Tag Archive: Ethel Mannin

Clarice at The Cafe De Paris

So universally admired are the forms of design and fashion lumped together, nowadays, as Art Deco that it is easy to forget a) that Bevis Hillier’s 1968 book Art Deco of the 20s and 30s was the first to popularise the term and b) that not everyone associated with the era was as fond of it as might be supposed. It was the variants of the style that found their way into the “Suburban” home that came in for most criticism.

Here is Ethel Mannin, in the course of a discussion on her own house and furnishings. (She had moved into Oak Cottage, Burghley Road, Wimbledon in 1929).

” The “hideous Modernism of the late Twenties’ home” was illustrated in a book entitled Interiors by Margaret and Alexander Potter; there is depicted an ugly square-tiled fireplace, a round table supporting a cocktail shaker, a standard lamp consisting of a stell tube surmounted by a square shade, a jazz-patterned rug, on the arm of a chair an ashtray fastened to a strip of leather, a completely hideous settee, a bowl suspended from the ceiling for a centre light, a two-coloured pouffe beside the settee, a dado round the ceiling, under the picture-rail, and studying the whole ensemble you know that the colour-scheme would have been orange-black. “Modernism” interpreted by Suburbia was quite horrible; the dance room at the house of the willow tree was not like that, but rather raffish – or designed to be – though there was the jazz-patterned rug, to be sure, and the pouffe, brought back like the Egyptian runners from some cruise or other. Standard lamps, too, were all the rage, and a cocktail shaker, of course, as essential a piece of equipment for the home as a cabinet gramophone and a collection of dance-records.”

To me, on the evidence above, there doesn’t exactly seem to be a continental divide between Raffishness and Suburbia.

Paul Tanqueray and Ethel Mannin, Wimbledon 1932 – Raffish or Suburban?

If there is one person who today is particularly associated with the arrival of Modernism in Suburbia it is Clarice Cliff. Thanks to “Flog It”, “Bargain Hunt” et al, Clarice Cliff is a better known name in this century than she was during her most creative period (from 1925 to 1935). But her range of ceramic tea sets and figurines did sell well at the time and are synonymous with Ribbon Development chic, of the type Mannin is somewhat dismissive towards. Her designs were inexpensive (then, not now) and perceived to be thoroughly Modern.

Furthermore, if the following anecdote is to be believed, the Cafe De Paris played its part.

“When they arrived at the Café de Paris Clarice was helped from the cab by a top-hatted doorman. She glanced back from Colley to the brightly lit portico of the building. Colley took her arm and steered her through the foyer where the warm aroma of tobacco and scent greeted them. Her fur wrap was taken and she went to the powder room where she adjusted her hair and make–up. Looking at herself in the mirror, she could still not really believe that this was her: Clarice Cliff in London with the boss of the factory she had joined as a lithographer in 1916. She took a small elaborate glass bottle from her purse, dabbed an oriental fragrance onto her wrists, and then headed back to the foyer. Colley beamed at her as she approached. Being much taller he always seemed so completely confident, and she was glad of his arm on hers as they entered the ballroom.

A mass of tables surrounded the dance floor, mostly with just a couple at each, and the hubbub of conversation and cigarette smoke filled the air. Many of the women were wearing the longer slinky dresses that had recently become fashionable; all the men were in evening dress. A stage with iridescent curtains was at the opposite end of the room. An attentive maitre d’ seated them at a ‘reserved’ table.”

(more, in this rather breathless, Barbara Cartland vein, at Clarice Cliff Age of Jazz Archive )

Anyhow, the upshot was that while watching the dancers strutting their stuff to the Harry Roy Orchestra and at the prompting of Mr. and Mrs. Havenhand ,who had joined Colley Shorter and Clarice, the idea for a set of figurines on a Night Club theme was conceived. These were to become the Age of Jazz pieces, as emblematic, if not as practical, as any in the Bizarre range that Cliff’s reputation is largely founded upon. (Bizarre was the name of the line and not adjectival, although some might beg to differ. It was pronounced  Bizz-Air apparently.)

