Tag Archive: Marjorie Firminger


“Mauve” Waterhouse

Charlotte Breese’s  biography of Leslie Hutchinson, “Hutch“, apart from being a moving and rather sad portrayal of the Bright Young Thing’s favourite cabaret performer, is a mine of information and, sometimes slightly scurrilous, revelations about the antics of  the “faster” crowd between the Wars. One anecdote in particular caught my eye.

Hutch 1928

In a section of the book that begins with the statement, “While most of the parties that Hutch attended were fairly decorous, some were scenes of open debauch.”, the following is given as an example –

“The wife of Sir Nicholas Hildersley, Audrey, known as “Mauve”, used to entertain her decadent friends at their home in Swan Walk, Chelsea. While her husband, often with his fellow philatelist George V, worked on his stamp collection in the basement, the guests, stimulated by drink and cocaine at his expense, used to chant “Hey, Hey, Let Nicky Pay!” Hutch and Mauve, armed with a musical saw, used to sing and vigorously enact “Let’s Do It”.”

“Mauve was a vain woman, in a cloud of Turkish cigarettes and Chanel No. 5, who avoided having children for fear of losing her beautiful figure . Although Hutch probably tried various drugs – Billy Milton, a rival pianist, claimed he took cocaine – he did not become dependent on the stimuli of the very fast set, limiting himself to being a lifelong heavy smoker and drinker.”

So, we find another seemingly respectable Chelsea household where drug-taking and sexual shenanigans are the order of the day. As a bonus, we also have a mention of Elvira’s friend, Billy Milton.

Now, I have no wish to contravene the libel laws or to offend anybody related to the Hildersleys  and the story, presumably related by one of that ilk, cannot be independently verified, but it does seem worth pointing out the following facts.

There is no record of anyone called Hildersley residing in Swan Walk in the relevant years (1928-30, I’d guess). However Sir Nicholas Edwin Waterhouse, senior partner in the already powerful accountancy firm Price-Waterhouse, lived at No.2 with his wife Audrey, known as “Mauve” to her friends. Sir Nicholas was a keen philatelist, his book on American postage stamps can still be found. Conspicuously wealthy, the couple were both keen patrons of the arts.

Swan Walk, Chelsea

One artist who benefitted especially from their support was the great “lost Modernist”,  the maverick and irascible Wyndham Lewis. By the late 1920s, having alienated most of literary and artistic London, Lewis was in need of sympathetic patronage. The Waterhouses funded his journal The Enemy and helped him financially during the writing of The Apes of God (a novel which lambasted everyone Lewis knew, thus ensuring his further isolation.)

Wyndham Lewis was connected to Elvira’s world through Marjorie Firminger’s unfortunate infatuation with the artist  (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/14/mary-ashliman-heather-pilkington-and-the-blue-angel/ ). It just possible that Firminger and her friends  met Lewis at Swan Walk. Firminger’s narcotically-inclined co-host at many a Chelsea bash,Olivia Wyndham,was distantly related to Lewis (but then again so was she to almost everybody.)

Audrey Waterhouse was much older than Elvira and I think it is unlikely that they were acquainted. However, if true, the presence of yet another Chelsea residence where cocaine was freely available would not have escaped the notice of the circles Mrs.Barney inhabited. As to Hutch, there might be – according to Charlotte Breese – an even closer connection to Elvira than simply a shared fondness for “decadent” parties – and that will be dealt with shortly.

 

 

“Half O’Clock in Mayfair”

Jack Kahane’s Obelisk press had already published a novel by and about people associated with Elvira’s cocktail party. This was Marjorie Firminger’s “Jam Today”  (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/14/mary-ashliman-heather-pilkington-and-the-blue-angel/  )

Marjorie Firminger, in the middle in white dress, between Napper and Brenda Dean Paul

In 1938 the same imprint  published “Half O’Clock in Mayfair” by Princess Paul Troubetzkoy.This book is so rare as to be, to all intents and purposes invisible. Neil Pearson must have a copy though, as his excellent biography-cum-archival exercise, “Obelisk” contains the following,

“”Half O’Clock in Mayfair was  published in 1938. Kahane had been introduced to the author in the Castiglione bar. Troubetzkoy’s book was (according to Kahane) “the record in novel form of a famous scandal, involving a murder or at least some form of homicide or suicide, which had shaken London a year or so before…”

According to Pearson, the novel “is a highly competent dissection of London’s atrophied high society of the late 1930s, ten years on from the zenith of the Bright Young Things. No longer bright or young, yesterdays debutantes rush round London from party to party in an increasingly desperate search for a husband, usually finding nothing but a short-lived oblivion in drink and drugs.Troubetzkoy can write and she understands her characters in all their sad vacuity.”

This to me sounds like a fictionalised account of the Barney case – with a touch of Rattigan’s After The Dance thrown in. I’d love to see a copy and would also like to know if the Princess was writing from direct experience or merely from hearsay.

Pearson admits that it is difficult to find out who Troubetzkoy actually was. This is true. Unlikely as it seems, there were a number of Prince Troubetzkoys kicking around London and up to three that went by the name of Princess Paul.

However, I think the author of Half O’clock in Mayfair was born Rhoda Muriel Boddam in Suffolk in 1898. She was the daughter of a retired Indian Army officer and his much younger wife. She married James G.H. Somervell in 1917, but this seems not to have lasted. James, whose father owned and then lost, through  bankruptcy,  Sorn Castle in Ayrshire, then spent much of the 1920’s travelling to places like Ceylon and Argentina as a Political Agent. His address throughout the period is given as the Carlton Club.

