Tag Archive: Brian Howard


I thought a reminder of the cocktail party might be in order as I have posted a few items now and can’t expect people to back track through all of them. So, forgive the repetition but here we go.

On Monday, May 30th 1932 Elvira Barney and Michael Scott Stephen held a cocktail party between 6pm and 10pm at 21 William Mews (off Lowndes Square).Elvira had lived at the Mews since January 1931 and the small front room was designed with Parties in mind. The main two items of furnishing were a cocktail bar and a large gramophone.

21 William Mews and Elvira’s Delage

She held cocktail parties about twice a month. They were informal affairs and always took place early in the week. The invitation process seems to have consisted simply of telling people she met at a party in someone else’s house that she was doing the same next week so “do drop in”. In addition, Michael or Elvira would ring round on the morning of the party and invite others. In the case of the 30th May, many (if not most) of the guests had been invited at Terence Skeffington-Smythe’s cocktail party (the previous Wednesday or Thursday) at 19, Orchard Street. Michael also made some phone calls on the Monday.

Over the course of the evening, between 25 and 35 people came and went. Some were close friends, some were regular attendees, some had only met Elvira at Skeffington-Smyth’s and some had never met her at all. Her two closest friends at the time, Leonie Fester and Terence Skeffington-Smyth were invited but didn’t make it. They turned up at the Blue Angel later on.

Hugh Wade and Elizabeth Ponsonby ( Olivia Wyndham and possibly Heather Pilkington behind railings)

Hugh Wade, the resident pianist at the Blue Angel and The Blue Lantern, knew Elvira well. He was among the first to arrive. Also early was Irene MacBrayne of 88 Brompton Road, an actress. Irene was a regular at Elvira’s parties.

Sylvia Coke, of 4 Carlyle Square, came with a “very great friend” who she was unwilling to name. She didn’t know Elvira well but had met her at various parties over the last couple of months. Brian Howard came with Toni Altmann (and,presumably,Eddie Gathorne-Hardy). All three were living at 39 Maddox Street. Howard had known Elvira by sight for some five years but had only properly spoken to her at Skeffington-Smyth’s. Gathorne-Hardy was not a friend but knew Elvira as a regular at the Blue Lantern. Toni Altmann didn’t know anybody very well. He had recently gone to a party held by performers in the play “Casanova” with Sylvia Coke and had met Elvira there.

Denys Skeffington-Smyth (17 Southwick Street) was in Casanova so that may be the connection (or the Terence S-S cocktail party may have been for the cast). Denys was at the Monday cocktail party and had met Elvira at various gatherings over the past couple of years, but did not consider himself a friend. Arthur Streek (26 Sackville Street) did, and seems to have been more aware of the rows between Elvira and Michael than other guests (or at least more than they would admit to the police). He arrived with two Americans – a Mr.Sherrill and someone called Milton.

Ruth Baldwin and Olivia Wyndham were there. Olivia was visiting from America. They were holding their own “soiree” later,  at 5 Mulberry Walk. If they knew Elvira at all, it would have been through Heather Pilkington, a mutual friend who might also have been in attendance. Someone identified as “Mrs.Butterworth” was there too, but I can’t work out who she was.

Arthur Jeffress

The last guest to arrive was Arthur Jeffress. He had just got back from America and seems to have been the closest to a “guest of honour” that the evening held. He described himself as a “good friend” of Elvira’s and spent much of the rest of the evening with her and Michael.

The party does not seem to have been at all “wild”. The gramophone played and there was dancing. The guests drank sherry, cocktails (gin, grapefruit juice and soda water) and, after Michael and a guest (named as Joe Carstairs by a Mews resident) had been dispatched to an off-licence, whisky. Given Michael and Elvira’s reputation, there may well have been cocaine on offer but there is no evidence to support such a claim.

