Tag Archive: cocktails

Brian Howard

By far the best known of Elvira’s cocktail guests was Brian Howard.Even if Elvira can be consigned to the outer reaches of the Bright Young Generation, Brian Howard’s place at its very centre has never been questioned.

Howard embodies much of popular wisdom about the era – beautiful,gay,precocious,witty, hedonistic and needlessly self-destructive. Howard promised much but left little of substance other than memories of his own extraordinary personality.At 15 he was being hailed by Edith Sitwell as the poetic voice of his age and was primus inter pares of the schoolboys who formed the unfeasibly talented Eton Arts Circle. At Oxford, along with Harold Acton, he was the Aesthete incarnate.  The rest of twenties was all parties, elaborate hoaxes and hints of a great work in progress, but by the time of Elvira’s party he was already beginning to be talked of in the past tense.Instead of the major novel or definitive volume of verse, it is for “The Bath and Bottle Party” and  the “Bruno Hat” exhibition that he is best remembered. His fate was to be a memorable character in other people novels (especially Evelyn Waugh’s) rather than the creator of his own works of genius.

Howard attended Elvira’s party with Anton Altmann. Altmann is the “Toni” of “Portrait of A Failure” and was to be Brian’s lover and companion throughout the 1930s. At the time, Howard had just returned from the Continent, bringing back not only Toni but a newly acquired taste for drugs to add to his already fierce passion for alcohol. It is likely that his drug-taking stemmed from his association with Cocteau’s circle in the South of France. Interestingly, at the same time , August 1931,he had seen, but not spoken to, Elvira – almost inevitably in the Majestic Hotel in Cannes. Howard knew Elvira vaguely from parties at the Mullens’ home but was only introduced to her properly at Skeffington-Smyth’s  party on the 26th or 27th May. He did not meet  Michael Scott Stephen until the William Mews gathering on the following monday.

Given that he hardly knew the key figures in the case, why was his statement taken at all? Other guests, who were much closer to the couple were not questioned. Was Howard lying? Did the police think he knew more than he let on? Unlikely,I feel. What seems more credible is that the police were particularly interested in the suspicion of drug taking and the obvious air of male homosexuality that surrounded the affair and were using the case to trawl for information.

Howard’s statement does help to sharpen our picture of the evening. Moreover, it gives us something of Howard’s own personality. Finally, it also raises one or two questions in its omissions.

Howard gives the police his full name “Brian Christian De Claiborne Howard” – whether this was an act of precision or intimidation one can only speculate.His address is 39 Maddox Street, a place that looms large in the annals of the Bright Young People (it is one of Taylor’s dozen or so key BYP venues). Howard says he shares the address with Eddie Gathorne-Hardy and Altmann. He tells the police Gathorne-Hardy’s place of employment (the booksellers, Elkin Matthews) and describes Altmann as a “German Student of Language”.  What he does not say is that Gathorne-Hardy was also at Elvira’s – at least two other witnesses attested so – he mentions only himself and Altmann. Why? If it is to keep Gathorne-Hardy out of the case (most writings on the trial suggest great reluctance on the part of the guests to come forward) then why mention him at all? We know that Gathorne-Hardy possessed an even more flamboyantly “camp” demeanour than Howard and we know he wasn’t interviewed by the Police . Very strange.

Howard then describes with, one would think,  unnecessary detail what he drank at both  Skeffington-Smyth’s and Elvira’s parties Given that at the first it was sherry and tomato juice cocktails and at the second sherry and grapefruit juice cocktails, one wonders why he bothers – or why the police saw fit to record it.  Eighty years on, however, such exactness is both welcome and unintendedly endearing.

Howard’s statement  also, and equally accidentally, draws an intimate portrait of the Mews  party – the small room, a bar in the corner, the place crowded to the point of bursting, a gramophone playing. Some people danced and others just drank and socialised. It was, as he says, “quite an ordinary party, vivacious with lots of people talking” .What Brian considered  “ordinary”, the public, perhaps including the interviewing officer, found scandalous and strange.Monday nights in England were not supposed to be like this.


