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.

At Home With Keith Moon

Keith Moon at Tara, early ’70s. Photo Alec Byrne. (Not commercial use!)

Stories of Keith Moon’s behaviour on the road and on the town are the backbone of rock music’s mythic past, that never-never land which seems as remote now as the England of Byrd and Dowland. Moon’s biographer Tony Fletcher suggests that the drummer’s hyperactivity and penchant for breaking things were symptoms of undiagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder, aggravated by the fact that he played in a band that parlayed violent destruction as performance art. By the early Seventies The Who’s huge success finally gave them a chance to have a breather from back-to-back touring and recording. Unfortunately, Keith wasn’t very good at sitting still and had no real interests beyond drumming for The Who. Nevertheless, he did the rock star thing and bought a country house for himself and his wife and young daughter. But it wasn’t deep in the countryside: the house was in Chertsey, inside the present-day perimeter of the M25, thus within striking distance of London’s clubs, and of a startlingly contemporary design. He bought it from film director Peter ‘Italian Job’ Collinson, who had built it on the site of a Victorian house he had blown up for a war film. (Apparently Collinson bombed the old house because he’d been refused planning permission to extend it: the film featuring its destruction is called The Long Day’s Dying.) Collinson called the new house Tara, and seems to have designed it himself; but no sooner had he finished it, in 1971, he decided to move to Los Angeles and put the house up for sale. Tara was an essay in futuristic opulence, a rambling agglomeration consisting of five pyramid-capped structures set in five secluded acres near a lovely stretch of the Thames: the ideal playground for a hyperactive man-child with time on his hands. (Although, tellingly, the one thing Tara lacked was a drum kit: Moon didn’t practice at home.)

Keith and John Entwistle with their vehicles at Tara: the Cadillac is Entwistle’s, the milk float is Keith’s. (Not commercial use!)

It was at Tara that many of the urban legends associated with Moon originated. It was here that he acquired a stable of cars that he couldn’t drive, including a Ferrari (that got wrecked), a hovercraft and a milk float. And it was here that he accidentally backed a Rolls Royce into a shallow duck pond, giving birth to the quintessential rock image of a Rolls submerged in a swimming pool. It was also during his tenure at Tara that Moon’s personality changed, errant playfulness curdling into something darker. His reliance on booze (principally brandy and champagne) became chronic, and the house became base of operations for his ongoing assault upon the straight world. The relentless japes and jokes and dressing up (as Hitler or Marilyn Monroe or Long John Silver, and usually in the company of Viv Stanshall) were reportedly hilarious or desperate or both: Keith never knew when to stop. Moon’s young wife Kim lasted a couple of years at Tara before she finally fled, taking her daughter but leaving her mother, who sounds almost as damaged as Keith. An account by a visitor:

‘Tara was like a sort of trap. In the morning or whenever people were awakened, you’d be aroused with a large gin and tonic or a Joan Collins, which was Keith’s mother-in-law’s own specially lethal version of Tom Collins. What were considered light drinks were imbibed during the day – gin, vodka, Pimms, beer alternating between the pub and the house. After six o’clock, though, it was serious drinking. Joan would switch from gin to Bells or Teachers whisky and Keith would switch from beer, or whatever, to cognac. The problem was that the days were all one long blur. Each hangover was hidden with yet more gin breakfasts in bed and so another round of semi-tired silliness would start’. (Richard Barnes, Maximum R&B, a biography of The Who.)

Fletcher’s biography contains a poignant anecdote from Jeff Beck, who visited Tara after Keith’s marriage had broken up, ostensibly because Moon wanted to sell Beck one of his cars (a fabulously ugly American ‘hot rod’; Beck demurred). The afternoon came and went, Keith gave Beck a tour of the house, warning him of the dog shit in every room, illustrating the custom-built cupboards full of junk that immediately fell out, playing Beck’s hit single Beck’s Bolero on a vintage jukebox that then repeated it over and over and over again. Meanwhile, Keith’s stunning but nameless girlfriend flitted about looking anxious, and ended up in bed with Beck. Next morning Beck and Keith’s girlfriend were woken by industrial noise coming from outside: it was Moon riding his hovercraft onto the lawn. Later, they went to the local pub with Beck driving Moon’s other Rolls-Royce, a drop-top Corniche. The pub regulars were fond enough of Keith to be a bit wary of Beck, seeing him as perhaps yet another hanger-on, but then it was back to Tara, Moon and the girl taking their clothes off in the back of the Rolls, surf music on the sound system, as Beck narrowly avoided wrecking the big car on an unexpected roundabout. Beck summed up his experience chez Moon thus:

He just seemed to have opened up all the sluices to enjoy life more, and this house was a piece of man-made nonsense which was a fashion accessory that enabled him to do what he wanted in the middle of nowhere. … He gave me the impression that the thought of staying more than two hours on his own there would be a torture. It looked like it and it smelled like it. (Quoted in Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon.)

On the town, somewhere … via Rex Features (not commercial use!)

Shortly thereafter, Moon followed in the footsteps of Tara’s creator and headed to Los Angeles, where he stayed for four years. He ended up selling Tara to another rock musician, Kevin Godley of 10cc. Sadly, but perhaps fittingly, Tara was not memorialised as a relic of rock’s golden age, or even as a piece of ambitious Seventies architecture: in 1990 Godley sold it to Vince Clarke, he of Erasure, who promptly levelled it and constructed his own millennial fantasy home on the site. But Moon was long dead by then, having expired in 1978 at the age of 32: an overdose from prescribed medication for alcohol addiction. (News of Moon’s death didn’t reach the planning committee of the 2012 London Olympic Games, who got in touch with The Who’s management to see if he was available to play at the opening ceremony.) As for Peter Collinson, he succumbed to lung cancer in 1980, just 44 years old.

More photos of Keith at Tara here.