Tag Archive: Bright Young People


Hugh “Hetty” Wade

I am currently reading, with much enjoyment,  Julie Kavanagh’s biography of the dancer and choreographer, Frederick Ashton.

Ashton, though reputedly less wild than many, was part of the Chelsea Bohemian crowd and could number Edward Burra, Barbara Ker-Seymer, Billy Chappell, Marty Mann and Olivia Wyndham among his friends and acquaintances. He also danced the Charleston with Brenda Dean Paul and met Brian Howard in Toulon. He, therefore knew a goodly number of Elvira’s party crowd and this is borne out by an anecdote concerning  Hugh Wade and, of all people, W.B.Yeats.

In 1935, Yeats was entering a final phase of creative energy, supposedly brought on by various rejuvenation treatments. He was also worried about his spoken delivery, and  believed Ashton, who had been working with Yeats’ then girlfriend, the actress Margaret Ruddock (aka Margot Collis), could help him.

Ashton was palpably unenthused by the whole encounter and found Yeats’ poetic diction forced and generally beyond redemption.On at least one occasion, after he had pointed out Yeats’ shortcomings, only for the great poet to begin again, Ashton admitted  that “he would be “bored stiff” and impatient to join his friends at the Blue Lantern  in Ham Yard, a popular club which had a dance floor and Hugh (Hetty) Wade playing the piano.” (Secret Muses p179)

This is a delightful snippet and indicates that the Blue Lantern was still going strong in 1935 ( I had thought otherwise) and that Ashton was very much part of the Blue Lantern (and hence Elvira’s) circle. Let us remind ourselves of Jocelyn Brooke’s description of the clientele

“They belonged for the most part to the raffish fringes of that pseudo-smart Bohemia which was perhaps the most characteristic (and almost certainly the nastiest) social unit of the period.” (Brooke “Private View”  (1954) p87) .

It also tells us that Elvira’s friend Hugh Armigel Wade, to whom the adjective “epicene” is customarily appended, was known as Hetty to his mates, which I find strangely endearing. If it refers to Hetty King, then it is even better, summing up what Nerina Shute called the “ambisextrous” world they all inhabited.

Hugh Wade and Elizabeth Ponsonby

Hetty King was the most talented of the male impersonators that thrived in the last great days of Music Hall. She was particularly popular in World War One and we know that part of Hugh Wade’s repertoire was a medley of sentimental songs from that period, the horrors of which were probably responsible for the whole, and thus reactive, Bright Young culture. Less seriously, Hetty King’s most famous song was “All The Nice Girls Love A Sailor”, which was to become the inter-war camp equivalent of “It’s Raining Men”.  Sailor and Matelot outfits were, unsurprisingly, the most popular “Drop of a Hat” fancy-dress costumes for “Smart Set” parties of the period.

I’ll post more on Frederick Ashton soon, as he seems a likeable fellow and the importance of Ballet and Dance to the Modernism that Elvira’s set embraced has been under-estimated – Diaghilev, Bakst et al being every bit as significant as Eliot and Pound. But a couple of connections/coincidences relating to Yeats are worthy of immediate mention.

Yeats’ rejuvenation treatments relied on the quackery of Serge Voronoff (monkey-gland transplants) and Eugen  Steinach (vasectomy). Voronoff  had been briefly married to “Jo” Carstairs ‘ mother ( Carstairs was allegedly at the William Mews cocktail party, her girlfriend Ruth Baldwin definitely was).

Margot Ruddock, Yeats’ young lover (she was 28, he 69) was a tragic figure – a manic-depressive whose periodic breakdowns culminated in suicide at the age of 44. Though a muse and collaborator, her relationship with Yeats was short-lived and she was replaced in the poet’s affection by the usually sensible Ethel Mannin.

