Tag Archive: Olivia Wyndham

Blackbirds Revue of 1926

Throughout the inter-War period moralists, puritans and prudes found much to deplore. The objects of their opprobrium were often reduced to key symbols of decadence, the very mention of which sufficed to demonise a whole series of, often though not always, innocent activities.

Elvira’s trial saw this process go into overdrive. Every phrase associated with her world  became a symbol of waywardness. As we have seen  “Cocktail Party” was one useful catch-all term for the new degeneracy (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/cocktail-parties/ )  . Equally, the very word  “Nightclub ” carried with it a sense of wickedness much exploited by the press and popular literature. As what would now be called “Gender Roles” caused endless worry and the term “Flapper” had been imported to indicate all that was untoward regarding that particular social crisis. “Bright Young Thing” had largely replaced that term by 1932 but the meanings, as far as the strictures on female behaviour were concerned, remained little altered. A closely associated panic developed around  “Masculine Women, Feminine Men”, of whom Elvira’s gang had more than its share.

Most famously,Clothes and hairstyles became highly politicised in the era. Every visible sign  was mined for its contribution to “Immorality”, by which was meant sex, newly invented apparently. Even the seemingly neutral term “Youth”, not for the last time in the twentieth century, became a suspect category. And let us not forget drug use, specifically “Cocaine,” any hint of which was guaranteed to strike vicarious frissons of terror among the respectable classes.

But there was one word that managed to encapsulate all that was deemed disruptive, chaotic , dangerous and modern in the above fears and fantasies. That word was “JAZZ”. Jazz became the short-hand signifier of everything that worried mainstream society and thus, inevitably, acquired a glamour and a mystique among those who saw themselves as part of the “New Age”.

We don’t actually know what music was played at Elvira’s parties but all the accounts assume that “Jazz music blared out from the record player”, annoying the neighbours and presumably frightening the ghosts of the horses that had previously inhabited the Mews. In the Dance Band era any arrangement with a whiff of syncopation  counted as Jazz – so it is no surprise that artists who appeared to be, or actually were, “the real thing” became heroes among the young record-buyers,  party-goers and dancers of the time.

Jazz  incorporated not only all that might be deemed “New”, it added the twin “evils” of race and rampant sexuality to the mix. No matter how “refined” the arrangements of Debr0y Somers,  Bert Ambrose or Carroll Gibbons might have been, somewhere underneath could be detected the rhythms of an alien culture. However much the disguise – Jazz was  ineluctably  “black” – or in the language of the day Negro or Coloured. In a country still very much defined by Empire and “The White Man’s Burden”, that a musical form associated with “the inferior races” should provoke such hostility amongst the many-  and such adulation amongst the rebellious  few is hardly surprising.

The year of the General Strike, 1926, is of particular importance regarding this relationship between black music and white audiences. In January the first journal devoted to dance-bands and “hot” music appeared, in the spring a painting was exhibited and then withdrawn from the Royal Academy and in the autumn a show arrived from New York that was to become an essential part of Bright Young mythology.

The journal was Melody Maker and for much of its long life it was the only place for musicians and fans to find out about Jazz. It also, from its earliest days, encouraged fierce debate regarding the merits of the music and, indeed, the very definition of “Jazz”. Its combative editor, Edgar Jackson held some peculiar ideas about music and race and was initially, oddly perhaps given the paper’s future promotion of Ellington, Armstrong et al, keen to distance his notion of “hot” music from any association with the “primitive” sounds of Black America.

John Bulloch Souter The Breakdown 1926

The controversy surrounding a painting at the annual RA show particularly exercised Jackson. The Scottish artist John Souter presented “The Breakdown” for exhibition at what was then still an important event within the British Art world. The painting shows a black musician playing a saxophone (and therefore jazz) to a naked, ghostly white woman. He is sat on the broken statue of Classical art, which his music is presumably deemed to have destroyed. Whatever Souter intended, and this work is not typical, he captured in the most melodramatic manner many of the cultural and moral fears of the time. Its themes are those of many a contemporary editorial.

Jackson was not alone in his fulminations. After much outcry, the picture was quickly withdrawn. According to one account  this was on the orders of the Colonial Office which brings an interesting political (and Imperial) dimension to the affair.