Clarice Cliff (1899-1972)

Given that the inspiration is also said to have come from a Vanity Fair cover of 1926  (by A.H.Fish) and/or from Robert Lallemant’s 1929 Parisian collection, I think we can be a little skeptical about this tale but it has a certain charm to it.

Happy as I am to simply envisage Clarice Cliff at the Cafe De Paris, with Harry Roy providing the music,  the future Merle Oberon and Lady Docker as dance hostesses (as they would have been in 1930), plus whoever else, famous or infamous, was in the audience (was this the night that the Prince of Wales forewent his reserved table in deference to Ethel Waters?), I am also vaguely intrigued by yet another collision between the prohibitively exclusive and the mere popular that this anecdote illustrates.

Merle Oberon (Queenie Thompson in her Cafe De Paris days)

Putting, momentarily at least, issues of social class aside, we surely have here another illustration of the complicated relationship between English culture and modernity.”The English”, we are told, rejected Modernism tout court. The Punch lampoons of Jacob Epstein and the many pastiches of vers libre attest to this. However, away from the Eliot/Pound axis and Bloomsbury in general, the notion of High Modernism versus Mass Culture is hard to sustain.

I know I bark on about this with dismal regularity, but it remains a fact that Modernity and Modernism can be found in all strands of English culture in the twenties and thirties.  High and Low, Elite and Mass, Avant-Garde and Everyday inter-acted throughout the period.Dance bands that originally played only to the very rich, would shortly broadcast from Mayfair Hotels, thanks to the the BBC ,and became the pop stars of the day. Designs for the ballet and the theatre became home furnishings. Avant-Garde artists designed posters and illustrated books. Cross-fertilisation was the order of the day. I offer you the Shell Guides, written by John Betjeman and illustrated by John Piper as perfect examples.

Which brings us back to Clarice Cliff,  a working-class woman from Stoke-on-Trent,  who occasionally enjoyed a night out at the Cafe De Paris and who attended short courses at the Royal College of Art, picking up on Sonia Delaunay and Parisian visual design. These influences and experiences  she  then transformed  into decorative objects for the first-time buyers who populated Metroland and its provincial equivalents. As such, I see her as not untypical of artists of the period for whom Modernism and the Market were not quite the strangers that cultural historians would sometimes have us believe.


For Whom the Cloche Tolls

As Ethel Mannin, rapidly becoming my favourite commentator on the period, states in Young In The Twenties,

“The cloche hat has become almost a symbol of the Twenties; it came down to our brows, almost enveloping us, but it was not unbecoming, I think, and we liked it; it stayed with us a long time; we wore it with our sacks of dresses and with our mannish suits; we wore it in town and in the country, and at tea dances, and in our own homes at luncheon parties.”

Louise Brooks

The cloche hat reigned for about ten years (1923-1933) and is indeed ever present in  contemporary photographs and illustrations . It had been around since 1908, but it was particularly suited to the new lines in clothing and, especially, hairstyles.Noel Coward’s friend Edward Molyneux has as good a claim as any for making it so popular but something about it (brimmed or brimless) so fitted the spirit of the age that every leading fashion designer promoted it.

Monte Carlo 1920s

It is appropriate then that the wittiest and most delightful pastiche of the modes and mores of the 1920s should be entitled “For Whom The Cloche Tolls”.Although regularly reprinted, this charming satire has slipped somewhat from popular consciousness  but I urge you to seek it out. It is a joy to read – witty, occasionally acerbic and superbly camp.

For Whom The Cloche Tolls: A Scrapbook of the Twenties” appeared in 1953. Its author was Angus Wilson, a novelist whose star has rather faded.The early fifties in English Literature were dominated by authors such as William Cooper, John Wain and Kingsley Amis, whose anti-Dandyism and hostility to all things Bright and Young has been well documented (particularly by Martin Green in his much maligned but very rewarding Children of the Sun). Angus Wilson was once grouped together with these writers but his agenda (and aesthetic) differed considerably.