A horribly neglected author, Mannin’s books (she wrote over a hundred) contain some of the earliest and best analyses of the Bright Young People and, for the time, very frank debates around the issue of  female sexuality ( check out Confessions and Impressions or Young In The Twenties). She knew Brian Howard and Nancy Cunard but, though very much a Bohemian, represented a much more politicised and less aristocratic strand than that pertaining to Elvira’s world, with which she would have had little sympathy. Not all elements of Bohemia overlap, much as I would wish it so.

Ethel Mannin (by Paul Tanqueray)

To return to Ashton, it says a lot, I think, about the insouciance, arrogance and generational solidarity of the Bright Young People that the lure of the Blue Lantern should be greater than that of the company of the man who was probably the most distinguished and talented poet of the age. I just hope “Hetty” was on form that night.

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Was Elvira a Bright Young Person?

Just by way of a bit of catching-up, I thought I’d use the following to summarise a few of my thoughts so far.

Every commentary that I’ve read on the Barney case maintains that, while she helped bring down the curtain on the whole Bright Young era, Elvira herself was not and never had been a Bright Young Person. Writers from different decades and with disparate agendas, such as Osbert Sitwell, Peter Cotes and D.J. Taylor, are all in agreement on the matter.

And, to a certain extent, they are correct. Elvira does not properly qualify as a Bright Young Person for a number of reasons. For a start, had Elvira been a central figure then her name would crop up more often than it does, either in contemporary newspaper reports or in the many volumes of reminiscences of the period. In contrast, even after the shooting, the Times felt the need to link her to Brenda Dean Paul simply to indicate to its readers what “set” she belonged to.

Secondly, most of the Bright Young People, in between the rounds of parties and alcoholic excess, did something creative – or at least had aspirations in that direction. Elvira, stage-training notwithstanding, hardly fits the bill.Thirdly, although she is of the right age, she appears to have emerged on the scene just a little too late – the golden age had been and gone before Elvira’s excesses began to take flight.

If we are to take the BYP experience as a proto-typical youth culture, as John Savage and others would have us to, then, to borrow a term from a later instance, Elvira was never a “Face”. However, this does not necessarily  mean that she was not one of the supporting cast. Despite Elvira’s pre-trial anonymity, everything about her lifestyle comes straight from the BYP book of cliches, as it were. If we add to that the circle of friends and acquaintances, then she qualifies easily – with a few cocktails to spare.

Let us take some of the accepted requisites for membership.

Social Class – Elvira was from a very wealthy background. True, her connections were not aristocratic but parents who could call themselves Sir John and Lady Mullens and who lived in Hanover Square (not forgetting an estate in the country) cannot be considered anything other than Upper Class, in the general scheme of things.

Bohemia – She seems to have been introduced to Chelsea Bohemia by Viva King through a schoolgirl friendship with Georgia Dobell.  Both of these women were very much “insiders”, by any measurement.How much interest Elvira had in “The Arts” is open to doubt, although Hodgkin’s portrait does suggest a taste for the aesthetic life.

Sexuality – Elvira was, by the standards of the day, promiscuous and was also almost certainly bisexual – she was, unusually, relatively open about these things , which marks her out as part of the new, wilder set.

Modernity – “Fast” was a key word in the period, whether it applied to cars, sexual relationships or the modern world in general. Elvira embraced every aspect of the pursuit of the “New” , be it in Art, Entertainment or Technology.

Hedonism – Anybody who can organise a party on the day of their acquittal on a murder charge can hardly be deemed a Puritan. The two most prominent features of 21 William Mews were a cocktail bar and a radiogram, which says it all really.

Drugs – Elvira was by 1932 a heavy user of cocaine and (although I had no idea when I started these researches) her set constitutes a distinct drug subculture within the wider scene.

