Tag Archive: Dolly Wilde

Tallulah in Silvertown

In Tallulah Bankhead’s autobiography there is an odd little anecdote concerning her adventures in London’s fast lane.

“In London I visited a charming little house in Chelsea, with a top-floor room lined with tinfoil.The habitues called it Silvertown. A quite respectable friend asked me if I’d like to smoke some opium.

Acceptance was obligatory for a femme fatale . I was fascinated by the preliminaries, melting the pellets, tamping them into the bowl of the pipe. My imagination running riot, I felt like the daughter of Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer’s malign Chinese. The effects were pleasant and dreamy. The world seemed uncommonly rosy but not for long…. On the way home, my escort and I became actively ill. We were so sick that we flung ourselves on my bed and collapsed. There my maid found us in the morning, ashen and wretched.”

As with most stories told by, or about, Tallulah, this needs taking with a pinch of salt (or perhaps coke).However, biographer Joel Lobenthal interviewed Glenn Anders, who confirmed the expedition to the “opium den”, although he denied that Bankhead indulged – then or at any other time. The latter part of his statement is patently untrue but it does allow us to place the visit in 1927, during the run of She Knew What She Wanted (see  https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/01/07/sir-patrick-hastingstallulah-bankhead-and-beatrix-lehmann/ ).

Tallulah would have been no stranger to the rituals of opium use. Her great love in her early London years had been the publicly-respectable but privately very louche Napier “Naps ” Alington , whose friendships with the likes of Princess Murat and Jean Cocteau were built around a mutual fondness for the drug.

Napier Alington

So, if it existed, whose was this house? Who was the respectable friend? Is Tallulah, as I suspect, collapsing a number of visits into one self-serving anecdote? She was seeing a lot of Gwen Farrar at the time but her residence, though certainly charming , hardly fits most people’s definition of small. However, Farrar’s circle included Dolly Wilde, Ruth Baldwin and Olivia Wyndham who were all opium-users and all lived in Chelsea for at least part of 1927. Then there are the Dean Pauls and the ubiquitous Tony De Gandarillas – but again one would hesitate to call them respectable. Bankhead did know most of these people, particularly the ones who frequented the Gargoyle Club on Dean Street – where Elvira’s guest Brian Howard was to later become almost a permanent feature. Howard had his own battles with opium but these had not really started yet.

Unfortunately, I can find no other reference to Silvertown in reminiscences of the era. I am fairly positive that there was such a room but it was probably in the house of an older,more seasoned and less well-known user. If anyone knows otherwise please get in touch. If nothing else, the anecdote indicates that drug use was an established aspect of Chelsea life, albeit a fairly discreet and “underground” one.

Silvertown is possibly a morbid reference to one of the great tragedies to hit London in the First World War when a munitions factory blew up, killing 73 people. See Silvertown Explosion .

Gwen Farrar

Gwendoline Farrar (1898-1944) appears in so many inter-War reminiscences and autobiographies  that I am surprised that nobody has deemed her worthy of a full length biography. Talented, eccentric and independent, she was as distinctive a character as any associated with Upper-Bohemia or The Bright Young People. Her connection to Elvira cannot be proved but, given that she was a hard-partying Chelsea resident and very close to Audrey Carten, Jo Carstairs and Ruth Baldwin, she moved in similar circles.

The upper echelons of the Bright Young People, Waugh’s beloved but, to me, rather unappealing “Guiness Set”,  rather dismissed her as she was a little older than them and too much part of “popular culture”. Zita Jungman, sounding rather like the Victorian matriarchs her generation are supposed to have rebelled against, recalled, “Gwen Farrar was someone one saw on the stage… one didn’t see her socially.” – a statement as generally untrue as it is snobbish.Plenty of the 20s’ set saw her “socially”, at parties at her London address or out on the town, often accompanied by her friend and fellow free-spirit, Tallulah Bankhead.

Born into wealth and privilege, her father, Sir George Herbert Farrar, had South African mining interests, she had no more need to seek employment than Elvira or the Jungman sisters. In 1915 she inherited (along with her five sisters) a fortune that would allow her to purchase 217 King’s Road and a country house in Northamptonshire. She studied classical music and was taught cello by Herbert Walenn, England’s leading exponent of the instrument. She also developed a remarkable baritone speaking voice which she  was to use to great effect in her future career.

