Tag Archive: John Deakin


Two Letters to Hugh Wade

Two of the most  fascinating letters to Hugh Wade (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/hugh-wades-friends-and-well-wishers/) were sent, respectively, from the Colony Rooms and The Romilly Club. Both were written on headed paper and have a historical value independent of their main subject matter.

The Colony Room letter is dated February 14th 1949. It is in pencil (“Muriel can’t afford to fill her pen”) and consists of four short, affectionate notes to Hugh. The writers have been listening to Hero (Hero De Rance, I think) play a medley of Hugh’s tunes on the piano and the tone, while attempting to be cheery, is inevitably nostalgic and a little sad. The signatories are Dolly (Mayers), Muriel Belcher,  Rose ( possibly Lady Rose McLaren) and one that I can’t work out (Donald or Ronald Story?) but could be from the barman ( he pleads great poverty).

Colony Room 1962 Michael Andrews

The Colony is such a central part of post-War, particularly1950s, Bohemia that I do not need to go into its history in any detail. Muriel Belcher was the legendary owner and Francis Bacon its most famous regular. When the letter was written it had only been open a few months. Bacon was already a member, having been introduced to the place by Brian Howard the week it opened. Probably John Deakin was around already, which brings in another Elvira connection, as he had a long, if unlikely, relationship with Arthur Jeffress.

Muriel Belcher by John Deakin

Situated at 41 Dean Street (about a 100 yards from the old Blue Angel), the Colony Rooms began life as a fairly exclusive and smart club aimed at a well-heeled, largely gay clientele. Membership was relatively expensive and subject to the whims of its owner. Muriel Belcher had been part of West End club life for at least ten years. She started the Sphinx in 1936 or 37, with Dolly Mayers. They then ran the Music Box at 4 Leicester Street (off Leicester Square). The date given in various histories is 1937 but it doesn’t appear in the London phone-books until 1941.

It was certainly very popular during the War, James Lees-Milne has a much repeated anecdote of going there with Sandy Baird (of “White Party” fame). From the two letters it looks like Hugh Wade was the resident pianist. Again from the letters, we can surmise that Dolly and Muriel had a falling out, with Muriel staying at the Music Box  and Dolly going to the Romilly (at 11 Orange Street, very close to Ciro’s). By the time they wrote to Hugh they had settled their differences (“Dolly and I have made up and she pops in regularly”).

Dolly Mayers is far less well known than Muriel Belcher.The Romilly Club, too, barely registers in public memory. It was, in fact, the re-named Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit, the most luxurious and fashionable “Gay” club in wartime London. Known in the 1930s as “Molly’s”, it had been run by Teddy Ashton and the resident pianist was Leonard Brackett (a veteran West End composer and cabaret performer). It was here that Guy Burgess was hurled down the stairs and knocked unconscious (some sources suggest that Brendan Behan did the hurling). Despite this incident, Le Boeuf was on the whole a rather classy, decidedly upmarket place. We tend to hear the term “night club” and assume a seedy, rather sinister environment. The Music Box, Le Boeuf and, in its early days, The Colony had more in common with the BYP venues of the 20s and 30s than the the Soho dives of 1950s B movies.

Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit took its name from the legendary Parisian cabaret-bar, famously patronised by Cocteau et al (see Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit ), which gives an idea of the desired, if not necessarily achieved, ambience. The Romilly lasted for about ten years and was a prime example of the “discreet” approach that characterised the era (see London Clubs 1940s )

Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit Paris 1922

Dolly’s note to Hugh, is a mixture of news, gossip and messages from well-wishers. Hugh was obviously a well-known and favoured part of the “scene” ( “Hugh who made the piano talk at the Music Box”). I’m still trying to decipher the text and work out who some of the folk mentioned are, but one name leaps out. Peter Lacy, through Dolly, sends his regards to Hugh. Lacy, was the love of Francis Bacon’s life and for a time the resident pianist at the Colony Room. Something of a wild and dangerous fellow, he is supposed to have been a Battle of Britain pilot ( I can’t find his name in the Roll of Honour). He ended up playing piano in a bar in Tangiers.

Peter Lacy

These letters offer a tantalising glimpse of a particular culture at a specific moment in history. It is one about which, despite the work of several historians, we know little, and understand less. It also shows that Hugh was as liked and respected a figure in this world as he was in the show-business circles ( there is of course some overlap). Most gratifying to me is the link that Hugh, by chance,  provides between the bright Bohemia of the 1920s right through to its final, somewhat lugubrious, phase in the Colony Room (Belcher died in 1979, Bacon in 1992).

What is really needed is a complete membership list for these clubs. Elizabeth Smart compiled one for the Colony Room (where can that be found?) but I would love to know who listened to Hugh at the Music Box. I’m sure Sandy Baird wasn’t the only ex-BYP to have been around.

More on this anon.

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Arthur Jeffress spent most of the 1930s based in London, still at 30a Orchard Court. The latter end of the decade finds him residing at Marwell House, Owslebury – near Winchester.

 

He was still travelling regularly to Italy and America, sometimes in the company John Deakin, then just an aspiring  photographer and not yet the terror of Soho bars and clubs that he would become in the 1950s. Even so, it still seems an unlikely alliance.By 1941 Jeffress is in Hollywood  – at 1354 Miller Place – but not, as I’m afraid that  I had first assumed, because he was running away from the conflict in Europe.

Anecdotes concerning Jeffress and the military are usually no more than a series of lewd references to his  predilection for sailors.So it is worth noting that Jeffress’ war service was extensive and involved much danger and bravery. There was also  an opportunity for creative expression, one example of which I find both revealing and amusing.