If we add to this the knowledge that two of the four organisers of the Bath and Bottle party were at the cocktail bash on the 30th May (Brian Howard and Eddie Gathorne-Hardy) and she almost certainly knew the other two well (Elizabeth Ponsonby and Babe Plunket Greene) then Elvira moves a little closer to the centre-stage. That foursome are often regarded as the only true Bright Young People, Others have plumped for Olivia Wyndham as the “Original”  Bright Young Person – and of course she was at the party as well. On top of this, the guests at that party include characters from most branches of contemporary developments in modern cultural practice – photography, popular music, literature, the theatre and painting. The requisite combination of decadent lifestyle and devotion to the Arts (in their widest sense) that characterised the “Children of the Sun” could hardly be better represented.

 

Apart from people, certain key places and cultural spaces mark out the BYP from general society – particular clubs, foreign destinations etc. The Blue Lantern was one of the key ports of call for the less respectable end of the Smart Set and Elvira and her friends were regulars there (and, in Hugh Wade’s case, the  resident musician). Away from London, Elvira’s favourite haunts were Paris and The South of France. For those on the more adventurous wing of the Bright era, the South of France, and Cannes in particular, was the essential playground and home to every excessive aspect of the culture.

So, I would argue that  Elvira should be accorded a place within the later phase of the Bright Young generation, definitely on its more disreputable wing,  perhaps not as a leading-light but as a significant hostess and a more than willing participant in most of its characteristic elements. I see no reason to accord her less symbolic value than her more iconic (but equally dissolute) friends Elizabeth Ponsonby and Brenda Dean Paul.

Osbert Lancaster

In the summer of 1932, the artist and illustrator Osbert Lancaster attended a party in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. The house had once been the home of James McNeill Whistler but was now the London residence of Bryan and Diana Guinness, the couple who represented the most exclusive, topmost tier of the “Bright Young People”.

The party was held for Unity Mitford, younger sister of Diana, and Osbert’s partner for the evening was another sister, Nancy (then Mrs. Peter Rodd). Under the aegis of the already legendary siblings, for the 24 year-old Osbert, this night was sure to be  “a rather more interesting evening than most Deb-dances” of which he was already thoroughly bored.

Jessica, Nancy,Diana, Unity, Pamela 1935

But Osbert was in for an initial surprise.

“Our hostess’s connection with Oxford and The Bright Young People would ensure, I thought, the presence of some of the more picturesque survivors of the previous decade not usually to be found at such functions; and, by the same token, it seemed likely that the girls from the shires and the beefy young ensigns from the Brigade would for once be in the minority.

Nevertheless I was in no way prepared for the first departure from the customary routine. On catching sight of the usual small crowd of sightseers gathered on the pavement outside the gate, I braced myself to conceal the embarrassment invariably induced by the appreciative cooing which the appearance of the female guests normally provoked.”

Baba Beaton, Wanda Baillie Hamilton and Lady Bridget Poulett  – “Coo, Ain’t they Lovely?”

“I need not have bothered. The smiles were sardonic rather than welcoming and instead of “Coo, Ain’t She Lovely!” we received solicitous but ironic enquiries after the health of Mrs. Barney and pious expressions of hope that the lady had not forgotten her gun.”

Mitford Sisters “Coo, Ain’t they eccentric?”

Osbert, balancing precariously between satire and snobbery, continues,

“The Barney Case, in which the verdict just announced had clearly not given any manifest satisfaction to the proletariat, had already produced a widespread revulsion of feeling that involved, I know realised, circles far distant from those in which that trigger-happy and rather sordid poor little rich girl normally moved. The Twenties, it was generally decided, had gone on quite long enough and the Bright Young People, of whom Elvira had never in fact been one, were to be swept smartly under the carpet. Hem-lines came tumbling down, chaperones were returning with a rush, and formality was, quite clearly, on the way back.”

This paragraph contains as succinct a summary of the general consensus regarding Elvira and the significance of her case as you are likely to find. To whit, Elvira was lucky to get off (“trigger-happy”), her lifestyle was immoral (“sordid”) and, though apparently nothing to with them, she hastened the demise of the Bright Young People. Furthermore, her actions affected the whole class system, causing a loss of deference amongst the “proletariat” and a scurrying back to traditional values of modesty and decorum among her own kind. Lancaster was writing 30 years after the incident, but the moral of his tale could not be clearer.

