Tag Archive: Sunday Wilshin


Update on The Red and White Party

I posted something on Arthur Jeffress’  Red and White Party a while back ( see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/the-red-and-white-party/ ) ,

In John Montgomery’s “The Twenties” (1957)  there is a slightly more detailed account of the revelries than that found in D. J. Taylor or Alec Waugh’s account of the night. It does not provide names (Brenda Dean Paul, Arthur Jeffress and Sunday Wilshin were all still alive when the book appeared) but it does give a good sense of the extravagance and excess of the occasion.

Arthur Jeffress and Pals

“The last hectic party of the twenties, the party to end all parties,  surpassing even the Wild West party and the Court party, the final fling of the “Bright Young Things”, started at eleven o’clock on the evening of November 21, in the house of the dancer. Maud Allan, although it was not her party.

The invitation cards had been sent out a foretnight earlier, and were much in demand. Many were stolen from chimney pieces and were later presented  by uninvited, unwanted guests. The wording on each card, engraved in white on a brilliant scarlet background, requested guests to confine their costumes and clothes to the colours red and white. It was to be a red and white party, a “monster ball”, as the young men of the West End called it.

Some 250 cards were sent out, but nearly 400 guests arrived. Their host greeted them in the hall, wearing a modified sailor suit of white angel-skin with red trimmings, elbow length white kid gloves loaded with diamonds and rubies, two diamond clips and a spray of white star orchids costing about£2 a bloom. He posed for photographs holding a muff made of white narcissi, which  newspapers reported had been flown from North Africa, but which had been bought that afternoon in Chelsea. A pair of red leather shoes completed the ensemble.”

White and Pink Star Orchid

“The food at the party was entirely red and white – red caviare, lobsters, salmon, ham, apples (but no pears), tomatoes (but no lettuce), pink and red blancmanges, trifles and jellies. Everything was of the best, and cigarettes were contained in red and white boxes.

The upstairs rooms of the house were empty, and a rope across the stairs indicated that guests were not expected to leave the ground floor. However this did not prevent many people from disappearing upstairs, to descend, later, covered in dust.

Guests arriving at the house found the entrance guarded by Metropolitan policemen, who solemnly examined all invitation cards but let anyone in whether they had cards or not. In those days off duty policemen could be hired for private parties. inside, after being greeted by their host, guests walked over a long red carpet through a vast hall towards three large rooms, en suite, with big double-doors leading from one to the other.The centre and largest room was hung with broad strips of scarlet and white bunting.Banquettes were covered with red velvet. Dancing took place here to a negro orchestra – a sine qua non in those days – each musician wearing white tails with scarlet fittings. The two slightly smaller rooms were hung respectively with white and red bunting, the white room being a vast bar. The red room, furnished with red-covered mattresses, was for sitting-out.”

Red Caviare

” What began as a reasonably formal, although distinctly eccentric, gathering soon developed into a noisy and hilarious free-for-all. Hired servants, dressed in scarlet double-breasted coats with large white buttons, struggled among the seething, jostling, swaying, shrieking mass of dancers and drinkers. The orchestra, overwhelmed by the noise, played louder and louder; the rooms became thick with smoke and the smell of scent.

No whisky was available, only champagne, white or red win, or gin. There were plenty of bottles for everyone. The kitchen was stacked high with crates of liquor and boxes of hired glasses. Some guests mixed the drinks and gulped them down; then mixed their dancing partners. The huge room became a medley of red and white sailor suits, white dresses and sashes, red wigs, long  white kid gloves, pink hats, and even false red noses. Red and white “nuns” danced with men dressed as exotic birds with elaborate feather head-dresses, men danced stripped to the waist, wearing red sailors’ bell-bottom  trousers; a man dressed as Queen Elizabeth, wearing a red wig, sat in the hall solemnly playing Abide With Me on the organ.”

” At about half past one a girl had to be prevented from pulling the hair of another woman who was attempting to get herself a drink. Half-full glasses and bottles stood all around, under chairs, behind curtains, under tables. The girl was wearing only a choker of pearls ansd a large red and white spotted handkerchief  fixed around her middle by a thin white belt. People wearing more clothes found it  almost unbearably hot.

Hair Puller  – Brenda Dean Paul

Hair Pullee – Sunday Wilshin

The party finished with the dawn, long after the last policeman had finished guarding the doors and had gone home. It was afterwards estimated that the evening had cost about £500.”