He left the party with Sylvia Coke to eat at the famous Brice’s Restaurant and then on to Ruth Baldwin’s to her Mulberry Walk party. As a seeming afterthought, he adds that Altmann was with them. He then explains that his reason for going to Ruth Baldwin’s do was see some decorations by the painter John Banting. Quite why he thought the police would be interested in that piece of information I can’t imagine, but it is of a piece with describing himself as “Author” by profession.

Howard left Ruth’s at half past one with David Green of 12 Alfred Place and a “Mr.Carew”. David Green is almost certainly David Plunkett-Greene, brother of “Babe” and a key figure in the Bright Young gatherings of the late twenties. “Mr.Carew” is possibly Dudley Carew, devoted follower and sometimes friend of Evelyn Waugh as well as being a rather poor novelist and a rather good cricket correspondent (for the Telegraph). Howard returned home,from Alfred Place, at 3am. Again, Altmann gets no mention.

Of Elvira and Michael, we learn nothing. Of a fairly typical night in the life of the inimitable Brian Howard we learn quite a lot.

Howard spent most of the 1930s on the continent with Toni. He wrote little but did become one of the early voices warning of the evils of fascism. When in England he developed into a resident and acerbic older voice at the Gargoyle Club – itself rapidly losing the atmosphere of glamorous Bohemia that it had earlier exuded. To the public he became a creature of fiction,Anthony Blanche or Ambrose Silk.His wanderings continued after World War 2 until, worn down by alcohol and drugs and the recent loss of a lover, he committed suicide at the age of 52.

Both Taylor’s Bright Young People and  Marie-Jacqeline Lancaster’s Portrait of A Failure offer full analysis of this intriguing, strangely sympathetic but rather sad figure.


Irene MacBrayne

Irene MacBrayne attended the cocktail party, left for work – she was appearing in the West End, dropped in at the Blue Angel and went to Arthur Jeffress’ late night gathering.

She thought there were about thirty people at the earlier party, mostly drinking cocktails although  some were drinking whisky – Michael Scott Stephen and (probably) Ruth Baldwin left the party briefly and returned with whisky.

Mrs.MacBrayne was separated from her husband, David, and lived at 88 Brompton Road with a girlfriend. Michael Scott Stephen had rooms in Brompton Road, possibly at the same address. Stephen had rung her up on the morning of May 30th to invite her to the cocktail party.

She was probably born Irene Ruth Potter in 1907 in Stalybridge, Cheshire. Her father was a Chartered Accountant. She refused to tell the police either her stage name or which show she was appearing in. It is more than likely that she was the young actress known to the public as Irene Potter, much seen (in small roles) on the London stage between 1927 and 1935. She starred in the musical  “Wild Violets”  in 1932 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. If she was part of the Theatre Royal set-up then there is a good chance that on the night of the shooting she was one of the large supporting cast in “Cavalcade”.


Irene MacBrayne married Geoffrey Holdsworth in 1936 and lived in Chelsea for the rest of her days. She became an author, best remembered for “Little Masks” – a rather twee book about her cats – and some typically 1950s’ travel writing, such as “A Taste For Travel”(1956). In these books, as in her wartime journal of her ATS experiences (“Yes Ma’am”), she adopts the persona of a single, independent,”society” woman.

The longest statement taken by the police was that of Terence Skeffington-Smyth. He was also asked to return and provide a second statement. Why this should be is matter for speculation as he had nothing especially insightful to add to the police’s knowledge of the case.

However, he does appear to be central to the dynamics of Elvira’s social world and is a character of some interest in his own right.

Terence  (1906-36) was one of three sons, the others were Noel (b1909) and Denys (b1911), of  Lieutenant Colonel Skeffington-Smyth. The father was a military man through and through, serving with distinction in the Boer War, He was also an early advocate of the then heretical idea that motorised units should and would replace cavalry battalions.

Early display of military motors – organised by Skeffington-Smyth.

The family were part of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, wealthy and very well connected. At the time of his interview T.  Skeffington-Smyth was living off a large inheritance from his mother. Between October 1930 and May 1931 he had been on safari with his father in Africa and since then had divided his time between holidays in the South of France and London night life. Although living at 19 Orchard Street – near Selfridges – he often stayed at the International Sports Club in Upper Grosvenor Street.