Lady Bridgett Poulett and Mrs. Charles Sweeny, Claridge’s 1938

Back at the party, Osbert was relieved to find that the Palace Gates had not, as yet, been stormed and all was as it should be.

“Once inside, however, it was not apparent that the critical barrage to which they had been subject on arrival had had any lasting effect on the spirit of the guests. As I had hoped the ilder generation represented by Harold Acton and Mrs. Armstrong-Jones were present in force, and of the current crop of debs only the most glamorous appeared to have received invitatations.”

Iconic image of Harold Acton at Oxford (by Evelyn Waugh)

Mrs. Armstrong-Jones (Anne Messel)

“It would have taken more than a few snide comments to ruffle the mask-like composure of such reigning beauties as Miss Margaret Whigham or Lady Bridget Poulet even, which seemed unlikely, had they been fully comprehended. From the garden came the strains of “Peanut Vendor” played by one of the newly-fashionable rumba bands, and half way up the stairs our hostess, glorious as some Nordic corn-goddess wearing a magnificent diamond tiara slightly on one side and presumably quite unaware of the views being expressed by the man in the street, radiated beauty and enjoyment as she received her guests.”

Margaret Whigham, Lady Bridgett Poulett and Unity Valkyrie Mitford – all in 1932

Lancaster chooses his representative and emblematic markers of the period well – in fact,with the same precision he would later bring to his cartoons. Even the mention of “Peanut Vendor” is spot-on. Smart Set favourite, Ambrose had introduced it the year before sparking a craze for frilly shirts and Latin rhythms which lasted well into the 1950s and seemed to particularly appeal to the upper-crust (Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret’s patronage of Edmondo Ros being the classic example),

Harold Acton was the uber-aesthete of the Bright Young People, outranking even Elvira’s guest Brian Howard.There are still arguments over which one was the model for “Anthony Blanche” in Brideshead. Mrs. Armstrong-Jones was the beautiful Anne Messel, without whom no Bright Young weekend was quite complete. She was the sister of Oliver Messel, innovative stage designer and talented artist and the most neglected of the Bright Young inner circle. It was he who brought together the worlds of the literary, the theatrical and the visual arts – so well represented by Elvira’s pals. He was also a neighbour and friend of Billy Milton – the man who arrived at the cocktail party a day late.

Margaret Whigham and Bridgett Poulett  are, equally,  apposite and fascinating examples of the “younger generation”. Both born in 1912, they were the most photographed and fashionable Debs of the early 30s. I don’t know whether Lancaster is making a subtle social comment in mentioning them, but the former was to eventually cause a scandal that far eclipsed even Elvira’s tribulations. Alreadya veteran of a number of affairs (including,allegedly, an early pregnancy courtesy of a young David Niven), Miss Whigham was Deb of the Year and her marriage to Charles Sweeny the following summer was one of the last “great” society weddings. Her celebrity status was confirmed by appearance in the lyrics of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Tops”.

Whigham-Sweeny Wedding

However, it was as Margaret, Duchess of Argylle in the 1960s (about the time Lancaster was penning these memoirs) that she achieved true notoriety, featuring in the infamous “Headless Man” divorce case. For some of the less than salutary details of this incident, which, incidentally, got collapsed into the Profumo scandal, see Headless Man.

Duchess of Argylle

Lady Bridgett Poulett, also did not quite fulfil the expected role, not marrying until 1948 and then to a Colombian diplomat, albeit a very wealthy and Cambridge educated one. Football historians will know Luis Robledo as the man who first instigated overseas transfers , as owner of Bogota Santa Fe he imported a number of English footballers from Stoke City and Manchester United, who found themselves in a strange climate and on wages not enjoyed by their English counterparts for at least a generation. As Lady Poulett, she is best remembered for the exotic photographs taken of her by Madame Yevonde, who also made portraits the wife of of Elvira’s close friend Terence Skeffington-Smythe.

