mentions a company called First International Pictures, another Bosdari project, for whom he was to work on set design. I think this is First International Sound Pictures – but can find little information – again, nothing materialised.

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However these aspects of the Count’s career have been largely buried. It is as a playboy and in particular as the lover and fiance of Tallulah Bankhead that he lives in the history books.Bosdari’s engagements, affairs and (possible) marriages are not easy to follow. He was briefly engaged to the actress Enid Stamp Taylor in 1926, was even more briefly married to Josephine Fish, an American heiress, in 1928, and then  for six months until May 1929 was engaged to Tallulah. In 1931 a forthcoming marriage to the Duchess of Croy (formerly Helen Lewis, another American) was announced but whether it took place or not I can’t ascertain. Then, according to Bright Young People annals, he married Babe Plunket Greene.  Countess Marguerite Bosdari is, I presume ,Babe and is on the electoral role in 1932 but I can’t find much more as yet . With so many Counts and Countesses Bosdari (even Tallulah termed herself such for a while) it gets rather confusing

Countess Bosdari 1934 (is this Babe?)

Anthony De Bosardi seems to fade into obscurity (perhaps under something of a cloud) from the mid-1930s onwards. There is some useful material at this fascinating website Levantine Heritage but there are still plenty of questions remaining (as ever). Alec Waugh, who knew him well in the 1920s, says Bosdari was interned by the Germans in World War 2. The Levantine site suggests that he then lived in either North Africa or South America. He is an intriguing figure and I’m sure there is much more to unearth.

I’ll post next on Babe Plunkett-Greene, in many ways an equally puzzling character.

Matisse at the Gargoyle

The most celebrated night-club of the BYP era was, of course, the Gargoyle at 69 Dean Street. It was opened in 1925 by David Tennant, who claimed he just wanted a congenial place to dance with his girl-friend (Hermione Baddeley, who he married in 1928).It attracted artists,intellectuals, writers and young socialites in equal measure. With a membership that included almost everyone associated with London Bohemia, it remained a key location for thirty years and anecdotes about the club appear in almost every reminiscence of cosmopolitan cultural life of the period.

Gargoyle 1940

Brian Howard, Brenda and Napper Dean Paul were regulars – Howard seems to have taken up almost permanent residence during World War Two. In the 1920s, Elizabeth Ponsonby had horrified Frances Partridge with her drunkenness at one party (Bloomsbury and the Bright Young Set did not always mix well).The club’s initial manager was the singularly disreputable Harry Rowan Walker, as raffish a figure as any of Elvira’s set and who she may have known as the some-time boyfriend of Brenda Dean Paul (who also had an affair with David Tennant). These and others, feature in “David Tennant and the Gargoyle Years” by Michael Luke, an affectionate but by no means comprehensive, biographical study.

Despite the excesses of some of the members, the general atmosphere was civilised and relatively high-brow.There is a wonderful, if a little too fawning, description of the place in Stanley Jackson’s “An Indiscreet Guide to Soho“. Written just after the end of the war, this is a little gem of a book which, though often patronising and unintentionally humorous,  captures the flavour of the area  (and the times) as well as any book I’ve read. This from the chapter “Clubs and Joints”,

“There are, of course, several amusing and well-run Soho clubs. I belong to the Gargoyle which has been running for twenty years. It was started by the Hon.David Tennant in one room and now occupies spacious premises at the top of a building which you reach by lift. The famous roof garden is temporarily out of commission but will doubtless revive.”

Tom Driberg

“Apart from Tennant, who runs the club in a charmingly offhand but efficient style, committe members include Augustus John (a founder member), Clive Bell and Philip Toynbee. Among its 2000 members are Sir Gordon Craig, John Sutro, Cyril Connolly, Val Gielgud, Tom Driberg, Sir William Beveridge, Hermione Baddeley and scores of BBC folk, writers and artists. The subscription id Four Guineas per annum and husbands and wives can save a guinea by joining together.”

Hermione Baddeley

“The decor is bright but tasteful and Matisse gave his expert advice. Several of his drawings of ballet girls grace the upstairs bar which is a cheerful spot always crowded with people discussing art, politics or women in the liveliest way. “My unpaid cabaret,” David Tennant calls them. The liquor is always of sound quality and the prices not too stiff. Nor will the barmen raise superior eyebrows if you demand half a pint of bitter and linger over it.  One of their specialities is a Pimm with a dash of curacao.

The restaurant downstairs seats 140 and its ceiling and general design have been modelled on the Alhambra at Granada. The mirrors are particularly attractive, unless you have drunk too much gin!. Here one can feed in comfort and a cheery, intimate atmosphere. Luncheon is served from noon until 3 p.m., and dinner from 6 p.m. until midnight.In the old days, when theatres ended at a civilised hour, the chef would put on a specialite de minuit, something tasty like onion soup with croutons. But even with present day shortages, the menu always shows imagination.

The last time I dined at the club I had a dozen excellent oysters, soup, duck and delicious ice cream. The oysters were extra, of course, but five shillings covered the rest. Tennant, I should say, has an eye for vintages, and his pre-war wine is a sentimental memory (fine Club “fizz” at 13/6 a bottle!); even today he manages to produce a dinner wine that is no insult to the palate.

The four-piece band led by Alec Alexander, suits the style of the club. It delivers lively, cheerful music that you can dance to without having your nerves torn to shreds. Alec knows all the members and seems to enjoy playing requests.”

Alec Alexander’s band was , in fact, a little bit of a joke to some of the post-war clientele (Lucian Freud and Henrietta Moraes were particularly scathing). Tennant for all his talents as a host was, unlike most of his contemporaries, not much of a jazz fan – by 1946 the Gargoyle was starting to be seen as a bit of a throwback. It never quite reclaimed either its pre-war glamour or its wartime popularity. However, it lasted a few more years and its 40s and 50s membership list remained impressive.

