Tag Archive: Sylvia Ashley


The following is a picturesque and evocative snapshot of Bright Young rituals circa 1926-28.

“The 1920s were a good period for eccentrics. Self-expression was the note of the day;the rich had more money than ever before, and less inhibitions about what to express. Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies have been taken as satirical fantasies, but they describe a real manner of life with total accuracy. In those years I saw a great deal of another cousin, Elizabeth Ponsonby, who exemplified her period perfectly.The waste of time which took place was prodigious. One was always, in the silly world I moved in at the age of seventeen, dressing up for a party; indeed, one travelled with a dinner jacket and a matelot’s uniform, which we had found out to be the quickest and simplest form of fancy dress.”

Matelot Dress Pattern 1934

“Night after night, there was Elizabeth, often starting our evening with half a dozen of our friends in the Grosvenor Square house of Arthur Bendirs (whose beautiful and silent daughter Babe Bosdari – much photographed by Cecil Beaton – shook our cocktails and helped us zip up our disguises) before we went on to Florence de Pena, or Gracie Ansell, or whoever was the hostess of an evening which inevitably took in a stop at the Cafe Anglais, where Rex Evans sang at the piano, and an eventual eclipse at an unassuming nightclub behind Piccadilly Circle, the Blue Lantern.”

Cafe Anglais 1949

This passage  is taken from The Bonus of Laughter, the autobiography of the writer and long-standing editor of the TLS, Alan Pryce-Jones . It’s a joy to read and has exactly the right feel about it, though one or two of the specifics are a little odd. Babe would not yet be Bosdari and if she was much photographed by Beaton, I can’t find any examples.

Nonetheless, the picture of Babe, pretty, quiet and slightly in the background, corresponds to other reminiscences.Evelyn Waugh, no fan at all, says much the same and Tom Driberg recalled her as, in comparison to Elizabeth Ponsonby, “much more placid, round-faced and innocent-looking, with very little expression in her face, but very beautiful in a way”.The one dissenting voice comes from Elizabeth’s mother, who blamed Babe for some of Elizabeth’s excesses and was none too pleased about Babe’s marriage to and hasty divorce from her nephew David Plunket Grene. Dorothea Ponsonby described Babe as looking like “a forty year old procuress”, a phrase as striking as it was probably inaccurate.

However, as time went on, I’m not sure the Bendir daughter stayed too much in the shadows. Although no innovator, chronicler or artist, she exemplifies a certain mode of existence as well as any of her set.

Babe played a significant part in producing and cementing the image of the BYP as far as the press, the public and her contemporaries were concerned.She achieved (if that is the right word) this through her friendships with other women, her fleeting marriages and her attendance at, and her role in organising, the many parties that still remain central to our view of the whole phenomenon.

Her close female friends, Elizabeth Ponsonby ( a cousin by marriage), Olivia Plunket Greene (sister-in-law) and the incomparable Sylvia Ashley, personified Bright Young Womanhood and Babe was their equal in her dedication to the hedonistic cause. I will say something about Babe’s relationship to all three, but particularly Elizabeth, in the next post. .Her marriages, and her unusual husbands, will also be dealt with later.

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Sylvia Ashley

For now, let’s just concentrate on a couple of parties.It is as one of the quartet who organised the Bath and Bottle Party that she earns her place within the BYP elite. Held at St.George’s Swimming Baths on Buckingham Palace Road from 11pm onward on Friday 13th July, 1928, it was the quintessential Bright Young gathering. Guests wore bathing costumes, a black jazz orchestra provided the music and, as D.J.Taylor reports, its “novelty and notoriety” surpassed all of the (many) other costume and “freak” parties. Moralists and gossip-columnists had a field day. If there was a single Bright Young highpoint, this was it.

Brian Howard

A few months later there occurred the other defining party of the period, Brian Howard’s overly-ambitious Great Urban Dionysia. This event, intended to be the ultimate in decadent glamour, was something of a failure, the reality falling far short of the concept. Guests were to come as characters from Greek mythology and were advised to research their designs at the British Museum. Willy King, Viva’s husband, worked there and helped Howard and others choose appropriate costumes. Viva was Sappho, Olivia Wyndham Minerva, Ernest Thesiger Medusa, John Banting Mercury, Mary Butts a Caryatid and so forth. Babe dressed in blue, her outfit modelled on a Nymph from a Greek vase. Her look was a success but many other outfits were over-elaborate and ponderous. Even worse, some were considered tawdry and, in a comment designed to give Howard nightmares, the whole affair was deemed by one columnist to be rather “suburban”.

The 16 inches long invitation, reproduced in Portrait of a Failre, with its list of Howard’s likes and dislikes is very revealing, but even that manages to both pretentious and rather adolescent. What tends to be overlooked is the name of the actual host.

