Tag Archive: Tallulah Bankhead


Elvira, we are told, kept a photograph of Tallulah Bankhead at her bedside while she was on remand in Holloway. Whether she was simply an adoring fan, like so many stage-struck young women of the period, or whether she knew Tallulah personally or through the notorious Farm Street parties, we cannot be sure. As they shared a mutually very close friend, Audrey Carten, it is almost certain that Elvira had at least met the American actress, whose London lifestyle remains the very picture of 1920’s “Smart Set” excess.

Tallulah as Jean Borotra, Impersonation Party 1927 ( Georgia Doble and Elizabeth Ponsonby also in picture)

There was one person involved in the trial who most definitely did know Tallulah. Oddly enough, it was her Defence Counsel, Sir Patrick Hastings, whose performance in court reduced the prosecution case to tatters and may well have saved Elvira’s life. Patrick Hastings was not only the leading (and most expensive) Advocate of his day, he was also a playwright. In 1926, Tallulah had starred in Scotch Mist, his controversial study of a failed marriage – complete with amorous wife and jealous husband.

The play was not very well received but Tallulah’s popularity (and the fact that the Bishop of London denounced it from the pulpit as an example of the immorality of the era) ensured a good run of 117 performances. In the course of the production, Hastings formed a very favourable impression of Miss Bankhead.

In his autobiography, he wrote, ” I always found Tallulah extremely charming and both my wife and I liked her enormously. Not only was she a delightful actress, but she was free from those exhibitions of the artistic temperament which are not wholly unknown in the theatre and can on occasions become a perfect nuisance”. In the light of Hastings ill-concealed disgust at the behaviour of some of Elvira’s set during the trial, this is a revealing statement. It also makes one wonder what Hastings really thought about his client’s character and her frequent “exhibitions”.

Scotch Mist was sandwiched between two much greater triumphs in Tallulah’s London stage career. She had just finished playing Iris Storm in Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat. That Tallulah should play the embodiment of female modernity in what was (briefly) seen as the embodiment of the modern novel was surely appropriate and Tallulah’s army of female fans loved her in the role – her scenes in chic lingerie did no harm either.The novel was a best-seller and although it has dated badly, its importance in cementing the image of a certain type of new (and possibly dangerous) femininity cannot be exaggerated. Iris Storm racing around Mayfair in her yellow Hispano-Suiza inspired many real-life counterparts – not least Elvira.

After Scotch Mist  Tallulah opted for a change of style and earned much critical praise for her portrayal of Amy, a waitress, in Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted. The play was a success (it had already been a hit in America) but its lack of glamour and raciness disappointed Tallulah’s “Gallery Girls” who also “knew what they wanted” from their idol.

Beatrix Lehmann

Bankhead’s understudy in all three productions was the redoubtable Beatrix Lehmann, whose theatrical success seemed not to have suffered from her, by contemporary standards, very open lesbianism.  From her emergence from RADA in 1924 to her death in 1979, Beatrix was a striking figure – on and off-stage. Male co-star and Tallulah’s then-current lover, Glenn Anders said that  “Tallulah must have been in love with her. We were together all of the time”.  Beatrix’s sister was the writer  and part-time Bright Young Person, Rosamond, whose 1927 novel “Dusty Answer“, with its bold depiction of homosexuality among the young university set, caused a sensation of its own. Her later works, particularly “The Echoing Grove” (1953)  place her in the front ranks of twentieth century English writers. Through Beatrix, Anders and Bankhead spent many weekends at Rosamond’s country home.

Her brother was John Lehmann , a key figure in the London literary scene of the late 1930s and 1940s and an important chronicler of male homosexual life in the Capital during the  Second World War. Beatrix herself wrote two novels in the early 1930s.

Beatrix Lehmann by Angus McBean 1937

Beatrix lived at St.George’s,  Hanover Square in the heart of Mayfair throughout the late 20s and early 30s. It is likely that she would have known many of Elvira’s circle – although her tastes seem more literary and  Bloomsbury-oriented than most of the “theatrical” crowd. We know that she was friendly with Lytton Strachey, Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Tennant. Whether she was close to any of the Lesbian sub-cultural groups is less certain. At one weekend gathering, Beatrix was described by her sister as being “full of high spirits and devilry” , which would have endeared her to Elvira – if not to Sir Patrick Hastings.

