Tag Archive: Peter Cotes


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.

I think it is safe to assume that all of the attendees at Arthur Jeffress’  Orchard Court party went there from the Blue Angel (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/30th-may-1932-parties/ ) and that it was therefore a fairly impromptu gathering. Elvira and Michael were invited but Elvira declined, claiming tiredness, which was unlikely given the descriptions of her as being “in high spirits” and “excitable” while at the club. In the light of subsequent events, it was not exactly a wise decision to return home.

Barbara Waring

The inclusion of Barbara Waring (Born Barbara Waring Gibb 1912-1990)  among Jeffress’ late night guests is further evidence of the importance of the theatre and young actors and actresses to West End club and party life. Who was she with that evening? It is unlikely that she went to the Blue Angel alone, so fellow actress Irene MacBrayne is the most probable companion. Lester Empson Lucas (21), who is proving a little elusive, is another possibility.

She was younger than most of the Monday night revellers (19) and was appearing in Noel Coward’s Cavalcade at the time (as, I suspect, was MacBrayne). She was a close friend of Sylvia Coke’s (they had been at RADA together) and may be the unnamed actress who attended the earlier Mews cocktail party with Miss Coke – although that does not fit with the statement Sylvia gave the police.I would doubt that she knew Elvira or Michael very well, if at all.

However through her friendship with Sylvia Coke and Angela Worthington she would have met many of London’s fashionable and “fast” characters. Her son’s obituary lists Noel Coward and Ivor Novello as friends of his mother and Angela Worthington cites John Heygate, Ewart Garland, Michael Sieff (of Marks and Spencer fame) and the disreputable Gussie Schweder as part of the young actresses’ circle. Belgravia-born Schweder was gay, dissolute and an inveterate party-giver at his Knightbridge flat. I’m sure Gussie would have had more than a passing acquaintance with Michael and/or Elvira.

Cavalcade itself is an even more appropriate cultural marker of the demise of the Bright Young Things than the Barney trial. An extravagant and over-blown historical tableau, it turned Coward from darling of the sophisticates into a “national treasure” and respectable figure of the establishment almost over-night. Though Coward, by 1931, was already the highest paid author in England, his plays still were considered somewhat racy and all had problems with the censors.Cavalcade, a sentimental pageant charting the lives of two families (one rich,one poor) through the events of the first thirty years of the century, struck just the right patriotic and nostalgic notes and a nation reeling from the Depression and the recent humbling abandonment of the Gold Standard took it to its heart immediately. Royal approval was given by the appearance at the second night of the King and Queen, the Daily Mail serialised it and it ran (to full houses) for over a year. The Conservative party even credited it with bolstering the middle-class vote and ensuring that the “Radical” thirties remained largely under their stewardship.

Gladys Calthrop 1931

The play’s impact on the West End was equally impressive. As it featured over 400 actors and behind the scenes workers, it provided much employment and for young hopefuls (like John Mills and Barbara Waring) was their first experience of a really successful long-run. Mention must be made of the elaborate sets and the wide range of costumes used in the course of the show. These were designed by Gladys Calthrop, Coward’s costumier,set-designer and confidante from The Vortex onward she was a member of the upper-echelons of lesbian Bohemia – her lovers included Mercedes De Acosta and Eva Le Gallienne, themselves indirectly linked to the Barney circle (through Tallulah Bankhead and Jo Carstairs).

Cavalcade does hint at the tensions caused by the twenties’ moral , sexual and cultural upheavals and closes in a noisy night-club with “jazz-age decadents” and a female character singing “Twentieth Century Blues” , but as Philip Hoare points out “the overwhelming impression of the production was of nostalgic national introspection and sentimentality”. The endless  patriotic speeches and chestnuts like “Keep The Home Fires Burning” ensured that tradition triumphed over modernity.

Barbara Waring continued her association with Noel Coward but her next real impact was in cinema rather than on the stage. She appears in small roles in three of the best British war-time films – Noel Coward’s “In Which We Serve”, Powell and Pressburger’s “A Canterbury Tale” and Leslie Howard’s “The Gentle Sex”. The latter is of particular interest as it features dialogue contributions from playwright Aimee Stuart (whose own proto-feminist, discreetly-gay, Bohemian circle overlaps at times with the Chelsea Set)  and an uncredited acting part for Peter Cotes,  the author of “The Trial of Elvira Barney”. When Cotes writes that at certain times in his life he encountered many who knew Elvira then the set of “The Gentle Sex” is probably one of those occasions. Thirteen years earlier, Waring had appeared in Stuart’s “Nine Till Six”,with its all female cast a key play for both actresses and audiences of Elvira’s generation.(see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/12/06/georgia-and-frances-doble/)

The film itself is a mixture of, hopefully ironic,  condescension  and, for the time, quite progressive views about women. It remains oddly moving. Waring, like the whole female cast, is excellent as a rather unpleasant and aloof dancing- teacher who is forced to re-examine her prejudices.