On a far more positive note, in September the” Blackbirds Revue of 1926″ opened at the London Pavilion. Starring Edith Wilson, Florence Mills, Gwendolyn Graham and featuring The Plantation Orchestra with its virtuoso trumpeters Pike Davis and Johnny Dunn, the show ran for 276 performances and had the same impact on fashionable London society that the Revue Negre and Josephine Baker had had on Paris a year earlier.

Gwendolyn Graham and Dancers, roof of London Pavilion

Florence Mills

The success of the show, which was not the first black show on the 1920s London stage, was due in no small part to its patronage by the Prince of Wales. A keen fan of dancing and “hot” music he attended, it is said, “night after night”. Very quickly the Blackbirds were taken up by the Bright Young People, attending parties, having flings and in some cases forging lasting friendships.Spike Hughes and Constant Lambert were ardent devotees and Evelyn Waugh, although he would later offer a cynical and rather unpleasant take on the whole phenomenon, was also a “repeat” attendee. A still very young Brenda Dean Paul fell completely for Florence Mills and declared she wanted  more than anything to be “a coloured dancer”. With a nice touch of diplomatic flattery, Florence told Brenda that “she could have been born in Harlem” so well did she dance. For Olivia Wyndham, Blackbirds and other similar shows were the beginning of a journey that would see her live for the best part of 40 years actually  in Harlem.

A version of the revue toured England in 1927 and a new show returned to the West End in 1928 .This introduced Adelaide Hall to an English audience and she would stay in London, living in Mayfair, running a night-club and performing at The Florida, The Cafe De Paris and other Elvira-friendly venues. Other musicians from both (and similar) shows would stay in Europe  becoming part of the pre-war club and popular music scene in ways that remain under-appreciated.

The revues were not without their critics. Plenty of newspapers deplored the perceived “cult of the Negro” that their success generated. In recent years the criticism has been rather different, pointing out the exoticising and primitivist impulses behind much of the white audience’s fandom. The shows themselves relied heavily on a number of crude racial stereotypes which are uncomfortable to modern sensibilities. They have also been somewhat written off by Jazz historians – being seen as lacking authenticity. Fortunately, although no singers recorded, the band made four sides while in London, so we can get some idea of what so thrilled Hughes and Lambert etc.





I’ll write more on this topic in a while but, in the meantime, two books are worth seeking out – Jim Godbolt’s A History of Jazz in Britain – an idiosyncratic but entertaining exercise and Catherine Parsonage’s more scholarly The Evolution of Jazz in Britain.

MacDougal Alley

Milwaukee Sentinel June 1 1932

It’s quite remarkable how quickly speculation about the shooting at 21 William Mews hit the news-stands. The above article, from Associated Press, appeared in Milwaukee on the day after the incident and not only fashions a juicy narrative out of what must have been very hastily assembled facts but is already imbued with references to the “decadence” that dominated the coverage of the whole case.

Inaccuracies abound. The “golden-haired” Elvira is a “divorced actress”, which is pushing it a bit, and Michael gains 10 years in age. It is Michael who is reported as having brandished the gun and the police are said to be pursuing a line of “accidental death”, which they most certainly weren’t. He is also reported to have been found lying on a sofa – he was on the landing,

The cocktail party and the Mews life-style are both given starring roles. Naturally, it was “a gay cocktail party” – not meant in the modern sense  – but the following paragraph is the one that caught my eye.

“Meanwhile astonishing stories were heard of parties which were held in the gaily decorated back-alley flat in Williams Mews, the London counterpart of Greenwich Village’s MacDougall Alley in New York.”

Berenice Abbott MacDougal Alley 1936

Now, in no way did William Mews resemble the bohemian heart of Greenwich Village, but the comparison speaks volumes.  “MacDougal Alley” is code for artistic, alternative and avant-garde. It also meant Gay (this time in the modern sense of the term). American readers would have got the inference and would have been quite aware what it was that was “astonishing” about these parties.

So, right from the start, the shooting is almost secondary to the exotic context in which it took place. The 1930s’ press, despite being trapped in a code of censorship, euphemism and innuendo, very quickly made it apparent what sort of world Elvira inhabited. As was to actually happen in due course, the Associated Press prophetically found Elvira innocent of murder but guilty of flouting social conventions.

Incidentally, one of Elvira’s cocktail guests, Olivia Wyndham, who had recently moved to New York was to become a regular visitor to Greenwich Village where she, and her partner Edna Thomas’, friend, the author Nella Larsen, lived. Wyndham and her circle really did embody the  “improper” Bohemia hinted at in the newspaper report.

