Tag Archive: Muriel Belcher


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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Here are some of the people who wrote, visited or sent best wishes to Hugh Wade during his illness. Some have already featured in this blog, the others will do so shortly.

Gwladys Stanley, Dorothy Ward, Francis Laidler, Elsie and Doris Waters, Elsie Randolph, Kenneth Carten, Kermit Goell, Geraldo, Collie Knox, Dolly Mayers, Muriel Belcher, Hero De Rance and  (possibly) Lady Rose McLaren.

Elsie and Doris Waters 1942

A few just used Christian names (Donald, Cara and Philipo)  and I haven’t identified them yet, one or two simply referred to a particular place or time to indicate who they are. The letters range from the reassuringly gossipy to the heartfelt and deeply-concerned.

The list is largely drawn from “Showbusiness” and includes people who at the time would have been household names (Elsie and Doris Waters) but also some who were then unknown but are now legendary (Muriel Belcher). The worlds of pantomime, theatre,variety, music publishing and club ownership are all represented. Lyricists, arrangers and musicians are also in there. Apart from the insight into the various circles Hugh moved in, the various communications provide a useful snapshot of a vanished world. It didn’t happen but the above names alone could have provided a singularly impressive Memorial Concert.

Geraldo Orchestra 1945

From Elvira’s time, the name that stands out is Kenneth Carten, whose career I may have undervalued and probably needs revisiting. He appears to have been working for the Myron Selznick talent agency at the time of writing. The letters written from the Romilly Club and the, then newly-opened, Colony Room have specific historical value (and are probably highly-collectible, William!) as do those from the “King of Pantomime”, Francis Laidler.

More soon, but if Francis Laidler and Gwladys Stanley mean nothing to you, and there is no reason why they would these days, you could do a lot worse than visit this remarkable site

It’s Behind You

Clubs – Smokey Joe’s

On the day of her acquittal Elvira apparently held a “celebration” party at the Berkeley Hotel. Some time after midnight, along with two friends -one male,  one female, she turned up at Smokey Joe’s, a basement drinking club in Gerrard Street. There she invited another customer, in fact her future biographer, Peter Cotes,  to dance. They shuffled around to a “blues” played by “a solitary jazz pianist”. Elvira then asked Cotes to join her party, but he declined. Unsurprisingly, his description of her is deeply unflattering – she “staggered” and had “a heaviness about the jowl”. He ends by saying that Elvira “danced no better than she shot”.

I was inclined to be a little suspicious of this anecdote, the chance encounter is a little too fortuitous. But Cotes was acting in the West End at the time and that Elvira would have gone on from the party to a late-night club hardly strains credibility.

The fictional sounding Smokey Joe’s was a real place and features in a number of autobiographical memoirs.

Variously spelt (Smokie,Smoky,Smokey), it had a pretty bad reputation but is fondly remembered by a number of very different characters from very different backgrounds. Safecracker (and Double Agent) Eddie Chapman lists it, along with the Nest, Hell, the Shim Sham and the Gaucho, as a regular haunt. The Irish aristocrat and humorist, Patrick Campbell recalls a late-night session there and for Gerwyn Lewis, shortly to leave England to become a teacher in Malaya and later a P.O.W.  working on the infamous Burma “Death Railway”, it was his “very favourite” night spot.

Lewis, a naive young man at the time, liked the fact that the place was always full of women. He later realised that this was because it was largely a Lesbian club. Violet Powell, the wife of Anthony Powell, took a less relaxed view, describing Smokey Joe’s as the bottom rung of Soho’s ladder of vice – not least because women danced openly with each other. I’m not quite sure why the Powells ever ventured into any arena less salubrious than a country house  weekend, as their respective memoirs consist of a series of well-articulated exercises in holding the nose when it comes to London clubs. Violet , after a couple of evenings slumming it at the Nest on Kingly Street, felt the need to have her coat destroyed ( I assume she was unfamiliar with the smell of marijuana – the Nest being reputedly the first club where “reefers” were openly smoked).

Joe Deniz, guitarist at The Nest, The Shim Sham Club, The Cuba Club and the Cafe De Paris

Most of these tales come from the late thirties. Whether the club catered to the same clientele in 1932, I can’t say. It definitely already had a reputation for ignoring the licencing laws and was popular with “theatrical” types. That it lasted throughout the decade is something of a marvel.

The most peculiar story concerning Smokey Joe’s is that Napper Dean Paul worked there, around 1939, as an” impersonation act”, presumably a drag act. Famously, his sister was reduced to being a waitress around the same time, albeit at the far more respectable Lansdowne Club in Mayfair. Given the amount of chicanery and petty larceny that Napper is accused of in the period, one can only assume that the wages weren’t great.

Brenda Dean Paul 1941

Gerrard Street was awash with clubs, many of which have achieved mythical status. Most were basement premises, a few were on the top floor. The best known is, of course, the 43, presided over by the “Queen of the West End”, Kate Meyrick.  Despite its appearance in many a Bright Young novel, its drug connections and patronage by the likes of Brilliant Chang and Darby Sabini, the 43 was relatively mainstream. More interesting are the “black” club Cuba ( later the site of Ronnie Scott’s), the mysteriously named and long lasting White Monkey, Bee Vee’s  ( possibly a gay club), the charmingly (and apparently appropriately) entitled Hell and the first venture into club-land by Muriel Belcher, The Sphinx. Belcher, in partnership with Dolly Mayers opened that venue in the mid-thirties before moving on to the Music Box in Leicester Square. Early members of which included Brian Howard and Sandy Baird. Belcher was to achieve lasting fame with the Colony drinking club after WW2 but it is often forgotten that her roots lay in the “raffish” 1930s.

Muriel Belcher with the Colony club’s most famous resident drunk, Francis Bacon. (Brian Howard first introduced Bacon to the place)

All in all, Elvira could have hardly chose a more fitting environment to round off her first night of freedom.