Barbara Waring, whose father was a Doctor, had married the theatrical agent Laurence Evans in the late 1930s. As seems de rigeur for every woman this blog mentions, the first marriage was short-lived. In 1947 she married Geoffrey Cunliffe, son of Baron Cunliffe and Chairman of British Aluminium. Her creative career was not quite over though. A play of hers, “The Jaywalker” – religious in theme, was due to be performed at Coventry Cathedral in 1967.

The music was by Duke Ellington. A mutual friend of Ellington and Waring, Mrs. Lesley Diamond made the introduction. As Renee Gertler (niece of the artist Mark Gertler), the future Mrs.Diamond had been one of many young English fans who had lionised and met Ellington on his first triumphant tour in 1933.  Given this jazz and art connection it would be nice to place Renee Gertler in the Bohemian world of the Blue Angel etc. but she was actually a 13 year-old schoolgirl at the time. In the 1950s, however, her Park Lane home became Ellington’s favourite London retreat – a place to write and relax.

I’m not sure what happened to the production of “The Jaywalker” but the music is available from Storyville Records

One of the reasons Arthur Jeffress invited everyone back to his place, that night at the Blue Angel, was so he could play them some of the “hot” records he had brought with him from his recent trip to New York. I wonder if these included any Duke Ellington sides. It is not unlikely as he was already a favourite of the London cognoscenti (the hard-partying Constant Lambert being a particular fan).Anyway, I like the image of a young Barbara Waring  nodding away appreciatively to the Ellington Orchestra in the early hours.

Beatrix Thomson

One of the people interviewed by Peter Cotes about Elvira was Beatrix Thomson, a name once well known in theatre and the cinema. Born in 1900 she was a leading light of the London stage in the 1920s, playing in Capek’s “R.U.R.”  and in the iconic Basil Dean production of “The Constant Nymph”, among many others. Today, if she is  remembered at all it is as the third wife of Claude Rains (of Casablanca fame), to whom she was married between 1925 and 1935.

It could well be her who provides the very positive view of the aspiring “Dolores Ashley” ( see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/25/dolores-ashley-elvira-as-actress/ )  that contrasts so markedly with the general later consensus about Elvira. She is not especially likely to have been at the cocktail party, due to work commitments, but she is worth considering as an acquaintance of Elvira’s beyond Mrs.Barney’s “Blue Kitten” days.

Yet another of that era’s  independently-minded women,so many of whom carved a career in the performing arts, Beatrix Thomson was a playwright as well as a successful actress.Two other factors make her likely to be someone Elvira and her circle would have known and admired.

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Firstly, in 1929, she became the first actress, and one of the relatively few Englishwomen,  to hold an aviation licence.

Women in cars, speedboats and planes were a powerful symbol of the new freedoms that (generally wealthy) young women of the period were claiming for themselves. The aviatrice had a particular glamour –  youthful and modern, a defier of convention – they had a huge impact on attitudes about women, and equally significantly, women’s attitudes to themselves. Elvira, much given to hero-worship, would surely have been a keen follower of press reports about  the likes of Amy Johnson and Beryl Markham.

Secondly, in 1931, Beatrix, along with Helena Pickard, became co-manager of the Grafton Theatre on Tottenham Court Road. This gave her a chance to direct as well as act. The Grafton advertised itself as producing  “London’s Most Intimate Shows”, a reference to its small size but one designed to appeal to would-be sophisticates. In the short time that Pickard and Thomson ran the place it was dedicated to new plays seems to have particularly focussed on the talent of a number of women playwrights (including the managers’). Indeed, there is something markedly proto-feminist about the whole endeavour.

Elvira, as an avid first-nighter, would have attended many of these plays and, as was her habit, would have socialised with the performers after the show. In that period of time, Beatrix, who had been separated from her husband for three years, was living in Shepherd Market, very much a Mayfair-Bohemian address. It was also next to Half Moon Street, sometime residence of Brenda  Dean Paul, Gertrude Gamble and others who hover about the fringes of the case.

Pickard (1901-1959) was the wife of actor Cedric Hardwicke and the mother of Edward Hardwicke (best known as Watson in the Sherlock Holmes series). She was described as “a colourful personality” making her too a candidate for Elvira’s set.

Thomson moved into films for a while  (once co-starring with Edward Hardwicke) but returned to the stage after the Second World War during which she volunteered for work in aircraft production. Apparently, she most commonly referred to herself as an “airwoman”, but that is not confirmed on passenger lists where she is definitely “Actress”. She died in 1986.

Thomson and Hardwicke

Cotes claimed that his book differed from other writings on the case because he knew so many people who had known Elvira. I’m convinced Beatrix Thomson was one of those. She fits the profile – free-spirited,wealthy parents,involved with the theatre, based in Mayfair and separated from her husband. There is, it must be said, no hint of scandal or excess, in her long career but the possible areas of overlap are considerable. And, of course, she flew a plane. Irresistible, I would have thought.

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