Tag Archive: nightclubs


This newspaper article written was written shortly after Elizabeth Ponsonby’s death is not, I imagine, untypical.

Milwaukee Sentinel Sep 1940

The narrative is familiar enough, apart from this sentence.

“She served for a time behind the bar at the Melody night club, run by Irene Meyrick of the famous night club family but she lost her job when she started drinking heavily again.”

This, if true, raises a couple of questions.

In Taylor’s “Bright Young People” he quotes Arthur Ponsonby from 1939 on his daughter’s recent acquisition of a job as a “manageress” -“she seems to have some curious club job”. Taylor goes on to say “Two months later Arthur gave Elizabeth and her employer (” a showy pretty friend who runs her club”) tea at the House of Lords”. This “friend” is presumably Irene Meyrick.

Gwendoline Irene Meyrick was the youngest of Kate Meyrick’s daughters. In 1939 she would have been 24 and got married in the May of that year to the Earl of Craven (most of Mrs.Meyrick’s daughters married into the aristocracy – often accompanied by controversy – see Kate Meyrick’s Children ).

Irene Meyrick (1914- 2002)

The Melody Club was at 19 Wardour Street and is listed in directories from 1937 to 1939 and as the New Melody to in 1941. If Irene ran it then the received wisdom that the Meyrick involvement with clubs ended with Kate’s death (1933) cannot be true. If she was a friend rather than just an employer, we can add another name to Elizabeth’s post-BYP circle.

Elizabeth and Denis Pelly – wedding day

The story of Kate Meyrick, her children and her clubs, has  been told repeatedly, but there are several unresolved issues. I have always wondered about the number of custodial sentences – fines were the usual thing for licensing offences. Her involvement with police corruption, drug scandals, Soho villains and the whole “hostess” thing suggests a criminality beyond merely serving a few drinks after-hours. On the other hand, her clientele was by and large wealthy and prestigious and she was held in high regard by many West End night-owls, dance-band musicians in particular.

Kate Meyrick

Her own autobiography, probably ghost-written, is relatively unrevealing, self-serving and little more than a list of famous names. Much more informative is the section in Judith Walkowitz’s Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (see Walkowitz Nights Out ).Immortalised in Brideshead Revisited as Ma Mayfield, the proprietor of Dalton’s, the 43, the Manhattan, the Silver Slipper and one or two more venues does have a real claim to be the “Queen of Night Clubs” and merits a full of biography.

Party at Silver Slipper

There don’t seem to be any surviving anecdotes associated with the Melody Club, so whether it was a dive, an exclusive drinking-club, had a band or a pianist, I can’t say. My guess is that it was a fairly small members’ club typical of the area and the era.

There was a 1950s club of the same name in Maddox Street, Mayfair but I doubt there’s a connection. In that same decade the Russian Spy Gordon Londsdale had a flat at 19 Wardour Street and today N.19 is the the “Old 97” , a Chinese Restaurant, much favoured as a late night eating-spot.

Matisse at the Gargoyle

The most celebrated night-club of the BYP era was, of course, the Gargoyle at 69 Dean Street. It was opened in 1925 by David Tennant, who claimed he just wanted a congenial place to dance with his girl-friend (Hermione Baddeley, who he married in 1928).It attracted artists,intellectuals, writers and young socialites in equal measure. With a membership that included almost everyone associated with London Bohemia, it remained a key location for thirty years and anecdotes about the club appear in almost every reminiscence of cosmopolitan cultural life of the period.

Gargoyle 1940

Brian Howard, Brenda and Napper Dean Paul were regulars – Howard seems to have taken up almost permanent residence during World War Two. In the 1920s, Elizabeth Ponsonby had horrified Frances Partridge with her drunkenness at one party (Bloomsbury and the Bright Young Set did not always mix well).The club’s initial manager was the singularly disreputable Harry Rowan Walker, as raffish a figure as any of Elvira’s set and who she may have known as the some-time boyfriend of Brenda Dean Paul (who also had an affair with David Tennant). These and others, feature in “David Tennant and the Gargoyle Years” by Michael Luke, an affectionate but by no means comprehensive, biographical study.