Only Hugh Wade and Arthur Jeffress appeared at the trial. Toni Altmann, Brian Howard,Irene MacBrayne, Sylvia Coke, Denys Skeffington-Smyth, Arthur Streek, along with Leonie Fester and Terence Skeffington-Smyth, gave police statements. Joe Carstairs sent, through her solicitors, a very forthright letter denying that she was present.

Brian Howard

The police either failed to find the other guests or perhaps, given that all the early interviews told pretty much the same story (everything was fine between Elvira and Michael), they just didn’t see the need. Cotes reports that one guest rang the police offering information but he never materialised. This might be John May, who rang round a number of people on the Tuesday. He was the first to inform Jeffress of the shooting, which suggests that he knew who had been where the night before. A neighbour told the police that he counted fifteen men arriving at the flat before he gave up. Why he counted only the men is anyone’s guess.

Earlier accounts claim that several prominent people were very keen to deny any association with the evening or with Mrs.Barney generally, but this is more likely to be press speculation than actual fact.

And that’s about it. I’ll leave the last words to Sylvia Coke,

“I went to Mrs. Barney’s party at 21 Williams Mews at about 7pm on the 30th May. I should think there were about 25 to 30 persons present. We were given cocktails to drink and there was sherry for those who wanted it, The gramophone was playing and we danced to it. It was a very gay party and everybody, including Mrs,Barney and Mr.Scott Stephen, seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely.”

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C.H.Rolph and Henry Cecil

For all the actors, photographers and generally arty types that Elvira mingled with on the evening leading up to the shooting, if it is authors that we are looking for then the representatives of Law and Order at the trial offer some surprisingly rich pickings. When it comes to the  written word, the Establishment, in this instance, beats Bohemia hands down. True, Eddy Gathorne-Hardy and Brian Howard considered themselves blessed by the poetic muse but their collective lifetime output is negligible – two very slim volumes of verse and some reviews in Howard’s case, and a couple of pamphlets in Gathorne-Hardy’s.

Brian Howard

On the other hand, even if we ignore the novelist Gilbert Frankau (covering the proceedings for the Daily Mail), the Authorities were to prove far more prolific wielders of the pen. Eminent figures that they were it is no surprise that autobiography was to be a favoured form. The Judge, Sir Travers Humphreys,  produced two, one of which, Criminal Days, holds up well.  He also provided the forward to H. Montgomery Hyde’s historically important The Trial of Oscar Wilde.

Sir Patrick Hastings’ autobiography and his Cases in Court are both worth searching out, as their calm but authoritative tone  offer a taste of the technique that made him such a successful Defence Advocate. In the 1920s he was also a playwright, albeit with varying degrees of success (see  https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/01/07/sir-patrick-hastingstallulah-bankhead-and-beatrix-lehmann/ ) . Even so, to have a written a hit show which starred Tallulah Bankhead is something that more than one or two of the “smart set”  might have envied.

Tallulah by Augustus John 1929

Even the ballistics expert, whose findings Hastings comprehensively demolished, could also boast a “hit” production of his own,.Though hardly literature, Robert Churchill’s Game Shooting was for many years the standard work on the subject. I am told that the prosecuting counsel, Sir Percival Clarke, wrote an influential treatise on Extradition but that is one avenue of enquiry too far, even for me.

Two other worthies, connected with the judicial system, but who would have gone largely unnoticed at the trial, were to  to develop prolific careers as writers.  One was H.C. Leon and the other C.R. Hewitt. As Henry Cecil and C.H.Rolph, respectively, their books gained a wide readership in the post-war years. Cecil specialised in fiction, Rolph, although probably the more aesthetically-minded and intellectual figure, in non-fiction. Neither are likely to trouble literary theorists or university syllabi but they both made significant contributions to the cultural landscape. Together they present, from different political perspectives, portrayals of English society that are still illuminating.

