After the initial rejoicing at Elvira’s “Not Guilty” verdict the public started to turn against her. Reports of her continued recklessness and high-living, and a distinct absence of grieving or remorse, began to turn her into something of a pariah. She was even seen as a possible threat to the stability of the country. Her behaviour , at a time when much of the nation was suffering severe hardship, was in danger of tarnishing the good standing of the already-rattled ruling classes. Commentators from the Left and the Right drew, from very different motives, very similar conclusions. Elvira was a menace to “Society”.
A welter of rumours, some already simmering leading up to the trial, started to do the rounds. Letters to editors and the police hinted at collusion and corruption in high places. “One Law for the Rich…” was the phrase on many a lip. Worse still, the barely concealed “sex and drugs” aspect of Elvira’s lifestyle started to emerge more openly. Some of the tales told were fanciful and exaggerated, some were other people’s scandals appended to her name (Brenda Dean Paul’s particularly). One story,with a ring of truth about it, was, however, too scandalous to see the light of day.
In August 1932 a woman called Gertrude Gamble, but known as Barbara E.Graham, committed suicide (see forthcoming post).Her inquest was brief and concluded that Miss Gamble, a registered drug-addict, had thrown herself from her hotel window while “of unsound mind”. Sir John and Lady Mullen attended the inquest, ostensibly because a suicide note had mentioned Elvira Barney. But there was more to it than that.
Two weeks earlier Gertrude/Barbara had sent both Elvira and Lady Mullens angry, but coherent, letters which detailed the events of the Elvira’s journey at the end of July to France. This was to “recuperate” and Miss Gamble was there in some sort of unspecified carer’s role. On the very first night, in what Gamble described as a “filthy” hotel, Elvira had engaged in a drunken and drug-fuelled orgy with Audrey Carten and her brother, Kenneth (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/chelsea-sandwiches/ ) . In two sentences she catalogues a scene of cocaine-use,drunkenness, sexual perversion and incest. At the centre of which is a woman supposedly in deep mourning for her recently deceased lover. Scandalous is barely the word.
Somehow these letters found themselves in the hands of the Police and at least one newspaper, but no-one wanted to know. The police, quite sensibly, felt that with Gamble dead there was no point opening this can of worms – although the fact that the copy the police received was heavily annotated suggests they gave the later some credence. The newspapers’ motives are less clear but, in this era, scandals that were too damning to the upper echelons tended to stay locked away unless absolutely unavoidable.
Who were these two bedmates of Elvira? In 1932, Audrey Carten would have been the better known of the pair. Gertrude Gamble explained to lady Mullen that Audrey was ” One of the best known Lesbians in London” but the public would have known her as an actress and promising playwright.
Audrey Carten 1929
She was born Audrey Hare Bicker-Caarten into large middle-class family living in Blomfield Road, Maida Vale. Her younger sister Waveney was born in 1903 and Kenneth arrived in 1911. By 1920 Audrey Carten was on stage and making a name for herself by investing some of Shakespeare’s heroines with a little verve and spirit. There was a humour and style about her performances that marked her out as “Modern”.
Her real breakthrough came in 1923 when she played Una Lowry in Gerald Du Maurier’s “The Dancers”, at the Wyndham Theatre. Critics praised her “delicate, eerie,sensitive” portrayal of, by happy coincidence – given the concerns of this blog, an aristocratic woman who had become “an erratic and neurotic nightbird”. But what made “The Dancers” the sensation of the season was the casting of the character Maxine. For it was in this part and in this play that Tallulah Bankhead burst upon the London stage and launched her eight year reign as the queen of all things exciting and outrageous about the 1920s.
Tallulah Bankhead in The Dancers
It is impossible to recapture the impact that Bankhead made, firstly on stage and then on the night-life of London. The Bright Young Generation worshipped her and she was as much its inspiration as any Oxford aesthete. Her army of devoted female fans have become a thing of legend and no book of the period is complete without at least one anecdote of Tallulah misbehaving at a party or a nightclub. Elvira was one of those fans and remained loyal, keeping a photograph of Tallulah at her bedside while on remand in Holloway. Whether she was more than just a fan, we don’t know. Audrey Carten became a very close friend – that much is certain.
Tallulah in 1928
The two were together at parties, restaurants and various functions throughout the decade. A memoir of Lady Caroline Paget recalls her being introduced to Tallulah and her “friend and travelling companion” Audrey Carten, probably in 1930.(Caroline Paget was a leading socialite of the 1930s and her name too was to be linked with Carten’s). Even if Elvira never met Tallulah, to be intimate with her “travelling companion” would have thrilled her immensely.