Always essentially a satirist, Wilson, in Cloche, shows himself a master of pure comedy. It is a light-hearted affair, full of in-jokes and innuendo. The narrative is Gay in both senses of the word. The premise is that of a series of reminiscences about a recently deceased, rich, American woman (Maisie) and her adventures in London and Paris in the 1920s, accompanied by her debutante daughter (Bridget) and her epicene son (Tata). Every iconic marker of the period is mentioned – the Blackbirds Revue, Mews Parties, Bohemians and booze, cocktails and cocaine. It is determinedly nostalgic and very funny.

Equally entertaining are the “photographs” that accompany the text. These are, in fact, cartoons/illustration by the French aesthete and collector, Philippe Julian. Whether recording a Mah Jongg game or Josephine Baker at the Bal Negre, they capture the mood perfectly and have a louche decadence to them that gives the book a certain bite.

Philippe Julian is another name that appears to have been largely forgotten. He does have a “cult” following and there is a very good article on him (and Cloche) here

Connoisseur of the Exotic.

Among his many works, he wrote an informative biography of Violet Trefusis and his book on Symbolist artists, Dreamers of Decadence, almost single-handedly reminded British art-lovers of the existence of that movement. If you see a copy, grab hold of it, it is everything you want a book on Art to be.

There is a drawing in For Whom the Cloche Tolls of Edith Thompson in the dock. This accompanies a passage deploring Maisie’s constant pursuit of younger men.  The great trials that I have been posting about are briefly covered in the text, employed to cruel comic effect while indicating their significance as symbols of the times.

“I suppose when one thinks of some of the tragedies that infatuation with younger men brought in those days – those stupid, passionate letters of that poor feather-brained Edith Thompson and later Mrs.Rattenbury (I remember how upset I was to think how easily she might have been one’s own neighbour – shopping at Harrod’s and staying at quite a smart residential hotel with her own chauffeur).And of course Mrs.Barney, who was quite a friend of Maisie’s. (Such different backgrounds, and yet not one of them disreputable. I’m afraid the horror of the First War affected us all a great deal more deeply than we realized.) When, indeed, I think about some of Maisie’s friends, I’m amazed that things did not turn out worse than they did.”

Mrs. Barney

For me, of course, mention of Elvira is a bonus, but the whole book is bursting with apt and amusing references. There are too many highlights to  dwell on but the more literary minded might enjoy the affectionate but barbed pastiches of Huxley, Bennett, Mansfield and Woolf  that appear towards the end.

In 1953, For Whom The Cloche Tolls was reviewed positively by actual veterans of the 1920s such as John Betjeman but I’ll give Cecil Beaton, notoriously begrudging when it came to praise, the last word,

“Mr. Angus Wilson and Mr. Philippe Julian are too young to have experienced the Twenties, but they are both Fetishists immoderately reverencing that remote period. Together they have created an evocative nostalgic scrapbook. Through the wry and malicious memoirs, compiled by her immediate family friends, lovers and gigolos, Mr.Wilson brings back to life the fun-mad, man-mad Maisie, a red-hot grandmother from Texas, who lived in London, took trips to Montmartre and the Riviera, generously pensioned off her lovers sniped from her daughter, and who with her “curious coarse happiness”, animal spirits and “self-generated joi de vivre” was, all agreed, the embodiment of the Naughty Twenties.”

Elvira’s Last Days

After the car crash on the road to Cannes (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/princess-karolyi-and-more-car-crashes/ ) Elvira faded from the headlines. According to Cotes she changed her name (to what, I don’t know) and, although she stayed in hotels and at least one flat in London, spent most of her time in Paris with periods in Corfu and Mallorca, which appear to have replaced the South of France (where she was probably now unwelcome) in her affections.