Leon was a young barrister at the time of Elvira’s case. He was present throughout as he was following the trial for “an unnamed client”. This  is a  peculiar snippet of information – who would pay for such a service, was someone worried in case their name cropped up during cross-examination? At the very least it indicates the extent of interest (and unease) that Elvira’s arraignment had created in “Society”.Presumably Leon performed this and other duties well as he rose through the ranks to become a High Court Judge himself. However from 1951 he devoted himself largely to writing, using his Christian names, Henry Cecil.

He produced a series of novels based around the Legal Profession, most of which were puzzle-based mysteries in the genteel “Golden Age” style. They were characterised by a humour that came to predominate and ensured his popularity. In essence, Henry Cecil did for Barristers in the 1950s what Richard Gordon did for Doctors in the same decade and James Herriott was to do for Vets a generation later. The books are clever, mildly satirical, unashamedly middle-brow and middle-class – Brian Howard would have despised them. They present an essentially stable  England populated by forgetful judges, erudite villains and young male heroes of the ” good chap” type personified by Ian Carmichael and Richard Briers. Indeed, both of those actors starred in film and TV adaptations of Cecil’s best-seller Brothers In Law.  Cecil’s knowledge of the Law is put to good use and the sense of period and place makes the books reassuringly rather than awkwardly dated. Decency, not a word that cut much ice in Elvira’s orbit, is both the most valued (and eventually triumphant) quality.

C. H. Rolph/Hewitt was also concerned with “decency”, but in his case it it took him down a more political, crusading route. His presence at the trial was due to his position as an officer in the City of London Police. It was his task to ensure the safe and orderly functioning of the case, a job made rather difficult by the demand for seats in the public gallery and the behaviour of the Mayfair and Chelsea socialites who seemed to have monopolised said gallery. Rolph, like many other commentators was deeply disapproving of this faction (who presumably included most of Elvira’s friends). Their frivolity, which included giggling at the forensic evidence and generally treating the whole spectacle as a West End first-night, caused much comment in the press and confirmed the public’s increasingly dismal opinion of the Bright Young Things. Sir Patrick Hastings alluded to their behaviour in his closing speech and cleverly turned it into a rhetorical device in his client’s favour (“some may think this is all very entertaining, I take the case very seriously etc”.).

Rolph was no more impressed with Elvira than he was with her camp-followers. His autobiography dismisses her as “the woman who shot her lover and got away with it” and he sympathetically records the Judge’s outrage at the reaction to the verdict ( “Most extraordinary. Apparently we should have given her a pat on the back.”). However this was not the standard gripe of an authoritarian Copper. Rolph was a radical and devoted much of his writing career to “progressive” causes.

While rising to the rank of Chief Inspector, and authoring a number of police training manuals, Rolph began a long-standing relationship with the  New Statesman, for whom he wrote reviews, think-pieces and investigative reports for the best part of 40 years. He was a great admirer of Kingsley Martin, the paper’s editor for much of that time, and eventually became Martin’s biographer. He worked for the Howard League and wrote book length studies on a number  of issues relating to the law and moral questions. Some of these, such as his work with Arthur Koestler on Capital Punishment and his book on the Lady Chatterley trial (both Penguin Specials), became the focus of great public debate and his advocacy for changes to the laws relating to prostitution and homosexuality were pioneering liberal contributions to the post-Wolfenden debates. No renegade, he remained proud of his police career and continued to contribute to the Police Review until shortly before his death.

He also became a highly regarded “arts correspondent”, both for the New Statesman and the BBC. He was particularly fond of interviewing other authors, proving himself equally at ease with Raymond Chandler, Rosamund Lehmann, Rebecca West or Ethel Mannin. His recollections of these and other writers are generous but never dewy-eyed.

As a “left realist”, he was suspicious of  extremism and believed that political debate was best done through reason and fact-based argument. In many ways, his world seems as idealised (and lost) as that presented by Henry Cecil. His autobiographies are highly informative and saved from being overly solemn by a self-deprecating humour and a good eye for detail and social trends (it was Rolph who first coined the term “The Pill” for the contraceptive innovation which he correctly guessed would change the world).

