Tag Archive: Florence Mills


Another Party in Glebe Place

There were a number of parties thrown, by various Bright Young Things, in honour of the first Blackbirds revue. Oliver Messel, David Plunkett Greene and Anthea Carew’s brother, Patrick Gamble, organised three of the earliest. One that has found its way into several books took  place on March 10th 1927.

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Evelyn Waugh by Henry Lamb 1929

In Evelyn Waugh’s diaries he records going to a party given by “Layton the black man” at the studio of an artist called” Stuart Hill”. He comments “All very refined -hot lobster, champagne cup and music. Florence Mills, Delysia, John Huggins, Layton and Johnstone and others sang songs.” At this time Waugh was infatuated with Olivia Plunket-Greene, who in her turn was much taken with Blackbirds and black musicians and singers. Waugh was also seeing a lot of the free-wheeling Zena Naylor and thus her lover Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson. Contrary to some accounts, Waugh enjoyed the music. He was less keen on the social and sexual liaisons between black and white,  which he lampoons (ineptly, I’ve always felt) in “Decline and Fall“.

The diary entry is worth unpicking a little. Layton was Turner Layton, who enjoyed great success in England, firstly with his partner Clarence “Tandy” Johnstone and later as a solo artist. Though his name is rather forgotten today, he was a significant figure and his compositions “Dear Old Southland”, “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” and, particularly “After You’ve Gone” are still performed today.

“After You’ve Gone” (1918) was a big hit for both Sophie Tucker and Marion Harris. They were the first white singers to make credible jazz records – Harris may actually be the first artist to have recorded a Blues. Marion Harris had a long residency at the Cafe De Paris in 1931 where Elvira would surely have seen her. She performed (she was briefly in Ever Green ) and recorded in London from 1931 to 1934 and remained in London throughout the decade, having married theatrical agent Leon Urry. Urry, depending on which account you read, was either the floor manager at the Cafe De Paris or the leading dance host there (his name has also been linked to Cafe hostess and soon-to-be film star, Merle Oberon). Urry and Harris’  London home was hit by a V1 rocket in 1944. She returned to America but died shortly afterwards – asphyxiation, she fell asleep with a lit cigarette.

Layton himself became something of a fixture at the Cafe De Paris (and Monseigneur’s Restaurant).  Layton and Johnstone had first played the Cafe De Paris in 1924.Although  they were initially known were known for more uptempo numbers (Way Down Yonder, Bye Bye Blackbird), it was Layton’s sophisticated balladeering  that earned him a place in the hearts of Mayfair socialites. His style was similar to Hutch’s and the two are often confused. However, he lacked Hutch’s sexual charisma and concomitant notoriety. His partner Johnstone did become involved in a major scandal, through a much-publicised affair with the wife of Palm Court violinist, Albert Sandler. Layton and Johnstone found themselves being booed, particularly by provincial audiences, and Layton terminated the act, Johnstone returning to New York and obscurity. Layton proved even more popular as a solo act and was a great radio favourite in the War. He retired in 1946 but continued to live in London until his death in 1978.

Turner Layton

Sandler, another musician in danger of slipping into oblivion, was a pioneer of the much loved and later much-parodied “Palm Court” sound – a mixture of light classical pieces and popular tunes played in a refined classical style.It was he who popularised Boccherini’s Minuet in E, used to great effect in the original, Ealing version, of “The Ladykillers”.

Albert Sandler

Turner Layton’s party was held at 41 Glebe Place, Chelsea in the studio of Alexander Stuart-Hill. This was two doors down from Olivia Wyndham’s mother’s London residence which was to be the setting for a rather wilder “Freak Party”  two years later (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/freak-party-chelsea-1929/  ).

Alexander Stuart-Hill (1888-1948) was a Scottish portrait painter who achieved some success in the inter-War period but is chiefly remembered for a secret engagement to Princess Louise of Battenberg, the future Queen Consort of Sweden and brother of Louis, Lord Mountbatten. Her parents vetoed the engagement pointing to the unsuitablity of the Princess marrying a known homosexual. All of which is slightly ironic, given the rumours about Louis (not to mention Lady Edwina Mountbatten’s long affair with the bi-sexual Hutch). Stuart-Hill had recently painted Turner Layton (I can’t find the image but it was exhibited at the RA spring show) and on the night of the party he asked Florence Mills (the undisputed star of Blackbirds) if he could also do her portrait. The result was this –

Florence Mills by Alexander Stuart-Hill 1927

The picture lacks something of the exuberance and ability to spread joy contemporary reports ascribe to Florence Mills, but it is elegant and dignified. It is also markedly free of the caricature and stereotypical motifs associated with the representation of black people in that period. This I find quite find quite refreshing and I rate it highly (I’m getting rather fond of “conventional” 20s’ and 30s’ portraiture).

