Tag Archive: sexuality

Blackbirds Revue of 1926

Throughout the inter-War period moralists, puritans and prudes found much to deplore. The objects of their opprobrium were often reduced to key symbols of decadence, the very mention of which sufficed to demonise a whole series of, often though not always, innocent activities.

Elvira’s trial saw this process go into overdrive. Every phrase associated with her world  became a symbol of waywardness. As we have seen  “Cocktail Party” was one useful catch-all term for the new degeneracy (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/cocktail-parties/ )  . Equally, the very word  “Nightclub ” carried with it a sense of wickedness much exploited by the press and popular literature. As what would now be called “Gender Roles” caused endless worry and the term “Flapper” had been imported to indicate all that was untoward regarding that particular social crisis. “Bright Young Thing” had largely replaced that term by 1932 but the meanings, as far as the strictures on female behaviour were concerned, remained little altered. A closely associated panic developed around  “Masculine Women, Feminine Men”, of whom Elvira’s gang had more than its share.

Most famously,Clothes and hairstyles became highly politicised in the era. Every visible sign  was mined for its contribution to “Immorality”, by which was meant sex, newly invented apparently. Even the seemingly neutral term “Youth”, not for the last time in the twentieth century, became a suspect category. And let us not forget drug use, specifically “Cocaine,” any hint of which was guaranteed to strike vicarious frissons of terror among the respectable classes.

But there was one word that managed to encapsulate all that was deemed disruptive, chaotic , dangerous and modern in the above fears and fantasies. That word was “JAZZ”. Jazz became the short-hand signifier of everything that worried mainstream society and thus, inevitably, acquired a glamour and a mystique among those who saw themselves as part of the “New Age”.

We don’t actually know what music was played at Elvira’s parties but all the accounts assume that “Jazz music blared out from the record player”, annoying the neighbours and presumably frightening the ghosts of the horses that had previously inhabited the Mews. In the Dance Band era any arrangement with a whiff of syncopation  counted as Jazz – so it is no surprise that artists who appeared to be, or actually were, “the real thing” became heroes among the young record-buyers,  party-goers and dancers of the time.

Jazz  incorporated not only all that might be deemed “New”, it added the twin “evils” of race and rampant sexuality to the mix. No matter how “refined” the arrangements of Debr0y Somers,  Bert Ambrose or Carroll Gibbons might have been, somewhere underneath could be detected the rhythms of an alien culture. However much the disguise – Jazz was  ineluctably  “black” – or in the language of the day Negro or Coloured. In a country still very much defined by Empire and “The White Man’s Burden”, that a musical form associated with “the inferior races” should provoke such hostility amongst the many-  and such adulation amongst the rebellious  few is hardly surprising.

The year of the General Strike, 1926, is of particular importance regarding this relationship between black music and white audiences. In January the first journal devoted to dance-bands and “hot” music appeared, in the spring a painting was exhibited and then withdrawn from the Royal Academy and in the autumn a show arrived from New York that was to become an essential part of Bright Young mythology.

The journal was Melody Maker and for much of its long life it was the only place for musicians and fans to find out about Jazz. It also, from its earliest days, encouraged fierce debate regarding the merits of the music and, indeed, the very definition of “Jazz”. Its combative editor, Edgar Jackson held some peculiar ideas about music and race and was initially, oddly perhaps given the paper’s future promotion of Ellington, Armstrong et al, keen to distance his notion of “hot” music from any association with the “primitive” sounds of Black America.

John Bulloch Souter The Breakdown 1926

The controversy surrounding a painting at the annual RA show particularly exercised Jackson. The Scottish artist John Souter presented “The Breakdown” for exhibition at what was then still an important event within the British Art world. The painting shows a black musician playing a saxophone (and therefore jazz) to a naked, ghostly white woman. He is sat on the broken statue of Classical art, which his music is presumably deemed to have destroyed. Whatever Souter intended, and this work is not typical, he captured in the most melodramatic manner many of the cultural and moral fears of the time. Its themes are those of many a contemporary editorial.