Paul Cadmus Self Portrait, Mallorca 1932

Mallorca, in its pre-Mass Tourism days, is usually associated  (in English minds) with Robert Graves, who moved there with Laura Riding in 1929. But he was only one of several artists and writers who lived there in the early thirties – Robert McAlmon and Paul Cadmus being two of the better-known..Even by the standards of Expat Bohemia, Mallorca had a pretty wild reputation. Ethel Mannin, herself no shrinking violet, described the place thus, “it was infested by every kind of foreign undesirable, drug addicts, dipsomaniacs, crooks, idle rich, and every kind of Parasite.” These, dare I say it, sound just like Elvira’s sort of people.

Ethel Mannin

Mannin was in Mallorca, intermittently, between 1932 and 1936. She concludes ” There were too many bars and too much drinking; it might have been Montparnasse”.This is singularly apt, as Elvira spent part of her last night on earth in Montparnasse.

On the 2th December 1936 The Sunday Dispatch carried this piece


Since her acquittal, Elvira Barney spent her time between London and Paris. She lived in West End Hotels and later in a Belgravia flat.

The trial left its mark on her. Although still young, she looked middle-aged.

She tried to get work.

“I am fed up with doing nothing, ” she told me when I met her at a West End night club. “I could do with the money.

I want so much to forget what happened, but I am never allowed to. Wherever I go I feel that people are looking at me and talking about me.

The only people who want to know me now seem to be the type of person who wants to be seen with “the notorious Mrs.Barney”.

I am reconciled to the fact that I will never be really happy again. That is why I want a job that will help me forget.

I used to think I could kill the past by getting around and having a good time, but it just didn’t work out.

I am tired of clubs and parties. I just want a chance to settle down and live a reasonable life.

At present I am thinking of going into a flower shop, but I rather doubt whether it will come to anything.”

I asked her whether the rumours that she was to marry were true. She said she had considered remarriage.

“But I have a feeling that my hoodoo. I somehow feel that I’m not fated to be happy,” she said with tears in her eyes.

Elvira with Flowers 1932

Now, this all may be perfectly genuine. But remember, Elvira had died on Christmas Day, which the paper knew -hence the past tense in the headline. It does seem rather prescient of the Sunday Dispatch to have sent a “Special Correspondent” to interview her shortly beforehand.It was also a bit cheeky, since it was Elvira’s ghost-written memoirs in that paper that had really turned the populace against her.

The article itself is strikingly similar to those which appeared periodically about Elizabeth Ponsonby and Brenda Dean Paul, the more famous “Bad Girls” among the ex-Bright Young set. They too were full of contrition and regret and also featured the subjects’ attempts to find gainful employment. All of them strike me as geared to the general public’s wish to see a price paid for too much adventure and excitement. Middle-Class morality rather journalistic accuracy is the name of the game.

Brenda Dean Paul, Waitress at the Lansdowne Club 1941

If Elvira was tired of the night-life she had an odd way of showing it. On Christmas Eve 1936 she dined at  La Coupole in Montparnesse with a group of friends including Rene Cady. I’m trying to find out more about Cady, who is variously described as “Elvira’s fiance”, “a beautiful, blond young man”, a “homosexual”, “distantly related to French royalty” and someone “well-known to around Parisian Bars and Clubs”. He was probably all of these. The best candidate I have so far is Rene Jean Cady De Witte but I’ve nothing more concrete.

La Coupole was the most fashionable and Bohemian eating-place in Montparnasse. Opened in 1927 (with guests such as Jean Cocteau and Blaise Cendrars in attendance), it quickly became legendary. This from the restaurant’s own website (http://www.lacoupole-paris.com/en/ )

“The pillars treated in imitation marble and the Cubist-inspired mosaics are listed on the Registry of Historic Monuments; the pilasters are adorned with paintings by the minor masters of the Roaring Twenties: La Coupole is the temple of Art Deco. It was brought to life in 1927 through the determination of two Auvergne natives, Ernest Fraux and René Lafon. Its grand opening was attended by the brightest stars of art, literature and nightlife: artists and their models, socialites and big spenders, easy women and impossible women.”

