Tag Archive: cocktails

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.”

A Letter from an Observer

As with most murder cases, the Police were inundated with unsolicited advice from the letter-writing public. Results of seances, pub gossip and the fervid speculations of the marginally insane all found their way to the D.P.P. or Scotland Yard.

One particular note seemed to have caused some concern, as it was carefully logged and kept in the prosecution files. Sent on a postcard from Brixton on the 10th June 1932, it suggests a certain amount of inside knowledge. The authorities were very sensitive to the charge that Elvira was receiving rather “special” treatment because of her her high social status and did their best to convince the general public otherwise. In this they were comprehensively unsuccessful.

The letter reads,

” A complaint is being made at headquarters. What sort of prison is this? A Cabaret? She might be left at home! The fuss they make of her and the “spoiling”!! Poor women are not treated thus. It is money money and one is a Saint! Madam. To the contrary, all sympathy from nice people, goes to the correct-living Stephen’s family and their loss.A woman, married, who goes to live in a place inhabited by quiet decent folk and leads poor Stephens on – is not innocent. This is the way you Mothers with plenty of money bring up your daughters – Cocktail parties – Jazz and frivolity, with husbands in the background, who seem fools, or have “lost their manhood”.

Holloway is too luxurious and good a place for the likes. Why does the Governor allow all this nonsense, for this woman: telephone, powder-puffs and grand tea-gowns etc.

An Observer”

Tea Gowns late 20s early 30s

I don’t think the Police needed to have worried.  This is not the letter of a disgruntled warder or fellow inmate.However,I do think the letter is written by someone who had picked up some facts about Elvira’s period on remand. The references to the telephone and the powder-puff have a specificity that is both charming and credible.

What is more significant is the familiar mantra of “jazz” and “cocktail parties” as being the true culprits behind the whole affair. The icing on the cake is the reference to husbands who have “lost their manhood”. When one reads Marek Kohn or Virginia Nicholson it is tempting to think that they are retrospectively applying  modern readings on to the  social values of the era. But this is not the case. Elvira really did represent one of many threats to the “natural” order. All those books about the post-War  loss of patriarchal authority and the perceived disruption that the flapper generation embodied can be found, in condensed but vehement form, in this angry missive.

Elvira becomes the symbol for two very different conflicts. In the category of “Class”  she signifies old-fashioned privilege and power whereas in regards to what we now call “gender”  she is subversive and the epitome of a decidedly unsettling Modernity. It is a salutary reminder to those who wish to  produce hagiographic studies of Radclyffe Hall or, God forbid, Rotha Linton-Orman that sexual politics are but just one aspect of the overall picture. On the other hand, class analysis alone cannot do justice to the barely-repressed rage of our Brixton Observer.

Milwaukee Sentinel June 1 1932

It’s quite remarkable how quickly speculation about the shooting at 21 William Mews hit the news-stands. The above article, from Associated Press, appeared in Milwaukee on the day after the incident and not only fashions a juicy narrative out of what must have been very hastily assembled facts but is already imbued with references to the “decadence” that dominated the coverage of the whole case.

Inaccuracies abound. The “golden-haired” Elvira is a “divorced actress”, which is pushing it a bit, and Michael gains 10 years in age. It is Michael who is reported as having brandished the gun and the police are said to be pursuing a line of “accidental death”, which they most certainly weren’t. He is also reported to have been found lying on a sofa – he was on the landing,

The cocktail party and the Mews life-style are both given starring roles. Naturally, it was “a gay cocktail party” – not meant in the modern sense  – but the following paragraph is the one that caught my eye.

“Meanwhile astonishing stories were heard of parties which were held in the gaily decorated back-alley flat in Williams Mews, the London counterpart of Greenwich Village’s MacDougall Alley in New York.”

Berenice Abbott MacDougal Alley 1936

Now, in no way did William Mews resemble the bohemian heart of Greenwich Village, but the comparison speaks volumes.  “MacDougal Alley” is code for artistic, alternative and avant-garde. It also meant Gay (this time in the modern sense of the term). American readers would have got the inference and would have been quite aware what it was that was “astonishing” about these parties.

So, right from the start, the shooting is almost secondary to the exotic context in which it took place. The 1930s’ press, despite being trapped in a code of censorship, euphemism and innuendo, very quickly made it apparent what sort of world Elvira inhabited. As was to actually happen in due course, the Associated Press prophetically found Elvira innocent of murder but guilty of flouting social conventions.

Incidentally, one of Elvira’s cocktail guests, Olivia Wyndham, who had recently moved to New York was to become a regular visitor to Greenwich Village where she, and her partner Edna Thomas’, friend, the author Nella Larsen, lived. Wyndham and her circle really did embody the  “improper” Bohemia hinted at in the newspaper report.

