A Corner In Fitzrovia

William Roberts: ‘The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring, 1915’. Painted circa 1961-2. Ezra Pound front left, Wyndham Lewis in hat and scarf, centre, Rudolph Stulik with cake, right. (Tate.)

‘My friend, Marie Beerbohm, came often to Fitzroy Street. We all went in the evenings to the Eiffel Tower restaurant and ate and drank afterwards. One morning Marie came to see me. She said ‘An awful thing has happened; I was bringing with me half a bottle of champagne to cheer us up. I met Walter Sickert in the street. He saw it and said “Disgraceful that young girls like you should drink in the morning’ and he took it from me”’. (Nina Hamnett, one of Fitzrovia’s great monuments, reminiscing about the area as it was during the first world war.)

The Virgin’s Prayer (Anon):
Ezra Pound and Augustus John
Bless the bed that I lie on.

On the corner of Charlotte and Percy streets, just a few steps north of The Wheatsheaf, is a restaurant that used to be The Eiffel Tower. When I started hanging around Fitzrovia in the early 1980s it was called The White Tower, and even then it carried some residual cachet of its earlier years. From the first world war to the start of the second, The Eiffel Tower was a beacon of fine dining and civilisation during the dark years when British food was genuinely awful. But it was more than just a good restaurant; like the Café Royal in Regent Street, the Eiffel Tower functioned as a sort of sanctuary for artists, an informal club where the bohemian aristocracy could feast and play. This is where you would find the artistic personalities of the age dining on Canard Presse, Sole Dieppoise and other classics of old-world French cuisine. The benevolent proprietor was an Austrian restaurateur named Rudolph Stulik, a dead ringer for emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, whose lavish bill of fare constituted an impressive feat during wartime. And one can only wonder at the sullen resentment patrons in the Marquis of Granby opposite – a tougher and less artistically inclined pub than the others in the vicinity – might have felt towards the conspicuous consumption of the Eiffel Tower’s patrons. The fact that Stulik was performing a sort of conjuring trick keeping the place going at all was not outwardly apparent, although the seams sometimes showed, as when he had to ask patrons to pay in advance for their meals so he could buy the food with which to prepare them.

The Eiffel Tower was where one Bohemian generation advanced the cause of the next. Walter Sickert, William Orpen and Augustus John – veterans of the 1890s Decadent scene, all of whom rented studios on Fitzroy Street – partied with Nina Hamnett’s crowd, Pound, Wydham Lewis and the Vorticist mob, and later the Sitwells, Dylan Thomas and co., in an ambience of genial permissiveness. The restaurant offered a private dining room, as well as bedrooms for serious naughtiness. ( As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it was in one of those bedrooms that Dylan Thomas consummated his relationship with Caitlin Macnamara, Augustus John’s 17-year old girlfriend, just a few hours after meeting her, the bill for the room charged to John’s account. By this point, Augustus John was approaching his goatish dotage, hence the saying that he patted the head of every child he met on Charlotte St., in case it was one of his own.)

Augustus John, circa 1955, by the great Alfred Eisenstadt for Life Magazine.

However, the glory days of the Eiffel Tower seemed to peter out sometime in the 1920s, its artistic demise coinciding with the genuine aristocracy – as opposed to the bohemian variety – crashing the place and sending the artists into flight. The shipping heiress Nancy Cunard – although a well meaning sponsor of the arts and certain artists in particular – seems to have led the invasion, and as a consequence the bohemian centre of operations moved a few doors to the north, to a place where the nobs and moneyed gentry were unlikely to follow. A pub. (The Fitzroy Tavern, still in business but no longer the epicentre of bohemian raciness.)