“The restaurant was off and running. Action flitted from the American bar tended by Bob to the rows of tables topped with linen or paper tablecloths. Painters such as Derain, Léger, Soutine, Man Ray, Brassai, Kisling and Picasso were elbow to elbow–sometimes with their fists raised… Aragon met Elsa and Simenon dined with Josephine Baker. Breton slapped Chirico and Kessel downed his glasses. An unknown writer with tiny round glasses, Henry Miller, took breakfast at the bar; Matisse sipped beer while Joyce lined up his whiskeys. When Mistinguett made her entrance surrounded by her boys, the room stood to applaud her. After France was liberated, the party began anew. The “Ladder” painters designed a fresco and work was displayed by artists from the School of Paris. Yves Klein wanted to paint the obelisk blue; La Coupole gave him a cocktail. César shared an intimate dinner with the bust of President Auriol, Camus celebrated his Nobel prize and Jean-Paul Sartre left hefty tips at his regular table, no. 149..”

“In May 1968, Cohn-Bendit climbed atop a table. Patti Smith played guitar on the terrace, Renaud busked and Gainsbourg and Birkin came for Sunday lunches. The years flew by… In 1984, Chagall celebrated his birthday at table 73; a few years later François Mitterrand sat at table 82 and ordered his last meal, a lamb curry. In 2008, the interior dome was decorated by four artists to reflect La Coupole’s original spirit – nature, women, celebration: Ricardo Mosner, Carole Benzaken, Fouad Bellamine and Xiao Fan. The world goes by and the enchantment continues.”

After La Coupole, Elvira and party went to Cady’s flat where, strangely perhaps, Elvira insisted on listening to a broadcast of Midnight Mass. They then hit Montmartre and were spotted in several bars and clubs, until Elvira, having already passed out once, pleaded tiredness and returned, alone, to her hotel room.

Cady arrived the next afternoon. Elvira was dead, still in her clothes from the night before. There was blood around her mouth. She was not quite thirty two years old.

Clubs – Ham Yard

Ham Yard, opposite Great Windmill Street in Soho, holds a special place in the history of English club culture. Most famously, it housed the Scene club in the early sixties. The Scene was for many of that generation the Mod club, much written about and still fondly remembered.To a Drinamyl-driven audience, Guy Stevens, the DJ, played the mix of Soul and R&B  that comprised the essential Mod soundtrack and, through his involvement with Sue records (UK),  acted as proselytiser and publicist for the music.  Along with the Flamingo on Wardour Street (blacker, jazzier) and Le Duce on D’Arblay Street (gayer, more Motown-oriented), the Scene was one of those essential spaces that permanently altered the musical and social landscape of post-War England.

However, for all the much vaunted newness of the Modernist movement, the Scene was actually just another phase in Ham Yard’s long connection with clubs, drugs and nocturnal subcultures.In the 1950s, The Scene had been Cy Laurie’s Jazz Club. Although Trad Jazz gets pretty short shrift in most studies of “youth culture”, it was important (Skiffle and the Blues revival came out of it) and Cy Laurie’s club was as Bohemian and free-spirited as you could wish for. This was partly because it was very dancefloor-oriented and partly because of its popularity with St. Martin’s College Art Students. The police saw fit to raid it on a number of occasions.

For more on Cy Laurie see Cy Laurie’s Club

The story goes that both the Scene and Cy Laurie’s were on the same site as the Hambone, which takes us back to Elvira’s era. Here the street numbers become rather confusing.  Ham Yard is always given as the site of the Scene and very often for Cy Laurie’s, but the given address for both clubs was 41 Great Windmill Street , which as Mac’s Rehearsal Rooms and Mac’s Dancing Academy had been around since the 1920s. Curiously, London’s early Modern Jazz venue, Club 11, was in Mac’s Rehearsal Rooms (briefly Moffats Club). Club 11′s existence was short-lived (1948-50)  due to a much-publicised drugs raid. I assume it was the same space but jazz histories give the address as 44 Great Windmill Street. The whole area is so small and a bomb in World War 2 had damaged one side of Ham Yard so we are probably talking about one place –  but it is all a little puzzling.