Though it takes a suitably moralistic tone and reads like something cobbled together from a mixture of newspaper reports and  imaginative licence, there is a hint of insider knowledge here. I don’t know much about John Montgomery apart from the fact that he wrote a lot of books. This one is dedicated to Hugh Wade’s sometime musical collaborator, Collie Knox (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/hugh-wade-the-savoy-orpheans-and-collie-knox/ ) and there was an old chap who was supportive of the Gay Liberation Movement in Brighton in the 1970s of that name.  I think he might have been an attendee.

The £500 (£25,000 today) is, if anything,  an under-estimate. The most prominent “Negro” orchestra in London at the time was Noble Sissle’s outfit, resident at Ciro’s, and they alone would have cost a few bob. I presume Queen Elizabeth was Hugh Wade but hope not – Abide With Me is rather naff in comparison to Body and Soul, a rendition of which Wade is supposed to have performed on said organ.

If nothing else, I like this piece because the room for “sitting-out” is the earliest example I know of a “Chill Out Space”, the presence of which has greatly enhanced the club scene since the 1980s. As for the political and moral implications of this event, I will leave that for future discussion.

Georgia and Frances Doble

There are a number of actresses who hover around the fringes of Elvira’s world. Kay Hammond,Valerie Taylor, Beatrix Thomson, Norah Balfour, Sunday Wilshin, Jeanne De Casalis etc. etc. all have at least some links with the circle. I think we might as well add Frances Doble to this ever-expanding list.

Frances was the elder sister of Georgia, who married Sacheverell Sitwell, and both belonged to the inner sanctum of the Bright Young People. Georgia ( 1906-1980) had been at school with Elvira, introduced her to Viva King and hence much of Chelsea Bohemia (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/viva-king/ ). She was in the iconic “aesthete” photographs, is present at the Impersonation party (as Edith Sitwell)  and turns up in the memoirs of, among others,  Anthony Powell and Frances Partridge.

l.

Portrait of Georgia Sitwell by William Acton

Georgia Sitwell third from right  —————————Georgia as Edith Sitwell

Georgia Sitwell by Cecil Beaton

Because of the revival of interest in the Bright Young People, Georgia is now the better remembered of the two siblings . However Frances (1902-1969) had the bigger impact in her day. She appeared in the film version of Noel Coward’s The Vortex and Basil Dean’s stage and film adaptations of The Constant Nymph and Nine Till Six. To me, that places her as the thespian embodiment of late twenties female modernity. The Vortex captured the mood of the period perfectly while The Constant Nymph was (as book and play) the most popular manifestation of the new sensibility. She also had a starring role in the farcically disastrous “Sirocco” in 1927  ( leading man Ivor Novello, written by Coward) and the much cited While Parents Sleep in 1932. All in all, there is barely a “younger generation” play that does not seem to have featured her. Not bad considering that  her acting and dancing skills were never deemed to be more than adequate.

Frances Doble 1929

It is Nine Till Six  (1930) that allows me to make a bid for  Frances’  to be included in Elvira’s world.  Less well remembered than the other plays listed above, its author and its all women cast give it a special place in the “theatrical” culture of the time. Written by Aimee Stuart, who was the centre of a London gay and lesbian salon culture that included figures such as Nerina Shute and Sunday Wilshin, it chronicled the lives of  a group of women in the hitherto masculine world of work. Like most of Stuart’s plays it became something of a gay ” cult classic” .Its early stage and film incarnations starred the likes of Norah Balfour, Florence Desmond, Sunday Wilshin, Kay Hammond, Alison Leggatt, Jeanne De Casalis and, of course, Frances Doble.  Elvira would have seen this play, would have known the actresses – who all tended to come from wealthy backgrounds – and would have taken pride in associating with any, if not all, of the players.

A significant number of Elvira’s female friends were divorced, separated or unhappily married. Frances had married Hugh Lindsay-Hogg in 1929 and Georgia had been Mrs. Sitwell since 1925, but both women are recorded as missing the “social whirl” of London. Both struggled with marriage, as did their husbands,  and both continued to be part of the London party scene. That Elvira didn’t keep in contact with her old schoolmate and therefore her glamorous elder sister is inconceivable. Socially, temperamentally and professionally everything about Frances makes her someone Elvira would have wanted to hang out with.

