I thought a reminder of the cocktail party might be in order as I have posted a few items now and can’t expect people to back track through all of them. So, forgive the repetition but here we go.
On Monday, May 30th 1932 Elvira Barney and Michael Scott Stephen held a cocktail party between 6pm and 10pm at 21 William Mews (off Lowndes Square).Elvira had lived at the Mews since January 1931 and the small front room was designed with Parties in mind. The main two items of furnishing were a cocktail bar and a large gramophone.
21 William Mews and Elvira’s Delage
She held cocktail parties about twice a month. They were informal affairs and always took place early in the week. The invitation process seems to have consisted simply of telling people she met at a party in someone else’s house that she was doing the same next week so “do drop in”. In addition, Michael or Elvira would ring round on the morning of the party and invite others. In the case of the 30th May, many (if not most) of the guests had been invited at Terence Skeffington-Smythe’s cocktail party (the previous Wednesday or Thursday) at 19, Orchard Street. Michael also made some phone calls on the Monday.
Over the course of the evening, between 25 and 35 people came and went. Some were close friends, some were regular attendees, some had only met Elvira at Skeffington-Smyth’s and some had never met her at all. Her two closest friends at the time, Leonie Fester and Terence Skeffington-Smyth were invited but didn’t make it. They turned up at the Blue Angel later on.
Hugh Wade and Elizabeth Ponsonby ( Olivia Wyndham and possibly Heather Pilkington behind railings)
Hugh Wade, the resident pianist at the Blue Angel and The Blue Lantern, knew Elvira well. He was among the first to arrive. Also early was Irene MacBrayne of 88 Brompton Road, an actress. Irene was a regular at Elvira’s parties.
Sylvia Coke, of 4 Carlyle Square, came with a “very great friend” who she was unwilling to name. She didn’t know Elvira well but had met her at various parties over the last couple of months. Brian Howard came with Toni Altmann (and,presumably,Eddie Gathorne-Hardy). All three were living at 39 Maddox Street. Howard had known Elvira by sight for some five years but had only properly spoken to her at Skeffington-Smyth’s. Gathorne-Hardy was not a friend but knew Elvira as a regular at the Blue Lantern. Toni Altmann didn’t know anybody very well. He had recently gone to a party held by performers in the play “Casanova” with Sylvia Coke and had met Elvira there.
Denys Skeffington-Smyth (17 Southwick Street) was in Casanova so that may be the connection (or the Terence S-S cocktail party may have been for the cast). Denys was at the Monday cocktail party and had met Elvira at various gatherings over the past couple of years, but did not consider himself a friend. Arthur Streek (26 Sackville Street) did, and seems to have been more aware of the rows between Elvira and Michael than other guests (or at least more than they would admit to the police). He arrived with two Americans – a Mr.Sherrill and someone called Milton.
Ruth Baldwin and Olivia Wyndham were there. Olivia was visiting from America. They were holding their own “soiree” later, at 5 Mulberry Walk. If they knew Elvira at all, it would have been through Heather Pilkington, a mutual friend who might also have been in attendance. Someone identified as “Mrs.Butterworth” was there too, but I can’t work out who she was.
The last guest to arrive was Arthur Jeffress. He had just got back from America and seems to have been the closest to a “guest of honour” that the evening held. He described himself as a “good friend” of Elvira’s and spent much of the rest of the evening with her and Michael.
The party does not seem to have been at all “wild”. The gramophone played and there was dancing. The guests drank sherry, cocktails (gin, grapefruit juice and soda water) and, after Michael and a guest (named as Joe Carstairs by a Mews resident) had been dispatched to an off-licence, whisky. Given Michael and Elvira’s reputation, there may well have been cocaine on offer but there is no evidence to support such a claim.
Only Hugh Wade and Arthur Jeffress appeared at the trial. Toni Altmann, Brian Howard,Irene MacBrayne, Sylvia Coke, Denys Skeffington-Smyth, Arthur Streek, along with Leonie Fester and Terence Skeffington-Smyth, gave police statements. Joe Carstairs sent, through her solicitors, a very forthright letter denying that she was present.
The police either failed to find the other guests or perhaps, given that all the early interviews told pretty much the same story (everything was fine between Elvira and Michael), they just didn’t see the need. Cotes reports that one guest rang the police offering information but he never materialised. This might be John May, who rang round a number of people on the Tuesday. He was the first to inform Jeffress of the shooting, which suggests that he knew who had been where the night before. A neighbour told the police that he counted fifteen men arriving at the flat before he gave up. Why he counted only the men is anyone’s guess.
Earlier accounts claim that several prominent people were very keen to deny any association with the evening or with Mrs.Barney generally, but this is more likely to be press speculation than actual fact.
And that’s about it. I’ll leave the last words to Sylvia Coke,
“I went to Mrs. Barney’s party at 21 Williams Mews at about 7pm on the 30th May. I should think there were about 25 to 30 persons present. We were given cocktails to drink and there was sherry for those who wanted it, The gramophone was playing and we danced to it. It was a very gay party and everybody, including Mrs,Barney and Mr.Scott Stephen, seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely.”