He had met Elvira at Cannes (probably at the Majestic Hotel) in August 1931 and told the police ” I have seen quite a lot of Mrs. Barney since then. I know her very well indeed, she is a very good friend of mine.” That he was a friend rather than simply an acquaintance is borne out by other witness statements.

Lobby of the Majestic

He describes Elvira’s William Mews cocktail parties as regular events , usually very small gatherings and always between 6.30 and 9. He also mentions occasional bridge parties, which are worth noting as Elvira cites Stephen’s gambling as a source of conflict between them. Oddly, Elvira did not play bridge.

From his statement we can visualise the social life of Elvira and Michael Scott Stephen. He talks of seeing them together at Ciro’s (where Elvira was a member), the Cafe De Paris, Monseigneur’s, The Blue Lantern and The Blue Angel. He also refers to their attendance at football matches and greyhound tracks.

Terence held a cocktail party at his flat on the 26th and it was there that most of the invitations to Elvira’s party were made. This explains why the majority of guests seemed to know Skeffington-Smyth better than they did Elvira. Skeffington-Smythe did not attend the Mews party, arriving from Paris at about 7pm then catching up with everybody at The Blue Angel before going on to Arthur Jeffress’ home.

His closeness to Elvira can be seen by the fact that after the shooting she rang him up. This was at 5am and she asked him to come over as “something terrible has happened”. He said he could not, Elvira then pleaded with him to get a doctor as she was having trouble contacting hers. He persuaded her to persist in trying and enquired as to  exactly what had happened. Elvira replied “I can’t tell you it all right now.”

Skeffington-Smyth saw Elvira at her parent’s home on the 31st where she described the events of the night in exactly the same words she used in her police statement. One irrefutable fact about this case is the absolute consistency of Elvira’s re-telling of the incident.

The police recalled Skeffington-Smyth two weeks later. Firstly, to assure them that he had not been at the party (one of the guests, Hugh Wade, had mentioned his presence) and secondly to describe an earlier occurrence at 21 William Mews when an hysterical Elvira had locked herself in the bedroom and was shouting and screaming. Skeffington-Smyth had fetched a ladder to  make sure Elvira was not in danger. This was one of the several earlier disturbances mentioned in court by the neighbours.

Why was Skeffington-Smyth interviewed at such length?One can only assume that the police thought he knew more than he was letting on. He was aware that there was another woman at the centre of the rows ( Dora Wright – although S-S does not mention her name). It is also possible that Skeffington-Smyth was thought be the source of the drug use that the police knew hovered around this circle.

Two years later Skeffington-Smyth married Isobel McLean the daughter of society hostess, Loudon Maclean.

Isobel MacLean by Madame Yevonde

On a world cruise in 1936, Skeffington-Smyth collapsed and died in his hotel bedroom in the Broadway Mansions Hotel, Shanghai. The Straits Times reported,

“Shanghai Tragedy

Peer’s nephew dies after visiting opium dens

Shanghai Mar 19 1936

The death of a young Briton after a round of visits to opium dens and night clubs was investigated at the inquest here today on Terence George Randall Skeffington-Smyth, a nephew of Viscount Galway and son of Lt.Col G.H.J..Skeffington-Smyth, who was found dead in bed in a Shanghai hotel on Mar 9th.

A nightclub bar-tender testified that on the previous night he visited opium dens in company with Mr.Skeffington-Smyth who smoked about five pipes of drug and went home after daybreak.

The inquest was adjourned.

Mr.Skeffington-Smyth and his wife arrived in Shanghai a few weeks ago on a world tour.”

Art Deco masterpiece, Broadway Mansions Hotel, Built 1934

Elvira died on Christmas Day in the same year.