Lady Bridget Poulett as Arethusa by Madame Yevonde

Of course, the real scandal of the evening, although as yet unrecognised, was that Diana Guinness had already embarked on her affair with Oswald Mosley which would lead to their marriage at the home of Joseph Goebbels in 1936, while the party’s raison d’etre, Unity. was about to embark on her journey to become Hitler’s most fanatical English follower.

If this was the new respectability, give me Elvira’s indiscretions every time.

Lancaster himself, with his university friend, John Betjeman, went on to forge a career sensibly defending Britain’s architectural heritage and, more problematically, portraying the Upper Class as a benign if somewhat amusing factor in English life. He also famously collaborated with Nancy Mitford and is as responsible as anyone, not least through his Daily Express cartoons, for the generally benevolent view we hold about our “social superiors”. That Elvira should seem to have been a threat to this happy state of affairs and that Osbert spotted it, speaks volumes about him and, probably, about all of us.

James Laver, Iconographer

In the context of the era of parties and excess, James Laver is remembered mainly for an extract of comic verse entitled  “The Women of 1926” . This witty and insightful summary of, at least, one aspect of the 1920s features  prominently in both Marek Kohn’s “Dope Girls” and D.J.Taylor’s’ Bright Youmg People“.The poem has just the right mixture of satirical distance and insider knowledge to simultaneously valorize and deplore its chosen target. It is a tease   – but telling and achingly evocative, nonetheless.

“Mother’s advice, and Father’s fears,
Alike are voted—just a bore.
There’s Negro music in our ears,
The world’s one huge dancing floor.
We mean to tread the Primrose Path,
In spite of Mr. Joynson-Hicks.
We’re People of the Aftermath
We’re girls of 1926.

In greedy haste, on pleasure bent,
We have no time to think, or feel
What need is there for sentiment
Now we’ve invented Sex Appeal?
We’ve silken legs and scarlet lips,
We’re young and hungry, wild and free,
Our waists are round about the hips
Our skirts are well above the knee

We’ve boyish busts and Eton crops,
We quiver to the saxophone.
Come, dance before the music stops,
And who can bear to be alone?
Come drink your gin, or sniff your ‘snow’,
Since Youth is brief, and Love has wings,
And time will tarnish, ere we know,
The brightness of the Bright Young Things.”

But James Laver wrote far more than these few lines. In fact, he was a bit of an expert when it came to affectionately sending up the Manners and Mores of the Bright Young People. Apart from the racy 1933 best-seller, Nymph Errant – turned into a musical by Cole Porterm he produced three  long verse pieces that attained cult status. A Stitch in Time (1927) Love’s Progress (1929) and Cupid’s Changeling (1933) (collected together as Ladies Mistakes 1933) were three mock-Augustan pastiches chronicling the journey of various young women through the pifalls and perils of the Modern World. Imagine Alexander Pope among the Bright Young People and you get a sense of the mood. Considered quite saucy at the time, they remain an engaging social document and are still entertaining, even though the humour is a little forced. The marvellous  illustrations by Thomas Lowinsky make them even more attractive and worth hunting down.

“Love’s Progress” is my favourite. It tells the sad tale of a young Suburbanite, Araminta, and her entanglement in the Artistic circles of Bloomsbury and Chelsea. The description of a Chelsea party and its guests conjures up the world of Olivia Wyndham or Viva King with uncanny accuracy,

The poem continues

“One girl, with more to show, wore even less,

And one young man came in a bathing dress.

Another man (though to describe him thus,

As masculine, is almost libellous)

Had shaved his eyebrows smoother than his chin

And painted more artistic eyebrows in.