 Herbert Wallen by Elise Muriel Hatchard

During the First World War she joined Lena Ashwell’s company, entertaining the troops in France and Belgium. This forerunner of ENSA was established to bring high-culture to the ordinary soldiers but included lighter interludes. Elvira had a natural gift for comedy and began to develop an “act”. She met pianist and singer, Norah Blaney, and they formed an on and off-stage partnership that thrived in the early twenties. By 1925 , both were household names. Their duets, usually renditions of hits of the day, were often masterpieces of innuendo, Blaney taking the “female” role and Gwen  the “male”. Completely heterosexual lyrics were cleverly subverted. Most of the public remained innocent but those in the know “knew”, as it were.

Norah Blaney

They appeared in newsreel shorts, on early sound film experiments, in revues and West End shows, Music Hall and on the radio.

Away from the stage, Gwen Farrar was becoming known for hosting parties where serious drinking was the order of the day. She moved in several distinct but occasionally overlapping Lesbian subcultures. She knew Radclyffe Hall, Teddie Gerrard and from 1923 was very close to Jo Carstairs, who named her speedboat Newg  after her. She was also taken up by Tallulah Bankhead and took part in one of the early Bright Young Thing treasure hunts with her – ferried around London by Carstairs’ all-female chauffeur service. With Audrey Carten, she was arrested for punching a policeman who tried to stop her parking outside the Savoy and she seems to have had her share of (apparently obligatory) drunken car-crashes after various parties and nights out.

The partnership, professional and otherwise, with Norah Blaney ended in 1924, although they had several reunions. Her next major collaborator was the unjustly neglected pianist-composer Billy Mayerl, whose composition “Marigolds” was the most over-played piano piece of the inter-War years. Mayerl’s mixture of classical training, his incorporation of jazz stylings and his fondness for comic pastiche suited Gwen well and she also started writing revue material at this time.

Meanwhile, 217 King’s Road was becoming somewhat notorious. The location is significant. Part of a block of three houses, it was home to two other high-profile women. Lady Sybil Colefax lived at 213 and Syrie Maugham at 215.  Both were interior designers –  in fact both were the interior designers of their day. Sybil Colefax was a specialist in modernising upper-class living and drawing-rooms while Syrie, wife of Somerset Maugham, is the person who is largely responsible for the white interiors that remained dominant through to the Art Deco era.

Left        Room by Sybil Colefax                              Right        Syrie Maugham

Both women were great “society hostesses” and also rivals for the most prestigious guests. Their luncheons featured the literary, artistic and aristocratic “stars” of the day. Gwen’s luncheons and her other gatherings, though sprinkled with famous names, mainly featured alcohol and “high jinks”.

One of those who had access to all three establishments, the ubiquitous Beverley Nichols, described Gwen as “grotesque but endearing” and it may have been at 217 that he rejected Michael Stephen’s offer of cocaine. Drug use was certainly part of Gwen’s social world and by the late 1920s she was host to the racier Chelsea set, which may have included Elvira, but certainly included Olivia Wyndham, Ruth Baldwin and Audrey Carten.

213,215,217 King’s Road

Though she continued to perform and write throughout the 1930s, alcoholism had now set in. Her home was said increasingly to resemble a bar. The parties continued. At one in 1937, while Gwen and other guests were listening to a boxing match on the radio, Ruth Baldwin died of a heroin overdose. In the same year Gwen fell in love, as everyone seems to have done at some time, with Dolly Wilde who lived with her until 1939. It says something for Farrar’s lifestyle that Wilde’s former lover Natalie Barney was greatly worried about the deleterious effects on Wilde, another heroin/morphine addict, that Farrar’s endless partying was having.

Gwen Farrar died in 1944. Hers was one of the voices of the 1920s and her looks made her probably the most public “Lesbian” icon within the popular culture of the era.Her fondness for alcohol, her closeness to Tallulah Bankhead, her love of sport (she was an expert horsewoman) and her general attitude to life would all have appealed to Elvira. Farrar’s dry humour and keen intelligence may not have made such feelings mutual but I am certain that their paths often crossed.Even if they didn’t, Farrar deserves to be better known today than she seems to be . I find her both fascinating and rather likeable.