She enjoyed a long and triumphant career on stage, in films and latterly on television.Among  her more famous cinematic appearances  are those in “The Passing of The Third Floor Back” (1935) and The Spy Who Came in From The Cold (1965). She is now probably best known for her performances as Professor Rumford in  the 1978 Doctor Who series “The Stones of Blood”. She is regularly voted “best supporting part ever” by the worshippers of that particular cult.

I wonder how many of those fans would associate the good Professor with wild times with Tallulah in the London of the 1920s?

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Patrick “Paddy” Crean

Paddy Crean (1910-2003) , from a well-to-do Dublin family, had a long and distinguished career in cinema and on the stage as a fight-choreographer and stuntman. He specialised in sword-fights and had been a competitive fencer. He was most famously Errol Flynn’s double in various swashbuckling adventure films but his technical contribution to stage sword-fighting is his greatest achievement – his ideas and theories are still dominant. With Rex Rickman he ran the Sophy School of Fencing in London where many leading actors learned to look convincing holding a cutlass or a rapier.

His entry into all of this came about because he successfully auditioned for an acting part in Erik Charell’s Casanova at the London Coliseum. The play ran for most of 1932 and features in Elvira’s  case because Denys Skeffington-Smyth was in it and Sylvia Coke and Anton Altmann had met Mrs.Barney and Michael Stephen at a “Casanova” party a few weeks before the cocktail soiree on the 30th May. My guess is that Paddy Crean was at both events.

Crean’s main motive in getting involved with the theatre appears to have been presence of so many pretty and personable actresses. Casanova, inevitably, was more than usually replete in that area.

From the Programme Casanova Coliseum 1932

With one of these beauties, Rosalie Corneille, he found himself mixing with the “fast-set”. In his autobiography he states

“Had I entered the profession somewhere else I would have missed a large slice of heady living and stage experience attributable to my engagement in Casanova; fabulous parties at Tallulah Bankhead’s Farm Street home: knowing beautiful Brenda Dean Paul who died tragically from drugs; Mrs.Barney, Mayfair hostess and central figure of a crime passionel )she shot and killed her lover but was acquitted); learning to drink vodka and sniff cocaine (neither of which appealed); pajama jaunts to Covent Garden with the Bright Young Things.”

It is a telling catalogue. Describing Elvira as a Mayfair hostess (nowhere else is she given that title) suggests that he knew her as such rather than simply as a fellow guest.Her “little gatherings” were seemingly rather better known than most sources suggest. Placing her in the middle of a list that reads Tallulah, Brenda and cocaine is equally significant. Crean is writing about a particularly “wild” phase of his life – Elvira is one of the key markers.

It is worth noting that Crean is quite unequivocal in his assertion that Elvira shot Michael and got away with it – was this popular consensus or inside information?

Rosalie Corneille, who must also now be added to our list of possibles, was apparently a Scottish actress who appeared in a number of West End productions in the 1930s. The most notorious was  Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant (1933) which starred Gertrude Lawrence and featured the black American singer Elisabeth Welch.

This sophisticated and daring musical – essentially about a woman’s quest to lose her virginity – was considered too daring by many. It even had a nude scene which was cut on condition that the lyrics of each song were left alone. Porter said it was his favourite show.

Rosalie Corneille is, I presume, somewhere in this picture from the London production. This was of course post-trial but I bet Elvira was in the audience.

Audrey and Kenneth Carten

After the initial rejoicing at Elvira’s “Not Guilty” verdict the  public started to turn against her. Reports of her continued recklessness and high-living, and a distinct absence of grieving or remorse, began to turn her into something of a pariah. She was even seen as a possible threat to the stability of the country. Her behaviour , at a time when much of the nation was suffering severe hardship, was in danger of tarnishing the good standing of  the already-rattled  ruling classes. Commentators from the Left and the Right drew, from very different motives, very similar conclusions. Elvira was a menace to “Society”.