One woman wore a short, divided skirt,

A black tie and a very stiff, white shirt

As if to show herself a thing apart,

And tell the world she carried in her heart

All Messalina’s wild desires, or worse,

And everything of Sappho – but her verse.

To you Fair Reader, sated as you are

With gin on tap in your own private bar,

This party would have offered nothing new,

Nor had to her, were Araminta you.

But she, poor girl, cut off from knowledge quite

Had passed her youth in grim, Suburban night;

And that instinctive preference for the best

That you by Nature, and at birth, possessed,

She knew not of, nor could she e’er have guessed

That these were what the gossip-writer calls

“All Chelsea’s smartest Intellectuals”.”

and so forth. There is more acute social observation in the hundred or so light-hearted pages that make up the trilogy than in any of the novels of the era, with the possible exception of Evelyn Waugh. More examples can be found at

Ladies’ Mistakes – Laver and Lowinsky

and for more on the illustrator see

Thomas Lowinsky

James Laver (1899-1975), who described himself as an “iconographer”,was nothing if not diverse in his interests. As a a curator and consultant at the V&A, he practically invented modern fashion history, bringing a psychological and what might be termed a “Cultural Studies” approach to the area. He was just about the first person to deem theatre design and stage sets worthy of scholarly interest and C20th Design History is deeply indebted to his pioneering efforts. He was a gifted translator of verse, an influential teacher and a useful journalist. He also contributed to the first forays into fashion and design programmes on television (both pre-war and in the 1950s). As a sideline he was an expert on the Occult and knew Aleister Crowley during the The Great Beast’s final days.

He was drawn into the world of Bohemia and all things theatrical through his marriage to the actress Veronica Turleigh.The couple lived in Piccadilly and then Chelsea. Always something of an outsider, his father was a printer and he was a “scholarship boy” at Oxford, he appears to have enjoyed slipping between different social worlds. In his autobiography “Museum Piece” he recalls, with some relish, “To my colleagues at South Kensington I had become a cigar-smoking, Savoy-supping, enviable but slightly disreputable character, hobnobbing with chorus girls and hanging round stage doors. To Gertrude Lawrence and her friends I was something ‘in a museum’, engaged in mysterious and apparently useless activities quite outside their comprehension; a character out of The Old Curiosity Shop, hardly fit to be let out alone.Perhaps unconsciously, I played up to both these delusions.”

Laver’s  classic textbook (still used by students)

He was an observer rather than a participator. He did know some of the leading Bright Young People (including Brenda Dean Paul) but he was never of that circle. However, through his novels, his satirical verse and his collaborations with the likes of Cole Porter, Oliver Messel, C.B.Cochran, Gertrude Lawrence and,even, Anna May Wong he found himself at the centre of Fashionable Modernity and to no little extent helped shape the way in which that world – in all its modes and manifestations – were perceived by the wider society.He was no moralist or political analyst but, as he himself put it, an iconographer – and often a very perceptive and playful one.

Cocktail Parties

No phrase so instantly conjures up the  modernity and the anti-Puritanism of the 1920s as “cocktail party”. Even today, albeit massively devalued, the term still carries a certain sense of sophisticated hedonism. Back in 1932, even though the whole country was familiar with the ritual through magazines and the cinema, there was thought to be something slightly wicked and un-English about the whole phenomenon. Newspapers, while carrying adverts for cocktail recipes, tended to pronounce sternly on such parties and the people who attended them.

Stone’s Ginger Wine cashes in on the cocktail craze – late 1920s

Elvira’s front room had a purpose-built, curved cocktail bar in the corner. This was a source of fascination both to the police and the press, so I guess it must have been unusual. Plenty of theatres and clubs were commissioning cocktail bars in this time but domestic homes had not really picked up on the idea  – but then the “Love Hut” was hardly a typical domestic home..However, one of Elvira’s guests on May 30th, Ruth Baldwin, had in fact gone one better and converted her whole living area at 5 Mulberry Walk into a bar.

