Tag Archive: Charles Graves

Update on Charles Graves (2)

Further to https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/24/update-on-charles-graves/

I have now seen the aforementioned letters and though both appear to have been written by Charles they do confirm that the engagement was a more serious and public  matter than indicated in his autobiography. His mother Amy was deeply upset about the whole affair and Robert was, to say the least, less than sympathetic.In Charles’ defence he does appear to have attempted to end the engagement with care and consideration, which unfortunately did not impress Elvira (or anyone else). The relationship obviously caused great anguish to both the Graves and Mullens families and caused a lasting rift between Robert and Charles.

Robert Graves

The letters are largely concerned with justifying his actions to Lord and Lady Mullens and reveal little about Elvira. However, R.P. Graves’ biography of his uncle Robert  is a little more forthcoming.

“Charles’ career as a journalist was flourishing; but he had recently become engaged to a highly neurotic girl called Elvira Mullens, who had recently taken to her bed, explaining that she could not help being ill until she  was married. “I am disappointed”, Amy commented in a family letter “and Charles seems uneasy. Love should not come in such a devastating way.”  (The Assault Heroic p 295)

So, in 1924, Elvira already had a reputation as being  “highly neurotic” and was prone to erratic (well. downright eccentric) behaviour. For Elvira, love would always come in “devastating” ways.

Elvira in 1924/25

The account of the gun incident follows Charles’ reminiscence pretty closely (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/charles-graves/)

“What had happened to Charles was that he had fallen out of love with the neurotic Elvira Mullens, and had very sensibly broken off the engagement. Elvira had decided to commit suicide on the pavement outside Charles’s window, having first alerted him by throwing stones at his window. Luckily Charles spotted the pistol gleaming in her hand and arranged for a friend to distract her while he rushed from the front door and “made a grab for the pistol….She tried to pull the trigger but the pistol fell out of her hand and she fainted dead away.” This might well have led to a considerable scandal, especially as in those days it was thought to be  highly dishonourable for a man to break off an engagement, even if he did so having realised that marriage would lead to a lifetime of misery. Robert cert.ainly felt that he was justified in thinking of his brother as a “cad” and some years later threatened to expose him as such. However, Lord Beaverbrook, to whom Charles had made a clean breast of the whole affair, had allowed him to stay on at the Express, and Alfred and Amy (parents) had also taken a more lenient view of Charles’s actions.” (TAH p303)

Charles Graves

I’m still a little uneasy with Charles’ account of the events of that night but it seems to be generally accepted so I’ll let it pass. I was surprised at Robert’s reaction, I always thought he was more Bohemian than that. He himself was a bit “caddish” as far as Charles’ letters were concerned. On one of them , the real names are crossed out and fictional ones inserted. Robert was evidently going to use them in a short story or novel.

Whether Charles ever saw Elvira again is not known. As a journalist, theatre reviewer, sports correspondent and archetypal “man about town”, he definitely moved in similar circles. He was present at the infamous Bath and Bottle party (hosts – Brian Howard, Elizabeth Ponsonby, Eddie Gathorne-Hardy and Babe Plunket Greene) which is, for many, the very apex of the Bright Young People phenomenon. Like Elvira, he was a member of Ciro’s  and The Cafe De Paris and was a keen first-nighter and diner-out, so my guess is that their paths must have crossed at some point.

Ciro’s  – Mid Twenties

Elvira would have been 19 when engaged to Charles, who was 25. If engagements were the serious matter in the way that Robert patently thought them to be (I must confess, my knowledge of 1920s engagements is largely conditioned by P.G.Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster) then the effect of this rejection was likely to be great upon any ordinary young woman. On someone as highly-strung as Elvira, who knows what the lasting damage might have been?

Elvira’s Delage and Albemarle Street

Among the items that the police catalogued in Elvira’s bathroom (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/04/elviras-reading-matter/ ) was a business card from J.Smith and Co Motor Agents.  They operated from 28 Albemarle Street, Mayfair, and held the concession for the importation of the French luxury cars, Delage. Given Elvira’s love of her model and her regular scrapes and crashes, she was undoubtedly a very valued customer.