Cecil Beaton and Frances Doble 1935

Frances’ marriage did not last: nor did her acting career. She disappears from public view in the years of Elvira’s decline. However one relationship, between 1938 and 1939, is of interest. Kim Philby, then attempting to prove his right-wing credentials while already in the pay of Moscow, has an affair with her. She was now in Spain, an ardent fan of Franco and Hitler, and her parties for Falangist officers in Salamanca are  described as “lavish”. Many of the Bright Young People flirted with Fascism – some, like Brian Howard, moved to the left. The Sitwell set definitely leant to the right. Which way Elvira would have turned, had she lived, is anyone’s guess.

I would not place Frances particularly closely to Elvira but I doubt that they were strangers to each other. If Francis was part of Aimee Stuart’s entourage then the connection is far more likely. I will post on this fascinating but forgotten Scottish playwright shortly.

Valerie Taylor

Here’s yet another actress who may in some way be connected to Elvira’s circle.

Valerie Taylor (1902-88) had a long career on stage and in film. She was best known at the time of the Barney case for her  six-year association with  John Balderston’s play “Berkeley Square“, in which she starred both in the West End and  on Broadway and eventually on film. Other triumphs included her 1929 role as Nina, opposite John Gielgud,  in Chekhov’s “The Seagull“. (Funnily enough,  Beatrix Thomson had played in “The Three Sisters”  a couple of years earlier.). Taylor, while remaining primarily attached to the theatre, would later appear in film classics such as “Went The Day Well?”  and “Repulsion“. Again, like the other actresses that I have posted about, she was also a writer  – and has one or two screenplay credits.

She had some strong Bloomsbury connections, which included correspondences with Clive Bell and an unlikely relationship with Eddy Sackville-West.  In Michael De La Noy’s biography (“Eddy”)  she is described as “simultaneously throwing herself at the feet of both Raymond Mortimer and Eddy’s cousin Vita”. Mortimer, who wrote so “colourfully” to Eddy about Arthur Jeffress’  Red and White Party, seems to have been briefly engaged to Valerie. These pairings-up of gay men and bisexual or gay women should by now be becoming familiar to anyone reading this blog.

She was also acquainted with the Mayfair/Chelsea crowd. Maurice Richardson, of whom more anon, recalls a party in 1929 where he “fell for Valerie Taylor in a gold evening dress. I thought I was going to make her but got brushed off later.” Brian Howard was also in attendance and, as a fight broke out later on, so, I would imagine, were some of our usual suspects. If Elvira ever met Valerie it would have been in this environment, as I just can’t picture Mrs.Barney at Knole or Charleston.

From 1930 onwards Valerie Taylor divided her time between England and America. She married Hugh Sinclair (who played “The Saint” in a number of fondly-remembered B-Movies). Taylor and Sinclair had acted together in the almost-openly lesbian play “Love of Women” by Aimee Stuart (whose friends included Sunday Wilshin and Nerina Shute). In Harlem they danced the night away with a young Lucille Ball and in Hollywood were friends with the legendary Mercedes de Acosta (reputedly the lover of both Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead).

She returned to England after the War and left Sinclair for a mining-engineer. Before the break-up they had a property in Perranporth, Cornwall, and she collaborated with Winston Graham (of “Poldark” fame) on the screenplay for “Take My Life” (1947). He, then aged 39 and she 45, describes her thus, “She was a highly strung, highly articulate, beautiful but rather overpowering young woman who was full of ideas.”  – which makes her sound pretty impressive to me.

She is not high among my candidates for a close friend of Elvira’s or as an attendee of the cocktail party. However, she would have known Howard and Gathorne-Hardy and most of Elvira’s theatrical friends. She is also, I suspect, someone whose career, on and off-stage, Elvira would have rather envied.

“Half O’Clock in Mayfair”

Jack Kahane’s Obelisk press had already published a novel by and about people associated with Elvira’s cocktail party. This was Marjorie Firminger’s “Jam Today”  (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/14/mary-ashliman-heather-pilkington-and-the-blue-angel/  )

Marjorie Firminger, in the middle in white dress, between Napper and Brenda Dean Paul

In 1938 the same imprint  published “Half O’Clock in Mayfair” by Princess Paul Troubetzkoy.This book is so rare as to be, to all intents and purposes invisible. Neil Pearson must have a copy though, as his excellent biography-cum-archival exercise, “Obelisk” contains the following,

“”Half O’Clock in Mayfair was  published in 1938. Kahane had been introduced to the author in the Castiglione bar. Troubetzkoy’s book was (according to Kahane) “the record in novel form of a famous scandal, involving a murder or at least some form of homicide or suicide, which had shaken London a year or so before…”

According to Pearson, the novel “is a highly competent dissection of London’s atrophied high society of the late 1930s, ten years on from the zenith of the Bright Young Things. No longer bright or young, yesterdays debutantes rush round London from party to party in an increasingly desperate search for a husband, usually finding nothing but a short-lived oblivion in drink and drugs.Troubetzkoy can write and she understands her characters in all their sad vacuity.”

