Tag Archive: Terence Skeffington-Smyth


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.

Arthur Jeffress

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.

Brian Howard

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.”

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Osbert Lancaster

In the summer of 1932, the artist and illustrator Osbert Lancaster attended a party in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. The house had once been the home of James McNeill Whistler but was now the London residence of Bryan and Diana Guinness, the couple who represented the most exclusive, topmost tier of the “Bright Young People”.

The party was held for Unity Mitford, younger sister of Diana, and Osbert’s partner for the evening was another sister, Nancy (then Mrs. Peter Rodd). Under the aegis of the already legendary siblings, for the 24 year-old Osbert, this night was sure to be  “a rather more interesting evening than most Deb-dances” of which he was already thoroughly bored.

Jessica, Nancy,Diana, Unity, Pamela 1935

But Osbert was in for an initial surprise.

“Our hostess’s connection with Oxford and The Bright Young People would ensure, I thought, the presence of some of the more picturesque survivors of the previous decade not usually to be found at such functions; and, by the same token, it seemed likely that the girls from the shires and the beefy young ensigns from the Brigade would for once be in the minority.

Nevertheless I was in no way prepared for the first departure from the customary routine. On catching sight of the usual small crowd of sightseers gathered on the pavement outside the gate, I braced myself to conceal the embarrassment invariably induced by the appreciative cooing which the appearance of the female guests normally provoked.”

Baba Beaton, Wanda Baillie Hamilton and Lady Bridget Poulett  – “Coo, Ain’t they Lovely?”

“I need not have bothered. The smiles were sardonic rather than welcoming and instead of “Coo, Ain’t She Lovely!” we received solicitous but ironic enquiries after the health of Mrs. Barney and pious expressions of hope that the lady had not forgotten her gun.”

Mitford Sisters “Coo, Ain’t they eccentric?”

Osbert, balancing precariously between satire and snobbery, continues,

“The Barney Case, in which the verdict just announced had clearly not given any manifest satisfaction to the proletariat, had already produced a widespread revulsion of feeling that involved, I know realised, circles far distant from those in which that trigger-happy and rather sordid poor little rich girl normally moved. The Twenties, it was generally decided, had gone on quite long enough and the Bright Young People, of whom Elvira had never in fact been one, were to be swept smartly under the carpet. Hem-lines came tumbling down, chaperones were returning with a rush, and formality was, quite clearly, on the way back.”

This paragraph contains as succinct a summary of the general consensus regarding Elvira and the significance of her case as you are likely to find. To whit, Elvira was lucky to get off (“trigger-happy”), her lifestyle was immoral (“sordid”) and, though apparently nothing to with them, she hastened the demise of the Bright Young People. Furthermore, her actions affected the whole class system, causing a loss of deference amongst the “proletariat” and a scurrying back to traditional values of modesty and decorum among her own kind. Lancaster was writing 30 years after the incident, but the moral of his tale could not be clearer.

Lady Bridgett Poulett and Mrs. Charles Sweeny, Claridge’s 1938

Back at the party, Osbert was relieved to find that the Palace Gates had not, as yet, been stormed and all was as it should be.

“Once inside, however, it was not apparent that the critical barrage to which they had been subject on arrival had had any lasting effect on the spirit of the guests. As I had hoped the ilder generation represented by Harold Acton and Mrs. Armstrong-Jones were present in force, and of the current crop of debs only the most glamorous appeared to have received invitatations.”

Iconic image of Harold Acton at Oxford (by Evelyn Waugh)

Mrs. Armstrong-Jones (Anne Messel)

“It would have taken more than a few snide comments to ruffle the mask-like composure of such reigning beauties as Miss Margaret Whigham or Lady Bridget Poulet even, which seemed unlikely, had they been fully comprehended. From the garden came the strains of “Peanut Vendor” played by one of the newly-fashionable rumba bands, and half way up the stairs our hostess, glorious as some Nordic corn-goddess wearing a magnificent diamond tiara slightly on one side and presumably quite unaware of the views being expressed by the man in the street, radiated beauty and enjoyment as she received her guests.”