Alfred Thompson “A Modern Cocktail Bar” Saville Theatre 1931

The rise of the cocktail party is synonymous with the Bright Young People and The Smart Set. Like the sports car, it signified everything that was post-war, modernist, anti-Edwardian and young. The idea was American, emanating from St.Louis in 1917 and the cocktail itself grew in popularity because of the awfulness of much prohibition liquor.In Europe the situation was rather different and the cocktail party took on a set of connotations rooted in the more class-bound cultures of England and France. Its  “American-ness” was important and those who railed against creeping Americanisation cited it, along with jazz and the cinema, as a sign of national decline. However there were other factors that made the cocktail party of particular value in symbolising the upheavals and contradictions in English society in the years after the Armistice..

Most importantly, it was one of many signals of the changing role of women in society.Attractive women drinking (and smoking) is the image that occurs again and again in the many representations of cocktail gatherings. From cartoons, advertising and the cinema  the message is the same – here is something new, exciting but also slightly discomfiting. Although more men than women probably attended such affairs, the iconography is overwhelmingly female . Pubs were still very masculine and rather non-U places – it is telling how little they feature in BYP memoirs. Here, on the other hand, was a space were young women could “let themselves go” in a semi-public arena. It is no coincidence that the defining outfit of the era was Coco Chanel’s cocktail dress.

Coco Chanel Cocktail Dress 1926

The throwing of the first English cocktail party has been variously ascribed to three figures who have already featured in this blog, Beverley Nicholls, C.R.W.Nevinson and Alec Waugh. Waugh’s is the name most usually cited but he himself gave Nevinson the credit. The agreed year is generally 1924.If it was as late as that, then they caught the public imagination remarkably quickly for by 1926 they had become a byword for everything that constituted the generation gap – everything the old disapproved of and the young aspired to.  Cocktail parties changed the cultural landscape. It is even said that the highly mannered (and loud) vocal  intonations of  the likes of Brian Howard and Elizabeth Ponsonby were developed to carry over the noise of the gramophone and the animated chatter of other guests.

By and large, these parties were the province of the rich and the theatrical. Most English people never attended one and most never even tasted a cocktail until the 1960s – but everyone knew about them. They moralised and glamorised, exaggerated and embellished, above all they associated them with the new sexual freedoms – real or imagined.

Hence the delight that the newspapers took in placing Elvira’s party at the very heart of the affair. For who knows what sins a woman a woman who held cocktail parties on a Monday evening, in a house seemingly designed for such a purpose, might commit?

The time allocated to a cocktail party was important – generally between 6pm and 8pm. It was not Afternoon Tea nor was it Formal Dinner.It was not, in fact, formal at all. That was the key. Guests popped in and out, some danced, some just chatted. Above all it was a Prelude to other events – the theatre, a night club or a late party, perhaps all three. In this, Elvira’s gathering, unlike so much in her life, was typical.

Nor were the drinks and food elaborate. Elvira provided gin-based grapefruit cocktails, sherry and, thanks to a quick trip to an off-licence by Michael Stephens and, probably, Ruth Baldwin, some whisky. Sometimes there was caviare or smoked salmon sandwiches, sometimes no food at all. It was the sense of a meeting-point that mattered – remember, Elvira hosted or attended  two or three of these events a week. No formal invitations, a phone call or an verbal invite at the last such bash summoned the guests on May 30th. This combination of exclusivity and relaxed protocol made the cocktail party, to its devotees, such a statement. Everything conspired to say, “this is not how our parents’ did things”.

Claude Flight Cocktail Party 1936

What strikes me as peculiar is how the echoes of that original excitement linger still today. Whether in retro-party form or in cynical cheap drinks promotions, the mere word “cocktail” retains the traces of this original, and long vanished, context. Sadly, no amount of “Happy Hours” or absurdly titled concoctions can hope to emulate the sense of transgression the earlier incarnations embodied. They belonged to a very specific historical moment and remain beyond our grasp.