Despite the excesses of some of the members, the general atmosphere was civilised and relatively high-brow.There is a wonderful, if a little too fawning, description of the place in Stanley Jackson’s “An Indiscreet Guide to Soho“. Written just after the end of the war, this is a little gem of a book which, though often patronising and unintentionally humorous,  captures the flavour of the area  (and the times) as well as any book I’ve read. This from the chapter “Clubs and Joints”,

“There are, of course, several amusing and well-run Soho clubs. I belong to the Gargoyle which has been running for twenty years. It was started by the Hon.David Tennant in one room and now occupies spacious premises at the top of a building which you reach by lift. The famous roof garden is temporarily out of commission but will doubtless revive.”

Tom Driberg

“Apart from Tennant, who runs the club in a charmingly offhand but efficient style, committe members include Augustus John (a founder member), Clive Bell and Philip Toynbee. Among its 2000 members are Sir Gordon Craig, John Sutro, Cyril Connolly, Val Gielgud, Tom Driberg, Sir William Beveridge, Hermione Baddeley and scores of BBC folk, writers and artists. The subscription id Four Guineas per annum and husbands and wives can save a guinea by joining together.”

Hermione Baddeley

“The decor is bright but tasteful and Matisse gave his expert advice. Several of his drawings of ballet girls grace the upstairs bar which is a cheerful spot always crowded with people discussing art, politics or women in the liveliest way. “My unpaid cabaret,” David Tennant calls them. The liquor is always of sound quality and the prices not too stiff. Nor will the barmen raise superior eyebrows if you demand half a pint of bitter and linger over it.  One of their specialities is a Pimm with a dash of curacao.

The restaurant downstairs seats 140 and its ceiling and general design have been modelled on the Alhambra at Granada. The mirrors are particularly attractive, unless you have drunk too much gin!. Here one can feed in comfort and a cheery, intimate atmosphere. Luncheon is served from noon until 3 p.m., and dinner from 6 p.m. until midnight.In the old days, when theatres ended at a civilised hour, the chef would put on a specialite de minuit, something tasty like onion soup with croutons. But even with present day shortages, the menu always shows imagination.

The last time I dined at the club I had a dozen excellent oysters, soup, duck and delicious ice cream. The oysters were extra, of course, but five shillings covered the rest. Tennant, I should say, has an eye for vintages, and his pre-war wine is a sentimental memory (fine Club “fizz” at 13/6 a bottle!); even today he manages to produce a dinner wine that is no insult to the palate.

The four-piece band led by Alec Alexander, suits the style of the club. It delivers lively, cheerful music that you can dance to without having your nerves torn to shreds. Alec knows all the members and seems to enjoy playing requests.”

Alec Alexander’s band was , in fact, a little bit of a joke to some of the post-war clientele (Lucian Freud and Henrietta Moraes were particularly scathing). Tennant for all his talents as a host was, unlike most of his contemporaries, not much of a jazz fan – by 1946 the Gargoyle was starting to be seen as a bit of a throwback. It never quite reclaimed either its pre-war glamour or its wartime popularity. However, it lasted a few more years and its 40s and 50s membership list remained impressive.

That earlier chic, even avant-garde, ambience is best summed up by the two Matisse paintings that Tennant installed not long after the club’s inception (I think Jackson is wrong about the “ballet dancers)”. The two works in question were “The Red Studio” and “The Studio, Quai St. Michel“. The former was hung in the bar, the latter on the stairs down to the dining.dance area.

The Red Studio 1911

The Studio, Quai St. Michel 1916

These are two remarkable, and significant, works of art. To find them in a “night-club” gives some indication as to why the Gargoyle was seen as somewhere special, unique even.

There is much more to be said about the Gargoyle and its place in club history. David Tennant too – he has not quite been given credit for his role in the Bright Young phenomenon (unlike his younger brother, Stephen). However, it is Harry Walker who is intriguing me just now and I shall post something on him as soon as I have a little more info.

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.

Hugh Wade 1927

Thanks to the help of William Wade, I’m beginning to get a fuller picture of Hugh Wade’s musical output. I’ll deal with the first phase of his career here. then 1928-1936  and finally the latter stages in subsequent posts.

He seems to have emerged with a number of songs under his belt in 1927. This is not necessarily a complete list but it’s as much as I’ve got at the moment. The dates in brackets are the copyright dates.