Margaret Whigham, Lady Bridgett Poulett and Unity Valkyrie Mitford – all in 1932

Lancaster chooses his representative and emblematic markers of the period well – in fact,with the same precision he would later bring to his cartoons. Even the mention of “Peanut Vendor” is spot-on. Smart Set favourite, Ambrose had introduced it the year before sparking a craze for frilly shirts and Latin rhythms which lasted well into the 1950s and seemed to particularly appeal to the upper-crust (Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret’s patronage of Edmondo Ros being the classic example),

Harold Acton was the uber-aesthete of the Bright Young People, outranking even Elvira’s guest Brian Howard.There are still arguments over which one was the model for “Anthony Blanche” in Brideshead. Mrs. Armstrong-Jones was the beautiful Anne Messel, without whom no Bright Young weekend was quite complete. She was the sister of Oliver Messel, innovative stage designer and talented artist and the most neglected of the Bright Young inner circle. It was he who brought together the worlds of the literary, the theatrical and the visual arts – so well represented by Elvira’s pals. He was also a neighbour and friend of Billy Milton – the man who arrived at the cocktail party a day late.

Margaret Whigham and Bridgett Poulett  are, equally,  apposite and fascinating examples of the “younger generation”. Both born in 1912, they were the most photographed and fashionable Debs of the early 30s. I don’t know whether Lancaster is making a subtle social comment in mentioning them, but the former was to eventually cause a scandal that far eclipsed even Elvira’s tribulations. Alreadya veteran of a number of affairs (including,allegedly, an early pregnancy courtesy of a young David Niven), Miss Whigham was Deb of the Year and her marriage to Charles Sweeny the following summer was one of the last “great” society weddings. Her celebrity status was confirmed by appearance in the lyrics of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Tops”.

Whigham-Sweeny Wedding

However, it was as Margaret, Duchess of Argylle in the 1960s (about the time Lancaster was penning these memoirs) that she achieved true notoriety, featuring in the infamous “Headless Man” divorce case. For some of the less than salutary details of this incident, which, incidentally, got collapsed into the Profumo scandal, see Headless Man.

Duchess of Argylle

Lady Bridgett Poulett, also did not quite fulfil the expected role, not marrying until 1948 and then to a Colombian diplomat, albeit a very wealthy and Cambridge educated one. Football historians will know Luis Robledo as the man who first instigated overseas transfers , as owner of Bogota Santa Fe he imported a number of English footballers from Stoke City and Manchester United, who found themselves in a strange climate and on wages not enjoyed by their English counterparts for at least a generation. As Lady Poulett, she is best remembered for the exotic photographs taken of her by Madame Yevonde, who also made portraits the wife of of Elvira’s close friend Terence Skeffington-Smythe.

Lady Bridget Poulett as Arethusa by Madame Yevonde

Of course, the real scandal of the evening, although as yet unrecognised, was that Diana Guinness had already embarked on her affair with Oswald Mosley which would lead to their marriage at the home of Joseph Goebbels in 1936, while the party’s raison d’etre, Unity. was about to embark on her journey to become Hitler’s most fanatical English follower.

If this was the new respectability, give me Elvira’s indiscretions every time.

Lancaster himself, with his university friend, John Betjeman, went on to forge a career sensibly defending Britain’s architectural heritage and, more problematically, portraying the Upper Class as a benign if somewhat amusing factor in English life. He also famously collaborated with Nancy Mitford and is as responsible as anyone, not least through his Daily Express cartoons, for the generally benevolent view we hold about our “social superiors”. That Elvira should seem to have been a threat to this happy state of affairs and that Osbert spotted it, speaks volumes about him and, probably, about all of us.

By the time of the shooting Elvira Barney had been living at 21 William Mews for just over a year.She says twelve months in her statement, the neighbours say eighteen –  which is unsurprising; it probably felt even longer to them.

There is no recorded evidence of any trouble for the whole of 1931. However, the car crash in July and an autumn spent in Paris and Cannes, added to what seems a relatively quiet relationship with Mervyn Pearce, would account for that.

Michael Scott Stephen appears on the scene towards the end of the year. My guess is that they became close in Paris. By Christmas  he has pretty well moved in. From this time on, the parties increase in frequency and so do the disturbances. Early in the year, not sure of the date, a neighbour recalls the couple rowing in the street and Elvira hitting Michael.