The Delage was a very apt car for Elvira to own. Everything French, to Elvira and many of her set, signified pleasure and panache. Paris, Cannes and Toulon were Elvira’s regular haunts and French style, in shows, fashion or design, was a matter of wonder and worship. The Delage cars were both fast and chic (as well as being reassuringly expensive). The car had come to prominence partly through a 1920s’ motor-racing rivalry with Hispano-Suiza (whose London agents were also in Albemarle Street) and partly through a series of seductive Art Deco adverts in the fashionable magazines of the day


J. Smith and Co. capitalised on this and, being situated where they were, were ideally placed to market the vehicles to Mayfair and Knightsbridge’s wealthy inhabitants. I don’t suppose their turnover was enormous but then it would not need to have been. Exclusivity was part of the charm.

I can’t be absolutely positive of this, but Delage cars do seem to have had a particular appeal for female drivers. Many of the photographs from the 1930s show the car next to a pretty young woman but, unlike the more familiar “cheesecake” models of the 1950s and 1960s, many of these women look as if they might actually own the car. The combination of privilege, social freedom and sexual independence discernible in these images is not , I think, accidental.

In England, some of these associations might be down to a woman whose exploits Elvira (a keen sports fan) would have certainly followed. About the time Elvira purchased her Delage, the Queen of Brooklands was the diminutive Kay Petre, then the best known female racing-driver in the country. In the early thirties, the much-photographed Petre drove a Delage.

Kay Petre (1903-1994)

Here are some more examples. The emphasis is on glamour and modernity in equal measure. The wealthy young woman in a sports car is a key iconic image of the inter-war years and Delage, who essentially fitted racing-car quality engines into luxury bodies, enthusiastically fed, and fed upon, that image.

The gender and class politics of the relationship between women and automobiles in the eras before mass car ownership are complex and fascinating. Machines and technology generally were then, as to a great extent they are now, seen as belonging to the male domain. Women in charge of powerful cars  presented a challenged a whole series of accepted hierarchies. This resulted in some very recognisable “new” stereotypes.On the one hand you have the “masculine women” – figures such as Elvira’s friends Joe Carstairs and Heather Pilkington – then you have the “Iris Storm” characters, whose taming of the “male beast”, the car, symbolised their own (hetero)sexual freedoms but also hinted at voraciousness and promiscuity. Funnily enough, Elvira can make claims to represent aspects of both “tendencies” These and other matters are discussed in two books on the history of women and the motor car

Eat My Dust -Early Women Motorists

The Car and British Society – Class, Gender and Motoring 1896-1939

I ought to mention that one aspect of Delage’s English advertising campaign was that the car was both fast and safe. In Elvira’s case, this obviously fell on deaf ears.

For more on Elvira and cars see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/21/of-cars-and-car-crashes/ and https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/princess-karolyi-and-more-car-crashes/

Albemarle Street has other connections with Elvira, some actual and some coincidental. Staying with the motor trade for a moment, Sir Malcolm Campbell had a car sales venture there in the early 1920s, during which time one of his financial backers was Joe Carstairs.

The nightclub “Uncle’s” was situated in Albemarle Street. Known as “Nunky’s” to the Bright Young People, who  had an annoying fondness for infantilising the language, it was a favourite watering-hole of Charles Graves and he would have doubtless taken Elvira there during their ill-fated engagement.

Uncles Club 1929

An earlier sexual scandal, one which still resonated among Elvira’s friends, had started at the Albemarle club (No.13). This was where the Marquis of Quensberry left his calling card for Oscar Wilde (“the posing somdomite”), thus provoking the libel action which was to destroy Wilde’s career. Other literary connections could be found at Murray’s (No.50), publishers of Lord Byron and later John Betjeman.

Brown’s Hotel is also on the street (No.33). The remarkably unchanged Brown’s was the real-life inspiration for Agatha Christie’s  At Bertram’s Hotel  in which the murderer is a young woman named Elvira. All very psychogeographical, I feel.

Brown’s Hotel

UPDATE I’ve just come across these pictures of Josephine Baker. Baker was an artist much loved by the Bright Young People. Elvira saw her shows in Paris. The cars are, of course, Delages.

Update on Charles Graves

The incident between Elvira and Charles Graves (see  https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/charles-graves/ ) actually happened earlier than I thought.

In the Robert Graves collection at St.John’s College,Oxford, there are two draft letters (with annotations by the poet) to Sir John Mullens concerning the end of Charles’ engagement to Elvira. One is from Charles Graves (dated 26th September 1924) and the other from  their mother, Amy Graves, dated the 27th September.