That earlier chic, even avant-garde, ambience is best summed up by the two Matisse paintings that Tennant installed not long after the club’s inception (I think Jackson is wrong about the “ballet dancers)”. The two works in question were “The Red Studio” and “The Studio, Quai St. Michel“. The former was hung in the bar, the latter on the stairs down to the dining.dance area.

The Red Studio 1911

The Studio, Quai St. Michel 1916

These are two remarkable, and significant, works of art. To find them in a “night-club” gives some indication as to why the Gargoyle was seen as somewhere special, unique even.

There is much more to be said about the Gargoyle and its place in club history. David Tennant too – he has not quite been given credit for his role in the Bright Young phenomenon (unlike his younger brother, Stephen). However, it is Harry Walker who is intriguing me just now and I shall post something on him as soon as I have a little more info.

Two Letters to Hugh Wade

Two of the most  fascinating letters to Hugh Wade (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/hugh-wades-friends-and-well-wishers/) were sent, respectively, from the Colony Rooms and The Romilly Club. Both were written on headed paper and have a historical value independent of their main subject matter.

The Colony Room letter is dated February 14th 1949. It is in pencil (“Muriel can’t afford to fill her pen”) and consists of four short, affectionate notes to Hugh. The writers have been listening to Hero (Hero De Rance, I think) play a medley of Hugh’s tunes on the piano and the tone, while attempting to be cheery, is inevitably nostalgic and a little sad. The signatories are Dolly (Mayers), Muriel Belcher,  Rose ( possibly Lady Rose McLaren) and one that I can’t work out (Donald or Ronald Story?) but could be from the barman ( he pleads great poverty).

Colony Room 1962 Michael Andrews

The Colony is such a central part of post-War, particularly1950s, Bohemia that I do not need to go into its history in any detail. Muriel Belcher was the legendary owner and Francis Bacon its most famous regular. When the letter was written it had only been open a few months. Bacon was already a member, having been introduced to the place by Brian Howard the week it opened. Probably John Deakin was around already, which brings in another Elvira connection, as he had a long, if unlikely, relationship with Arthur Jeffress.

Muriel Belcher by John Deakin

Situated at 41 Dean Street (about a 100 yards from the old Blue Angel), the Colony Rooms began life as a fairly exclusive and smart club aimed at a well-heeled, largely gay clientele. Membership was relatively expensive and subject to the whims of its owner. Muriel Belcher had been part of West End club life for at least ten years. She started the Sphinx in 1936 or 37, with Dolly Mayers. They then ran the Music Box at 4 Leicester Street (off Leicester Square). The date given in various histories is 1937 but it doesn’t appear in the London phone-books until 1941.

It was certainly very popular during the War, James Lees-Milne has a much repeated anecdote of going there with Sandy Baird (of “White Party” fame). From the two letters it looks like Hugh Wade was the resident pianist. Again from the letters, we can surmise that Dolly and Muriel had a falling out, with Muriel staying at the Music Box  and Dolly going to the Romilly (at 11 Orange Street, very close to Ciro’s). By the time they wrote to Hugh they had settled their differences (“Dolly and I have made up and she pops in regularly”).

Dolly Mayers is far less well known than Muriel Belcher.The Romilly Club, too, barely registers in public memory. It was, in fact, the re-named Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit, the most luxurious and fashionable “Gay” club in wartime London. Known in the 1930s as “Molly’s”, it had been run by Teddy Ashton and the resident pianist was Leonard Brackett (a veteran West End composer and cabaret performer). It was here that Guy Burgess was hurled down the stairs and knocked unconscious (some sources suggest that Brendan Behan did the hurling). Despite this incident, Le Boeuf was on the whole a rather classy, decidedly upmarket place. We tend to hear the term “night club” and assume a seedy, rather sinister environment. The Music Box, Le Boeuf and, in its early days, The Colony had more in common with the BYP venues of the 20s and 30s than the the Soho dives of 1950s B movies.

Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit took its name from the legendary Parisian cabaret-bar, famously patronised by Cocteau et al (see Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit ), which gives an idea of the desired, if not necessarily achieved, ambience. The Romilly lasted for about ten years and was a prime example of the “discreet” approach that characterised the era (see London Clubs 1940s )

Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit Paris 1922

Dolly’s note to Hugh, is a mixture of news, gossip and messages from well-wishers. Hugh was obviously a well-known and favoured part of the “scene” ( “Hugh who made the piano talk at the Music Box”). I’m still trying to decipher the text and work out who some of the folk mentioned are, but one name leaps out. Peter Lacy, through Dolly, sends his regards to Hugh. Lacy, was the love of Francis Bacon’s life and for a time the resident pianist at the Colony Room. Something of a wild and dangerous fellow, he is supposed to have been a Battle of Britain pilot ( I can’t find his name in the Roll of Honour). He ended up playing piano in a bar in Tangiers.

Peter Lacy

These letters offer a tantalising glimpse of a particular culture at a specific moment in history. It is one about which, despite the work of several historians, we know little, and understand less. It also shows that Hugh was as liked and respected a figure in this world as he was in the show-business circles ( there is of course some overlap). Most gratifying to me is the link that Hugh, by chance,  provides between the bright Bohemia of the 1920s right through to its final, somewhat lugubrious, phase in the Colony Room (Belcher died in 1979, Bacon in 1992).

What is really needed is a complete membership list for these clubs. Elizabeth Smart compiled one for the Colony Room (where can that be found?) but I would love to know who listened to Hugh at the Music Box. I’m sure Sandy Baird wasn’t the only ex-BYP to have been around.

More on this anon.