The Dionysia Will Occur this Year

At 1 Marylebone Lane, Oxford Street

(Behind Bumpus’s) on the 4th of April 1929

At 11pm. Celebrated by

BABE PLUNKET GREENE

in honour of the 24th Birthday of

Brian Howard

and because the New Athens is sorry that

David Tennant

is going to Acadia”

This would suggest that, although the occasion was very much Howard’s endeavour, Babe was fairly integral to proceedings. I wonder whether she financed the event, as Brian’s income never quite matched his ambitions. Did she have any creative input? Probably not,but in later  life she was a patron to certain artists and a collector, so to assume that her presence was merely decorative is possibly a mistake.

False Dawn by John Tunnard (owned by Babe)

It is unlikely that Babe invested the “freak” parties with the sort of status Howard envisaged for them (early “Happenings” almost). But that she relished the mixture of outrage and aestheticism they aspired to is given added weight by the fact that not only was she involved in these two famous examples but that she, along with Elizabeth Ponsonby, had organised one of the early White Parties (white outfits, white decor, white food) that crop up throughout the period.If the Bright Young People are largely remembered in popular culture for the parties they threw then  Babe, with her fondness for dancing and cocktails, is, through her presence at and her participation in some of the era’s signature events, no background figure at all. The best known lines in Vile Bodies are these,

“Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity … Those vile bodies.”

This, without Waugh’s disapproving note, is the world Babe inhabited and helped create.

Incidentally, Bumpus’s, mentioned in the invitation, was one of the great London book stores, loved by bibliophiles, Bloomsbury and the more literary of the “smart set”. There are some splendid images of the place here  – Bumpus 1930  .

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Florida Club, 5 South Bruton Mews

One nightclub that features strongly in a variety of memoirs is the Florida. It was situated in South Bruton Mews, off Berkeley Square, and was open from at least 1926, with the odd interruption, through to 1940. It was very much at the upmarket end of London social life. Formal dress was required and the clientele was drawn almost exclusively from “Society”. Angela Worthington (later Fox) and Lady Marguerite Strickland were particularly taken by the place, not least because of the telephones at each table, which allowed for all kinds of flirtation.

Lady Marguerite Strickland by Gerald Brockurst 1939

The club seemed to specialise in gimmicks. It had a glass revolving door and, depending on which account you read, a glass floor, a revolving dance-floor and/or a revolving seating-area.It was also very dimly lit, all of which sounds like a recipe for disaster after a few Gin Fizzes.

The Florida has a special place in club history for two reasons  – the Black artists who played there and the sometime owner Captain Gordon Halsey. Halsey was keen on black acts, having done well out of booking Layton and Johnson, very cheaply, for an earlier club he ran, The Quadrant (on Regent Street, I think). They proved very popular and Turner Layton remained a Mayfair favourite well into the 1940s.

Halsey’s greatest legacy to London night-life was his invention of the “Bottle Party”. This was a system devised to subvert the licensing laws. There were many variations but Halsey’s model was to call each night a private party. People would arrive and say that they had forgotten their invitations. A pile of invitation cards was kept at the door and on paying Five shillings and Sixpence members could gain entrance and drink alcohol that they had supposedly (and in some cases actually) pre-ordered.

It looks a little flimsy but it apparently worked (for the most part) and made Halsey wealthy. It was taken up with some vigour during the Second World War by a number of Soho establishments.According to Halsey’s friend and occasional business-partner Desmond Young (later a military historian and the biographer of Rommel). Halsey had been hit with a massive fine for breaking the licence laws at the Quadrant and was determined to avoid a repeat.

Young quotes the scarcely credible figure of £2000 and states that the incident arose because of Sylvia Hawkes (later Lady Ashley and Mrs. Clark Gable) and her party had insisted on “just one more round of drinks”. Sylvia Ashley was a model, Cochran chorus girl and stage actress. She was obviously forgiven as she was later a regular at the Florida.

Sylvia, Lady Ashley

Although, as its advertising stated, the Florida was “eminently respectable”. Halsey was charged in 1934 with using the “Bottle Party” ruse and allowing unlicensed dancing. This time the fine was nominal and only added to the mystique of the club.

The Florida had now, after a short spell as Toby’s, mutated into The Old Florida. Halsey booked Leslie Thompson’s West Indian band. This, historically significant, outfit was shortly taken over by the charismatic Ken “Snake Hips” Johnson, who was in residency for two years(1936-38) before moving on to the Cafe De Paris. Johnson, who was killed in the air-raid on the Cafe, popularised the new “Swing” style which came to dominate in the late 1930s.The music of Elvira’s era had been superseded and the Bright Young Era was definitely over.