Jackson was not alone in his fulminations. After much outcry, the picture was quickly withdrawn. According to one account  this was on the orders of the Colonial Office which brings an interesting political (and Imperial) dimension to the affair.

On a far more positive note, in September the” Blackbirds Revue of 1926″ opened at the London Pavilion. Starring Edith Wilson, Florence Mills, Gwendolyn Graham and featuring The Plantation Orchestra with its virtuoso trumpeters Pike Davis and Johnny Dunn, the show ran for 276 performances and had the same impact on fashionable London society that the Revue Negre and Josephine Baker had had on Paris a year earlier.

Gwendolyn Graham and Dancers, roof of London Pavilion

Florence Mills

The success of the show, which was not the first black show on the 1920s London stage, was due in no small part to its patronage by the Prince of Wales. A keen fan of dancing and “hot” music he attended, it is said, “night after night”. Very quickly the Blackbirds were taken up by the Bright Young People, attending parties, having flings and in some cases forging lasting friendships.Spike Hughes and Constant Lambert were ardent devotees and Evelyn Waugh, although he would later offer a cynical and rather unpleasant take on the whole phenomenon, was also a “repeat” attendee. A still very young Brenda Dean Paul fell completely for Florence Mills and declared she wanted  more than anything to be “a coloured dancer”. With a nice touch of diplomatic flattery, Florence told Brenda that “she could have been born in Harlem” so well did she dance. For Olivia Wyndham, Blackbirds and other similar shows were the beginning of a journey that would see her live for the best part of 40 years actually  in Harlem.

A version of the revue toured England in 1927 and a new show returned to the West End in 1928 .This introduced Adelaide Hall to an English audience and she would stay in London, living in Mayfair, running a night-club and performing at The Florida, The Cafe De Paris and other Elvira-friendly venues. Other musicians from both (and similar) shows would stay in Europe  becoming part of the pre-war club and popular music scene in ways that remain under-appreciated.

The revues were not without their critics. Plenty of newspapers deplored the perceived “cult of the Negro” that their success generated. In recent years the criticism has been rather different, pointing out the exoticising and primitivist impulses behind much of the white audience’s fandom. The shows themselves relied heavily on a number of crude racial stereotypes which are uncomfortable to modern sensibilities. They have also been somewhat written off by Jazz historians – being seen as lacking authenticity. Fortunately, although no singers recorded, the band made four sides while in London, so we can get some idea of what so thrilled Hughes and Lambert etc.





I’ll write more on this topic in a while but, in the meantime, two books are worth seeking out – Jim Godbolt’s A History of Jazz in Britain – an idiosyncratic but entertaining exercise and Catherine Parsonage’s more scholarly The Evolution of Jazz in Britain.

Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson

I’ll leave Charlotte Breese’s “Hutch” alone after this post but I do recommend it to anyone interested in the racial and sexual politics of the inter-war years – or anyone who wants to acquaint themselves with one of the true stars of British popular music in the sadly ignored decades preceding the rise of the Beatles. However there is a section on Elvira that is too tantalising to ignore.

“Typical of Hutch’s clients and/or lovers was Elvira Mullens, daughter of Lord and Lady Mullens. Three pianists – Hutch, Billy Milton and Carroll Gibbons – all played at one of her parties, which always featured modish theatricals. Appearing the same night was a close-harmony turn, The Three New Yorkers. Elvira was briefly married to one of them, a Mr.Barney. The marriage ended, and scandal erupted, when Elvira took a lover and shot him dead. Elvira was arrested and confined to the infirmary of Holloway prison, where, to keep up her spirits, she displayed a photograph of Tallulah Bankhead. At the same time, Mr. Barney tried to blackmail her father by threatening to expose details of her private life, including her cocaine habit. In the event, Elvira was acquitted. To celebrate she threw a huge party at the Berkeley. People were horrified and soon afterwards she committed suicide in Paris.”

