Tag Archive: paris

Anna Wickham

“During the last years she changed her name: she wanted to forget, she sa id, that she was the notorious Mrs.Barney.But she did little to change her mode of life – In Corfu, Majorca or Paris, or wherever else she went with the Bairds, the Dean Pauls, Anna Wickham, and others who moved in her set. The same company, the same hobbies, all around the clock.” (Peter Cotes)

That Napper and Brenda Dean Paul were around during what remained of Elvira’s life is no surprise. Napper had a long association with Elvira (including the inevitable car crash) and both were friends of Billy Milton. Brenda Dean Paul’s own notoriety – as the most famous drug-addict in England – may actually have been of some comfort to the, by now, disgraced “Mrs. Barney”. The “Bairds” would include Sandy Baird, as dissolute as he was flamboyant, a lover of Brian Howard and a strong contender for one of the unnamed guests at the cocktail party at William Mews. Other Bairds might possibly be the “Miss Baird” who was Brenda Dean Paul’s companion and fellow-addict during the 1950s and William Baird who appears on passenger lists with Brenda  in the early thirties.

The odd name is Anna Wickham (1883-1947).If it is the poet Anna Wickham, which I think it is, then this raises a number of questions.

Born in Wimbledon as Edith Harper and raised in Australia, she had a varied but troubled life, due in part to her monster of a husband and partly to her failure to establish herself among the first ranks of English poets (she has undergone something of a revival in recent years). Her world, in the early 1930s, revolved around the Fitzrovian set, the pubs in Charlotte Street and her house in Hampstead. Her acquaintances at the time included DylanThomas (very rude about her), Malcolm Lowry  (very fond of her) and the eccentric Sohemian and future “King of Redonda”, John Gawsworth, one of the few to unreservedly  champion her work..


Anna Wickham

Some of the Bright Young elite knew Wickham and were not taken with her. Anthony Powell describes her thus, ” When she strode into the saloon bar, her severe air, Roundhead cast of feature, broad-brimmed hat, short skirt, grey worsted stockings, suggested Oliver Cromwell dissolving parliament.”  Aesthete Harold Acton found her very much not the right sort of person and  described her as (allegedly)  “a hefty lady obviously well-fortified with wine and garlic”. To at least some of the the next generation of writers she seems to have been better-liked and was a tolerant landlady to more than a few aspiring but penniless authors.

However, I can’t see her and Elvira as close.  She was much older, rather serious-minded and totally immersed in the world of literature. True, she was as hard-drinking as any of the Barney circle and was undoubtedly, though not particularly happily, a lesbian.

I wonder if there has not been a mix-up with the French saloniste Natalie Barney, towards whom Wickham had developed an (unrequited) passion , and whose literary lunches she had attended in the 1920s. Then again, Dolly Wilde, Olivia Wyndham, Nancy Cunard and Joe Carstairs all were, at some time, associated with Natalie Barney and Elvira knew every one of these women. So it may even be that  Elvira met Wickham through one of these figures.  These possible associative links can get quite complex, but if there is an intermediary then Dolly Wilde or Nancy Cunard would best fit the bill as Wyndham and Carstairs were far away by this time.

Nathalie Barney by Romaine Brooks 1920

If Anna Wickham was a soul-mate then the thought of Elvira rubbing shoulders with John Gawsworth and Malcolm Lowry is quite enticing. In Lowry’s case, at least , this is not unfeasible. As well as being part of the Charlotte Street entourage, Lowry spent time in Paris. He was married there in 1934.  Elvira was by then staying in France more than in England.The Bohemian expatriate circle was small and, wealthy or poor, they shared the same clubs and cafes.

In Paris, Lowry’s  wife quickly tired of his drinking and the fact that  he seemed irresistible to young gay men. We can be sure that Elvira would not have objected to either facet of Lowry’s character.