“Like A Virginia Creeper (I’ll Creep Back to You)” (august 1927)

This song caught on and was featured in London shows. It quickly found its way as far as Australia where it featured in the Kelso Brothers Ace High revue at the Tivoli Theatre, Melbourne ,in which it was sung by the Famous Four, whose name has alas proved unfounded  as I can find no trace of them. The Tivoli, which had started life as the Melbourne Opera House, was the premier vaudeville theatre in the city – Anna May Wong appeared there. It closed in 1966.

Interior, Tivoli Theatre

The song was recorded at least once. This version is by The Rovers Dance Band and appeared on the Guardsman label. The youtube note suggests that it is Hugh Wade singing, but I’m not sure about that. The Guardsman label would have been of interest to a few of the West End club set as it ran a “Negro Race” series, offering a jazzier sound than usually available.

The most popular version would almost certainly be Jack Hylton’s but I have no soundclip for that.

When I Met Sally (Coming Down the Alley) october 1927   Wade and Lawrence Venn

The sheet music lists Marion Carr and Douglas Vine as the performers but again the public would more likely have come acroos through Jack Hylton’s  rendition.

When I met Sally” was one of a number of songs dedicated to that epitome of working-class pulchritude, Sally, whose virtues had been celebrated in song since the eighteenth century. Gracie Fields is the best known worshipper and one should remember that in the 1920s Fields was a West End star -much loved by Mayfair – she worked with Gerald Du Maurier and occasionally appeared at the Cafe De Paris.

Gracie Fields 1920s

Wade’s lyricist Lawrence Venn, if he is who I think he is, is a figure worth noting. An early PR man, working in the wine trade, he was an immaculately-dressed and debonair fixture of London Society for many years. He came up with the name “Tio Pepe” for the sherry most favoured by the fashionable. In the 1950s he became the head of the Champagne company Moet et Chandon and is partly responsible for the particular appeal that brand had, and still has, with the wealthy and hedonistic. What he or Hugh would have thought of Notorious B.I.G or Nas’s lyrical tributes to the drink is best left to the imagination.

“Somewhere In Samarkand”

“Voices From The Minarets”  (november 1927)

I can’t find much on these two songs, but judging from the titles they appear to be attempts to cash in on the phenomenal success of Albert Ketelbey  and the continuing popularity of James Elroy Flecker. Ketelbey’s In A Monastery Garden (1915) was as loved as any piece of music in the early twentieth century and Ketelbey followed it up with a stream of what would now be called exotica (In a Persian Market, In A Chinese Temple Garden, In the Mystic Land of Egypt and so on). Flecker’s Golden Journey To Samarkand was, as Hassan, one of the dramatic highlights of 1920s theatre – Ethel Mannin devotes almost a chapter of her memoirs to it. It influenced music,fashion and design and spawned a host of imitations.

“When The Lovebird Leaves The Nest” (1927)

This was another successful song for Hugh. It was sung by Alec Kelleway and Carl Brisson and recorded by the very popular Debroy Somers Orchestra. Alec Kelleway brings in the Australian connection again. Kelleway (usually Kellaway) was a star of Australia’s vaudeville circuit. If it’s the same person he is especially remembered as the very camp department store assistant, a sort of Pre-War John Inman, in Dad and Dave Come To Town.

Alec Kellaway 1938

 Carl Brisson was a Danish middleweight boxer who found fame on the London stage in The Merry Widow (as seen by Madame Fahmy on the night she shot her husband). He is fondly remembered for introducing the song Cocktails For Two in the 1934 film Murder at the Vanities.( That film also featured the remarkable song Marahuana – a cult favourite among the louche and raffish.)

Forgive the digression, I couldn’t resist it.

Hugh would have been particularly pleased to have Lovebird  recorded by Debroy Somers who was the most in demand arranger and orchestra leader of the day. Dublin born and, as you can hear, a graduate of military music training, Somers, a multi-instrumentalist, led bands at the Savoy, Ciro’s, The Blue Moon Club, The Cosmopolitan and The London Casino – all places Elvira and her friends knew well.

Lovebird was, I think, Hugh’s biggest “hit”.

“Why Am I Blue?”  (november 1927)

This was his first collaboration with the journalist and writer Collie Knox. There are so many songs of this title that it is hard to know which are Hugh’s versions. Certainly, Carl Brisson sang it as did Alma Vane for the BBC. There was also a version by Anona Winn,  50s radio star of Twenty Questions and The Petticoat Line, who had earlier sung with Al Bowlly and many top Dance-bands.