A welter of rumours, some already simmering leading up to the trial, started to do the rounds. Letters to editors and the police hinted at collusion and corruption in high places. “One Law for the Rich…”  was the phrase on many a lip. Worse still, the  barely concealed “sex and drugs” aspect of Elvira’s lifestyle  started to emerge more openly. Some of the tales told were fanciful and exaggerated, some were other people’s scandals appended to her name (Brenda Dean Paul’s particularly). One story,with a ring of truth about it, was, however, too scandalous to see the light of day.

In August 1932 a woman called Gertrude Gamble, but known as Barbara E.Graham, committed suicide (see forthcoming post).Her inquest was brief and concluded that Miss Gamble, a registered drug-addict, had thrown herself from her hotel window while “of unsound mind”. Sir John and Lady Mullen attended the inquest, ostensibly because a suicide note had mentioned Elvira Barney. But there was more to it than that.

Lady Mullens

Two weeks earlier Gertrude/Barbara had sent both Elvira and Lady Mullens angry, but coherent, letters which detailed the events of the Elvira’s  journey at the end of July to France. This was to “recuperate” and Miss Gamble was there in some sort of unspecified carer’s role. On the very first night, in what Gamble described as a “filthy” hotel, Elvira had engaged in a drunken and drug-fuelled orgy with Audrey Carten and her brother, Kenneth (see    https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/chelsea-sandwiches/  ) . In two sentences she catalogues a scene of cocaine-use,drunkenness, sexual perversion and incest. At the centre of which is a woman supposedly in deep mourning for her recently deceased lover.  Scandalous is barely the word.

Somehow these letters found themselves in the hands of the Police and at least one newspaper, but no-one wanted to know. The police, quite sensibly, felt that with Gamble dead there was no point opening this can of worms – although the fact that the copy the police received was heavily annotated suggests they gave the later some credence. The newspapers’ motives are less clear but, in this era, scandals that were too damning to the upper echelons tended to stay locked away  unless absolutely unavoidable.

Who were these two bedmates of Elvira? In 1932, Audrey Carten would have been the better known of the pair. Gertrude Gamble explained to lady Mullen that Audrey was ” One of the best known Lesbians in London” but the public would have known her as an actress and promising playwright.

Audrey Carten 1929

She was born  Audrey Hare Bicker-Caarten into large  middle-class family living in Blomfield Road, Maida Vale. Her younger sister Waveney was born in 1903 and Kenneth arrived in 1911. By 1920  Audrey Carten was on stage and making a name for herself by investing some of Shakespeare’s heroines with a little verve and spirit. There was a humour and style about her performances that marked her out as “Modern”.

Her real breakthrough came in 1923 when she played Una Lowry  in Gerald Du Maurier’s “The Dancers”, at the Wyndham Theatre. Critics praised her “delicate, eerie,sensitive”  portrayal of, by happy coincidence – given the concerns of this blog, an aristocratic woman who had become “an erratic and neurotic nightbird”. But what made “The Dancers” the sensation of the season was the casting of the character Maxine. For it was in this part and in this play that Tallulah Bankhead burst upon the London stage and launched her eight year reign as the queen of all things exciting and outrageous about the 1920s.

Tallulah Bankhead in The Dancers

It is impossible to recapture the impact that Bankhead made, firstly on stage and then on the night-life of London. The Bright Young Generation worshipped her and she was as much its inspiration as any Oxford aesthete. Her army of devoted female fans have become a thing of legend and no book of the period is complete without at least one anecdote of Tallulah misbehaving at a party or a nightclub. Elvira was one of those fans and remained loyal, keeping a photograph of Tallulah at her bedside while on remand in Holloway. Whether she was more than just a fan, we don’t know. Audrey Carten  became a very close friend – that much is certain.

Tallulah in 1928

The two were together at parties, restaurants and various functions throughout the decade. A memoir of Lady  Caroline Paget recalls her being introduced to Tallulah and her “friend and travelling companion” Audrey Carten, probably in 1930.(Caroline Paget was a leading socialite of the 1930s and her name too was to be linked with Carten’s). Even if Elvira never met Tallulah, to be intimate with her “travelling companion” would have thrilled her immensely.