Jeffress volunteered for the American Field Service as an ambulance driver. This was prior to America’s entry into the war and in April 1941 he found himself on the Zamzam,  bound for Egypt. The bulk of the passengers were American missionaries heading for Africa. On April the 17th the Zamzam was shelled by the German ship Atlantis (a mistake, apparently). The ship went down, the survivors were captured and a major diplomatic incident ensued. There is a website that tells the tale in some detail ( http://zamzamship.net/ ).

Some of the passengers spent the rest of the war in internment, but Jeffress managed to negotiate his way to freedom and was able to take up his duties and become part of the North Africa campaign.

“Art Jeffress”, seated on the left ,North Africa 1942/43

He became part of the North Africa  campaign, rose in rank from second lieutenant to captain, and moved through Egypt into Libya and thence to his beloved Italy, where he was at the forefront of the Allied advance. Though a non-combatant, his was a vital and active role. He also maintained his reputation as a provider of fun by being involved with the AFS entertainment committee. He wrote and directed a musical comedy, for which the cast list survives

The Sixteenth Unit of the AFS presents:

TUCKERMAN FORBID

An Original Musical Comedy
Written, Produced and Directed by
Edward Fenton and Arthur Jeffress

Characters in the order of their appearance:

Telephone Girl Caleb Mime
               Ambulance Drivers
First Boy William Wallace
Second Boy Richard Barrett
Third Boy LeMoyne Billings
Fourth Boy Loftus Cuddy
Fifth Boy Harry Blackwell
Sixth Boy Dennis Weaver
Mr. Wallace William Emslie
Grafton Cabot Lowell Lodge, III Vincent Bowditch
Benny Benson Percival Gilbert
Guitarist Peter Brooks
Marine Major John Hutchinson
Barman Eccleston Johnston
Pepe Le Jerko Howard Weisberg
Mother Spanish Fly Arthur Jeffress
               Les Girls
Kous Edward Welles
Zam-Zam Frederick Myers
Feenamint . James Atkins
Pi-Pi Antonio Stewart
Little Fatima Nicholas Madeira
Veronica Shake Richard Edwards
               The Six Singing Musette Bags:
Peter Brooks Richard Fallow
Newell Jenkins Grima Johnson
Edward Seiber Peter Van derVliet
ACT ONEScene 1. 60 Beaver Street (any day of the year)
Scene 2. On board S. S. PierceACT TWOScene 1. A Street in Cairo
Scene 2. The Parlour. The Establishment of Mother Spanish Fly.Book and Lyrics by Arthur Jeffress and Edward Fenton
Music by all the best Composers
Musical Arrangements by Edw. LeBoutillier and Newell Jenkins
Music Director — Newell Jenkins
Women’s costumes and wig designed and executed by Dana Richmond
Other Costumes and Accessories by Abercrombie & Fitch and Brooks Bros.
Dances arranged by James Atkins
Stage Manager — Lester Collins
Asst. Stage Manager — Carleton Richmond
Sets & Stage Properties planned & executed by Eccleston Johnston
Posters by Arthur Moffatt
Publicity & Prompting — Holbrooke Davis Synopsis of Musical Numbers Act 1. Scene 1.1. The Saga of Benny…..Benny & Ensemble
2. Buckle Down, Field Service. Grafton & “Act 1. Scene 2.3. Friendship…..Grafton & Benny
4. Tuckerman Forbid …..Six Musette Bags
5. Bored, Bothered & Bewildered…..Guitarist & Boys
6. Drink It Down…..EnsembleAct 2. Scene 2.

7. Everything I’ve Got…..Mother Span. Fly
8. Ballet…..Les Girls
9. Reprise. Everything I’ve Got…..Mother Span. Fly
10. Finale: Reprise:
Buckle Down Entire Company

The Management wishes to express its gratitude to Mrs. Vaering for the kind loan of valuable properties.

The choice of the soubriquet “Mother Spanish Fly” and the unmistakeably “camp” ambience  0f the piece serve as testimony to Jeffress’ humour and overall character. I doubt that the play aspired to anything that could be called Art – but a certain wit and erudition pervades even the playbill – and no doubt the play as well.

Edward Fenton is probably this chap,  whose obituary appeared in the New York Times,1996 –

“Edward Fenton, whose books for young readers included “The Refugee Summer” and “The Phantom of Walkaway Hill,” died on Dec. 24 in Athens. He was 78 and had homes in Athens and in Galaxeidion in Greece.Mr. Fenton was born in New York City and attended Amherst College in Massachusetts. From 1951 to 1955 he was a curator in the prints department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He moved to Greece in 1963 after marrying Sophia Harvati, a Greek teacher and child psychologist. Initially Mr. Fenton wrote poetry, short stories and novels for adults. His adult works include the novel “The Double Darkness” (1947), a thriller set in Greece, and “She Waits” (1974). But the bulk of his work was written for children, beginning with “Us and the Duchess” (1947), about a lost English setter that takes over the life of a family in New York.”

Whether Jeffress met up with any of the old Chelsea set during the War, I can’t say. Eddie Gathorne-Hardy was in Egypt at the time and Jocelyn Brooke served in the medical corps in North Africa and Italy, so it is a possibility. If they did, the picture of these veterans of the Blue Lantern, swapping tales of former friends (perhaps including Elvira) over a gin and tonic or ten, while the war raged around them, is one I find quite alluring.

Because the AFS largely recruited from a pool of wealthy and very educated young American men, the wartime diaries and reminiscences are extensive and accomplished. They are often illustrated with drawings, photographs and poetry and are well worth a look (see http://www.ourstory.info/library/4-ww2/AFSletters/lettersTC.html ) . Tuckerman Forbid is mentioned a few times – as a ” risque musical extravaganza” and “A witty travesty”. Arthur would have been pleased.