The sheet music, as with others in his portfolio has an arrangement for ukelele, another nice period touch.

Carl Brisson

All in all, it was an auspicious entry into showbusiness, as I’m sure you’ll agree. The magazine “The Child”  commented that his publishers “Feldmans have discovered a musical White Hope in Mr. Hugh Wade, who is barely 20 years of age.” which seems a fair assessment. The songs are generic rather than innovative but are very useful in allowing us to get a sense of how the late twenties sounded. They also show that Hugh was working in the mainstream of the business and was not just some back-street after-hours pianist, as some sources seem to suggest.

More very shortly.

UPDATE I’ve found another Hugh Wade composition copyrighted in 1926. It’s called “I Lost My Heart While Dancing” ( words and music by Hugh Wade).

Lawrence Durrell

In Lawrence Durrell’s Livia (1978) there occurs this short passage. Two of the characters are discussing history and how one should memorialize the inter-War London world.

Lawrence Durrell 1935

“I would have gone about it differently myself.”

“Tell me how.”

“I should have enumerated other things like school ties, huge woollen scarves, Oxford bags, college blazers, Brough Superiors a la T.E. Lawrence, racing cars with strapped bonnets, Lagonda, Bentley, Amilcar…The flappers had come and gone but the vamp was present in force with her cloche hat and cigarette holder.”

1926 Amilcar

“I had forgotten that.”

“It is the small things that build the picture.”

“London.”

“Yes, and the places we frequented in London most of which have disappeared – wiped out one supposes by the bombings?”

“Like the Cafe De Paris?”

“Yes and Ciro’s and The Blue Peter, The Criterion Bar, Quaglino’s, Stone’s Chop House, Mannering’s Grill, Paton’s, The Swan…”

“Good, Robin, and then the night-clubs like The Old Bag O’Nails,  The Blue Lantern, The Black Hole and Kiki’s Place…. we simply never slept.”

“The music of shows like Funny Face (“Who Stole My Heart Away?”), Charlot and the divine Hutch smoothing down the big grand piano and singing in his stern, unemphatic way, “Life is just a bowl of cherries.””

Fred and Adele Astaire 1928

“Just before dawn Lyon’s Corner House, everyone with yellow exhausted faces, whores, undergraduates, all-night watchmen and workers setting off on early jobs. The first newspapers appearing on the icy street.”

Lyons Corner House (somewhere on the left), Coventry Street looking towards Piccadilly

This to me is an interesting exchange. Most of the the symbolic markers (cloche hats, racing cars) have appeared on this blog somewhere. I don’t actually think Who Stole My Heart was from Funny Face but the rest has the proper ring to it.  Durrell was part of Fitzrovia in the early thirties, before he left for Greece in 1935 and thence to Egypt during the war. In between he spent some time in Paris – hence the Henry Miller and Obelisk Press connection. In Cairo, he was a staunch supporter of Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, forever in danger of losing his job over one indiscretion or another. Sadly, Durrell was not always so noble – especially towards his wife.

Lawrence and Nancy Durrell 1934

Of the places he mentions, some are iconic and some quite obscure. I suspect there is a strong autobiographical element here, particularly regarding the eating places. Certainly,The Blue Peter is included because Durrell was the resident “Jazz” pianist there, from about 1930 onwards.

“Well, for a time I had a small allowance. I lived in London. I played the piano in a nightclub—the “Blue Peter” in St. Martin’s Lane, of all places —until we were raided by the police.” (Durrell in Paris Review)

I don’t know if this is the same Blue Peter whose decor was that of a battleship. That one was supposed to be in Great Windmill Street, but I’ve found these addresses to be rather fluid. It also might be the club that became Douglas Byng’s Kinde Dragon, which was in St.Martin’s Lane (although some accounts place it in Ham Yard –  see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/02/11/ham-yard/ ).

I haven’t read much by Durrell, I’m afraid, so I don’t know if there are other such reference points in his work. It’s the centenary of his birth this year, so there might be be some readily available information emerging in the coming months.

In the meantime here’s the aforementioned Hutch

and Jack Buchanan and Binnie Hale