Vincent La Gambina Life Cafeteria Greenwich Village 1936

In 2001 the 80 year old artist and actress  Tatheena Roberts published a novel about the travails of two young lesbians in pre-war New York. I don’t know if there is any autobiographical element to the story but the book’s title is testimony to the continuing resonance of the address. It was called “MacDougal Alley” .

Olivia Wyndham in England

Many of the people in Elvira’s social orbit found themselves commemorated, in thinly disguised fictional form, in various strands of what Julian McLaren Ross called “the party novel” . The were memorably portrayed as comic or grotesque (by Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford and Beverley Nichols))  or exotic and vaguely sinister (the writings of Jocelyn Brooke).Most commonly they were used as symbols of a shallow modernity – amusing but essential superficial. Rarely were they drawn with sympathy or approval.

One late exception is Francis Wyndham’s “Mrs. Henderson and Other Stories” (1985). In the novelette-length “Ursula” Wyndham ( best known for resuscitating Jean Rhys’ career in the 1960s) writes with deep affection and humour about his aunt, the remarkable Olivia Wyndham. It is pretty much straight biography, the events and personalities accord absolutely with what we know of Olivia/Ursula’s life and loves. It is a nostalgic and delightful read and offers a welcome alternative to the more acidic view of “Bright Young Bohemia” that dominates English literature.

Francis Wyndham by Lucian Freud 1993

One could dismiss it as the rose-tinted view of a star-struck nephew remembering an eccentric aunt (indeed that is part of the story’s charm.). However, Francis Wyndham’s fondness for his aunt does seem to have been shared by many others. Although she engaged in all the excesses associated with her set, Olivia was genuinely and widely liked – not something that can be said with confidence about the majority of Elvira’s cocktail guests.

By the time of her appearance at 21 William Mews, Olivia Wyndham had been at the heart of The Bright Young People phenomenon for many years. According to Sir Frederick Ashton she was the real “instigator” of the whole scene. As Freddie Ashton had been part of the Edmund Burra/Barbara Ker-Seymer gang, he was well situated to comment. Olivia appears in most  narratives of the period, as the hostess who handed out cocaine at Chelsea parties or as the guest in the most outlandish of costumes. Most importantly, she brings together many of the different cliques that together constitute the Bright Young People . From an aristocratic background, part of the London lesbian sub-culture, heavy drinker, drug-taker, photographer and archetypal Chelsea Bohemian – she is in all the right places, doing the “right”  things at the right time.

Olivia in Sailor Suit

Born in 1898 (as Olivia Madeline Grace Mary Wyndham) into a wealthy family of often aesthetically-inclined aristocrats, she spent much of her childhood in various country houses that have achieved a fame of their own. Her grandparents lived at Clouds near East Knoyle in Wiltshire. Designed by Philip Webb with decor by William Morris and Burne Jones, it was a centre for intellectual and artistic life in the late Victorian era and the spiritual home of the influential patrons of the Arts, “The Souls”  – as high-minded as they were high-born.

The Wyndham Sisters (Olivia’s Aunts) by John Singer Sargent (1897)

The 1911 census finds her at Wilsford, staying with her cousins,  the young David and Stephen Tennant. David, as owner of the Gargoyle and husband of Hermione Baddely, was soon to be among the best known  figures on the Bright Young scene, outshone only by the iconic Stephen Tennant. Stephen, after a few years as the brightest light on the London circuit, retired to Wilsford and spent the rest of his days there as a semi-recluse.

Wilsford Manor and Stephen Tennant

So Olivia was well connected, socially and artistically. When the post-War party craze began she was in the vanguard.Like many women of her background she had worked, during the War, for the VAD in France. Like many she was not prepared to return home and “settle down”. Having tried her hand at a Dance School, she moved into the newly-fashionable area of photography.At the same time she was rapidly becoming known as the “Queen of the London Lesbian scene” – or at least its younger, brasher twenties’ incarnation.

With Curtis Moffat she launched the M Studio in Fitzroy Square. Moffat was a wealthy American, married to the legendary Iris Tree. He had been studying photography in Paris with Man Ray and thus Wyndham and Moffat can be credited with introducing photographic surrealism to English audiences.In modified form, through the work of Cecil Beaton, Madame Yevonde and Barbara Ker-Seymer, this became one of the most distinctive styles of portraiture between the wars. Both Moffat and Wyndham used their considerable social connections to entice sitters to showcase the “new” look.Nancy Cunard (close to Tree and later an important figure in Wyndham’s life), The Sitwells, Tallulah Bankhead and Cecil Beaton were all regular subjects.