There are some errors in this account, which is taken largely from Billy Milton’s “Paradise Mislaid” – is is doubtful that it was suicide, for example. However it is the “clients and/or lovers” that makes me wonder. Is this just a general statement about Elvira’s “typicality”  or is something more being implied? Why choose Elvira as an example, anyway?

It is not far-fetched at all to speculate  that Elvira could have had a fling with Hutch. So it seems did half of West End society, male and female. Elvira’s idol Tallulah certainly did and Zena Naylor (a friend of Brenda Dean Paul and Olivia Wyndham, if not Elvira herself) had quite a long-lasting affair with the singer. At one party, Brenda Dean Paul actually won Hutch in an auction. Another ex-Deb, Elizabeth Corbett (nee Sperling) was about the same age as Elvira and said to be the leader of “a smart set”. She gave birth to a child by Hutch in 1930. Hutch’s most famous relationship was with Lady Edwina Mountbatten, a somewhat less than clandestine romance and one which Elvira would have known all about. Edwina was drawing press attention at the same time Elvira was on trial. The People had hinted at an affair between Lady Mountbatten and a “coloured” entertainer. Fortunately for the Mountbattens, they picked on Paul Robeson as the likely candidate and Lord Mountbatten sued and won substantial damages. The unsuccessful defence case was conducted by none other than Sir Patrick Hastings, fresh from his  triumphant handling of Elvira’s murder charge.

Edwina Mountbatten

Although Hutch continued to be a cabaret favourite there was an undoubted behind the scenes campaign against him.After the abdication of friend and enthusiast Edward the Eighth he was rarely heard on the BBC and the Society invitations tailed off. He remained incredibly popular with female audiences throughout the country  and staged a triumphant “Society” comeback as part of the nostalgia for the 20s that hit the upper-classes in the mid-fifties. His last years though were ones of absolute decline and make for very sad and somewhat disquieting reading.

Breese’s commentary on the motivations of those women who threw themselves at Hutch in the golden years, from 1927 to the mid-thirties, rather misses some obvious points, explored at length elsewhere in the book,  but as an analysis of Elvira is worthy of consideration,

“Many of Hutch’s female lovers were rich and had nothing to do, and had little or no self-esteem.Desperate for affection, and attention, they lived in gilded misery, drifting from party to party and, inevitably, attracting men who despised, exploited and discarded them.”

It’s difficult enough to find people who admitted to knowing Elvira. With the less well-connected Michael Scott Stephen, the problem is even greater.

Michael Scott Stephen

Apart from the witness statements and Beverley Nichols’  unflattering portrait, I have only been able to find one example . However, it is an interesting one as the person in question is H. Montgomery Hyde. Tucked away in one of his many books on crime and the law is the following observation regarding the Barney trial, “The case had a particular interest for me as some time previously I had met the unfortunate young man who lost his life at Mrs. Barney’s hands.”

This seems little enough, but given Montgomery Hyde’s later prominence it affords us some room to speculate – more about Hyde than Stephen, it must be said.

Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery Hyde

Harford Montgomery Hyde (1907-1989) was a barrister, an Ulster Unionist MP and a prolific author. On the surface (and probably underneath) he was about as far removed from any “Fast Set” as it is possible to be. He was a man of the Protestant establishment and destined for a career that would be both respectable and highly rewarded. And so it  very nearly proved to be. He will always  be admired for his many books, a series of popular, well-researched histories and biographies, but his name is more instantly recognisable as that of a high-profile Member of Parliament who was unceremoniously deselected by his own constituency party.

For Montgomery Hyde, though no radical in most matters, held a number of surprisingly liberal opinions. He was an opponent of capital punishment, not exactly the dominant view in the circles in which he moved. More controversially, he was an outspoken advocate for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts and for the rights of homosexuals generally. It was his refusal to stay silent on this issue and in particular his very public backing of the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report that led to him being ousted by his North Belfast branch in 1959. In a long and bitter campaign, one of the participants in which was a young Ian Paisley, Montgomery Hyde was portrayed as immoral and a traitor to traditional Conservative and Unionist values.