This to me sounds like a fictionalised account of the Barney case – with a touch of Rattigan’s After The Dance thrown in. I’d love to see a copy and would also like to know if the Princess was writing from direct experience or merely from hearsay.

Pearson admits that it is difficult to find out who Troubetzkoy actually was. This is true. Unlikely as it seems, there were a number of Prince Troubetzkoys kicking around London and up to three that went by the name of Princess Paul.

However, I think the author of Half O’clock in Mayfair was born Rhoda Muriel Boddam in Suffolk in 1898. She was the daughter of a retired Indian Army officer and his much younger wife. She married James G.H. Somervell in 1917, but this seems not to have lasted. James, whose father owned and then lost, through  bankruptcy,  Sorn Castle in Ayrshire, then spent much of the 1920’s travelling to places like Ceylon and Argentina as a Political Agent. His address throughout the period is given as the Carlton Club.

Like several other young divorcees, some of whom hover around the Barney case, Rhoda, now apparently calling herself “Marie”, tried her luck on the stage.  Using the stage name Gay Desmond, she was a chorine  in Andre Charlot’s revues at the Alhambra (acting alongside Sunday Wilshin, Anna Neagle and, I suspect, a few of Elvira’s friends).

Charlot was an important impresario and from 1915 to 1935, mixing ballet and Broadway, brought a touch of Parisian glamour to the London stage. His shows depended heavily on  beautiful female performers and many a career started at the Alhambra.

Mr. Andre Charlot rehearses his chorus for the cabaret section of the Grand Ball at the Royal Opera House

Charlot and dancers in rehearsal, 1929

In 1931, Rhoda M.M. Somervell married the elderly Russian artist, Prince Paul Troubetzkoy. She then (if we have the right princess) took up a career as a writer, producing a number of novels between 1933 and 1943. Apart from Half O’Clock in Mayfair, the most intriguing is a dystopian fantasy Exodus A.D. (1934), written in collaboration with the English Futurist, War artist (and friend of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis),  C.R.W. Nevinson.

The Troubetzkoys lived in the heart of fashionable London, at a very exclusive address – 53 St.James Square. The Prince died in 1938 and Marie, as she now was, spent her time between a Park Lane flat and a residence at Iver, near Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. Until the war, she travelled frequently to the continent and particularly France. The Castiglione Bar in Paris, where she sold her her roman a clef to Kahane, was a favourite with English and American aesthetes and artists (including Olivia Wyndham’s friend, Carl Van Vechten). The fact that an already published author turned to Kahane suggests that the book might have been too racy or too libellous for an English publisher – and also that it may have contained some inside information. Even though Elvira was dead by this time, there were others keen to distance themselves from their involvement with the Fast Set.

Princess Paul Troubetzkoy, Park Lane 1940

The books dry up after 1943. Princess Paul  died after a fall in her  garden at Word Cottage, Iver in 1948. Her death seems a little suspicious but the inquest found nothing untoward. Although her novels appear to have been reasonably well received, they are all long out of print.She is genuinely a forgotten figure.

So, assuming we have pieced together the right Princess Troubetzkoy, did she know Elvira? She is a little older than most of Elvira’s set , her artistic circle belongs to a slightly earlier generation and she is very much Mayfair rather than Chelsea.Nonetheless, these circles overlapped and she is around at the right time, in the right place, and has the right professions (actress then author). If she didn’t know Elvira, she would have known of her and known women not dissimilar to her. She would have  followed the case with the same eager curiosity as the rest of Society.

A proper examination of the novel would reveal more – has anyone a spare copy?