5 Mulberry Walk, Chelsea

Some of the guests at Elvira’s cocktail party went on to a small gathering at 5 Mulberry Walk. Ruth Baldwin who lived on the ground floor and Olivia Wyndham , also resident at the time, went straight there. Brian Howard, Anton Altmann and Sylvia Coke joined them after dining at Brice’s on Wardour Street. Howard said the purpose of the soiree was to admire the newly completed murals by John Banting. Banting and Howard had collaborated on the pictures for the Bruno Hat hoax – an iconic moment in the Bright Young People saga

5 Mulberry walk was really a block of flats, designed by Clifton R. Davy in the “stripped mannerist style” in 1913 for the artist and anthroposophist,Baron Arild Rosenkrantz. It was also home to the illustrator Claude Shepperson.

Artist Claude Allin Shepperson - Poster

by Shepperson (left) and Rosenkrantz (right)

In the early twenties the unbelievably wealthy Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstairs purchased it for £3000. Prices in Mulberry Walk today are around the£8 million mark. Joe Carstairs was an eccentric, very masculine character with a great zest for life. She was a leading speedboat racer in the golden age of that sport and after Radclyffe Hall probably the best known Lesbian in England.Her larger-than-life personality is encapsulated perfectly in Kate Summerscale’s  biography “The Queen of Whale Cay”.

Carstairs was cited by one of the William Mews chauffeur’s wives as having been at the Barney cocktail party. a claim very bluntly denied in a letter to the police. It is likely that the person witnessed was actually the equally formidable Ruth Baldwin.  Ruth Baldwin was Joe’s  “secretary” and main lover and the woman who gave her the famous Steiff doll, christened Lord Todd Wadley, who became Carstairs’constant companion and whose name  was emblazoned  and mounted on a plaque by the front door of number 5 alongside Carstairs’ and Baldwin’s.

Baldwin and Wyndham were almost certainly lovers and very close to Olivia Wyndham was the photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer ( confidante of Edward Burra and sometime resident of Mulberry Walk). Ker-Seymer is a good candidate as an attendee of both the cocktail party and the Mulberry Walk party.Whether Edward Burra  (greatly taken with both Ruth Baldwin and Joe Carstairs) was there is moot – but, due to his ill-health, he was rarely an attendee t partiesaalthough he lovingly recorded all the gossip fed back to him by Ker-Seymer and others. Banting may have been present too as he often stayed at Howard and Gathorne-Hardy’s shared flat at this time. Banting was, however, such an out-of-control character that it seems unlikely that he would not  have been noticed had he been around.

Barbara Ker-Seymer

The Mulberry Walk gathering shows, at least,Elvira’s close proximity to the fastest,artiest, gayest, not to mention the most alcoholic and drug-addicted set in London at the time .

Cocktails With Elvira

This is an attempt to chronicle my investigation into the issues surrounding the trial for murder of Elvira Barney. The case, a cause celebre in its day, is now largely remembered for two factors only. Firstly, in criminal history, as the victory of a masterful defence speech over the apparently overwhelming evidence for the prosecution – basically Elvira got away with murder thanks to the genius of Patrick Hastings; secondly, as a symbolic final curtain on the era of “The Bright Young Things”. This is most recently stated in D.J.Taylor’s excellent “Bright Young People”. Elvira Barney herself is seen as a peripheral figure. I want to focus on the events surrounding the case, the attendants at the infamous cocktail party that preceded the “murder” and various associative chains that spin out from that party. In doing so I want to shed some light on the extreme fringes of the “Smart Set” of the era and show that the “World of Elvira Barney” was more central to any discussion of the period than has hitherto been thought

On 30th May 1932 at 21, William Mews near Lowndes Square Elvira Barney held a cocktail party.Between 25 and 35 people attended and came and went from 6.30 to 8.30. Because of police records it is possible to identify many of the guests.
Elvira Barney
Michael Scott Stephen
Arthur Jeffress
Hugh Wade
Denys Skeffington Smyth
Sylvia Coke
Brian Howard
Anton Altmann
Irene Mac Brayne
Arthur Streek
Mr. Sherrill
Milton surname unknown
Ruth Baldwin
Olivia Wyndham

I will add profiles of as many of the guests as possible and also some speculations about who else might have been there and the people who probably weren’t there but were thought at the time to have attended.