Johnny Hudgins, Florence Mills rehearsing on Pavilion Theatre roof, 1926

The other names on Waugh’s list are deserving of elaboration, too. “John Huggins” has got to be Johnny Hudgins (1896-1990), the male comic lead from Blackbirds. He was a legend in Harlem and in France became known as the “Black Charlie Chaplin”. He was often called “The Wah Wah Man”  because of  his ability to vocally mimic the archetypal muted trumpet  sound of 20s’ jazz. After London he worked with Josephine Baker in the celebrated Revue Negre. The reason for his absence from most musical histories may be down to the fact that he performed in “Blackface”. By the 1920s most singers and dancers did not, but comic turns were still expected to.

Fortunately we have a striking visual record of Hudgins as he starred in a bizarre, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi comedy, directed by none other than Jean Renoir (of Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game renown). Sur Un Air De Charleston (Charleston Parade) was made in 1927. It starred Renoir’s wife Catherine Hessling, a noted silent  screen actress who had been a model for Matisse and Jean’s father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the great Impressionist artist.

The film is truly odd and its themes of race, female  sexuality and the future of civilisation would keep a whole conference load of academics, semioticians and cultural theorists busy for a fortnight. Fortunately, it is on Youtube – watch and be amused/amazed/perplexed.

Hudgins was also the subject of a painting, also from 1927. It is more well-known and more controversial than the Florence Mills picture.

Kees Van Dongen Le Chanteur Negre 1927

I am going to post on Van Dongen separately, so will just leave you with this image as yet another reminder of the huge impact that Black performers had on European Art and Culture in the 1920s.

The last person mentioned by Waugh, “Delysia”, was a French actress, Alice Delysia (1889-1979), who was hugely popular on the English stage in the 1920s. C.B.Cochran (who else?) brought her over from Paris towards the end of the First World War. She sang in English with a strong French accent that London audiences found irresistible. They also loved her daring costumes. The Lord Chamberlain took a dimmer view and there were frequent early censorship battles.When the Morning Post disapprovingly commented, “Never can an actress have worn so negligible a dress”, her success was ensured.

She appeared in Cochran’s  Mayfair and Montmartre (1922) but it was her performance of Noel Coward’s Poor Little Rich Girl in Noel Coward’s On With The Dance (1925) that confirmed r heas a heroine for the Bright Young People.She continued to be successful throughout the 1930s, worked for ENSA and supported the Free French Forces. After the War she married a French  Consul before ending her days in a Brighton rest home. Ethel Mannin mentions her in her autobiography as epitomising both the sophistication and the naive sentimentality of her generation of young women (“We loved Delyssia, all diamante and ostrich feathers singing sweetly.”)

Delysia – Mayfair and Montmartre 1922

So, quite a gathering. It is a pity that Waugh did not name the other singers. I think we can assume that Edith Wilson (who the  hard-core jazz fans, such as Spike Hughes, Constant Lambert and Edward Burra) preferred to Florence Mills, was there, and a number of musicians. Such an array of talent – and lobster and champagne too!

Let’s close with party host Turner Layton nine years later. He is introduced by Bert Ambrose and the clip is from the 1936 film “Soft Lights and Sweet Music” . This is the kind of thing they lapped up at Monseigneur’s and The Mayfair Hotel (where I think this is shot),

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Blackbirds Revue of 1926

Throughout the inter-War period moralists, puritans and prudes found much to deplore. The objects of their opprobrium were often reduced to key symbols of decadence, the very mention of which sufficed to demonise a whole series of, often though not always, innocent activities.

Elvira’s trial saw this process go into overdrive. Every phrase associated with her world  became a symbol of waywardness. As we have seen  “Cocktail Party” was one useful catch-all term for the new degeneracy (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/cocktail-parties/ )  . Equally, the very word  “Nightclub ” carried with it a sense of wickedness much exploited by the press and popular literature. As what would now be called “Gender Roles” caused endless worry and the term “Flapper” had been imported to indicate all that was untoward regarding that particular social crisis. “Bright Young Thing” had largely replaced that term by 1932 but the meanings, as far as the strictures on female behaviour were concerned, remained little altered. A closely associated panic developed around  “Masculine Women, Feminine Men”, of whom Elvira’s gang had more than its share.

Most famously,Clothes and hairstyles became highly politicised in the era. Every visible sign  was mined for its contribution to “Immorality”, by which was meant sex, newly invented apparently. Even the seemingly neutral term “Youth”, not for the last time in the twentieth century, became a suspect category. And let us not forget drug use, specifically “Cocaine,” any hint of which was guaranteed to strike vicarious frissons of terror among the respectable classes.

But there was one word that managed to encapsulate all that was deemed disruptive, chaotic , dangerous and modern in the above fears and fantasies. That word was “JAZZ”. Jazz became the short-hand signifier of everything that worried mainstream society and thus, inevitably, acquired a glamour and a mystique among those who saw themselves as part of the “New Age”.