Although I have yet to see the letters, a number of points arise from this information alone. Firstly, the engagement, ” unofficial” and the result of a “brief flirtation” according to Charles Graves in his autobiography, was obviously a more serious and public affair than he suggested, with both families heavily involved in clearing up the mess.Were they covering up a potential scandal or was there more to it than that? Why are the letters with Robert when he was not particularly close to his brother ?

Secondly, it confirms that Elvira’s emotional state and her fears of rejection were always a matter of concern to those around her and not everything can be blamed on the worthless Mr.Barney, or on her later predilection for drink and drugs.

Finally, it suggests that Elvira was training for the stage for a rather longer period than usually implied. This would partly explain the number of actors and actresses in her circle of friends and acquaintances.

Hopefully, the letters might clear up the question of the gun and whether Charles or Viva King’s account of the episode is closer to the truth.




Dolores Ashley – Elvira as Actress

As the daughter of very wealthy parents, Elvira Mullens had no need to worry about a career.  She would have done “the season” . attended the usual round of balls and socially sanctioned sporting events – Henley, Eton v. Harrow at Lords  and so forth. At the end of this, a suitably moneyed and,possibly, titled suitor would emerge.For some reason, this did not happen. Perhaps Elvira was already rebellious and disaffected; we know her home life was less than happy. Perhaps her personality told against her; could it be that her legendary rudeness and quick temper were already apparent?

Anyway, around 1925, having watched her younger sister marry a Russian prince, Elvira decided that she would try her luck as an actress.

Before the War being an actress had been seen as a possible route towards a title, as to some extent it remained throughout the twentieth century. In the 1920s however, the stage, increasingly respectable thanks to the growing number of theatrical knights, saw a growing number of the daughters of the well-heeled and ennobled treading the boards. An added glamour was provided by the likes of Lady Diana Cooper, pre-war member of The Coterie and considered England’s leading beauty,who  from 1919 pursued a successful  career on stage and in silent pictures.

File:Diana Cooper01.jpg

Lady Diana Cooper

Many of Elvira’s social circle , including some attendees at the cocktail party, belonged to this new generation.Their immediate  idol and inspiration was Tallulah Bankhead, whose sensational arrival on the London stage earned her not only adoring male fans but a legion of fanatical young female followers. Given that Elvira kept Tallulah’s picture by her bedside while awaiting trial, one can be sure that she was one of Tallulah’s would-be “groupies”. Tallulah was a key part of the Bright Young scene, knew “The Blue Lantern” and may well have attended parties at Belgrave Square.

Tallulah, in front as Borotra. Impersonation Party 1927

Preparatory to her new career, Elvira studied at Lady Constance Benson’s Acting School. Most commentators on the trial see something intrinsically comical about this, but it was a well-regarded establishment run by a leading Shakesperian actress (and wife of Frank Benson). The school’s most famous ex-pupil was, the then only recently graduated, John Gielgud. It was toward the end of her time there that she met Charles Graves (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/tag/charles-graves/  ) – a moment which, in hindsight, marks the beginning of her notoriety.

Elvira,as with most other aspects of her life, was not to make a success out of acting. The beginning was prestigious enough – a small part, probably in the chorus, in Rudolf Friml’s “The Blue Kitten” which opened in late 1925 at the Gaiety theatre and ran for 140 performances. The beginning, however, was also the ending as there is no evidence of any further public appearances for the would be starlet who, using her middle and her mother’s maiden name, called herself “Dolores Ashley”.

Elvira 1926 - publicity shot for "The Blue Kitten" Gaiety TheatreFile:Gaiety1.jpg

She did get to know a number of actors and actresses and Irene MacBrayne, who was at the cocktail party, knew her from that period.Like most socialites of the era she was a diligent “First Night” devotee. The police found many programmes for shows in her bathroom at 21 William Mews.Certainly there remained something decidedly “theatrical” about Elvira’s public persona.

It is perhaps not too impudent to wonder whether her perfectly rehearsed performance at the trial owed something to Lady Benson’s tutelage.