Caroline Paget by Rex Whistler 1936

Another extrovert who was very much part of Carten’s life in the mid-twenties was Gwen Farrar. Unlike the omniverous Tallulah, Farrar was a strict Lesbian, who by presenting herself on stage as a comic turn –  one much favoured by the BYP, was able to present a masculine image to the world at large that must have been the envy of many at the time. She was one of the great stars of the period – on stage, on records and in cinema shorts. Off stage she was the lover of Barbara “Joe” Carstairs and Dolly Wilde among others. Carten was now mixing with the inner circle of wealthy and artistic Lesbian London.

Gwen Farrar

In 1925, in an act that Elvira would quite likely have  approved of, Farrah and Carten were arrested for assaulting a police officer. The poor constable had objected to them parking their car directly outside the Savoy Hotel. Carten had “obstructed” while the more direct Farrar had thrown a punch. The case caused more mirth than censure and charges were eventually dropped.

Farrah, Bankhead and Carten became fixtures of the party scene and enjoyed a reputation for excess and mischief. One often told tale added a fourth person to the group, Carten’s younger brother, the 17 years old  Kenneth. In 1928, during Aimee Semple McPherson’s much publicised (and parodied) evangelical crusade in England, a less than sober Bankhead invited the American to her home where her “gang” tried to get the preacher to admit that she was human. This involved the four telling all the worst things that they had ever done in the hope that McPherson would at least let slip some indiscretion in return. Seasoned hustler that she was, McPherson didn’t break.

Aimee Semple McPherson (Mrs.Melrose Ape in Vile Bodies)

By the end of the decade Carten was beginning to think of herself more as a writer than an actress. Teaming up with her sister, Waveney, she wrote a number of successful plays such as “Late One Night”, “Fame” and (believe it or not) “Gay Love” which was filmed in 1934. It was during this creative period that the night of passion with Elvira took place-  but they were obviously well-acquainted before that. Audrey and Kenneth were not at the cocktail party on May 30th – they were in America – but they probably attended the trial. The rendezvous  in France was pre-arranged so we can reasonably include Carten in Elvira’s circle. Given that Ruth Baldwin would have been a friend of Carten’s (through Joe Carstairs) and probably Olivia Wyndham too, the distance between Elvira and the openly lesbian guests at her party starts to evaporate.

Audrey and Kenneth seem to have spent much of the thirties crossing the Atlantic. Her plays were produced on Broadway as well as in London. On one return journey there is an interesting fellow-passenger, Ida Wylie.I.A,R. Wylie was a popular Australian romantic novelist and a long-time friend of the best-known lesbian couple in England – Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge – whom she was no doubt on her way to visit. Her presence on the ship  may be a coincidence but she and Audrey would not have wanted for conversation.

In the year that Elvira died (1936) Audrey and Waveney enjoyed another success. Noel Coward produced their adaptation of Jacques Deval’s “Madamoiselle”  which introduced a new star in Greer Garson and ran for 147 performances. That it was at Wyndham’s, where she had starred with Tallulah 13 years previously, must have given great satisfaction. Their adaptation remained popular for some years and is the only work by the sisters that seems to be easily locatable.

Waveney and Audrey

Audrey Carten died in Hastings in 1977 and Waveney in Sandwich in 1990. As for Kenneth, he became an actor too, in various smallish roles on the West End stage. His most notable achievement lies in the fact that he was part of the cast that first sang “The Stately Homes of England” (Operette 1938). The Coward connection continued to prove useful to the Cartens.

Kenneth Carten (far left) in Operette 

As did the relationship with Tallulah Bankhead. She appears to have employed him for a while and also recommended him to various American studios. Not much came of it but Tallulah retained an obvious affection for the man she had first met as a teenager in London.

In her will she left him $10,000 dollars and the portrait that Peter Shiel painted of her in 1962. It is now in the V&A.