Club 11 1949

Things get even more complicated when we get back to the 20s and 30s. Ham Yard was apparently  home, simultaneously, to at least ten (!) clubs. Apart from the Hambone (15 Ham Yard) and the Blue Lantern (14), these included  Freddy Ford’s New Avenue, The Pavilion,The Top Hat, Mother Hubbard’s,The Morgue, The Oak ( according to James Laver) The Last Club and the Windmill (according to Horace Wyndham) and, according to one account, Douglas Byng’s The Kinde Dragon.All of these places had live music and most were open all night. Heretical as it might seem to die-hard Mods, the true golden age of Ham Yard night-life appears to be sometime around 1929-1932 – the era of Elvira’s party set.

The Hambone was the earliest, most prestigious and in many ways the  most salubrious of these clubs. Founded in 1922 as a Bohemian cabaret club, its original membership was almost exclusively drawn from the Arts. Founder member and presiding figure was, inevitably, Augustus John. I posted earlier that Freddy Ford was the owner but I don’t now think that is the case – at least not in the club’s halcyon years. An early review characterised it as “a futurist den”  and instead of the usual “Dancing and Cabaret” it advertised itself as offering “Special Artistic Entertainment”.  Dancing there certainly was though, Radclyffe Hall was fond of stepping out there, which must have surely been something to behold. In the latter half of the decade it had fallen into line and had a regular band, Alec Alexander played there before becoming long-term resident at the Gargoyle. Ethel Mannin also danced there and recalled the place as “chronically Bohemian”. She found it hard to believe that the small and densely packed dance-floor had allowed for anything as expansive as the Charleston.

Ethel Mannin

By the mid-twenties the Hambone started to attract writers and journalists as well as a group of heartier, sporty types. Elvira’s fiance, Charles Graves straddled all three categories and it was on his return from a late night drink at the Hambone that the incident with Elvira arrived with the gun (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/charles-graves/ ) . The De Haviland Aero Club held its annual dinner there and hack-novelist Peter Cheyney made it the base from which he observed the Mayfair-Soho connections that feature in many of his books. The club was now officially “Ye Olde Hambone Club” with suitably retro-furnishings (a mock-Adam fireplace) but it remained known as the Hambone. It still valued its original clientele as, unusually it had a graded membership policy.Artists, authors and journalists paid One Guinea, actors Two and business men Three. There was an entrance fee as well but this was cheap compared to  High Society haunts like The Embassy or Uncles, where membership was Eight Guineas plus entrance fee.

The Blue Lantern opened next door in the late twenties (1929?), perhaps to woo some of the younger element away from what was in danger of  becoming a rather masculine venue. It seems to have pitched itself as quintessenially “Modern”, being one of the first clubs to install Thonet steel tubular furniture. It also very quickly got a reputation as catering for the “more dissolute” elements among the Bright Young People. This meant, as it usually did, Elizabeth Ponsonby and her pals, one of whom was the club’s pianist, Hugh Wade.

Breur Thonet Chair 1929

Barbara Ker-Seymer, Freddie Ashton and Billy Chappell were regulars, Eddy Gathorne-Hardy seems to have spent part of most nights there, Tom Driberg loved the place (incidentally,he too refers to Hugh Wade as Hetty Wade), Jocelyn Brooke, Brian Howard, Terence Skeffington-Smythe and Arthur Jeffress were all members. Elvira and Michael were often seen there. Hutch’s lover  Zena  Naylor brought along Evelyn Waugh one night (“very squalid” he wrote in his diary) and Anthony Powell met Tallulah Bankhead (briefly) at the club. All in all, it does seem to merit the status that D.J.Taylor gives it in “Bright Young People” as one of the key hedonistic spaces of the era.Furthermore, given the inter-changeability of the clientele, I’m sure the Blue Angel was in some way an offshoot of the Blue Lantern.

But what of the other establishments in Ham Yard?

Firstly, although Roger Gardiner recalls seeing Hutch perform at the “Kind Dragon in Ham Yard”, this club, run by Douglas Byng, was almost certainly in St Martin’s Lane.” – I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a guest spot at the Blue Lantern he was referring to. Like Hutch, Byng was a favourite of the BYP and may also have had a residency or played in Ham Yard.