On Wednesday February 17th, at 10.30 am, the police received a complaint from a Mr.Elverton at No.11 who was fed up of people arriving at Elvira’s late at night, noisily and drunkenly. “Shouting and quarrelling took place and it was impossible for anyone living near to sleep.”  It is worth noting that all of the Mews disturbances are on a weekday, Fridays and Saturdays were probably devoted to grander parties, trips to Paris or sojourns at Elvira’s weekend retreat in Henley. Given that the people who shared the Mews with Elvira were mostly chauffeurs with wives in domestic service and would have all had very early starts to their working day, one can imagine the level of her popularity.

Anyhow, the police were already aware of trouble in  the early hours of Feb 17th, as P.C. Campbell had been summoned from his Knightsbridge beat by a taxi driver who had been told to fetch a policeman. The allegation was that there was a “lunatic” at No.21. The person who sent the taxi-man on this errand was the owner of 21, who gave her name as “Janet Burnett” and was having trouble ejecting four people from her flat,three men and one woman. All four had been drinking and one man was exceedingly drunk. The constable got them to leave. You will have surmised that Janet Burnett was Elvira herself. in the light of future events P.C. Campbell may have wondered about the true identity of the “lunatic” .

Two weeks later, on Thursday March 3rd, at 2am, Elvira again called the police saying that a downstairs window had been smashed and she wished to charge a man with assault and criminal damage. When Sergeant Barnes of Gerald Road arrived, he was told that the man had left in a taxi but Elvira would not name him nor did she wish to pursue the matter.

Barnes noticed red marks on Elvira’s  arms and chest and, at her request, agreed for a Constable to keep an eye on the property in case the man should return. He also thought the window (on the ground floor) had been smashed from the inside.

The next incident, date unknown,,did not involve the police but was when Elvira locked herself in the bedroom and a worried Terence skeffington-Smyth and some others had gone looking for a ladder to check that she was all right. (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/terence-skeffington-smyth/ ). These events were also recalled by other Mews residents.

On 15th April Elvira rang Gerald Street station  around midnight, to ask them to eject a man from the premises. When the police arrived they found Michael Scott Stephen quite sober but Elvira very drunk. Stephen left without arguing but not before making Elvira promise “not to do anything” . He explained to the officer that this referred to often mention threats of suicide with “a revolver or poison”.

On 19th May, the most serious row yet took place. This was the occasion when Elvira apparently refused to lend Michael money, firstly for himself and then later, when he returned, to pay for his taxi. They fought – Elvira had bruises to her arms and Michael acquired a black eye and a swollen lip.  It is also the occasion when Elvira leant out of the upstairs window and called out, “Laugh, Baby. Laugh for the last time.”. She then fired a revolver – into the street thought one witness, into the air in the flat according to Elvira. It must be noted that Michael, even in these heated circumstances, still seemed more concerned about Elvira shooting herself rather than him.

There was one more disruption to sleep patterns of the Mews residents. Either on the 24th or the 25th a group of late night revellers arrived in a car yelling to be let in and threatening to go round to Elvira’s parents if not allowed access. Elvira ignored them.

Then on the morning of the 31st of May, Michael Scott Stephens died of a single gunshot wound somewhere between the bathroom and the upstairs landing of number 21 – bringing the parties and the scenes of late night chaos to a dramatic end.

Denys Skeffington-Smyth

Denys Skeffington-Smyth did attend the cocktail party on the 30th but appears to have known Elvira and Michael Scott Stephen only vaguely, as attendees at various parties over the previous five months. An early arrival – he notes the presence of Hugh Wade, Ruth Baldwin, Irene MacBrayne and, most interestingly, Eddie Gathorne Hardy. His brother,according to Denys, was not there.

At the time of the interview he was living at 17 Southwick Street and appearing in “Casanova” at the London Coliseum.

He does not feature in the programme but was probably part of the vast chorus. 1932 was a season of mammoth productions, Coward’s “Cavalcade” being the biggest and best known.

A few years later, now referring to himself as an author (although I can find no evidence of published work) he moved to America. He, like his brother Noel and his father, changed his name to Fitzpatrick. Whether this was due to the scandal of Terence’s death or not, I can’t tell.Noel Fitzpatrick was a leading member of the Irish Fascists who fought for Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

The longest statement taken by the police was that of Terence Skeffington-Smyth. He was also asked to return and provide a second statement. Why this should be is matter for speculation as he had nothing especially insightful to add to the police’s knowledge of the case.

However, he does appear to be central to the dynamics of Elvira’s social world and is a character of some interest in his own right.