In the 1980s I knew Fitzrovia very well; I had a friend who lived on Whitfield St., right opposite the Fitzroy Tavern, and I availed myself of the local processing labs. (Like many other photographers, I flirted with incipient alcoholism by killing ‘anxiety time’ in pubs whilst waiting to see my film.) By then Fitzrovia seemed a bit like Soho’s poor cousin: the literary and artistic scenes had vanished and both the Fitzroy and the Wheatsheaf were just Sam Smiths pubs. But the media companies and ad agencies that dominated the area lent it a distinct flavour of its own, and thus the artists of an earlier era had been replaced by actors and ‘creatives’. Saatchi and Channel 4 had their headquarters on Charlotte St.; Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones ran Tallkback productions out of an office on Percy St., and the various theatrical agencies and dubbing studios meant that many famous faces would drift past in the grey afternoons. I remember seeing the young Stephen Fry, tall, grim and pale, wandering along the bottom of Rathbone Place at seven in the morning, apparently returning home from some all-night bash. The place still had a village feel and the restaurants were one-offs rather than chains. On the corner opposite The White Tower was the Venus Kebab House, the kind of unpretentious, not exactly brilliant, restaurant that used to be so common around here (and which fed generations of bohemians, bums and beatniks). The Venus’s saving grace was its location, which gave it enough room to spread tables outside in summer. At lunchtime on a warm summer’s day, the Venus lent this corner a palpable echo of the Mediterranean: one of the few instances I can think of where a restaurant has really achieved that in London. In any case, its fishbowl windows, erratic staff and indiscreet clientele made it a theatre of human comedy at all times, memorable for fights between diners (‘My mother warned me never go back to you after the first time you hit me!’), fights between waiters (‘That’s two orders of kleftico, you bloody shit!) or just pure farce, like the memorable night when the ceiling caved in. It couldn’t last, of course, it was too much fun. And with its passing, a little bit of London died. Last time I looked, there was a Café Nero on the site.

I’ve written about Fitzrovia a few times (see the links below), simply because the district offers a rich density of anecdote, and was peopled by men and women who lived in pristine pursuit of a bohemian ideal. The tragedy of so many of them was that they succumbed to ‘Sohoitis’, i.e.: spending all your time in the pub instead of working. In our own age, now that great cities have been purged of their unseemly artistic communities, and even photographers’ labs are a thing of the past, the contemporary version of Sohoitis is noodling on Twitter or Facebook instead of being productive on Photoshop or Microsoft Word. (This tendency deserves a term of its own.) But the temptation to drift online is all too easy to understand. London’s artistic communities have been driven away and artists have to make do with virtual communities, where the jokes and arguments, feuds and allegiances happen over social media instead of a mahogany bar sticky with drink. It’s supremely ironic that Facebook’s London office is in a swanky block on the west side of Rathbone Place, across the road from The Wheatsheaf. Even my own experiences of Fitzrovia are antique now, as distant from the grey, stooped 50-something writing this as the Blitz was to my callow 20-year old self. In time, perhaps my ghost will join all the others haunting Fitzrovia: waiting for eternally undeveloped film, or for lovely women whose shades will never appear.

The Fitzroy Tavern in 1949.

Further reading:

Julian and Dylan at The Wheatsheaf
Laughing Torso Meets the Great Beast
Rathbone Street pubs
Hangover Hamilton

All Yesterday’s Parties

Bright Young Things and the proletariat: Elizabeth Ponsonby fourth from left, Cecil Beaton with pneumatic drill, next to Cyril Connolly.

‘It was an age of ‘parties’. There were ‘white’ parties in which we shot down to the country in fleets of cars, dressed in white from head to foot, and danced on a white floor lid in the orchard, with the moonlight turning all the apples to silver, and then – in a pale pink dawn – playing races with champagne corks on the surface of the stream. There were Mozart parties in which, powdered and peruked,  we danced by candlelight and then – suddenly bored – rushed out into the street to join a gang excavating the gas mains at Hyde Park Corner. There were swimming parties where, at midnight, we descended on some municipal baths, hired for the occasion, and disported ourselves with an abandon that was all the fiercer because we knew that the press was watching – and watching with a very disapproving eye.’ Beverley Nichols, All I Could Never Be (1949)