Sunday Wilshin

I am still wondering about the identity of the unnamed  woman who Sylvia Coke took to  Elvira’s cocktail part. That she was an actress or somebody of high social status is almost certain. We know that she was a “close.personal friend” of Sylvia’s. This would seem to suggest either Angela Worthington or Barbara Waring (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/08/sylvia-coke/ )

It is probably wishful thinking but there is a remote possibility that Sunday Wilshin could fit the bill. A Forgotten name now, she was a prominent young actress at the time and was part, if not of Elvira’s immediate circle then, of the glamorous world half way between the stage and high society. She had had a much higher profile in 1932 than Worthington or Waring, and therefore would have had greater reason to avoid the unwelcome spotlight that the shooting would have turned on her. She famously features in recent Bright Young reminiscences as simply “a girl called Sunday Wilshin” who was assaulted by Brenda Dean Paul at Arthur Jeffress’   ” Red and White Party”. (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/the-red-and-white-party/ ). This does her something of an injustice.

The oddly named Sunday Wilshin  actually started life with the even unlikelier appellation Sundae Mary Aline Horne-Wilshin . Born in 1905, she was a child actress, appearing regularly in the West End from the age of ten. Throughout the twenties and thirties she was much in demand, both for her good looks and her skills as a character actress. By 1930 she had formed a deep friendship with another beauty, the slightly older Selene Moxon, who for some reason acted under the stage name Cyllene Moxon. Their partnership lasted well into the 1960s.The two were also close to the actress turned author, Noel Streatfield. All three, having shared a dressing-room at the Kingsway theatre during the run of a light comedy called Yoicks (1924), became regular fixtures on the London night-club scene and remained friends for life.

Cyllene Moxon, by Bassano, 1922 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Cyllene Moxon

Noel Streatfield

Noel Streatfield

Wilshin’s connection with  Elvira Barney herself is impossible to prove and may well have been non-existent. Had she not had a clump of her hair pulled out by Brenda Dean Paul I would not even be  speculating about her. If we only knew what the fight was about we might be able to make a few reasonable inferences. Yet,  there are certain traits that she shares with elements of the Mews cocktail crowd. An actress, almost definitely lesbian or bisexual, well known on the night-club and party circuit and with connections to high society (both Lady Violet Paget and Barbara Cartland designed dresses for her), if she didn’t exactly move in the same orbit she would at least have been known to Mrs.Barney.

Sunday Wilshin in a dress designed by Lady Paget

By the 1930s Wilshin was a familiar face on the British screen as well as on stage (she was in Hitchcock’s Champagne in 1928 but her film career only really took off with the advent of talkies). However, like Streatfield, she had ambitions above and beyond looking decorative. In 1938 she turned her attention to radio drama and began a long association with the BBC, working firstly as an actress then as a producer. She is best known for her work with the overseas service, making documentaries and a series of interviews with writers and artists. She replaced George Orwell as the BBC’s specialist on India  and was responsible for the corporation’s output during the sensitive run-up to Independence and Partition. Some of Orwell’s last correspondence is to Wilshin – she was trying to persuade him to contribute a talk on poetry.

Popular with her staff, she was fondly, if a little patronisingly, remembered by Hallam Tennyson (another Indian specialist and an intriguing character in his own right).

“Our boss was the delightfully dotty Sunday Wilshin. Sunday was one of the few women executives I have met who enjoyed her ‘feminine’ qualities and who made use of them in her work “.  He noted her continued preference for a kiss-curl hairstyle and felt she was still a Pre-War starlet at heart.

Apart from her radio work, she wrote books and, with Selene, edited and proof-read the work of others.She also made the occasional foray into television –  presenting “Asian Club” in 1955, surely the first such venture in the West.

Where did her interest in India come from? Funnily enough, this question might lead back to the party-world of the early thirties. By1932  Selene Moxon had tired of the social whirl of London. In July, just as Elvira was winning her case, Selene and Sunday acquired a cottage in Little Saling in Essex. They became became part of the Gurdjieff/Fourth Way study group set up by Maurice Nicholl, two miles away, at Lakes Farm, just north of Braintree. The mysticism and search for spiritual peace that characterised these communities had a particular attraction then, as it did in the 1960s, to those seeking a way out of addiction and many more who were just  no longer fulfilled by the endless round of late-night excesses. Tantalisingly, a year later Denys Skeffington Smyth moved out of Mayfair to Great Bumpstead, less than ten miles away.

Wilshin died in 1991. Although I doubt she has anything more than a tenuous link with the Barney affair, she epitomises the spirit of the age and, as a symbol of female modernity and the struggle for independence and self-determination, she is the equal of many better known young women of her time.I like her and think she is worthy of more biographical research.

 

One of Sunday’s few fashion gaffes – as “Coal” – designed by Barbara Cartland – and what looks like an early use of the bin liner, to me.