Vincent La Gambina Life Cafeteria Greenwich Village 1936

In 2001 the 80 year old artist and actress  Tatheena Roberts published a novel about the travails of two young lesbians in pre-war New York. I don’t know if there is any autobiographical element to the story but the book’s title is testimony to the continuing resonance of the address. It was called “MacDougal Alley” .

Hugh Armigel Wade

Hugh Wade (1908-1949) was one of the two guests at Elvira’s to attend court as a witness (Arthur Jeffress was the other).  His answers in court are so brief and add nothing to the case (for prosecution or defence) that it is unclear why his presence was deemed necessary.

His police statement is much fuller and is considerably more informative. It is protective of Elvira and markedly evasive about the later party at Arthur Jeffress’ home.

Described by the police as a composer, Wade stated that he was “a professional pianist at present employed at the Blue Angel night club” (no mention of the Blue Lantern). He had been a paying guest at 64a King’s Road (Leonie Fester’s home) but was now living at 9 Rupert Street.

He had first met Elvira at a party at her parents’ house in 1927 and had known Michael Scott Stephen since 1928. He remembers first seeing them together in October 1931 and from then fairly regularly at first nights,plays and at both the Blue Lantern and Blue Angel. He insists that they were always friendly and affectionate to each other. He cites Terence Skeffington Smyth and Leonie Fester as Elvira’s “special friends”.

Hugh Wade with Elizabeth Ponsonby


He had first visited 21 William Mews about six weeks earlier, having been invited by Elvira, at The Blue Angel, to come back for a late night drink. Michael Scott Stephen was not there but about eight of Elvira’s friends (included Leonie Fester and her daughter) drank whisky and played the gramophone. Wade says, “It was a very quiet party” – a view not shared by other residents of the Mews.

He then gives the fullest guest list that we have of the Monday  30th cocktail party. He adds a detail or two not mentioned elsewhere, including caviare sandwiches and the presence of a “servant”, and seems undecided as to whether Eddie Gathorne Hardy was actually in attendance.  On leaving the party he went to the Command Performance at the Palladium but failed to get in and so visited the Pavilion before his Blue Angel gig, which started at 10.45.

Pavilion Theatre on the right

He uses the terms “normal and composed”  to describe Elvira at the Blue Angel adding, “She was quite sober”. The former description may have been true, the latter was definitely a lie. His first statement omits any mention of going on to Arthur Jeffress’ residence but Wade was called back to correct this “memory slip”.  This reluctance to mention Jeffress’ gathering and the police’s great interest in who was there (given that neither Elvira or Michael were present) gives, to say the least, some grounds for speculation. He ended the night, very late, at Lyons Corner House  in Coventry Street – then and for many years later – open 24 hours a day and with unofficial sections reserved for prostitutes and the denizens of Soho’s gay community.

Hugh Wade gets fairly short shrift in Taylor’s “Bright Young People“, which is, I feel, a little unfair. His only role is as the marker of Elizabeth Ponsonby’s fall from, if not grace, the higher echelons of the Bright Young coterie. Undoubtedly, Elizabeth’s mother disapproved and her eager reporting of John Strachey’s description of a party held by the then newly-wed Pelly’s has Hugh firmly placed at the debauched centre.

“He had never seen so much drink consumed in his life. Every woman was painted and most of the men – especially a young boy Hugh Wade (I have heard of him from Elizabeth) who had a painted, luscious mouth. He never saw such a “naughty boy”  or so many “naughty boys” or so many people drunk. They carried on till 4am.”

“Naughty Boy” though he was, he did keep faith with Elizabeth, long after others had abandoned her. When she died (of drink) in 1940, one of her few un-hocked  possessions was a piano, which she left to Hugh. Hugh had only eight years left of his life to enjoy it – another of many early deaths in this circle.

His musical career was, in fact, a little more substantial than “night club pianist” might suggest. Aged 19, he had burst on to the late twenties’ equivalent of the “pop scene” with a string of reasonably popular hits. “Like A Virginia Creeper (I’ll come Creeping Back to You)” and “When the Love Bird Leaves its Nest”  (Does it Fly to the East or West?)” may not exactly resonate today but they sold well as sheet music and were much recorded. (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/hugh-wades-early-career/ )

Rosalie - Old sheet Music by FeldmanWade, Hugh. When the love-bird leaves the nest [music] : does she fly to the east or the west? - Front Cover

He never repeated this success, athough he did write music  for films in the 1930s (“The Tenth Man” 1936). Occasional songs still popped up and his final effort was a musical show intended as a comeback vehicle for Jessie Matthews, “Maid to Measure” (1947). It was not a hit and his music,a little dated even by 1930, has now disappeared off the cultural map completely. If he is known at all today it is as the “epicene” ,”naughty boy” who played Body and Soul on the organ at Arthur Jeffress’ Red And White Party. (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/the-red-and-white-party/ )

9 Rupert Street was until very recently home to the exclusive members club, Rex – whose decor had a, very appropriate, 1930s theme.