Caroline Paget by Rex Whistler 1936
Another extrovert who was very much part of Carten’s life in the mid-twenties was Gwen Farrar. Unlike the omniverous Tallulah, Farrar was a strict Lesbian, who by presenting herself on stage as a comic turn – one much favoured by the BYP, was able to present a masculine image to the world at large that must have been the envy of many at the time. She was one of the great stars of the period – on stage, on records and in cinema shorts. Off stage she was the lover of Barbara “Joe” Carstairs and Dolly Wilde among others. Carten was now mixing with the inner circle of wealthy and artistic Lesbian London.
In 1925, in an act that Elvira would quite likely have approved of, Farrah and Carten were arrested for assaulting a police officer. The poor constable had objected to them parking their car directly outside the Savoy Hotel. Carten had “obstructed” while the more direct Farrar had thrown a punch. The case caused more mirth than censure and charges were eventually dropped.
Farrah, Bankhead and Carten became fixtures of the party scene and enjoyed a reputation for excess and mischief. One often told tale added a fourth person to the group, Carten’s younger brother, the 17 years old Kenneth. In 1928, during Aimee Semple McPherson’s much publicised (and parodied) evangelical crusade in England, a less than sober Bankhead invited the American to her home where her “gang” tried to get the preacher to admit that she was human. This involved the four telling all the worst things that they had ever done in the hope that McPherson would at least let slip some indiscretion in return. Seasoned hustler that she was, McPherson didn’t break.
Aimee Semple McPherson (Mrs.Melrose Ape in Vile Bodies)
By the end of the decade Carten was beginning to think of herself more as a writer than an actress. Teaming up with her sister, Waveney, she wrote a number of successful plays such as “Late One Night”, “Fame” and (believe it or not) “Gay Love” which was filmed in 1934. It was during this creative period that the night of passion with Elvira took place- but they were obviously well-acquainted before that. Audrey and Kenneth were not at the cocktail party on May 30th – they were in America – but they probably attended the trial. The rendezvous in France was pre-arranged so we can reasonably include Carten in Elvira’s circle. Given that Ruth Baldwin would have been a friend of Carten’s (through Joe Carstairs) and probably Olivia Wyndham too, the distance between Elvira and the openly lesbian guests at her party starts to evaporate.
Audrey and Kenneth seem to have spent much of the thirties crossing the Atlantic. Her plays were produced on Broadway as well as in London. On one return journey there is an interesting fellow-passenger, Ida Wylie.I.A,R. Wylie was a popular Australian romantic novelist and a long-time friend of the best-known lesbian couple in England – Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge – whom she was no doubt on her way to visit. Her presence on the ship may be a coincidence but she and Audrey would not have wanted for conversation.
In the year that Elvira died (1936) Audrey and Waveney enjoyed another success. Noel Coward produced their adaptation of Jacques Deval’s “Madamoiselle” which introduced a new star in Greer Garson and ran for 147 performances. That it was at Wyndham’s, where she had starred with Tallulah 13 years previously, must have given great satisfaction. Their adaptation remained popular for some years and is the only work by the sisters that seems to be easily locatable.
Waveney and Audrey
Audrey Carten died in Hastings in 1977 and Waveney in Sandwich in 1990. As for Kenneth, he became an actor too, in various smallish roles on the West End stage. His most notable achievement lies in the fact that he was part of the cast that first sang “The Stately Homes of England” (Operette 1938). The Coward connection continued to prove useful to the Cartens.
Kenneth Carten (far left) in Operette
As did the relationship with Tallulah Bankhead. She appears to have employed him for a while and also recommended him to various American studios. Not much came of it but Tallulah retained an obvious affection for the man she had first met as a teenager in London.
In her will she left him $10,000 dollars and the portrait that Peter Shiel painted of her in 1962. It is now in the V&A.
Things would have been very different for all concerned had the Gamble accusations been published. I’m, somewhat hypocritically, rather pleased they weren’t. Anyway the truth or otherwise cannot now be proven. Personally, I am quite sure Elvira and Audrey had sex and probably not just in France. And we know that Elvira was very fond of bisexual young men. The incest I doubt – although Audrey, like Elvira, had a reputation with both sexes. Most famously, she had had an affair in the mid-twenties with the actor Gerald Du Maurier, Daphne’s father. By a nice coincidence, in 1925, in the middle of Gerald and Audrey’s liaison, the 18 years-old Daphne had developed a “pash” on Gwen Farrar and sent her a very gushing letter, much to her parents’ annoyance. Small world, eh?