Many of Montgomery Hyde’s books had dealt with high-profile trials involving homosexuals and even his more general writings on crime devote a fair amount of space to the injustice and absurdity of the laws regarding sexual behaviour. His dismissal  did not deter him and books and articles continued to appear throughout the 1960s, the most significant being his work on Roger Casement (which managed to offend traditional Republicans in the same way that he had alienated Loyalists) and his “History of Pornography” – a text much borrowed from public libraries at the time.

On account of his literary endeavours and his political stance, questions were raised about his own private life, the assumption being that nobody would dare raise their head above the parapet if they were not themselves homosexual.Montgomery Hyde, who was married three times, dismissed this and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. His friends did say he was very interested in sex particularly while at Oxford (whatever that means) and he once light-heartedly referred to a night where he shared a hotel room with Guy Burgess (Hyde was in Intelligence during World War 2).

Guy Burgess

Which brings us to the question – under what circumstances did he meet Michael Scott Stephen? They were both the same age, single and living in London but that is all they appear to have in common. Montgomery Hyde was academically-minded, studious and preparing to be called to the Bar whereas Michael was already firmly set on a life of empty-headed dissipation. Yet meet they did. Discussing the trial, Montgomery Hyde refers to Michael as “having early developed wild and extravagant habits. He had been turned out of his house by his father and now occupied a bed-sitting room in Brompton Road”. These facts could have been gleaned from available sources but the “bed-sitting room” was not mentioned at the trial and the “turning out” by the father is generally implied rather than, as here, boldly stated.This could suggest a more personal acquaintance with Michael – but I wouldn’t want to push it further than that.

As to Elvira’s social circle , Montgomery Hyde’s view was suitably conventional, “Both Mrs.Barney and the victim belonged to the gay set that gallivanted round London between the two World Wars, and whose members were known as the Bright Young People. They drank far more than was good for them, tore about the town in bright-coloured sports-cars and even brighter-coloured clothes, played absurd and sometimes unkind practical jokes, indulged in riotous parties, as well as promiscuous sexual intercourse, and generally made nuisances of themselves.”  All of which would seem to rule out the trainee barrister as a regular attendee at Elvira’s cocktail evenings.

Montgomery Hyde contributed greatly to promoting a more tolerant attitude towards homosexuality in British society. Although his scholarship has been questioned he is still worth reading and his analysis of the legal process is as good as any of his era. His major work is probably The Other Love: A Historical and Contemporary Survey of Homosexuality  (1970) but  his biographies are all enjoyable. As to his meeting with Michael and his own sexual orientation, no concrete evidence exists to confirm what might appear to be the obvious inferences.

A Letter from an Observer

As with most murder cases, the Police were inundated with unsolicited advice from the letter-writing public. Results of seances, pub gossip and the fervid speculations of the marginally insane all found their way to the D.P.P. or Scotland Yard.

One particular note seemed to have caused some concern, as it was carefully logged and kept in the prosecution files. Sent on a postcard from Brixton on the 10th June 1932, it suggests a certain amount of inside knowledge. The authorities were very sensitive to the charge that Elvira was receiving rather “special” treatment because of her her high social status and did their best to convince the general public otherwise. In this they were comprehensively unsuccessful.

The letter reads,

” A complaint is being made at headquarters. What sort of prison is this? A Cabaret? She might be left at home! The fuss they make of her and the “spoiling”!! Poor women are not treated thus. It is money money and one is a Saint! Madam. To the contrary, all sympathy from nice people, goes to the correct-living Stephen’s family and their loss.A woman, married, who goes to live in a place inhabited by quiet decent folk and leads poor Stephens on – is not innocent. This is the way you Mothers with plenty of money bring up your daughters – Cocktail parties – Jazz and frivolity, with husbands in the background, who seem fools, or have “lost their manhood”.

Holloway is too luxurious and good a place for the likes. Why does the Governor allow all this nonsense, for this woman: telephone, powder-puffs and grand tea-gowns etc.