Things would have been very different for all concerned had the Gamble accusations been published. I’m, somewhat hypocritically, rather pleased they weren’t. Anyway the truth or otherwise cannot now be proven. Personally, I am quite sure Elvira and Audrey had sex and probably not just in France. And we know that Elvira was very fond of bisexual young men. The incest I doubt – although Audrey, like Elvira, had a reputation with both sexes. Most famously, she had had an affair in the mid-twenties with the actor Gerald Du Maurier, Daphne’s father. By a nice coincidence, in 1925, in the middle of Gerald and Audrey’s liaison,  the 18 years-old Daphne had developed a “pash” on Gwen Farrar and sent her a very gushing letter, much to her parents’ annoyance. Small world, eh?

Dolores Ashley – Elvira as Actress

As the daughter of very wealthy parents, Elvira Mullens had no need to worry about a career.  She would have done “the season” . attended the usual round of balls and socially sanctioned sporting events – Henley, Eton v. Harrow at Lords  and so forth. At the end of this, a suitably moneyed and,possibly, titled suitor would emerge.For some reason, this did not happen. Perhaps Elvira was already rebellious and disaffected; we know her home life was less than happy. Perhaps her personality told against her; could it be that her legendary rudeness and quick temper were already apparent?

Anyway, around 1925, having watched her younger sister marry a Russian prince, Elvira decided that she would try her luck as an actress.

Before the War being an actress had been seen as a possible route towards a title, as to some extent it remained throughout the twentieth century. In the 1920s however, the stage, increasingly respectable thanks to the growing number of theatrical knights, saw a growing number of the daughters of the well-heeled and ennobled treading the boards. An added glamour was provided by the likes of Lady Diana Cooper, pre-war member of The Coterie and considered England’s leading beauty,who  from 1919 pursued a successful  career on stage and in silent pictures.

File:Diana Cooper01.jpg

Lady Diana Cooper

Many of Elvira’s social circle , including some attendees at the cocktail party, belonged to this new generation.Their immediate  idol and inspiration was Tallulah Bankhead, whose sensational arrival on the London stage earned her not only adoring male fans but a legion of fanatical young female followers. Given that Elvira kept Tallulah’s picture by her bedside while awaiting trial, one can be sure that she was one of Tallulah’s would-be “groupies”. Tallulah was a key part of the Bright Young scene, knew “The Blue Lantern” and may well have attended parties at Belgrave Square.

Tallulah, in front as Borotra. Impersonation Party 1927

Preparatory to her new career, Elvira studied at Lady Constance Benson’s Acting School. Most commentators on the trial see something intrinsically comical about this, but it was a well-regarded establishment run by a leading Shakesperian actress (and wife of Frank Benson). The school’s most famous ex-pupil was, the then only recently graduated, John Gielgud. It was toward the end of her time there that she met Charles Graves (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/tag/charles-graves/  ) – a moment which, in hindsight, marks the beginning of her notoriety.

Elvira,as with most other aspects of her life, was not to make a success out of acting. The beginning was prestigious enough – a small part, probably in the chorus, in Rudolf Friml’s “The Blue Kitten” which opened in late 1925 at the Gaiety theatre and ran for 140 performances. The beginning, however, was also the ending as there is no evidence of any further public appearances for the would be starlet who, using her middle and her mother’s maiden name, called herself “Dolores Ashley”.

Elvira 1926 - publicity shot for "The Blue Kitten" Gaiety TheatreFile:Gaiety1.jpg

She did get to know a number of actors and actresses and Irene MacBrayne, who was at the cocktail party, knew her from that period.Like most socialites of the era she was a diligent “First Night” devotee. The police found many programmes for shows in her bathroom at 21 William Mews.Certainly there remained something decidedly “theatrical” about Elvira’s public persona.

It is perhaps not too impudent to wonder whether her perfectly rehearsed performance at the trial owed something to Lady Benson’s tutelage.

Viva King

My take on the Elvira Barney case changed dramatically after reading Viva King’s fascinating  ( if, in places, unreliable) memoirs.

” One of the quintessential female Bohemians was Viva King, who, when we went around together, would become furious if anyone assumed her to be my mother. An uncommonly beautiful woman before she became stout and puffy, she and her husband Willie, of the British Museum, were more attracted by young gay men than by each other. In later years, one of her most cherished friends was April Ashley, who had emerged as a stunningly glamorous butterfly from the drab chrysalis of a lanky merchant seaman.” Francis King 

Somewhat older than the “Bright Young People” , really a member of Augustus John’s set, she was nonetheless a key figure of the 20s scene both as hostess and party guest. She was a close friend of Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, Arthur Jeffress and knew both Elizabeth Ponsonby and Elvira Barney well. Brenda Dean Paul had been her bridesmaid. Despite some patent inaccuracies, her chapter on Elvira is very revealing.