The Bright Young People were a phenomenon of the 1920s: well-connected if not actually aristocratic, sometimes rich, usually spoilt and occasionally stupid, they came to characterise the frivolity of the decade and have the capacity to irritate even at this distance. Treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, elaborate dressing up, themed parties, the affected speech (‘too sick-making’, etc.) were guaranteed to invoke the displeasure of their elders in proportion to the number of newspaper columns they filled. In many ways, their behaviour was an understandable reaction to the black-edged aftermath of the 1st World War, the assertion by a generation too young to have experienced hostilities that there was more to life than endless grief. And their coverage in the popular press was mostly indulgent – to begin with at any rate. They were good copy. They are also credited with inventing an important social innovation: the bottle party. (This is said to have been introduced by Loelia Ponsonby in 1926, the novelist Michael Arlen duly turning up with twelve bottles of pink champagne.)

The group are remembered mainly because their ‘antics’ fed into the early novels of Evelyn Waugh, and also those by Anthony Powell and Henry Green – none of whom were members of the set but detached, ironic observers. Other associated with the group included the historian Robert Byron and the artist Rex Whistler; and some in their orbit achieved success and social advancement by association. Cecil Beaton and William Walton both benefited by having their names on certain invitation lists. But the core ‘Brights’ seem to have been full-time party-goers. These include Brian Howard, acid wit, alcoholic and under-achiever; Stephen Tennant, aesthete, would-be novelist and lover of Siegfred Sassoon; and, of course, the fabled Mitford sisters, chiefly Nancy, who occasionally wrote novels, and the breathtakingly beautiful Diana, who ended up married to fascist leader Oswald Mosley. All of these individuals turn up as characters in Waugh’s novels, the exotic Stephen Tennant cited as one of several models for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited

The Impersonation Party, 1927: the Right Hon. Stephen Tennant as Queen Mary of Romania, seated left, Brian Howard in drag, standing next to Elizabeth Ponsonby and Cecil Beaton, Harold Acton kneeling below, Tallulah Bankhead in tennis gear front, etc.

One of the the most significant of the multitude of parties was David Tennant’s Mozart party, 29 April 1930, a do that was reckoned to have cost £3,000. David Tennant, brother of Stephen and son of the first Lord Glenconner, would now be described as a ‘scenester’, a man who had a feel for the times derived from impeccable connections and a fair bit of old money. Tennant was married to the young ‘queen of revue’, Hermione Gingold, and was founder and proprietor of the Gargoyle Club, a nightclub and cultural hothouse that lasted in Soho from the early twenties to the mid-fifties. Tennant  co-opted the defiance and costume of Don Giovanni by giving himself a lavish birthday party after returning from Canada in the wake of a business failure. Taking place just a few months after the Wall Street Crash, this entertainment was held within a chamber adorned with antique furniture and accessories, with music played by an orchestra decked out, like the five hundred attendees, in formal 18th century get-up (and conducted by the young John Barbirolli, no less). While the host appeared as Mozart’s dark anti-hero, another guest masqueraded as Beau Brummel with the original Brummel’s own cane as a prop. The climax of the evening was a surreal and ominous encounter as a group of party-goers emerged into Piccadilly and were photographed next to a group of workmen digging up the street. Amongst the revellers in the costume of the ancien regime posing next to bemused labourers were Cyril Connolly, Cecil Beaton and the most quintessentially bright of all the bright young people, Elizabeth Ponsonby.