She Shall Have Music [VHS]

In the 1930s she made a few cameo appearances in British films – here she is in the fairly awful Jack Hylton feature “She Shall Have Music”. She played Miss Peachums, a stage-school “headmistress” in charge of a group of nubile young actresses. It was a role that I imagine she found amusing.

and here she is in her prime

Some of her work – with Norah Blaney and Billy Mayerl can be found on this invaluable CD also available as download at Amazon etc.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that Gwen Farrar was one of the first people to broadcast on television – an indication of her popular appeal. Her 20 minute slot in 1937 was entitled “Sophisticated Cabaret”   which is very fitting. Details can be found here

Radio Times January 1937

Anna Wickham

“During the last years she changed her name: she wanted to forget, she sa id, that she was the notorious Mrs.Barney.But she did little to change her mode of life – In Corfu, Majorca or Paris, or wherever else she went with the Bairds, the Dean Pauls, Anna Wickham, and others who moved in her set. The same company, the same hobbies, all around the clock.” (Peter Cotes)

That Napper and Brenda Dean Paul were around during what remained of Elvira’s life is no surprise. Napper had a long association with Elvira (including the inevitable car crash) and both were friends of Billy Milton. Brenda Dean Paul’s own notoriety – as the most famous drug-addict in England – may actually have been of some comfort to the, by now, disgraced “Mrs. Barney”. The “Bairds” would include Sandy Baird, as dissolute as he was flamboyant, a lover of Brian Howard and a strong contender for one of the unnamed guests at the cocktail party at William Mews. Other Bairds might possibly be the “Miss Baird” who was Brenda Dean Paul’s companion and fellow-addict during the 1950s and William Baird who appears on passenger lists with Brenda  in the early thirties.

The odd name is Anna Wickham (1883-1947).If it is the poet Anna Wickham, which I think it is, then this raises a number of questions.

Born in Wimbledon as Edith Harper and raised in Australia, she had a varied but troubled life, due in part to her monster of a husband and partly to her failure to establish herself among the first ranks of English poets (she has undergone something of a revival in recent years). Her world, in the early 1930s, revolved around the Fitzrovian set, the pubs in Charlotte Street and her house in Hampstead. Her acquaintances at the time included DylanThomas (very rude about her), Malcolm Lowry  (very fond of her) and the eccentric Sohemian and future “King of Redonda”, John Gawsworth, one of the few to unreservedly  champion her work..


Anna Wickham

Some of the Bright Young elite knew Wickham and were not taken with her. Anthony Powell describes her thus, ” When she strode into the saloon bar, her severe air, Roundhead cast of feature, broad-brimmed hat, short skirt, grey worsted stockings, suggested Oliver Cromwell dissolving parliament.”  Aesthete Harold Acton found her very much not the right sort of person and  described her as (allegedly)  “a hefty lady obviously well-fortified with wine and garlic”. To at least some of the the next generation of writers she seems to have been better-liked and was a tolerant landlady to more than a few aspiring but penniless authors.

However, I can’t see her and Elvira as close.  She was much older, rather serious-minded and totally immersed in the world of literature. True, she was as hard-drinking as any of the Barney circle and was undoubtedly, though not particularly happily, a lesbian.

I wonder if there has not been a mix-up with the French saloniste Natalie Barney, towards whom Wickham had developed an (unrequited) passion , and whose literary lunches she had attended in the 1920s. Then again, Dolly Wilde, Olivia Wyndham, Nancy Cunard and Joe Carstairs all were, at some time, associated with Natalie Barney and Elvira knew every one of these women. So it may even be that  Elvira met Wickham through one of these figures.  These possible associative links can get quite complex, but if there is an intermediary then Dolly Wilde or Nancy Cunard would best fit the bill as Wyndham and Carstairs were far away by this time.

Nathalie Barney by Romaine Brooks 1920

If Anna Wickham was a soul-mate then the thought of Elvira rubbing shoulders with John Gawsworth and Malcolm Lowry is quite enticing. In Lowry’s case, at least , this is not unfeasible. As well as being part of the Charlotte Street entourage, Lowry spent time in Paris. He was married there in 1934.  Elvira was by then staying in France more than in England.The Bohemian expatriate circle was small and, wealthy or poor, they shared the same clubs and cafes.

In Paris, Lowry’s  wife quickly tired of his drinking and the fact that  he seemed irresistible to young gay men. We can be sure that Elvira would not have objected to either facet of Lowry’s character.