Tag Archive: Viva King


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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Simon Fleet

Along with Edgar Blatt, the driving force behind the ill fated “To and Fro” was Simon Carnes (c1913-1966). He wrote a number of Revues in the 1930s, including “One of Those Things“(1934), ,“All’s Well” (1936) and “Back Your Fancy” (1938). He was also an actor and a set designer. Although primarily a lyricist he  seems to have also done some composing and, unlikely as I find it, is credited with providing the music for the 1935 Fortune theatre production of Elmer Rice’s “Not For Children“. The Revues seem to have been generally well-received but they peter out at the end of the decade. Simon Carnes, like so many others, disappears from the records, a small footnote to theatrical history.

36 Wardour Street today – Carnes’ flat upstairs on the right (in the 1930s the Vietnamese restaurant was Mrs.Brown’s Little Tea Shop)

Except  it wasn’t quite like that. Simon Carnes vanishes but Simon Fleet was born.Carnes had lived in Wardour Street  (two minutes walk from Hugh Wade’s flat) throughout the 1930s and was evidently already something of a “character”. Tall, handsome, very much a dandy, he was taken up by some very influential friends.The two most important were probably Sophie Fedorovich and Lady Juliet Duff.

Sophie Fedorovich was a Russian-born artist who was part of the circle that included Barbara Ker-Seymer, Olivia Wyndham, Marty Mann and Lucy Norton. She was also very close to Frederick Ashton. Although a gifted painter, it is for her costume and set designs for the Ballet that she is best remembered. When she met Simon is uncertain – her name is on the programme for “To and Fro” so it is likely that they knew each other from the mid-thirties.

Costume Design by Sophie Fedorovich 1940

Equally significant was his relationship with Lady Juliet Duff, a socialite and patron of the Arts (particularly Ballet) to whom the adjective “extraordinary” is customarily applied. Lady Juliet was thirty years Carnes’ senior and he was to be what Viva King terms her “cavaliere servente” for many years. She provided Carnes with an income – he seems not to have been independently wealthy – and encouraged his transformation. He was a constant presence at her house and as a companion at the theatre. Sir Francis Rose (of whom more in a separate post) describes Simon in the early days of his alliance with Lady Duff.

David Herbert, Juliet Duff, Cyril Ritchard (of “To and Fro”), Madge Elliot and Michael Duff 1941

“Simon Carnes, as he was called then, drifted about the house quietly, politely, and with sufficient personal fantasy to make him the most pleasing of modern and youthful eccentrics.”

During the War Carnes (whose real name is something of a mystery – Nicky Haslam says he was originally Harry Carnes, while Viva King thinks it was Kahn) changed his name to Simon Fleet. He was in the Merchant Navy at the time. He also changed his appearance, thanks to an experiment with plastic surgery that left him with a rather snub-nosed look, and his profession – moving from the world of the stage to Antiques.

Lady Juliet Duff, the Lunts, Chips Channon – Simon Fleet sat on the ground (Photo by Cecil Beaton )

Starting off as a Portobello Road stallholder , he was to eventually become the saleroom correspondent for various Arts journals and the Observer’s antiques expert. His good taste was legendary and his 1961 book on the history of clocks is still regarded as a classic.

But it was his persona and distinctive companions for which he is most usually remembered. As Viva King recalled, “His house was made gay by his great variety of friends – high, middle or lower class. Simon brought gaiety to his world and one was lucky to know him.”  These friends included Chips Channon, Cecil Beaton, Dickie Buckle and Oliver Messel. His appearance too, guaranteed that he was noticed. He had a fondness for thigh-length boots, which, in the 1950s, must have even caused Chelsea heads to turn.

The house in question was 22 Bury Walk. He had inherited this from Sophie Fedorovitch, who died there in 1953 – owing to a gas leak. It was known as the “Gothic Box” and was sumptuously and ornately decorated. Nicky Haslam, to whom Simon was an early mentor in all things stylish and sophisticated, devotes considerable space to affectionate reminiscences of the house and its owner in his autobiography Redeeming Features. Haslam, to me, represents the last link – through Simon – to the world of 1930s’  High Bohemia. See Nicky Haslam.

Gothic Box

Apart from his writings on antiques, Fleet edited a tribute book to Sophie Fedorovich and an odd little booklet on Henry James at Rye. He befriended Lady Diana Cooper and appears to have had a similar relationship with her as with Juliet Duff. When the latter died in 1964 , she left him money in her will, a testament to their long friendshio. Thereafter he went into a serious emotional depression. His end was sad and undignified. Less than sober, he fell down the stairs at the Gothic Box and died as a consequence.