Nancy Cunard 

It is likely that Olivia’s contribution was more as a manager and publicist than as practitioner. She was not, according to her peers,  a great talent. Depending on who you read, she was either not sufficiently technically proficient or too permanently drunk to cope with the demands of the camera. She was responsible, though, for a series of unique “portraits”. These are of Lord Tod Wadley, the doll that featured so centrally in the life of Joe Carstairs. see  https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/5-mulberry-walk-chelsea/ Wadley was the star of  a specially commissioned album – pictured on holiday,behind the wheels of a car and, most appropriately, at a cocktail party.

Wadley and Carstairs

Wyndham was by this time located at 19 King’s Road. This address became the main meeting ground for Olivia’s lesbian friends and a number of young artists and dancers associated with Chelsea Art College. Ruth Baldwin was a frequent (and occasionally violent) visitor.Marty Mann moved in in 1930 on her arrival from America (she and Olivia had met in Harlem).It was Edward Burra’s favourite London resting place and his circle of friends became Olivia’s. These included Sophie Fedorovich, Billy Chappell, Frederick Ashton, Bumbles Dawson and, most importantly, Barbara Ker-Seymer.

Barbara Ker-Seymer

It is reasonably safe to say that Olivia introduced Ker-Seymer to the joys of both lesbianism and professional photography. By 1929, part of 19 King’s Road had been turned into a studio. Ker-Seymer proved as technically adept as Olivia had been inept and was to become an integral, if now somewhat overlooked, figure  in thirties portraiture, often collaborating with artists within their social circle such as John Banting  and Sophie Fedorovitch.

In the meantime Olivia was gaining notoriety as the hostess who offered her guests drugs along with cocktails and it is clear that by the late twenties heavy drug use was being added to an already prodigious appetite for drink. Cocaine first and then, probably through her friendship with Ruth Baldwin or Brenda Dean Paul, various opiates. Olivia Wyndham was for the rest of her reasonably long life, given the circumstances, an addict.

None of which seemed to affect her popularity. In fact nothing about her, including rampant promiscuity and the odd punch-up, stopped people liking Olivia. She was, nearly everyone said, “generous”. Not just with money, in fact she was by no means wealthy thanks to a cock-up over inheritance, but with her time and friendship. Quick-tempered and full of flaws herself, she was able to overlook failings in others. This was particularly noted during her long residence in Harlem (see forthcoming post) but it may explain her ease in the company of the impossibly temperamental  Elvira Barney.



Elvira Barney

Olivia knew Elvira through the Chelsea party scene and through mutual acquaintances such as Napper Dean Paul and Hugh Wade. They were not, as far as is known, close friends  but they were at least sexually and alcoholically compatible. Olivia’s appearance at the cocktail party on May 30th 1932 was undoubtedly more down to the fact that Brian Howard, Ruth Baldwin and probably Marty Mann were going, but who knows? The overlapping sub-cultures that made up Elvira’s world and those of Olivia were markedly similar. There is also the distinct possibility that the acquisition of drugs might have  been a reason to call on Elvira prior to the party at Ruth’s flat – and this may have applied to more people in the room than Olivia.

Olivia would have been the oldest person there (34 or 35). Like Elvira, her lifestyle was beginning to tell in her face. She too looked older than her years but, unlike Elvira, had ceased to care about her appearance. She was also now a visitor from abroad – the night was for Olivia one of reunions. She was not interviewed about the case and may have been back in Harlem by the time of the trial. It is unlikely that she would have had anything to say about Elvira and Michael that other witnesses had not expressed but she would have had good reasons of her own not to come forward.

Olivia c1935

Her career in England was now over and she is remembered, if at all, as the woman who dressed up as Minerva at Brian Howard’s fairly disastrous Great Urban Dionysia  Ball or the person with live snakes coiled around her at Norman Hartnell’s Circus Party. But she was more than a bit-part player in the Bright Young saga. She typifies much that is most characteristic of the era and, though no great artist hersel,f she was instrumental in promoting the careers of others. She also, unusually in this set, appears to have been devoid of snobbishness. These qualities would further show themselves during her long sojourn in America.