Like several other young divorcees, some of whom hover around the Barney case, Rhoda, now apparently calling herself “Marie”, tried her luck on the stage.  Using the stage name Gay Desmond, she was a chorine  in Andre Charlot’s revues at the Alhambra (acting alongside Sunday Wilshin, Anna Neagle and, I suspect, a few of Elvira’s friends).

Charlot was an important impresario and from 1915 to 1935, mixing ballet and Broadway, brought a touch of Parisian glamour to the London stage. His shows depended heavily on  beautiful female performers and many a career started at the Alhambra.

Mr. Andre Charlot rehearses his chorus for the cabaret section of the Grand Ball at the Royal Opera House

Charlot and dancers in rehearsal, 1929

In 1931, Rhoda M.M. Somervell married the elderly Russian artist, Prince Paul Troubetzkoy. She then (if we have the right princess) took up a career as a writer, producing a number of novels between 1933 and 1943. Apart from Half O’Clock in Mayfair, the most intriguing is a dystopian fantasy Exodus A.D. (1934), written in collaboration with the English Futurist, War artist (and friend of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis),  C.R.W. Nevinson.

The Troubetzkoys lived in the heart of fashionable London, at a very exclusive address – 53 St.James Square. The Prince died in 1938 and Marie, as she now was, spent her time between a Park Lane flat and a residence at Iver, near Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. Until the war, she travelled frequently to the continent and particularly France. The Castiglione Bar in Paris, where she sold her her roman a clef to Kahane, was a favourite with English and American aesthetes and artists (including Olivia Wyndham’s friend, Carl Van Vechten). The fact that an already published author turned to Kahane suggests that the book might have been too racy or too libellous for an English publisher – and also that it may have contained some inside information. Even though Elvira was dead by this time, there were others keen to distance themselves from their involvement with the Fast Set.

Princess Paul Troubetzkoy, Park Lane 1940

The books dry up after 1943. Princess Paul  died after a fall in her  garden at Word Cottage, Iver in 1948. Her death seems a little suspicious but the inquest found nothing untoward. Although her novels appear to have been reasonably well received, they are all long out of print.She is genuinely a forgotten figure.

So, assuming we have pieced together the right Princess Troubetzkoy, did she know Elvira? She is a little older than most of Elvira’s set , her artistic circle belongs to a slightly earlier generation and she is very much Mayfair rather than Chelsea.Nonetheless, these circles overlapped and she is around at the right time, in the right place, and has the right professions (actress then author). If she didn’t know Elvira, she would have known of her and known women not dissimilar to her. She would have  followed the case with the same eager curiosity as the rest of Society.

A proper examination of the novel would reveal more – has anyone a spare copy?

“Freak Party” Chelsea 1929

On October 1st Olivia Wyndham and Marjorie Firminger hosted a party at 37 Glebe Place,Chelsea (Olivia’s mother’s house).  The  photographs are revealing for a number of reasons. Firstly, they show the mutuality of the relationship between the media and the Bright Young People, as described by Patrick Balfour in Society Racket (1934) and explored more recently by D.J.Taylor. Secondly, they demonstrate very clearly the overlap between lesbian and gay Bohemia and Society’s “Smart Set”. Finally, they show us what some of Elvira’s circle looked like in full party mode. The term “Freak Party” was a general one for a fairly informal fancy-dress party as opposed to a strictly themed affair. This party is almost certainly the one whose invitations included the phrase  “Come As You Would Like To Be” which, if true, helps explain the visual styles on display.

Hugh Wade with Elizabeth Ponsonby (Mrs.Pelly)

Hugh Armigel Wade, pianist at The Blue Angel and Blue Lantern, was a close friend of Elvira’s and also of Elizabeth Ponsonby, possible the best known of twenties’ party-goers. Olivia Wyndham is the one in the naval cap. The mannish figure next to her might just be Heather Pilkington.

Anyone know who these guests are?

Dennis and Elizabeth Pelly on the bonnet, Marjorie Firminger in white dress.

Dennis Pelly with Harry Melville

Harry Melville had been a friend of Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater. He was still going strong in the 1920s – a noted bon viveur, dinner party host and raconteur.He had been a theatrical impresario and latterly a reviewer of Dance records in the Gramophone. He was often seen at BYP gatherings and was treated both as an amusing relic of the Victorian era and as a revered link with an earlier decadent movement. He was said to be in his eighties at the time of this photograph but I’m not so sure about that.

G.W.Goodenough, Miss Dawson and  John Kirkwood

The Miss Dawson is Beatrice “Bumble” Dawson (1908-196) – a contemporary at Chelsea Art College of Edward Burra and Barbara Ker-Seymer. She later became an important costume designer for the British film industry. Of George Goodenough, Edward Burra recalls that at a cocktail party in 1929, having been punched in the face by the hostess, Olivia Wyndham, Goodenough retaliated with interest and flattened her. I assume that this happened some hours after this picture was taken.

Tony de Gandarillas, Brian “Napper” Dean Paul, Marjorie Firminger, Brenda Dean Paul and Jane Carlys

Gandarillas was a Chilean diplomat and notorious gambler. He was the principal lover of the artist Christopher Wood who committed suicide in 1930. Brenda Dean Paul, though still glamorous, looks seriously stoned to me.

Some of the same faces again. The woman with her arm resting on Olivia Wyndham’s shoulder has a vague look of Clover Pritchard, another of the Burra/Ker-Seymer set.

Of the people in these pictures we can only be certain that two, Olivia Wyndham and Hugh Wade, were at Elvira’s cocktail party. However, others may well have been there or at earlier ones. Hugh Wade’s closeness to both Elizabeth Ponsonby and Elvira would also make it likely that these two hard-partying and self-destructive women crossed paths more than occasionally.

UPDATE  these images, like a number of others on the blog, are disappearing – you can find them  by typing Chelsea Party 1929 into Getty Images