It would be interesting to know if Simon Fleet and Arthur Jeffress’ paths crossed. They certainly had mutual friends (Nicky Haslam knew both – but then again he has met everybody) both feature in Truman Capote’s letters ( but as with Haslam, ditto). The artist John Piper had correspondence with both men, but these seem strictly of a business character. Even so, it seems hard to imagine that two such flamboyant characters, both avid collectors, did not bump into each other at least once.

Sketches for the ballet by Sophie Fedorovich 1950 – donated to the V&A by Simon Fleet

One of the surprises for me since commencing this blog is the centrality of Ballet to any discussion of cultural life in C20th England. Starting with the impact of Diaghilev ( championed by both Juliet Duff and her mother), then the Ballet Rambert, through to the dancers and choreographers (Ashton, Tudor,Chappell) ,to the set and costume designers (Messel, Fedorovich,Burra) , the network that was created draws in a range of artists, Bright Young People, popular entertainers and West End socialites to an extent I had not begun to consider. I wish I knew more about the topic. A good starting point is Julie Kavanagh’s biography of Sir Frederick Ashton, Secret Muses but I feel the need to explore further – the reviews and critical writings of two of Simon Fleet’s friends Dickie Buckle (who gave the eulogy at his funeral) and Maude Lloyd (who danced in “To and Fro“) strike me as worth a look and I am going to hunt some of them down.

 

For the Revue To and Fro see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/to-and-fro-1936-hugh-wade-and-the-perils-of-the-topical-revue/

Voices

In the 1969 Sunday Times colour supplement article on the murder of Lord Erroll in Kenya, which would eventually beget the book and film “White Mischief”, Cyril Connolly began his contribution thus,

“One morning, in the last summer of peace, I was lying in the sun at Eden Roc. I used to swim out to the rocks of the Villa Eilen, across the water and then recuperate on my mattress, hired for the season with its coffin sized slab of limestone. Round the corner, invisible, were other slabs and mattresses, each with their locataire, regulars from the villas or the Cap D’Antibes or the hotel.

A woman’s voice floated over the escarpment, one of those never to be forgotten voices, husky, yet metallic, almost strident, a voice of the period, a touch of Tallulah,or, if anyone remembers her,Brenda Dean Paul.”My God, I hate men,” she was saying, “I’d trust my dog more than any man. I’d tell my dog things I’d never tell a man.”

The voice was that of June Carberry, hard-drinking member of the “Happy Valley” set and one of the central characters in the celebrated murder case.

Connolly’s evocative and perfectly fashioned paragraphs have got me thinking about a number of things – among them, the similarities between the “Happy Valley” crowd and Elvira’s world, the importance of the South of France to the mythology of the period and the observational acuity of the rather sidelined author himself. More on all these matters shortly, but for now let’s concentrate on the voices.

Accents, linguistic codes, neologisms and tone of voice were all used by the Bright Young People to distinguish themselves from the “mainstream”. This is a feature of all sub-cultures, high and low. In the BYP’s case these mannerisms became prime markers, more important in some ways than actual behaviour.They are familiar to us today primarily through the early novels of Evelyn Waugh, the writings of Nancy Mitford and the plays (and persona) of Noel Coward.

The high-pitched loudness of the men, the camp theatricality, the baby-talk, the italicised stress on certain words, the fondness for invention and over-emphasis can be found in every representation of the group, from serious novels to the captions below Punch cartoons.Even Cecil Beaton, hardly possessed of the most understated of tones, complained about the exaggerated squeals and shrieks of the men and women who arrived at his home one afternoon – at their centre was, inevitably, Brian Howard.

According to Viva King, Elvira (“Always in Love, My Dear!”) favoured a variant which included a slight faux-Cockney intonation. This, though surely as execrable as it suggests, was not uncommon and was to proliferate in the 1950s among the group of public school miscreants known as the “Chelsea Scallywags”. Derek Raymond’s first novel “The Crust On Its Uppers“(1960)  is written entirely in an unlikely mixture of Etonian argot and Cockney rhyming slang that takes the trend to its limit.