Michael Scott Stephen

One can’t help feeling sorry for the luckless Michael Stephen. Not simply because he lost his life, accidentally or otherwise, at the early age of 25, but because nobody, apart from Elvira, seems to have been too bothered by his passing. It is often the case that the victims of violence receive less attention than the perpetrators but it is not so much that sad fact- in this instance, there is a coldness about attitudes towards the dead man that is a little troubling.

Reading the witness statements, press-reports, reminiscences and case-histories , it is clear that the majority view was that somehow Mr. Stephen deserved his ignominious end. Not so much victim as architect of his own downfall. No-one  appears to be on his side. There is no outraged call for justice and no public attempt to counter the very unfavourable image the media, the defence and (it has to be said) even the prosecution painted of the object of Elvira’s desire . A  picture of a feckless, immoral and slightly sinister  “gigolo”  has remained largely unchallenged for eighty years. The best that has been said about him is that he was probably no worse than Elvira – hardly a ringing endorsement.

It is clear that Michael Stephen was not really an insider in this set. Of the cocktail party guests, only Hugh Wade, Terence Skeffington-Smyth and Arthur Streek admit to knowing him well. Streek counted him as a friend but his only real piece of information is the fact that Michael was constantly borrowing money. Irene MacBrayne was presumably a friend as he had personally invited her to the party that morning, but again she has little to say on his behalf. The guests all agree that Michael and Elvira were very fond of each other and all downplay (or deny) the many rows between the couple. However, this probably says more about their loyalty to Elvira than anything else.

The “other woman”, Dora Wright, does speak fondly of Michael and attests to his devotion to Elvira  – but she was a lone voice and, anyway, her opinion was never made public. If there was another Michael, who was not simply an idler,a sponger and a general scoundrel, we have little print evidence for such a re-evaluation. Besotted with him as Elvira undoubtedly was, her frustration with this low-level philanderer seems to have been shared by more than a few of his peers. He died pretty well alone and unmourned.

Although only a couple of years younger than Elvira, his good looks (as opposed to Elvira’s rapidly fading beauty), his lack of employment and his relative lack of social status made him an easy figure for the press to demonise. The Sunday Dispatch even produced a supposed autobiographical essay where he bemoaned his easy success with women and gave a tittillating account of various shady residences where all sorts of immoral acts took place, in which he was both participant and observer. This was an obvious fake – why would an unknown man conveniently leave such a condemnatory account  of his own life with a national newspaper just days before his untimely (and,one assumes) unexpected death? Still it added to the generally critical view of Michael and  served to reinforce the consensus  that the handsome corpse was really the villain of the piece.

But  what do we really know about Michael? Well, he wasn’t called Michael, for a start. His name was Thomas William Scott Stephen and he was born in Elgin in 1908. His father was Thomas Milne Stephen who had worked his way up from clerk,then accountant to Bank Manager for a London branch of the North of Scotland Bank. Moving from branch to branch along the promotion ladder, Stephen pere had found a wife in Croydon in 1903. She was Elizabeth Park, a callisthenics teacher and daughter of a Tax Collector. So came into being a solidly middle class family, three sons and one daughter. By 1932 they were living, in some comfort, at Penshurst in Kent.

“Michael” and his two male siblings were all educated at Shrewsbury and his elder brother, Francis, had then become a solicitor. It was to him that the police turned to for information. Francis’ statement is curt and decidedly unsympathetic. He gives Michael’s profession as a “dress designer” ( an occupation that the trial judge found worthy of scorn) and said that he had been unemployed recently. Whether Michael was a dress designer or not is unknown. Terence Skeffington Smyth states that when he met him first in Paris (with a Mr.Firmin) Stephen was seeking out contacts in the industry. Incidentally, Michael Sherard, a friend of Arthur Jeffress’ and someone probably known to Michael, was in Paris at the time learning that trade.

Outfit by Michael Sherard, 1949

As to his brother’s relationship with Elvira, Francis states, ” He has been associated with Mrs. Barney for the past two years and has known her here since about last November. Prior to that he had known her in Paris” . He confirms that  Michael’s father had severed all relations with him, though his mother had kept in touch. He adds ” He is of a roving disposition and I do not think the quiet life at Penshurst suited him”. I think we can safely conclude that the elder brother shared the father’s view of Michael. For a family  built on the probity of Scottish banking, Michael’s profligacy (financial and sexual) was beyond the pale.