But probably not at The Morgue.  According to Jerry White, this was a venture run by “Dalton Murray” after Murray’s club on Beak Street closed temporarily. The owners of Murray’s were Percival “Pops” Murray and Jack May so I’m not sure about “Dalton”. Kate Meyrick’s first club was Dalton’s on Tottenham Court Road so there may be some collapsing of names here. White also mentions a club in Great Windmill Street, The Blue Peter, decked out like a battleship. (White London in the 20th Century). The Morgue sounds even more startling the with the receptionist dressed as a nun, coffins for tables and the waiters sporting devils’ horns. All very proto-Goth and disappointingly tacky – I’d like to think Elvira and her crowd stayed well clear.

Of the rest, Freddy Ford’s New Avenue Club was the most notorious. Known as the Havinoo  to its patrons, it was essentially a hang-out for Soho’s army of criminals, prostitutes and wide boys. The club and its owner feature regularly in court cases throughout  the period – fights and the contravention of licensing laws being the norm. Ford, depending on which account you read, was either an affable rogue or a putative “King of the Underworld”. His long career included convictions for  burglary and receiving stolen goods, but it was as a club-owner and a renter of rooms for prostitution that he made his fortune. At some time or other, he had a share in all the clubs around Ham Yard and may have owned The New Hambones, as the Hambone became in the Second World War.  Significantly, the club was found to be breaking licensing laws in that period.

Racetrack Gang including various Sabinis, Billy Kimber and the MacDonalds

The fact is that Ham Yard generally was a centre of villainy. Throughout the 1920s a series of fights took place there. These, all known as “The Battle of Ham Yard” were to settle disputes between which London gang would have first pickings of the many illegal and semi-legal businesses that bloomed in Soho, not least because of the plethora of night-clubs. Various Sabinis and Cortesis, Billy Kimber’s Brummagem Boys, gangs from Hackney, Kings Cross, Paddington, Hoxton and Elephant and Castle all settled scores with coshes and razors in Ham Yard.

All of which begs the question as to what overlap was there between the louche but largely Upper Class Overground world of the Bohemians and the real Working Class Criminal Underworld? By and large, the two groups would have kept to separate venues but the proximity is interesting. Some of the predilections of the Smart Set would have been of advantage to the Soho gangs. Most forms of betting were then illegal and we know that Michael Stephen was a heavy gambler (and he was surely not the only one). Cocaine and other drug use might also have been a point of crossover. Homosexuality (and its concomitant terror, blackmail) would have played a part.  As far as Soho’s most famous vice is concerned, perhaps he “Piccadilly tart” who arrived with Elizabeth Ponsonby for a drunken weekend at her parent’s house was first encountered in Ham Yard.

Elizabeth Ponsonby and husband

Then there was the “Arminian”  cafe,  a Bohemian haunt on the corner of Great Windmill Street (Epstein dined there) which was also used by gangsters and prostitutes. The same was true of the “Harmony” (the same place, I’m guessing) in the 50s. Modernists and Trad Jazzers argued the respective merits of Dizzy Gillespie and Kid Oliver while the dangerous Jack Spot looked on. Clubland and Criminality have never exactly been strangers so it seems not unreasonable to assume more than a passing glance  took place between the wilder young things and the extensive Wide  community that dwelled in, if not the same precise space, then the club next door. Kate Meyrick boasted that gangsters and lords sat next each other at her clubs. She exaggerated – but not perhaps by much.

Hugh “Hetty” Wade

I am currently reading, with much enjoyment,  Julie Kavanagh’s biography of the dancer and choreographer, Frederick Ashton.

Ashton, though reputedly less wild than many, was part of the Chelsea Bohemian crowd and could number Edward Burra, Barbara Ker-Seymer, Billy Chappell, Marty Mann and Olivia Wyndham among his friends and acquaintances. He also danced the Charleston with Brenda Dean Paul and met Brian Howard in Toulon. He, therefore knew a goodly number of Elvira’s party crowd and this is borne out by an anecdote concerning  Hugh Wade and, of all people, W.B.Yeats.