We don’t actually know what music was played at Elvira’s parties but all the accounts assume that “Jazz music blared out from the record player”, annoying the neighbours and presumably frightening the ghosts of the horses that had previously inhabited the Mews. In the Dance Band era any arrangement with a whiff of syncopation  counted as Jazz – so it is no surprise that artists who appeared to be, or actually were, “the real thing” became heroes among the young record-buyers,  party-goers and dancers of the time.

Jazz  incorporated not only all that might be deemed “New”, it added the twin “evils” of race and rampant sexuality to the mix. No matter how “refined” the arrangements of Debr0y Somers,  Bert Ambrose or Carroll Gibbons might have been, somewhere underneath could be detected the rhythms of an alien culture. However much the disguise – Jazz was  ineluctably  “black” – or in the language of the day Negro or Coloured. In a country still very much defined by Empire and “The White Man’s Burden”, that a musical form associated with “the inferior races” should provoke such hostility amongst the many-  and such adulation amongst the rebellious  few is hardly surprising.

The year of the General Strike, 1926, is of particular importance regarding this relationship between black music and white audiences. In January the first journal devoted to dance-bands and “hot” music appeared, in the spring a painting was exhibited and then withdrawn from the Royal Academy and in the autumn a show arrived from New York that was to become an essential part of Bright Young mythology.

The journal was Melody Maker and for much of its long life it was the only place for musicians and fans to find out about Jazz. It also, from its earliest days, encouraged fierce debate regarding the merits of the music and, indeed, the very definition of “Jazz”. Its combative editor, Edgar Jackson held some peculiar ideas about music and race and was initially, oddly perhaps given the paper’s future promotion of Ellington, Armstrong et al, keen to distance his notion of “hot” music from any association with the “primitive” sounds of Black America.

John Bulloch Souter The Breakdown 1926

The controversy surrounding a painting at the annual RA show particularly exercised Jackson. The Scottish artist John Souter presented “The Breakdown” for exhibition at what was then still an important event within the British Art world. The painting shows a black musician playing a saxophone (and therefore jazz) to a naked, ghostly white woman. He is sat on the broken statue of Classical art, which his music is presumably deemed to have destroyed. Whatever Souter intended, and this work is not typical, he captured in the most melodramatic manner many of the cultural and moral fears of the time. Its themes are those of many a contemporary editorial.

Jackson was not alone in his fulminations. After much outcry, the picture was quickly withdrawn. According to one account  this was on the orders of the Colonial Office which brings an interesting political (and Imperial) dimension to the affair.

On a far more positive note, in September the” Blackbirds Revue of 1926″ opened at the London Pavilion. Starring Edith Wilson, Florence Mills, Gwendolyn Graham and featuring The Plantation Orchestra with its virtuoso trumpeters Pike Davis and Johnny Dunn, the show ran for 276 performances and had the same impact on fashionable London society that the Revue Negre and Josephine Baker had had on Paris a year earlier.

Gwendolyn Graham and Dancers, roof of London Pavilion

Florence Mills

The success of the show, which was not the first black show on the 1920s London stage, was due in no small part to its patronage by the Prince of Wales. A keen fan of dancing and “hot” music he attended, it is said, “night after night”. Very quickly the Blackbirds were taken up by the Bright Young People, attending parties, having flings and in some cases forging lasting friendships.Spike Hughes and Constant Lambert were ardent devotees and Evelyn Waugh, although he would later offer a cynical and rather unpleasant take on the whole phenomenon, was also a “repeat” attendee. A still very young Brenda Dean Paul fell completely for Florence Mills and declared she wanted  more than anything to be “a coloured dancer”. With a nice touch of diplomatic flattery, Florence told Brenda that “she could have been born in Harlem” so well did she dance. For Olivia Wyndham, Blackbirds and other similar shows were the beginning of a journey that would see her live for the best part of 40 years actually  in Harlem.

A version of the revue toured England in 1927 and a new show returned to the West End in 1928 .This introduced Adelaide Hall to an English audience and she would stay in London, living in Mayfair, running a night-club and performing at The Florida, The Cafe De Paris and other Elvira-friendly venues. Other musicians from both (and similar) shows would stay in Europe  becoming part of the pre-war club and popular music scene in ways that remain under-appreciated.

The revues were not without their critics. Plenty of newspapers deplored the perceived “cult of the Negro” that their success generated. In recent years the criticism has been rather different, pointing out the exoticising and primitivist impulses behind much of the white audience’s fandom. The shows themselves relied heavily on a number of crude racial stereotypes which are uncomfortable to modern sensibilities. They have also been somewhat written off by Jazz historians – being seen as lacking authenticity. Fortunately, although no singers recorded, the band made four sides while in London, so we can get some idea of what so thrilled Hughes and Lambert etc.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3YIwCXeW14&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyqqYjVNANI&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8G2cLeGWZuU

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENK54mmc3Lc

I’ll write more on this topic in a while but, in the meantime, two books are worth seeking out – Jim Godbolt’s A History of Jazz in Britain – an idiosyncratic but entertaining exercise and Catherine Parsonage’s more scholarly The Evolution of Jazz in Britain.