Tag Archive: Irene Macbrayne


“Effie Leigh”

I am now almost certain that Effie Leigh is a pseudonym.For whom, unfortunately, I still have no idea.

Effie Leigh is thanked for her help with Peter Cotes’ The Trial of Elvira Barney. We learn that, apart from Lady Mullens, she was the.only person Elvira wished to see while awaiting trial. She must have been a friend of Elvira’s for a while as she provides the fullest account of the brutality with which Mr.Barney had treated his wife during their short-lived marriage.

“One day she held her arms in the air, and the burns she displayed – there and elsewhere – were, she insisted, the work of a husband who had delighted in crushing his lighted cigarettes out from time to time on her bare skin.”

So, we need someone who knew Elvira well, had done so for some time,was still alive in the early 1970s and was presumably now so respectable that she wished to remain anonymous.If it is someone whose name is already linked with Elvira, then Viva King is the obvious candidate. She knew Elvira and the way she lived, had done so for some years, and must have been a friend – as Elvira apparently left her what little possessions she still owned at the time of her death (the portrait, in particular).

The main problem is that Viva King never exactly courted respectability and is quite happy in her own autobiography to talk explicitly about Elvira.

If it was someone who was around on the night of the shooting then Irene MacBrayne is a possibility. The other (named) actresses were a little too young to have known Elvira in the late 1920s. By the 1970s, MacBrayne was, I think, Irene Holdsworth, a writer on pet cats and travel, so may not wanted to have identified herself too closely with the wildness of her youth.She was at three of the four social gatherings on the 30th May, so can reasonably be seen as a “group member”. But given that I’m not even sure I’ve got the biography correct then this does seem rather like clutching at straws.

Who else? Is there a clue in the name? There’s a Victorian novelist called Effie Leigh, are we looking for a writer? Of the party set, Marjorie Firminger was still about and thought of herself as an author (others would disagree). Again though, why would she wish to conceal her identity?

When you read about other cases involving scandalous females, Ruth Ellis or Christine Keeler for instance, the most reluctant witnesses tend to be women who later “married well”. The problem with Elvira’s world is that that applies to so many of her contemporaries as to be pretty meaningless.

I have one final candidate . Elvira was, by the end of her short and stormy life, pretty well disowned by her family, but this was not (quite) yet the case at the time of the shooting. Could the prison visitor have been her sister Avril? She lived until 1978, she was friendly enough with Elvira up to at least 1931 ( Broderick Haldane dined with them both that year) and Avril certainly married well, three times in fact (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/elviras-little-sister/ ). There is a logic about it and even Cotes’ description of the confidante as “one of Elvira’s friends” could be explained as part of the “pseudonymous” ruse. Of real evidence, however, there is not a whiff.

So, the search continues. Never mind. Blind alleys, false leads and red herrings have a charm of their own.

 

 

 

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Dolores Ashley – Elvira as Actress

As the daughter of very wealthy parents, Elvira Mullens had no need to worry about a career.  She would have done “the season” . attended the usual round of balls and socially sanctioned sporting events – Henley, Eton v. Harrow at Lords  and so forth. At the end of this, a suitably moneyed and,possibly, titled suitor would emerge.For some reason, this did not happen. Perhaps Elvira was already rebellious and disaffected; we know her home life was less than happy. Perhaps her personality told against her; could it be that her legendary rudeness and quick temper were already apparent?

Anyway, around 1925, having watched her younger sister marry a Russian prince, Elvira decided that she would try her luck as an actress.

Before the War being an actress had been seen as a possible route towards a title, as to some extent it remained throughout the twentieth century. In the 1920s however, the stage, increasingly respectable thanks to the growing number of theatrical knights, saw a growing number of the daughters of the well-heeled and ennobled treading the boards. An added glamour was provided by the likes of Lady Diana Cooper, pre-war member of The Coterie and considered England’s leading beauty,who  from 1919 pursued a successful  career on stage and in silent pictures.

File:Diana Cooper01.jpg

Lady Diana Cooper

Many of Elvira’s social circle , including some attendees at the cocktail party, belonged to this new generation.Their immediate  idol and inspiration was Tallulah Bankhead, whose sensational arrival on the London stage earned her not only adoring male fans but a legion of fanatical young female followers. Given that Elvira kept Tallulah’s picture by her bedside while awaiting trial, one can be sure that she was one of Tallulah’s would-be “groupies”. Tallulah was a key part of the Bright Young scene, knew “The Blue Lantern” and may well have attended parties at Belgrave Square.

Tallulah, in front as Borotra. Impersonation Party 1927

Preparatory to her new career, Elvira studied at Lady Constance Benson’s Acting School. Most commentators on the trial see something intrinsically comical about this, but it was a well-regarded establishment run by a leading Shakesperian actress (and wife of Frank Benson). The school’s most famous ex-pupil was, the then only recently graduated, John Gielgud. It was toward the end of her time there that she met Charles Graves (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/tag/charles-graves/  ) – a moment which, in hindsight, marks the beginning of her notoriety.

Elvira,as with most other aspects of her life, was not to make a success out of acting. The beginning was prestigious enough – a small part, probably in the chorus, in Rudolf Friml’s “The Blue Kitten” which opened in late 1925 at the Gaiety theatre and ran for 140 performances. The beginning, however, was also the ending as there is no evidence of any further public appearances for the would be starlet who, using her middle and her mother’s maiden name, called herself “Dolores Ashley”.

Elvira 1926 - publicity shot for "The Blue Kitten" Gaiety TheatreFile:Gaiety1.jpg

She did get to know a number of actors and actresses and Irene MacBrayne, who was at the cocktail party, knew her from that period.Like most socialites of the era she was a diligent “First Night” devotee. The police found many programmes for shows in her bathroom at 21 William Mews.Certainly there remained something decidedly “theatrical” about Elvira’s public persona.

It is perhaps not too impudent to wonder whether her perfectly rehearsed performance at the trial owed something to Lady Benson’s tutelage.

Irene MacBrayne

Irene MacBrayne attended the cocktail party, left for work – she was appearing in the West End, dropped in at the Blue Angel and went to Arthur Jeffress’ late night gathering.

She thought there were about thirty people at the earlier party, mostly drinking cocktails although  some were drinking whisky – Michael Scott Stephen and (probably) Ruth Baldwin left the party briefly and returned with whisky.

Mrs.MacBrayne was separated from her husband, David, and lived at 88 Brompton Road with a girlfriend. Michael Scott Stephen had rooms in Brompton Road, possibly at the same address. Stephen had rung her up on the morning of May 30th to invite her to the cocktail party.

She was probably born Irene Ruth Potter in 1907 in Stalybridge, Cheshire. Her father was a Chartered Accountant. She refused to tell the police either her stage name or which show she was appearing in. It is more than likely that she was the young actress known to the public as Irene Potter, much seen (in small roles) on the London stage between 1927 and 1935. She starred in the musical  “Wild Violets”  in 1932 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. If she was part of the Theatre Royal set-up then there is a good chance that on the night of the shooting she was one of the large supporting cast in “Cavalcade”.

http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=9230

Irene MacBrayne married Geoffrey Holdsworth in 1936 and lived in Chelsea for the rest of her days. She became an author, best remembered for “Little Masks” – a rather twee book about her cats – and some typically 1950s’ travel writing, such as “A Taste For Travel”(1956). In these books, as in her wartime journal of her ATS experiences (“Yes Ma’am”), she adopts the persona of a single, independent,”society” woman.