So, please forgive this short interlude, I will return to  the intemperate and the decadent in due course. In my defence, I fear that writers such as Cecil and Rolph, whose work was once the staple of the provincial Public Libraries of my youth, are in danger of becoming as forgotten as any short-lived Soho dive. If Brian Howard’s sub-Sitwellian poetry led nowhere, the Modernism it drew upon has triumphed almost totally.  Cecil’s work is mostly still in print (apparently still recommended to Law students), Rolph’s  more historically specific interventions are faring less well. Neither was an innovator but they were good at their craft and, in different ways, capture their era and respective social worlds as adroitly as any of their more flamboyant contemporaries. What their take on cocktail parties might have been is, however, less easy to discern.

Clubs – Smokey Joe’s

On the day of her acquittal Elvira apparently held a “celebration” party at the Berkeley Hotel. Some time after midnight, along with two friends -one male,  one female, she turned up at Smokey Joe’s, a basement drinking club in Gerrard Street. There she invited another customer, in fact her future biographer, Peter Cotes,  to dance. They shuffled around to a “blues” played by “a solitary jazz pianist”. Elvira then asked Cotes to join her party, but he declined. Unsurprisingly, his description of her is deeply unflattering – she “staggered” and had “a heaviness about the jowl”. He ends by saying that Elvira “danced no better than she shot”.

I was inclined to be a little suspicious of this anecdote, the chance encounter is a little too fortuitous. But Cotes was acting in the West End at the time and that Elvira would have gone on from the party to a late-night club hardly strains credibility.

The fictional sounding Smokey Joe’s was a real place and features in a number of autobiographical memoirs.

Variously spelt (Smokie,Smoky,Smokey), it had a pretty bad reputation but is fondly remembered by a number of very different characters from very different backgrounds. Safecracker (and Double Agent) Eddie Chapman lists it, along with the Nest, Hell, the Shim Sham and the Gaucho, as a regular haunt. The Irish aristocrat and humorist, Patrick Campbell recalls a late-night session there and for Gerwyn Lewis, shortly to leave England to become a teacher in Malaya and later a P.O.W.  working on the infamous Burma “Death Railway”, it was his “very favourite” night spot.

Lewis, a naive young man at the time, liked the fact that the place was always full of women. He later realised that this was because it was largely a Lesbian club. Violet Powell, the wife of Anthony Powell, took a less relaxed view, describing Smokey Joe’s as the bottom rung of Soho’s ladder of vice – not least because women danced openly with each other. I’m not quite sure why the Powells ever ventured into any arena less salubrious than a country house  weekend, as their respective memoirs consist of a series of well-articulated exercises in holding the nose when it comes to London clubs. Violet , after a couple of evenings slumming it at the Nest on Kingly Street, felt the need to have her coat destroyed ( I assume she was unfamiliar with the smell of marijuana – the Nest being reputedly the first club where “reefers” were openly smoked).

Joe Deniz, guitarist at The Nest, The Shim Sham Club, The Cuba Club and the Cafe De Paris

Most of these tales come from the late thirties. Whether the club catered to the same clientele in 1932, I can’t say. It definitely already had a reputation for ignoring the licencing laws and was popular with “theatrical” types. That it lasted throughout the decade is something of a marvel.

The most peculiar story concerning Smokey Joe’s is that Napper Dean Paul worked there, around 1939, as an” impersonation act”, presumably a drag act. Famously, his sister was reduced to being a waitress around the same time, albeit at the far more respectable Lansdowne Club in Mayfair. Given the amount of chicanery and petty larceny that Napper is accused of in the period, one can only assume that the wages weren’t great.