Elizabeth Ponsonby, daughter of the Labour MP Arthur Ponsonby seems to have been the group’s lynchpin in their 1920s heyday. She was one of the sponsors of the famous ‘Bath and Bottle’ party in July 1928, at St.George’s Baths, Buckingham Palace Rd., where guests were instructed to wear a bathing suit and bring a bottle and a towel. Unlike some of the set, Elizabeth never wanted to do anything other than go drinking and partying; but she lacked the financial reserves to truly sustain a life of aristocratic frivolity. She was always good copy, turns up as ‘Agatha Runcible’ in Vile Bodies, lived cheerfully beyond her means – also the means of both her baffled husband and her long-suffering father. Elizabeth achieved apotheosis in tragedy, an event that also marked the end of the Bright Young era. This was a ‘White Party’ (everything painted white, white dress, etc.) held at a country house in Faversham, Kent, on a Saturday night in July 1931. Elizabeth went on her own, her increasingly exasperated husband Denis refusing to attend. At the party, Elizabeth found herself the object of affection of two men, both of whom seem to have had long-standing designs on her. A dance- floor quarrel ensued and events quickly escalated. Some time around 5 a.m., Elizabeth and one of her admirers drove off in a car that belonged to her other admirer, who then gave furious chase in a commandeered lorry. Unsurprisingly, this chase through Kentish lanes ended in disaster, as Elizabeth’s car skidded and overturned. Elizabeth was able to crawl out of the window, but her companion was crushed beneath the vehicle and died at the scene, whilst her pursuer was arrested for drink driving. In his book on ‘the set’, D.J. Taylor pinpoints the coverage of the ensuing inquest as the end of the media phenomenon of the ‘ Brights’.

Elizabeth Ponsonby died of the effects of alcoholism in 1940, at the age of forty, in her rented flat in Jermyn Street, a few doors from the Cavendish Hotel, scene of so many twenties’ parties. A respectful obituary appeared in The Times: D.J. Taylor suggests that her grieving father wrote it himself. Evelyn Waugh died, successful but disillusioned and prematurely old, in 1964. David Tennant died in 1968, in Spain, where he had lived for many years; the same year, Hermione Gingold was in Hollywood and Cecil Beaton was photographing Mick Jagger on the set of Performance. (The National Portrait Gallery held a Beaton exhibition last year, centred on his early career, but this major show was cruelly curtailed by Covid-19.) Stephen Tennant became a recluse on his family’s estate and lived long enough to watch a version of himself being played on television by Anthony Andrews in the famous eighties ITV Brideshead (which must be a bit like being embalmed whilst still alive).

Further reading: Bright Young People, D.J. Taylor, Children of the Sun, Martin Green.

Valentine’s Day Veg

Spot the missing theatre … The Golden Lion, King St., St. James’s., December 2019.

The Golden Lion on King Street is a theatre pub that has lost its theatre. Until 1957 it was the stage door watering hole for The St. James’s Theatre, one of those grand 19th century monuments so enthusiastically demolished by 20th century bureaucrats. Despite the protests of some of the greatest actors of the age, the theatre was pulled down for no very good reason: it was just old at a time when being old was unforgivable. A great pity. Apart from anything else, The St. James’s Theatre was the scene of Oscar Wilde’s greatest triumph, and one of the settings for his tragic fall. It’s a very familiar story but it remains endlessly fascinating, and more complex than the legend allows.

On Valentine’s Day 1895 the St. James’s saw the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest, a production starring the St. James’s charismatic manager George Alexander, a regular collaborator of Wilde’s. As the play was in progress, John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry lurked outside, clutching a bouquet of vegetables that he intended to throw at Wilde. Queensberry was furious with Wilde because of the playwright’s association with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, forever known by his pet name of ‘Bosie’. But Wilde had been tipped off, Queensberry’s ticket to the show was cancelled and he was denied entry to the theatre. The premiere of Earnest was the apotheosis of Wilde’s career – but Queensberry was soon to have his revenge.

Four days after Earnest‘s first night, Queensberry visited Wilde’s club, the Albermarle, 13 Albermarle St., just north of Piccadilly; unable to find Wilde, he scrawled a note on one of his visiting cards and left it with the hall porter. The message read:

To Oscar Wilde posing somdomite.