Ken “Snakehips” Johnson

The final chapter of the Florida is, in some ways, the most unusual. In 1938 the club was bought by Adelaide Hall and her husband, making it the first black-owned nightclub outside of Soho. Hall, best known for jazz age classics such as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby””Diga Diga Do” and the exquisite “Creole Love Call”, was hugely popular in England. She had arrived in Europe, like so many others, with a Blackbirds revue (she replaced Florence Mills) and opened a club in Paris (“Le Grosse Pomme” – The Big Apple). In 1938 she moved to London  to take the lead role in Edgar Wallace’s play The Sun Never Sets and her husband, Bert Hicks, negotiated the deal at the Florida.

Adelaide Hall

Hall was a great draw through 1938 and 1939 and The Florida continued to be “the place to go”. Her band was led by the Nigerian, Fela Sowande, who later became a leading composer of choral and symphonic music. He too had played in Blackbirds revues but is perhaps best remembered in England as the organist on a number of Vera Lynn’s recordings.

The prestige of the Florida can be ascertained by the fact that the BBC made two fledgling television programmes at the venue in 1939.The number of viewers who owned television sets before the War was probably less than the Florida’s annual membership roll but the event is significant nonetheless. The programmes were entitled “Dark Sophistication” and “Harlem in Mayfair”. Here is the Radio Times listing for the latter.

“25 feb 1939 15.25-16.00 ‘Harlem In Mayfair’ a coloured cabaret from the Old Florida Club. With Adelaide Hall, Marko Hlubi and his Tom Toms, Esther and Louise, Eddie Lewis, and Felix Sowande with his Negro Choir and Orchestra. Presentation by Stephen Harrison.”

Adelaide Hall, BBC 1947

The final residents at the Florida were Felix Mendelsohn and His Hawaian Serenaders. Mendelsohn, a London born descendant of the composer, fused Hawaian guitar styles with Swing music and was incredibly popular throughout the forties. His band included stalwarts of the London jazz/danceband scene such as Ivor Mairants, the first great,if generally  unsung, guitar hero in British popular music (see Ivor Mairants).

All this fun and musical fusion ended with the Blitz. The Florida took a direct hit and never re-opened. Adelaide joined ENSA and her wartime concerts are still fondly remembered (my father was a big fan). She remained part of the Mayfair and cabaret scene, and returned to the public eye with a series of retrospective concerts and TV interviews late in her long and productive life. She died in 1993, aged 92.

Hicks and Hall had actually acquired the Florida through leasing The Spotted Dog, a cocktail bar in the same building,and evidently part of the same business.A few years earlier this had been the Blue Goose, known to models,actresses and young socialites as “a good hunting ground for rich husbands”. In 1934 the manageress was Diana Caldwell,later Lady Broughton and finally Lady Delamere of Kenya. Her affair with Lord Erroll was, of course, the cause of his murder (1941) and the basis of the whole “White Mischief” saga.

Diana Caldwell in Kenya

Her time in London is surprisingly under-researched given the amount of books on the “Happy Valley” set. What we do know tells a familiar story. She was 21 in 1934, working as a model in a fashion house in the daytime and running the bar in the evening. At weekends she enjoyed hunting and shooting at various country houses. She had several affairs and not a few abortions.

In 1937, pregnant again, she married Vernon Motion. According to Leda Farrant,The child was not his. The marriage lasted about a fortnight and the pregnancy was terminated. Diana was already involved with Sir Jock Delves Broughton and left with him for Africa in 1940. The couple married in Durban.

Vernon Motion (1904-1980) is usually listed as a musician, a second pianist in Carroll Gibbons orchestra (Gibbons provided the music for Elvira’s Belgrave Square party). There is no evidence for this. Leda Farrant interviewed Gibbons’ widow and some former band-members and none knew the name. He was an engineer and a keen pilot and aircraft enthusiast (perhaps a member of the Aero club that regularly dined at the Hambone?). He was married four times – to Margaret Holden(1931),Diana (1937), Enid Cobb (1942) and Oonagh Brassey (1949). Oddly, in 1932 he was living in Kinnerton Road, just at the back of William Mews and so was a close neighbour of Elvira’s.The current Poet Laureate is Andrew Vernon Motion – I don’t know if there is a connection.

Vernon Motion, Royal Aero Club photo 1933

I’ll post some music related to the Florida next and I will return to the White Mischief crowd shortly.

UPDATE There are alternative candidates for the title inventor of the bottle-party. One is Sam Henry, associated with the Hell nightclub, and another is Ernest Hoey a friend of Kate Meyrick’s, who ran a Wine Merchant’s business with premises in Warwick Street and Rupert Street (both in Soho). He sounds a good bet.