Denied an allowance by his father, Stephen, so we are told, turned to gambling and his fine features to keep him in spending money. However, he was always broke – so not much of a “player” in any sense – perhaps he was simply too fond of gambling and not too fond of work. We can assume that he was bi-sexual ( who in this group wasn’t?), was it this rather than his lack of a respectable career that caused the family rift? In all likelihood, yes, as not only was the money stopped but he was denied access to the family home.

Michael has often been cited as both a user and a “drugs pusher”. Peter Cotes quotes Beverley Nichols on the subject, “He was a very unpleasant little gigolo, who once offered me cocaine, which I threw back in his face.”

Beverley Nichols

If this is true, apart from adding “the” original Bright Young Person to Elvira’s circle, it is noteworthy. However Nichols was not always a reliable chronicler of his youthful career and had a tendency to turn against erstwhile friends. His reaction betrays a sense of moral outrage out of character with his early persona (though quite in keeping with his elderly one). Even if the incident took place, which it probably did but not quite as reported, it does not convince me that he was a “pusher” in any obvious sense. “Pushers”  have a variety of recognisable traits, being constantly penniless is not one that I have noticed.

I think it is safe to say that Michael used drugs and was quite happy to trade on his good-looks with either sex. He liked the card table, night clubs and the party life. In that he was no different to most of the people to whose social circle he aspired to belong. I think “aspiration” is the right word as Michael is patently not quite one of the elect. Middle rather than Upper class, with no inheritance or allowance to pay for the nightly round of pleasure, he seems a little out of his league.

He may well have mistreated Elvira, but on every occasion that the police are called he is the one that appears in greater danger – with blackened eye, threatened with a gun, sober when Elvira is drunk – he hardly looks the part of the manipulative and controlling gigolo. His main concern always appears to be Elvira’s safety and state of mind. He may have been just protecting his investment but, if so, he displayed acting skills which outmatched by far any of his other discernible talents.

I think Michael Scott Stephen was essentially a waster – nothing more worthy or sinister than that. He had rejected his parents’ bourgeois world and in turn been cast out. He had found himself a more amenable subculture and had tried to become part of it. What he lacked was money. He lived by borrowing and on the goodwill of others. His misfortune was to meet a person desperate for love but possessive and unstable. Much has been made of Elvira’s need for him but perhaps he also loved and needed her. Let’s face it, most folk would have run a mile after the first of Elvira’s drunken outbursts. I can’t see him as calculating; amoral, yes, and lacking in fidelity or fortitude of any sort but no evil genius.

Had he not met Mrs.Barney in Paris he would have been just one of many kicking their heels around the West End looking for the next assignation or party invite.

Michael Scott Stephen’s death turned him into an ideal target for much of what “Middle England” felt was wrong with young men between the wars – effeminate,superficial, lacking in responsibilty, generally dissolute and, above all,  unlike their fathers. Well, Michael was all of these – with a few other vices thrown in.

Twenty years later it had become customary to compare this generation unfavourably not just with an earlier and more properly masculine type but with the next group of young Englishmen  – those who fought so bravely in the Second World War. By a marvellous coincidence  the Stephen family provides a perfect example of this contrast.

The youngest of the Stephen brothers, who was 16 at the time of Michael’s death, became one of that  legendary group of men – a Spitfire pilot. This was none other than Harbourne McKay Stephen, credited with downing eight German planes in a day and one of the best known and most honoured of Battle of Britain airmen. He later became a managing director at the Daily Telegraph (he had been a journalist before the War).


Harbourne Mckay Stephen

The contrast between the two careers could not be greater.

Michael, of course, would have been only 31 when the  War broke out  – but by then he and the world he unwittingly came to symbolise had been consigned to Ancient History.

“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?