A CAUSE CELEBRE

“My friend Georgia Sitwell had, at some period before I was married, introduced me to a schoolfriend of hers called Elvira Mullins”

Georgia Sitwell (née Doble), by Bassano, May 1935 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Georgia Doble (Sitwell)

“Elvira’s father was a stockbroker to the government and they lived in great splendour in Belgrave Square.Not that Iever  saw  much of this splendour as Elvira had a real nostalgie de la  boue, so that her home had a curious atmosphere of gilded misery. She also had that fatal gift to which I have referred, always being “In love, my dear!” – said in a slightly Cockney voice. One of her victims was Charles Graves and Elvira sat out. I forget howmany hours or days, in her car waiting for him to leave his flat in Royal Avenue in Chelsea.When he finally emerged, she took a pot-shot at him with a revolver and happily missed. She drove a large car, the first I had ever seen with chromium and not brass fittings, and we would sometimes gofor a night or two to a cottage that she had near Henley. I would wash up the dirty dishes left in the bath and sweep up mountains of champagne corks – which rather annoyed her as she said that they were souvenirs of gay nights.”

6 Belgrave Square

“Three American singers came over to perform in the Halls, calling themselves the Three New Yorkers and Elvira married the ugliest and fattest of them, called Barney.He treated her very badly and with surprising jealousy and Willie (Viva’s husband) and I were witness to ugly scenes. At last he he took himself back to America and Elvira took to drugs. Drug taking was not then the legally hazardous thing it is now and she would ring me up to ask for my help. I was, of course, unable to assist her. But one day we were all surprised when she was told by a friend that if she took her car to Richmond and at a certain point drove right then left then right again she would find a teashop where, on demand, a waitress wold supply her needs. We were even more surprised to learn that the white powder for which she paid so dearly “Really was, my dear, cocaine.”

“As Willie hated parties, we did not go to her last, attended by so many of our friends, who were later grilled by the police.After the party was over, Elvira waited for her lover to return. when he did appear, out came her revolver and in a rage she fired it, bang,bang,bang! or only one bang!, which killed him.He did not die at once but went into the bathroom to staunch the blood coming from his wound and mouth, emerging after a few minutes to fall dying at her feet. She wisely sent at once for the family doctor and he stayed an hour with her before the police were called.

She was arrested and put in the infirmary of Holloway prison and Sir Patrick Hastings got the brief for defending her on a charge of murder.She was living in a mews flat, and in those days such flats were still mostly inhabited by chauffeurs and their wives over the garages.The statements of these women of the number of bangs that they heard varied considerably,ergo:according to Sir Patrick they were unreliable witnesses and only one bang could have killed the victim in the struggle for the revolver, which went off accidentally. Thus Elvira was acquitted.”

Holloway HMP

“I was upset by this terrible affair, and imagined Elvira to be prostrate after her ordeal and weeks of anxiety on remand in prison.But when I opened my Daily Mirror the next day, there she was with a happy grinning countenance, stepping into her car on the way to the hairdressers.She soon came to see me and said that she had kept a picture of Tallulah Bankhead with her in prison and that looking at it had kept her spirits up.Willie and I did not know what to make of this and I wonder if Tallulah ever later realized that among her other achievements, there had been this help she had been able to give to a suspected murderess.

Tallulah

“Elvira was found dead in her hotel bedroom sometime afterwards and I received a letter from her mother saying she had left me all her pictures and books, but as she had died insolvent they had been in their rights to keep the best of these to pay for her funeral.However I did get the portrait of Elvira that Eliot Hodgkin had painted of her,It was an image of Elvira that she wished to show the world. Elvira was not even her name. She had changed it by deed poll from something far more ordinary (untrue).”

Eliot Hodgkin

Eliot Hodgkin