Terence  (1906-36) was one of three sons, the others were Noel (b1909) and Denys (b1911), of  Lieutenant Colonel Skeffington-Smyth. The father was a military man through and through, serving with distinction in the Boer War, He was also an early advocate of the then heretical idea that motorised units should and would replace cavalry battalions.

Early display of military motors – organised by Skeffington-Smyth.

The family were part of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, wealthy and very well connected. At the time of his interview T.  Skeffington-Smyth was living off a large inheritance from his mother. Between October 1930 and May 1931 he had been on safari with his father in Africa and since then had divided his time between holidays in the South of France and London night life. Although living at 19 Orchard Street – near Selfridges – he often stayed at the International Sports Club in Upper Grosvenor Street.

He had met Elvira at Cannes (probably at the Majestic Hotel) in August 1931 and told the police ” I have seen quite a lot of Mrs. Barney since then. I know her very well indeed, she is a very good friend of mine.” That he was a friend rather than simply an acquaintance is borne out by other witness statements.

Lobby of the Majestic

He describes Elvira’s William Mews cocktail parties as regular events , usually very small gatherings and always between 6.30 and 9. He also mentions occasional bridge parties, which are worth noting as Elvira cites Stephen’s gambling as a source of conflict between them. Oddly, Elvira did not play bridge.

From his statement we can visualise the social life of Elvira and Michael Scott Stephen. He talks of seeing them together at Ciro’s (where Elvira was a member), the Cafe De Paris, Monseigneur’s, The Blue Lantern and The Blue Angel. He also refers to their attendance at football matches and greyhound tracks.

Terence held a cocktail party at his flat on the 26th and it was there that most of the invitations to Elvira’s party were made. This explains why the majority of guests seemed to know Skeffington-Smyth better than they did Elvira. Skeffington-Smythe did not attend the Mews party, arriving from Paris at about 7pm then catching up with everybody at The Blue Angel before going on to Arthur Jeffress’ home.

His closeness to Elvira can be seen by the fact that after the shooting she rang him up. This was at 5am and she asked him to come over as “something terrible has happened”. He said he could not, Elvira then pleaded with him to get a doctor as she was having trouble contacting hers. He persuaded her to persist in trying and enquired as to  exactly what had happened. Elvira replied “I can’t tell you it all right now.”

Skeffington-Smyth saw Elvira at her parent’s home on the 31st where she described the events of the night in exactly the same words she used in her police statement. One irrefutable fact about this case is the absolute consistency of Elvira’s re-telling of the incident.

The police recalled Skeffington-Smyth two weeks later. Firstly, to assure them that he had not been at the party (one of the guests, Hugh Wade, had mentioned his presence) and secondly to describe an earlier occurrence at 21 William Mews when an hysterical Elvira had locked herself in the bedroom and was shouting and screaming. Skeffington-Smyth had fetched a ladder to  make sure Elvira was not in danger. This was one of the several earlier disturbances mentioned in court by the neighbours.

Why was Skeffington-Smyth interviewed at such length?One can only assume that the police thought he knew more than he was letting on. He was aware that there was another woman at the centre of the rows ( Dora Wright – although S-S does not mention her name). It is also possible that Skeffington-Smyth was thought be the source of the drug use that the police knew hovered around this circle.

Two years later Skeffington-Smyth married Isobel McLean the daughter of society hostess, Loudon Maclean.

Isobel MacLean by Madame Yevonde

On a world cruise in 1936, Skeffington-Smyth collapsed and died in his hotel bedroom in the Broadway Mansions Hotel, Shanghai. The Straits Times reported,

“Shanghai Tragedy

Peer’s nephew dies after visiting opium dens

Shanghai Mar 19 1936

The death of a young Briton after a round of visits to opium dens and night clubs was investigated at the inquest here today on Terence George Randall Skeffington-Smyth, a nephew of Viscount Galway and son of Lt.Col G.H.J..Skeffington-Smyth, who was found dead in bed in a Shanghai hotel on Mar 9th.

A nightclub bar-tender testified that on the previous night he visited opium dens in company with Mr.Skeffington-Smyth who smoked about five pipes of drug and went home after daybreak.

The inquest was adjourned.

Mr.Skeffington-Smyth and his wife arrived in Shanghai a few weeks ago on a world tour.”

Art Deco masterpiece, Broadway Mansions Hotel, Built 1934

Elvira died on Christmas Day in the same year.