The porter read it and wrote the time and date of its receipt on the reverse. It was unseen by anyone else until Wilde went to his club ten days later. On receiving the note Wilde considered leaving the country – but he was staying at a Piccadilly hotel, couldn’t pay his bill and thus felt trapped. Wilde was hounded not just by the mad Marquess but by the mad son: the toxic combination of the provocative note left at his club and the spitting hatred Bosie felt for his father pushed Wilde into suing Queensberry for libel. This was an extraordinarily bad idea. For all his brilliance, Wilde was a vulnerable outsider: an Irish writer of ambiguous sexuality, with expensive tastes but an uncertain income, he was ill-placed to launch a libel action against a vengeful aristocrat with a taste for pugilism. Years later, in a letter to Bosie, he deplored the way he was goaded into pursuing the case: ‘… on the one side there was your father attacking me with hideous card left at my club, on the other side there was you attacking me with no less loathsome letters. […] Between you both I lost my head. My judgment forsook me. Terror took its place. I saw no possible escape, I may say frankly, from either of you. Blindly I staggered as an ox into the shambles’. With a pithy turn of phase, he also recalled the preliminary consultations with his lawyer: ‘… in the ghastly glare of a bleak room you and I would sit with serious faces telling serious lies to a bald man …’.

Queensberry’s note to Wilde: exhibits A and B in Wilde’s doomed libel case, as kept at the National Archives.

Queensberry’s homophobic fury was driven by grief. In 1893 his eldest son Drumlanrig had died in a hunting accident, killed by a round from his own shotgun. At the time of his death Drumlanrig was Private Secretary to Gladstone’s Foreign Minister, Earl Rosebery. The verdict was accidental death but rumours of suicide abounded, implying that Drumlanrig had sacrificed himself to spare Rosebery scandalous revelations. Queensberry suspected that Drumlanrig was having an affair with Rosebery and blamed him for his son’s death. Queensberry followed Rosebery across Europe in the hope of confronting him publicly but was prevented from doing so. Thwarted in pursuit of his primary quarry, Queensberry was further incensed by Wilde’s relationship with Bosie, which he saw as mirroring the one between Rosebery and Drumlanrig. (Ironically, news of Drumlanrig’s tragedy caused Wilde to scrap his plan to dump the troublesome Bosie.) Wilde was a far easier target for Queensberry’s rage: by the time Queensberry left his card for Wilde at the Albermarle Club, Rosebery had become Prime Minister.

As per the Cleveland Street Scandal of a few years earlier, the establishment was vulnerable when it came to homosexuality, with sexual transgression across class boundaries being especially taboo. Wilde’s lunatic libel case merely exposed his own sexual tastes, as Queensberry’s legal counsel announced his intention to call rent boys known to Wilde as witnesses for the defence. Wilde withdrew his suit, leading to Queensberry’s formal acquittal. Within hours, Wilde was arrested on charges of sodomy and Gross Indecency. The Crown prosecuted Wilde (now bankrupt as a result of costs from his libel suit) not once but twice, as the first trial resulted in a hung jury. Once Rosebery’s name was invoked by Queensberry in connection with Wilde it was inevitable that Wilde would have to fall. He was convicted at the second trial and sentenced to two years hard labour. Wilde’s demise is generally viewed as a pristine example of Victorian repression and hypocrisy, but sympathy for Wilde’s persecution (exemplified by Richard Ellmann’s deeply-felt but very partisan biography) tends to obscure an element of coercion in his dealings with at least some of his sexual partners. If Wilde came to court today, it’s likely that the outcome would be much the same; one doesn’t have to look far for recent parallels.

The site of the St. James’s Theatre is now occupied by a bombastic office block, although Wilde’s portrait appears on a commemorative wall frieze that merely emphasises the theatre’s absence. (As with the plaque commemorating the vanished Adelphi Terrace, what is the bloody point of memorialising buildings that should never have been pulled down in the first place?) The Golden Lion remains an engaging pub, and one can imagine how exciting and atmospheric it must have been after a first night. Whether or not Wilde himself ever came here to drink is uncertain; he probably would have swanned off to Kettners or The Cafe Royal straight after a show. But I bet Queensberry came in for a sharpener, vegetables in hand, blood on his mind.

Commemorative plaque, Angel Court, on the site of The St. James’s Theatre. Wilde is pictured centre.