Tag Archive: Cole Porter

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.


Patrick “Paddy” Crean

Paddy Crean (1910-2003) , from a well-to-do Dublin family, had a long and distinguished career in cinema and on the stage as a fight-choreographer and stuntman. He specialised in sword-fights and had been a competitive fencer. He was most famously Errol Flynn’s double in various swashbuckling adventure films but his technical contribution to stage sword-fighting is his greatest achievement – his ideas and theories are still dominant. With Rex Rickman he ran the Sophy School of Fencing in London where many leading actors learned to look convincing holding a cutlass or a rapier.

His entry into all of this came about because he successfully auditioned for an acting part in Erik Charell’s Casanova at the London Coliseum. The play ran for most of 1932 and features in Elvira’s  case because Denys Skeffington-Smyth was in it and Sylvia Coke and Anton Altmann had met Mrs.Barney and Michael Stephen at a “Casanova” party a few weeks before the cocktail soiree on the 30th May. My guess is that Paddy Crean was at both events.

Crean’s main motive in getting involved with the theatre appears to have been presence of so many pretty and personable actresses. Casanova, inevitably, was more than usually replete in that area.

From the Programme Casanova Coliseum 1932

With one of these beauties, Rosalie Corneille, he found himself mixing with the “fast-set”. In his autobiography he states

“Had I entered the profession somewhere else I would have missed a large slice of heady living and stage experience attributable to my engagement in Casanova; fabulous parties at Tallulah Bankhead’s Farm Street home: knowing beautiful Brenda Dean Paul who died tragically from drugs; Mrs.Barney, Mayfair hostess and central figure of a crime passionel )she shot and killed her lover but was acquitted); learning to drink vodka and sniff cocaine (neither of which appealed); pajama jaunts to Covent Garden with the Bright Young Things.”

It is a telling catalogue. Describing Elvira as a Mayfair hostess (nowhere else is she given that title) suggests that he knew her as such rather than simply as a fellow guest.Her “little gatherings” were seemingly rather better known than most sources suggest. Placing her in the middle of a list that reads Tallulah, Brenda and cocaine is equally significant. Crean is writing about a particularly “wild” phase of his life – Elvira is one of the key markers.

It is worth noting that Crean is quite unequivocal in his assertion that Elvira shot Michael and got away with it – was this popular consensus or inside information?

Rosalie Corneille, who must also now be added to our list of possibles, was apparently a Scottish actress who appeared in a number of West End productions in the 1930s. The most notorious was  Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant (1933) which starred Gertrude Lawrence and featured the black American singer Elisabeth Welch.

This sophisticated and daring musical – essentially about a woman’s quest to lose her virginity – was considered too daring by many. It even had a nude scene which was cut on condition that the lyrics of each song were left alone. Porter said it was his favourite show.

Rosalie Corneille is, I presume, somewhere in this picture from the London production. This was of course post-trial but I bet Elvira was in the audience.