Tag Archive: Ruth Baldwin


Gwen Farrar

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.

 Herbert Wallen by Elise Muriel Hatchard

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.

Norah Blaney

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.

She Shall Have Music [VHS]

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

Radio Times January 1937

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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.

Ruth Baldwin

On Friday June 13th 1930 Evelyn Waugh’s diary entry refers to a party he attended organised by Olivia Wyndham and Ruth Baldwin aboard a Thames steamer.

“It was not enough of an orgy.Masses of Lesbian tarts and joyboys. Only one fight when a Miss Firminger got a black eye. Poor old Hat (Brian Howard) looked like a tragedy queen.”

Marjorie Firminger was the author of “Jam Today” ( see  https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/14/mary-ashliman-heather-pilkington-and-the-blue-angel/). The black eye may well have been delivered by Ruth Baldwin , although both she and Olivia had form here.

Both were at Elvira’s cocktail party and both were key figures in the “Lesbian Bohemia” of the time.I will post more about Olivia Wyndham shortly but let us for the moment look at the remarkable, but largely forgotten, Ruth.

Born in America in 1905, Ruth was the wildest of a wild set. Whether she herself was wealthy or not, I can’t ascertain, but, as Joe Carstairs’ lover and secretary, she spent freely and lived very much for the moment. She was a notoriously heavy drinker, converting her Mulberry Walk kitchen into a bar and I imagine that it was her, doubtless appalled at the choice of sherry or cocktails at Elvira’s party, who left with Michael Scott Stephen, returning with whisky. Apart from a prodigious appetite for drink, Ruth Baldwin used both cocaine and heroin.

She was big (her nickname in some quarters was “Fatty”), “immensely powerful”  and with “a moon face,bold,naughty eyes and thick,auburn hair”.

Promiscuous and possessive in equal measure, her  penchant for fighting  inspired fear but her exuberance  was a source of genuine affection. Edward Burra adored her and his description of what seems to me, a rather terrifying scene, at 19 King’s Road,  is typical.

“Ruth was quite drunk and kept rushing at B (Barbara Ker-Seymer) and biting her. However after a bit more crashing and screams they went off.” Far from condemning this assault on his closest female friend, Burra continues, “Ruth Baldwin is my beau ideal.I think I like them fat. I can’t resist anyone that goes about with an aeroplane in diamonds where there ought to be a tie.”

Ruth was the great love of Joe Carstairs’ life. (See https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/5-mulberry-walk-chelsea/). Apart from her gift of the totemic doll, Sir Todd Wadley, she described Ruth, in many ways a very kindred spirit, as “The first person who ever meant anything to me.” The tears Joe shed on hearing of Ruth’s death were apparently the first time she had ever cried.

The lesbian subculture  that Ruth moved included Marty Mann, another American, who nearly died of drink but went on to become an early member of AA – and in the fifties the movement’s most public figure. Mann’s autobiography mentions endless cocktail parties in London in the early 30s – were Elvira’s some of them?

Other notable figures of the London scene (Paris and Cannes are important too)  were Dolly Wilde (Oscars niece), musician and comedienne Gwen Farrar, the above-mention Barbara Ker-Seymer and Audrey Carten. Carten , an actress and playwright, was rumoured to have had a bizarre fling with Elvira shortly after the trial – bizarre because the night of passion, it was claimed, also included Carten’s brother,Kenneth. This circle generally was more arty than either Elvira or Ruth ever claimed to be but there is undoubtedly considerable overlap because of a shared sexuality and a common liking for intoxicants of various types.

It was at Gwen Farrar or Dolly Wilde’s London flat that Ruth succumbed to a drug overdose and died aged only 31 (1937). Fittingly the assembled guests were listening to a Boxing Match on the radio. Her ashes were taken to Carstairs’ Bahamas island of Whale Cay, where a shrine cum small church was built. On Carstairs’ death in 1993 – the ashes of both women along with those of the doll, Wadley, were interred together.

It is unlikely that Ruth and Elvira were close but they did have friends in common and possibly lovers too. The least one can deduce from Ruth’s presence at the cocktail party was that much of Elvira’s world  was held together by a mixture of narcotics,alcohol and what would have been seen at the time (especially post-Radcliffe Hall) as dangerous and deviant sexualities. This is what the papers and the police knew and pruriently hinted at.What is remarkable about the trial is that the defence managed to downplay all of this and the prosecution failed to exploit it.

The above information comes from “The Queen of Whale Cay” by Kate Summerscale and “Edward Burra -C20th  Eye” by Jane Stevenson

5 Mulberry Walk, Chelsea

Some of the guests at Elvira’s cocktail party went on to a small gathering at 5 Mulberry Walk. Ruth Baldwin who lived on the ground floor and Olivia Wyndham , also resident at the time, went straight there. Brian Howard, Anton Altmann and Sylvia Coke joined them after dining at Brice’s on Wardour Street. Howard said the purpose of the soiree was to admire the newly completed murals by John Banting. Banting and Howard had collaborated on the pictures for the Bruno Hat hoax – an iconic moment in the Bright Young People saga

5 Mulberry walk was really a block of flats, designed by Clifton R. Davy in the “stripped mannerist style” in 1913 for the artist and anthroposophist,Baron Arild Rosenkrantz. It was also home to the illustrator Claude Shepperson.

Artist Claude Allin Shepperson - Poster

by Shepperson (left) and Rosenkrantz (right)

In the early twenties the unbelievably wealthy Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstairs purchased it for £3000. Prices in Mulberry Walk today are around the£8 million mark. Joe Carstairs was an eccentric, very masculine character with a great zest for life. She was a leading speedboat racer in the golden age of that sport and after Radclyffe Hall probably the best known Lesbian in England.Her larger-than-life personality is encapsulated perfectly in Kate Summerscale’s  biography “The Queen of Whale Cay”.

Carstairs was cited by one of the William Mews chauffeur’s wives as having been at the Barney cocktail party. a claim very bluntly denied in a letter to the police. It is likely that the person witnessed was actually the equally formidable Ruth Baldwin.  Ruth Baldwin was Joe’s  “secretary” and main lover and the woman who gave her the famous Steiff doll, christened Lord Todd Wadley, who became Carstairs’constant companion and whose name  was emblazoned  and mounted on a plaque by the front door of number 5 alongside Carstairs’ and Baldwin’s.

Baldwin and Wyndham were almost certainly lovers and very close to Olivia Wyndham was the photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer ( confidante of Edward Burra and sometime resident of Mulberry Walk). Ker-Seymer is a good candidate as an attendee of both the cocktail party and the Mulberry Walk party.Whether Edward Burra  (greatly taken with both Ruth Baldwin and Joe Carstairs) was there is moot – but, due to his ill-health, he was rarely an attendee t partiesaalthough he lovingly recorded all the gossip fed back to him by Ker-Seymer and others. Banting may have been present too as he often stayed at Howard and Gathorne-Hardy’s shared flat at this time. Banting was, however, such an out-of-control character that it seems unlikely that he would not  have been noticed had he been around.

Barbara Ker-Seymer

The Mulberry Walk gathering shows, at least,Elvira’s close proximity to the fastest,artiest, gayest, not to mention the most alcoholic and drug-addicted set in London at the time .

Brian Howard and Ruth Baldwin

After the party Brian Howard, Anton Altmann and Sylvia Coke went to Brice’s Restaurant and then on to a small party at Ruth Baldwin’s flat. Also present were Olivia Wyndham, David Plunket Greene,a Mr.Carew and about five other people.