The “husky” affectation is one of the more memorable and long-lasting manifestations. Fenella Fielding carved a whole career in the 1950s and 1960s out of it, enlivening innumerable British comedy films with her innuendo-laden pastiche.Sophistication and sexiness were the aspects that Fielding emphasised, a direct legacy from Tallulah and her epigones.

The metallic harshness has other origins.Upper class authority plays a part, think barking at native servants or the hapless policemen abused by Elvira and others.Mostly, it, and the throatiness, were products of endless cigarettes, gallons of gin and, in some cases, drug use (hence Brenda Dean Paul).

Brenda Dean Paul 1950s

One example that seems to me to capture both the linguistic mannerisms and the requisite vocal timbre appears in Jocelyn Brooke’s Private View. The setting is The Blue Lantern in the early thirties and the character speaking (to the male narrator) is Veriny Chrichton-Jones, a composite of many women inhabiting what Brooke calls “pseudo-smart Bohemia”, including,possibly,Elvira. –

“My Dear,” she exclaimed, in her fashionably husky voice, “it’s utter heaven to see you. That monster Bertie Westmacott was meeting me, and I’ve been waiting here at least a thousand years, and I’m madly depressed. Do buy me a drink – here’s some money,I know you’re broke – and please introduce me to your boy-friend at once. I think he’s a perfect lamb, and I’d like to eat him, do you think he’d mind?” –

Brief as it is, this strikes me as just about as perfect a summation of character through dialogue as you could wish for. The insertion of “fashionably husky voice” seals the deal.

Jocelyn Brooke

I have mentioned Brooke before and will do so again as his absence from the canon of BYP chroniclers puzzles me. I think a post on Eden Roc is also in order.

“Effie Leigh”

I am now almost certain that Effie Leigh is a pseudonym.For whom, unfortunately, I still have no idea.

Effie Leigh is thanked for her help with Peter Cotes’ The Trial of Elvira Barney. We learn that, apart from Lady Mullens, she was the.only person Elvira wished to see while awaiting trial. She must have been a friend of Elvira’s for a while as she provides the fullest account of the brutality with which Mr.Barney had treated his wife during their short-lived marriage.

“One day she held her arms in the air, and the burns she displayed – there and elsewhere – were, she insisted, the work of a husband who had delighted in crushing his lighted cigarettes out from time to time on her bare skin.”

So, we need someone who knew Elvira well, had done so for some time,was still alive in the early 1970s and was presumably now so respectable that she wished to remain anonymous.If it is someone whose name is already linked with Elvira, then Viva King is the obvious candidate. She knew Elvira and the way she lived, had done so for some years, and must have been a friend – as Elvira apparently left her what little possessions she still owned at the time of her death (the portrait, in particular).

The main problem is that Viva King never exactly courted respectability and is quite happy in her own autobiography to talk explicitly about Elvira.

If it was someone who was around on the night of the shooting then Irene MacBrayne is a possibility. The other (named) actresses were a little too young to have known Elvira in the late 1920s. By the 1970s, MacBrayne was, I think, Irene Holdsworth, a writer on pet cats and travel, so may not wanted to have identified herself too closely with the wildness of her youth.She was at three of the four social gatherings on the 30th May, so can reasonably be seen as a “group member”. But given that I’m not even sure I’ve got the biography correct then this does seem rather like clutching at straws.

Who else? Is there a clue in the name? There’s a Victorian novelist called Effie Leigh, are we looking for a writer? Of the party set, Marjorie Firminger was still about and thought of herself as an author (others would disagree). Again though, why would she wish to conceal her identity?

When you read about other cases involving scandalous females, Ruth Ellis or Christine Keeler for instance, the most reluctant witnesses tend to be women who later “married well”. The problem with Elvira’s world is that that applies to so many of her contemporaries as to be pretty meaningless.

I have one final candidate . Elvira was, by the end of her short and stormy life, pretty well disowned by her family, but this was not (quite) yet the case at the time of the shooting. Could the prison visitor have been her sister Avril? She lived until 1978, she was friendly enough with Elvira up to at least 1931 ( Broderick Haldane dined with them both that year) and Avril certainly married well, three times in fact (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/elviras-little-sister/ ). There is a logic about it and even Cotes’ description of the confidante as “one of Elvira’s friends” could be explained as part of the “pseudonymous” ruse. Of real evidence, however, there is not a whiff.

So, the search continues. Never mind. Blind alleys, false leads and red herrings have a charm of their own.

 

 

 

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.