Charles Graves

Viva King’s revealing comments about Elvira (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/viva-king/    )           are given weight by Charles Graves, in his 1951 autobiography, “The Bad Old Days”. Charles Graves (1899-1971) was the younger brother of the poet Robert Graves  and a journalist and prolific author (146 books!). He was also, in the 1920s, one of that army of gossip writers who did so much to publicise The Bright Young People.

Unlike King , his re-telling of the circumstances of his brief affair with Elvira seeks to show her suicidal rather than homicidal nature and hence support the Not Guilty verdict in the shooting of Scott Stephen. I am not entirely convinced that the facts, as he expounds them, warrant such an inference.

“I wrote “I found Lady X and her very pretty daughter who is at the Benson School of Dramatic Art to learn how to be a musical comedy star. I expect she will.”

That was the start of a brief unhappy flirtation for which I blame myself entirely.  The girl was the daughter of a rich business man. Her home life was not particularly happy and I made the unfortunate error  of  mistaking sympathy for love.It was entirely my fault,The girl said that she would like to marry a poor man and that she was surfeited with her rich home life which was why she was planning to go on the stage. I regarded this as most romantic and we became unofficially engaged.This lasted for a couple of months and then I began to realize that I was not in love with her. So I wrote her a note asking her to break it off. By this time I had been made news editor of the Sunday Express and in consequence did not get home to my chambers (then in Royal Avenue, Chelsea) until 2.30 a.m. One Saturday night I had gone to the Hambone for eggs and bacon, before returning home, and found a young South American there short of a bed for the night. So I brought him back, although I could only give him a divan in my front sitting-room. I myself retired to bed but was woken up by my guest half an hour later. He said “There is a girl walking up and down the pavement below.She threw a pebble at the window. Her car is there and I think she has a revolver in her hand.”

Royal Avenue, Chelsea

“My worst misgivings were about to be realized. I went to the window which was on the first floor and sure enough there was the girl with something gleaming in her hand. It was a pistol all right.I hurried back to my bedroom, put on my dressing-gown over my pyjamas and returned.”I am going to try to surprise her,” I said. “When you hear me undo the latch of the front door,Philip, open the window and attract her attention. I’ll do the rest.” The stratagem worked. While the girl’s attention was distracted there was just time enough for me to grab the pistol. Luckily I knew the correct wrist to grab.She tried to pull the trigger but the pistol fell out of her hand on to the pavement with a clang, and she fainted dead away. Fortunately there was not a policeman in sight.”

, .

“I uncocked the pistol, (it was a .32) , removed the bullets, carried her upstairs and dabbed cold water on her forehead until she came too when she became hysterical for some minutes, being evidently surprised that my companion was not some girl. I was appalled when I realized the horrible situation with which we had become embroiled, entirely thanks to me. I put Philip Perez into my bedroom and made the girl sleep on the divan while I sat out the night in an armchair to make sure that she did not run away or do herself a damage. Next morning she seemed much better and I took the risk of letting her drive me in her car, which had been parked outside my place all night, to her home in the West End where I saw her mother and told her what had happened. She was horrified….”

Lady Mullens

“…….Jumping ahead a few years, however, it is easy to imagine my discomfort when,as a happily married man, I opened the newspaper one day and found that the girl had been charged with the murder of an acquaintance of hers in the early hours. The last thing I wanted to do was to draw public attention to myself.On the other hand, I knew that I must give evidence if necessary. I wrote to the girl, who was in Holloway, and received a perfectly charming letter back from her that she would tell her counsel about in case he thought I could be a good witness. I heard nothing at all from him. The case was heard. The girl gave evidence quite wonderfully and, as I expected, she was duly acquitted.”

Charles Patrick Ranke Graves, by Howard Coster, 1930s - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Charles Graves

“I read the newsin the Stop Press of the Evening Standard during the Varsity match and gave the startled newspaper seller a ten bob note.If, of course, she had been convicted I would have gone to the lawyer and told him about the event five years before when the girl had behaved in such a highly hysterical manner – powerful circumstantial evidence that she was trying to commit suicide when the young man was accidentally shot. I only saw her once more before her death in Paris some time afterwards.”

All very intriguing – if not entirely convincing. No shot fired – as opposed to Viva King’s version and a rather excessive use of gentlemanly mea culpa. What is very significant is that these events took place in 1925 or 1926 – well before Elvira’s disastrous marriage, which was always cited as the start of her descent into emotional chaos.