The following is a picturesque and evocative snapshot of Bright Young rituals circa 1926-28.
“The 1920s were a good period for eccentrics. Self-expression was the note of the day;the rich had more money than ever before, and less inhibitions about what to express. Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies have been taken as satirical fantasies, but they describe a real manner of life with total accuracy. In those years I saw a great deal of another cousin, Elizabeth Ponsonby, who exemplified her period perfectly.The waste of time which took place was prodigious. One was always, in the silly world I moved in at the age of seventeen, dressing up for a party; indeed, one travelled with a dinner jacket and a matelot’s uniform, which we had found out to be the quickest and simplest form of fancy dress.”
Matelot Dress Pattern 1934
“Night after night, there was Elizabeth, often starting our evening with half a dozen of our friends in the Grosvenor Square house of Arthur Bendirs (whose beautiful and silent daughter Babe Bosdari – much photographed by Cecil Beaton – shook our cocktails and helped us zip up our disguises) before we went on to Florence de Pena, or Gracie Ansell, or whoever was the hostess of an evening which inevitably took in a stop at the Cafe Anglais, where Rex Evans sang at the piano, and an eventual eclipse at an unassuming nightclub behind Piccadilly Circle, the Blue Lantern.”
Cafe Anglais 1949
This passage is taken from The Bonus of Laughter, the autobiography of the writer and long-standing editor of the TLS, Alan Pryce-Jones . It’s a joy to read and has exactly the right feel about it, though one or two of the specifics are a little odd. Babe would not yet be Bosdari and if she was much photographed by Beaton, I can’t find any examples.
Nonetheless, the picture of Babe, pretty, quiet and slightly in the background, corresponds to other reminiscences.Evelyn Waugh, no fan at all, says much the same and Tom Driberg recalled her as, in comparison to Elizabeth Ponsonby, “much more placid, round-faced and innocent-looking, with very little expression in her face, but very beautiful in a way”.The one dissenting voice comes from Elizabeth’s mother, who blamed Babe for some of Elizabeth’s excesses and was none too pleased about Babe’s marriage to and hasty divorce from her nephew David Plunket Grene. Dorothea Ponsonby described Babe as looking like “a forty year old procuress”, a phrase as striking as it was probably inaccurate.
However, as time went on, I’m not sure the Bendir daughter stayed too much in the shadows. Although no innovator, chronicler or artist, she exemplifies a certain mode of existence as well as any of her set.
Babe played a significant part in producing and cementing the image of the BYP as far as the press, the public and her contemporaries were concerned.She achieved (if that is the right word) this through her friendships with other women, her fleeting marriages and her attendance at, and her role in organising, the many parties that still remain central to our view of the whole phenomenon.
Her close female friends, Elizabeth Ponsonby ( a cousin by marriage), Olivia Plunket Greene (sister-in-law) and the incomparable Sylvia Ashley, personified Bright Young Womanhood and Babe was their equal in her dedication to the hedonistic cause. I will say something about Babe’s relationship to all three, but particularly Elizabeth, in the next post. .Her marriages, and her unusual husbands, will also be dealt with later.
For now, let’s just concentrate on a couple of parties.It is as one of the quartet who organised the Bath and Bottle Party that she earns her place within the BYP elite. Held at St.George’s Swimming Baths on Buckingham Palace Road from 11pm onward on Friday 13th July, 1928, it was the quintessential Bright Young gathering. Guests wore bathing costumes, a black jazz orchestra provided the music and, as D.J.Taylor reports, its “novelty and notoriety” surpassed all of the (many) other costume and “freak” parties. Moralists and gossip-columnists had a field day. If there was a single Bright Young highpoint, this was it.
A few months later there occurred the other defining party of the period, Brian Howard’s overly-ambitious Great Urban Dionysia. This event, intended to be the ultimate in decadent glamour, was something of a failure, the reality falling far short of the concept. Guests were to come as characters from Greek mythology and were advised to research their designs at the British Museum. Willy King, Viva’s husband, worked there and helped Howard and others choose appropriate costumes. Viva was Sappho, Olivia Wyndham Minerva, Ernest Thesiger Medusa, John Banting Mercury, Mary Butts a Caryatid and so forth. Babe dressed in blue, her outfit modelled on a Nymph from a Greek vase. Her look was a success but many other outfits were over-elaborate and ponderous. Even worse, some were considered tawdry and, in a comment designed to give Howard nightmares, the whole affair was deemed by one columnist to be rather “suburban”.
The 16 inches long invitation, reproduced in Portrait of a Failre, with its list of Howard’s likes and dislikes is very revealing, but even that manages to both pretentious and rather adolescent. What tends to be overlooked is the name of the actual host.
“The Dionysia Will Occur this Year
At 1 Marylebone Lane, Oxford Street
(Behind Bumpus’s) on the 4th of April 1929
At 11pm. Celebrated by
BABE PLUNKET GREENE
in honour of the 24th Birthday of
and because the New Athens is sorry that
is going to Acadia”
This would suggest that, although the occasion was very much Howard’s endeavour, Babe was fairly integral to proceedings. I wonder whether she financed the event, as Brian’s income never quite matched his ambitions. Did she have any creative input? Probably not,but in later life she was a patron to certain artists and a collector, so to assume that her presence was merely decorative is possibly a mistake.
False Dawn by John Tunnard (owned by Babe)
It is unlikely that Babe invested the “freak” parties with the sort of status Howard envisaged for them (early “Happenings” almost). But that she relished the mixture of outrage and aestheticism they aspired to is given added weight by the fact that not only was she involved in these two famous examples but that she, along with Elizabeth Ponsonby, had organised one of the early White Parties (white outfits, white decor, white food) that crop up throughout the period.If the Bright Young People are largely remembered in popular culture for the parties they threw then Babe, with her fondness for dancing and cocktails, is, through her presence at and her participation in some of the era’s signature events, no background figure at all. The best known lines in Vile Bodies are these,
“Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity … Those vile bodies.”
This, without Waugh’s disapproving note, is the world Babe inhabited and helped create.
Incidentally, Bumpus’s, mentioned in the invitation, was one of the great London book stores, loved by bibliophiles, Bloomsbury and the more literary of the “smart set”. There are some splendid images of the place here – Bumpus 1930 .