Gwendoline Farrar (1898-1944) appears in so many inter-War reminiscences and autobiographies that I am surprised that nobody has deemed her worthy of a full length biography. Talented, eccentric and independent, she was as distinctive a character as any associated with Upper-Bohemia or The Bright Young People. Her connection to Elvira cannot be proved but, given that she was a hard-partying Chelsea resident and very close to Audrey Carten, Jo Carstairs and Ruth Baldwin, she moved in similar circles.
The upper echelons of the Bright Young People, Waugh’s beloved but, to me, rather unappealing “Guiness Set”, rather dismissed her as she was a little older than them and too much part of “popular culture”. Zita Jungman, sounding rather like the Victorian matriarchs her generation are supposed to have rebelled against, recalled, “Gwen Farrar was someone one saw on the stage… one didn’t see her socially.” – a statement as generally untrue as it is snobbish.Plenty of the 20s’ set saw her “socially”, at parties at her London address or out on the town, often accompanied by her friend and fellow free-spirit, Tallulah Bankhead.
Born into wealth and privilege, her father, Sir George Herbert Farrar, had South African mining interests, she had no more need to seek employment than Elvira or the Jungman sisters. In 1915 she inherited (along with her five sisters) a fortune that would allow her to purchase 217 King’s Road and a country house in Northamptonshire. She studied classical music and was taught cello by Herbert Walenn, England’s leading exponent of the instrument. She also developed a remarkable baritone speaking voice which she was to use to great effect in her future career.
During the First World War she joined Lena Ashwell’s company, entertaining the troops in France and Belgium. This forerunner of ENSA was established to bring high-culture to the ordinary soldiers but included lighter interludes. Elvira had a natural gift for comedy and began to develop an “act”. She met pianist and singer, Norah Blaney, and they formed an on and off-stage partnership that thrived in the early twenties. By 1925 , both were household names. Their duets, usually renditions of hits of the day, were often masterpieces of innuendo, Blaney taking the “female” role and Gwen the “male”. Completely heterosexual lyrics were cleverly subverted. Most of the public remained innocent but those in the know “knew”, as it were.
They appeared in newsreel shorts, on early sound film experiments, in revues and West End shows, Music Hall and on the radio.
Away from the stage, Gwen Farrar was becoming known for hosting parties where serious drinking was the order of the day. She moved in several distinct but occasionally overlapping Lesbian subcultures. She knew Radclyffe Hall, Teddie Gerrard and from 1923 was very close to Jo Carstairs, who named her speedboat Newg after her. She was also taken up by Tallulah Bankhead and took part in one of the early Bright Young Thing treasure hunts with her – ferried around London by Carstairs’ all-female chauffeur service. With Audrey Carten, she was arrested for punching a policeman who tried to stop her parking outside the Savoy and she seems to have had her share of (apparently obligatory) drunken car-crashes after various parties and nights out.
The partnership, professional and otherwise, with Norah Blaney ended in 1924, although they had several reunions. Her next major collaborator was the unjustly neglected pianist-composer Billy Mayerl, whose composition “Marigolds” was the most over-played piano piece of the inter-War years. Mayerl’s mixture of classical training, his incorporation of jazz stylings and his fondness for comic pastiche suited Gwen well and she also started writing revue material at this time.
Meanwhile, 217 King’s Road was becoming somewhat notorious. The location is significant. Part of a block of three houses, it was home to two other high-profile women. Lady Sybil Colefax lived at 213 and Syrie Maugham at 215. Both were interior designers – in fact both were the interior designers of their day. Sybil Colefax was a specialist in modernising upper-class living and drawing-rooms while Syrie, wife of Somerset Maugham, is the person who is largely responsible for the white interiors that remained dominant through to the Art Deco era.
Left Room by Sybil Colefax Right Syrie Maugham
Both women were great “society hostesses” and also rivals for the most prestigious guests. Their luncheons featured the literary, artistic and aristocratic “stars” of the day. Gwen’s luncheons and her other gatherings, though sprinkled with famous names, mainly featured alcohol and “high jinks”.
One of those who had access to all three establishments, the ubiquitous Beverley Nichols, described Gwen as “grotesque but endearing” and it may have been at 217 that he rejected Michael Stephen’s offer of cocaine. Drug use was certainly part of Gwen’s social world and by the late 1920s she was host to the racier Chelsea set, which may have included Elvira, but certainly included Olivia Wyndham, Ruth Baldwin and Audrey Carten.
213,215,217 King’s Road
Though she continued to perform and write throughout the 1930s, alcoholism had now set in. Her home was said increasingly to resemble a bar. The parties continued. At one in 1937, while Gwen and other guests were listening to a boxing match on the radio, Ruth Baldwin died of a heroin overdose. In the same year Gwen fell in love, as everyone seems to have done at some time, with Dolly Wilde who lived with her until 1939. It says something for Farrar’s lifestyle that Wilde’s former lover Natalie Barney was greatly worried about the deleterious effects on Wilde, another heroin/morphine addict, that Farrar’s endless partying was having.
Gwen Farrar died in 1944. Hers was one of the voices of the 1920s and her looks made her probably the most public “Lesbian” icon within the popular culture of the era.Her fondness for alcohol, her closeness to Tallulah Bankhead, her love of sport (she was an expert horsewoman) and her general attitude to life would all have appealed to Elvira. Farrar’s dry humour and keen intelligence may not have made such feelings mutual but I am certain that their paths often crossed.Even if they didn’t, Farrar deserves to be better known today than she seems to be . I find her both fascinating and rather likeable.
In the 1930s she made a few cameo appearances in British films – here she is in the fairly awful Jack Hylton feature “She Shall Have Music”. She played Miss Peachums, a stage-school “headmistress” in charge of a group of nubile young actresses. It was a role that I imagine she found amusing.
and here she is in her prime
Some of her work – with Norah Blaney and Billy Mayerl can be found on this invaluable CD also available as download at Amazon etc.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that Gwen Farrar was one of the first people to broadcast on television – an indication of her popular appeal. Her 20 minute slot in 1937 was entitled “Sophisticated Cabaret” which is very fitting. Details can be found here