An Observer”

Tea Gowns late 20s early 30s

I don’t think the Police needed to have worried.  This is not the letter of a disgruntled warder or fellow inmate.However,I do think the letter is written by someone who had picked up some facts about Elvira’s period on remand. The references to the telephone and the powder-puff have a specificity that is both charming and credible.

What is more significant is the familiar mantra of “jazz” and “cocktail parties” as being the true culprits behind the whole affair. The icing on the cake is the reference to husbands who have “lost their manhood”. When one reads Marek Kohn or Virginia Nicholson it is tempting to think that they are retrospectively applying  modern readings on to the  social values of the era. But this is not the case. Elvira really did represent one of many threats to the “natural” order. All those books about the post-War  loss of patriarchal authority and the perceived disruption that the flapper generation embodied can be found, in condensed but vehement form, in this angry missive.

Elvira becomes the symbol for two very different conflicts. In the category of “Class”  she signifies old-fashioned privilege and power whereas in regards to what we now call “gender”  she is subversive and the epitome of a decidedly unsettling Modernity. It is a salutary reminder to those who wish to  produce hagiographic studies of Radclyffe Hall or, God forbid, Rotha Linton-Orman that sexual politics are but just one aspect of the overall picture. On the other hand, class analysis alone cannot do justice to the barely-repressed rage of our Brixton Observer.

Michael and The Love Hut

If this “little note”, penned by Michael Scott Stephen, is the one that sent Elvira into such paroxysms of delight (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/12/01/elviras-love-letter/ )  then one can only marvel at the level of Elvira’s infatuation or her need for approval and affection. The police linked these two letters together, but this one seems more of a spur of the moment “surprise” – there is no mention of the jealousy or Michael’s illness. It does refer to his ill-treatment of her so I may be wrong. If I am, then I feel rather sad that she could be so moved by something as slight and insubstantial as this distinctly third-rate billet doux.

It is written on headed notepaper with the address struck through and the words “Love Hut” super-imposed.

“Baby, Little Fatable

This little note is to be awaiting your arrival in the place in which I’ve been happiest all my life – Be brave my dear dear Darling and take care of yourself for me – cos your mine’. Don’t forget your “Mickums” – I’ll be thinking of you always. (you came downstairs here, Honey, so I had to hide this under my coat so’s you wouldn’t see it) Hence the smudges…….. Forgive me all the horrible things I’ve done Baby – I promise to be better and kinder so’s you won’t be frightened any more. I love you, only you, in all the world, little One’s


You’ve just called

what are you doing so must stop”

So much for a classical education at Shrewsbury ( unless Love Hut is a reference to Keats’ Lamia which, I doubt – although Elvira as Lamia is an intriguing idea.). Did Elvira and Michael really talk like this? Elvira and Michael’s dialogue would appear to owe more to True Romance than Firbank or Waugh.

“Fatable” is, I presume, “Eatable”  – if not, it as a decidedly odd “pet name”. Michael is scribbling away downstairs while Elvira is upstairs so why will the note be awaiting her “arrival”? What were the “dreadful,horrible things”? As with most aspects of this case, the letter raises more questions than it provides answers.

Yet there is something about its mixture of awkwardness and intimacy that adds to our knowledge of the couple’s relationship. The eroticism, the volatility, the extremes of anger and sentimentality are exactly as described in court but there is an immaturity and a helplessness about this letter (and Elvira’s, for that matter) that suggests a chaos that neither party has much control over. If you add to this copious amounts of alcohol and a fair old quantity of cocaine then disaster was never likely to be far away.

All this depends on whether we think Michael was as sincere  (and foolish) as Elvira, Popular opinion did not see it that way and to no little extent Elvira’s acquittal was based on Michael being portrayed as a gigolo and low-life hustler. That he was something of a “shit” I am reasonably positive, but I can’t find enough intelligence or artifice in his note to suggest the work of a schemer.

Lamia and the Soldier