Some Thoughts on living in a Mews

Since the Press could only make hints and not directly refer to that which both fascinated and (supposedly) appalled its readership about the Barney social circle – this world of bisexuality,promiscuity and narcotic excess- then a whole series of inanimate objects came to be imbued with a wicked and mysterious symbolism. The Mews flat, the specially built bar, cocktails and cocktail parties, unnamed books and paintings – all of these came to serve  as metaphors for rampant decadence.

Today, London Mews apartments, especially those in Chelsea or Knightsbridge, connote wealth and a luxurious lifestyle. The are expensive and eminently respectable. This was not yet the case in the 1930s and,because of the Barney trial, Mews-living retained an air of Bohemian licence for several decades.

21 William Mews

The story of the modern Mews begins with the conversion of stables (traditionally Mews buildings were adjuncts to large urban dwellings built in the C17th or C18th) into garages, as the motor car replaced the horse and carriage. William Mews serviced Lowndes Square. By the time Elvira moved in, half the Mews consisted of garages pure and simple and the rest garages with the chauffeur and family living above. Apart from Elvira, there was just one other middle class resident, a solicitor.

So Elvira’s very address was seen as a statement of de facto Bohemianism. The implications were that Elvira should have, on separating from her husband, returned to the parental home in Belgrave Square.The newspapers made much of the fact that No.21 was “exotically furnished” and even thirty years later Giles Playfair could write, “No doubt, she did want a greater measure of sexual freedom than she could have enjoyed living under the watchful eyes of her parents.”. A mews address, particularly one that was “exotically furnished” meant only one thing – excessive, and possibly illicit, sex.

After the trial the very word  “Mews”  acquired a particular frisson. A favourite  night-club of the time was The Florida (much frequented by Angela Worthington and Sylvia Coke). This venue, with its telephone at every table, was in Bruton Mews, in the heart of Mayfair. That it was tucked away in a Mews, albeit in a most prestigious environment, allowed it to be both “Society” and a little bit risque. Added to this was the presence of black bandleaders such as Ken Johnson (later killed in a bombing raid on Elvira’s favoured eating place,The Cafe De Paris). A Mews address meant excitement, and the promise of pleasures unafforded elsewhere.

Next door to the Florida was The Blue Goose Cocktail Bar, whose manageress Diana Caldwell was to meet Lord Broughton there. Her subsequent marriage to him, and her  involvement in the scandal surrounding the death of Lord Errol in Kenya, before her final transmutation into Lady Delamere, are famously documented in the book White Mischief. Lady Delamere’s time as a cocktail hostess  in a Mews bar was a source of much gossip in London and Nairobi  and shows how weighted the terms “cocktails” and “Mews” had become. Unlike Elvira, Diana outrode her scandal, though she remained a suspect in the shooting of Lord Errol until her death. The Happy Valley set share much in common with Elvira’s circle – drink,drugs,promiscuity (and possibly murder), but I have yet to establish any definite connections.

Diana Caldwell

After World War 2 there was an attempt to stress the normality of Mews life – while attempting to hold on to the sense of freedom and non-conformity hitherto associated with these residences. The most evocative example is in the film Genevieve (1953). The McKims (John Gregson and Dinah Sheridan) are a young, respectable and newly-married couple – perfect examples of 1950s domestic optimism. Yet they are not suburban but Mews-dwellers, idiosyncratic and – within bounds – free spirits. Dinah Sheridan buys aubergines and peppers and their house (actually in Rutland Mews) has modern paintings and a vaguely continental feel. Here, Mews-living is no longer beyond the pale but it still  has an excitement to it.

South Rutland Mews 1953 and 2010

The sleazier image of the Mews persisted however. In The League of Gentlemen (1960), ex-officer and now night-club pianist cum-gigolo, Brian Forbes (a character staight out of The Blue Angel) is suitably callous towards his older mistress. His early morning arrival at their Mews dwelling is redolent in meanings easily recognisable to the followers of the Barney trial. Mews flats were still the site of bad behaviour.

The last great example of the Mews as a place of iniquity arrives courtesy of the Profumo scandal. Stories of a defence minister leaving by the back door minutes before a Russian embassy official arrived at the front , not to mention West Indian drug dealers firing up at the windows, kept the British public enthralled throughout 1963. We are, of course, now talking about 17 Wimpole Mews, home  to Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davis  (rent paid by Stephen Ward). Sex,drugs,guns – the upper classes behaving badly –  the ghost of Elvira must have watched with interest.

Wimpole Mews

Just after the Profumo Trial, the archetypal 60s’ adventure series The Avengers commenced its run. It starred Patrick MacNee as John Steed,an establishment figure but also bon viveur and man-of-the-world. Inevitably, he lived in a well-appointed London Mews.

Duchess Mews, home of John Steed