In 1935, Yeats was entering a final phase of creative energy, supposedly brought on by various rejuvenation treatments. He was also worried about his spoken delivery, and  believed Ashton, who had been working with Yeats’ then girlfriend, the actress Margaret Ruddock (aka Margot Collis), could help him.

Ashton was palpably unenthused by the whole encounter and found Yeats’ poetic diction forced and generally beyond redemption.On at least one occasion, after he had pointed out Yeats’ shortcomings, only for the great poet to begin again, Ashton admitted  that “he would be “bored stiff” and impatient to join his friends at the Blue Lantern  in Ham Yard, a popular club which had a dance floor and Hugh (Hetty) Wade playing the piano.” (Secret Muses p179)

This is a delightful snippet and indicates that the Blue Lantern was still going strong in 1935 ( I had thought otherwise) and that Ashton was very much part of the Blue Lantern (and hence Elvira’s) circle. Let us remind ourselves of Jocelyn Brooke’s description of the clientele

“They belonged for the most part to the raffish fringes of that pseudo-smart Bohemia which was perhaps the most characteristic (and almost certainly the nastiest) social unit of the period.” (Brooke “Private View”  (1954) p87) .

It also tells us that Elvira’s friend Hugh Armigel Wade, to whom the adjective “epicene” is customarily appended, was known as Hetty to his mates, which I find strangely endearing. If it refers to Hetty King, then it is even better, summing up what Nerina Shute called the “ambisextrous” world they all inhabited.

Hugh Wade and Elizabeth Ponsonby

Hetty King was the most talented of the male impersonators that thrived in the last great days of Music Hall. She was particularly popular in World War One and we know that part of Hugh Wade’s repertoire was a medley of sentimental songs from that period, the horrors of which were probably responsible for the whole, and thus reactive, Bright Young culture. Less seriously, Hetty King’s most famous song was “All The Nice Girls Love A Sailor”, which was to become the inter-war camp equivalent of “It’s Raining Men”.  Sailor and Matelot outfits were, unsurprisingly, the most popular “Drop of a Hat” fancy-dress costumes for “Smart Set” parties of the period.

I’ll post more on Frederick Ashton soon, as he seems a likeable fellow and the importance of Ballet and Dance to the Modernism that Elvira’s set embraced has been under-estimated – Diaghilev, Bakst et al being every bit as significant as Eliot and Pound. But a couple of connections/coincidences relating to Yeats are worthy of immediate mention.

Yeats’ rejuvenation treatments relied on the quackery of Serge Voronoff (monkey-gland transplants) and Eugen  Steinach (vasectomy). Voronoff  had been briefly married to “Jo” Carstairs ‘ mother ( Carstairs was allegedly at the William Mews cocktail party, her girlfriend Ruth Baldwin definitely was).

Margot Ruddock, Yeats’ young lover (she was 28, he 69) was a tragic figure – a manic-depressive whose periodic breakdowns culminated in suicide at the age of 44. Though a muse and collaborator, her relationship with Yeats was short-lived and she was replaced in the poet’s affection by the usually sensible Ethel Mannin.

A horribly neglected author, Mannin’s books (she wrote over a hundred) contain some of the earliest and best analyses of the Bright Young People and, for the time, very frank debates around the issue of  female sexuality ( check out Confessions and Impressions or Young In The Twenties). She knew Brian Howard and Nancy Cunard but, though very much a Bohemian, represented a much more politicised and less aristocratic strand than that pertaining to Elvira’s world, with which she would have had little sympathy. Not all elements of Bohemia overlap, much as I would wish it so.

Ethel Mannin (by Paul Tanqueray)

To return to Ashton, it says a lot, I think, about the insouciance, arrogance and generational solidarity of the Bright Young People that the lure of the Blue Lantern should be greater than that of the company of the man who was probably the most distinguished and talented poet of the age. I just hope “Hetty” was on form that night.