Brenda Dean Paul 1941

Gerrard Street was awash with clubs, many of which have achieved mythical status. Most were basement premises, a few were on the top floor. The best known is, of course, the 43, presided over by the “Queen of the West End”, Kate Meyrick.  Despite its appearance in many a Bright Young novel, its drug connections and patronage by the likes of Brilliant Chang and Darby Sabini, the 43 was relatively mainstream. More interesting are the “black” club Cuba ( later the site of Ronnie Scott’s), the mysteriously named and long lasting White Monkey, Bee Vee’s  ( possibly a gay club), the charmingly (and apparently appropriately) entitled Hell and the first venture into club-land by Muriel Belcher, The Sphinx. Belcher, in partnership with Dolly Mayers opened that venue in the mid-thirties before moving on to the Music Box in Leicester Square. Early members of which included Brian Howard and Sandy Baird. Belcher was to achieve lasting fame with the Colony drinking club after WW2 but it is often forgotten that her roots lay in the “raffish” 1930s.

Muriel Belcher with the Colony club’s most famous resident drunk, Francis Bacon. (Brian Howard first introduced Bacon to the place)

All in all, Elvira could have hardly chose a more fitting environment to round off her first night of freedom.

Valerie Taylor

Here’s yet another actress who may in some way be connected to Elvira’s circle.

Valerie Taylor (1902-88) had a long career on stage and in film. She was best known at the time of the Barney case for her  six-year association with  John Balderston’s play “Berkeley Square“, in which she starred both in the West End and  on Broadway and eventually on film. Other triumphs included her 1929 role as Nina, opposite John Gielgud,  in Chekhov’s “The Seagull“. (Funnily enough,  Beatrix Thomson had played in “The Three Sisters”  a couple of years earlier.). Taylor, while remaining primarily attached to the theatre, would later appear in film classics such as “Went The Day Well?”  and “Repulsion“. Again, like the other actresses that I have posted about, she was also a writer  – and has one or two screenplay credits.

She had some strong Bloomsbury connections, which included correspondences with Clive Bell and an unlikely relationship with Eddy Sackville-West.  In Michael De La Noy’s biography (“Eddy”)  she is described as “simultaneously throwing herself at the feet of both Raymond Mortimer and Eddy’s cousin Vita”. Mortimer, who wrote so “colourfully” to Eddy about Arthur Jeffress’  Red and White Party, seems to have been briefly engaged to Valerie. These pairings-up of gay men and bisexual or gay women should by now be becoming familiar to anyone reading this blog.

She was also acquainted with the Mayfair/Chelsea crowd. Maurice Richardson, of whom more anon, recalls a party in 1929 where he “fell for Valerie Taylor in a gold evening dress. I thought I was going to make her but got brushed off later.” Brian Howard was also in attendance and, as a fight broke out later on, so, I would imagine, were some of our usual suspects. If Elvira ever met Valerie it would have been in this environment, as I just can’t picture Mrs.Barney at Knole or Charleston.

From 1930 onwards Valerie Taylor divided her time between England and America. She married Hugh Sinclair (who played “The Saint” in a number of fondly-remembered B-Movies). Taylor and Sinclair had acted together in the almost-openly lesbian play “Love of Women” by Aimee Stuart (whose friends included Sunday Wilshin and Nerina Shute). In Harlem they danced the night away with a young Lucille Ball and in Hollywood were friends with the legendary Mercedes de Acosta (reputedly the lover of both Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead).

She returned to England after the War and left Sinclair for a mining-engineer. Before the break-up they had a property in Perranporth, Cornwall, and she collaborated with Winston Graham (of “Poldark” fame) on the screenplay for “Take My Life” (1947). He, then aged 39 and she 45, describes her thus, “She was a highly strung, highly articulate, beautiful but rather overpowering young woman who was full of ideas.”  – which makes her sound pretty impressive to me.

She is not high among my candidates for a close friend of Elvira’s or as an attendee of the cocktail party. However, she would have known Howard and Gathorne-Hardy and most of Elvira’s theatrical friends. She is also, I suspect, someone whose career, on and off-stage, Elvira would have rather envied.

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