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.

Spies and Queens at The Gargoyle Club

Brian Howard gazes thoughtfully at the camera. Photo taken sometime in the 1930s by noted portrait photographer Howard Coster (not at The Gargoyle: this is The 500 Club.)

‘At least, my dear, I am a has-been. That’s something you can never be.’
Brian Howard in The Gargoyle Club, circa 1940s.

The Gargoyle Club was located at 69 Meard Street, just off Wardour Street. The club was located on the top three floors of a Lutyens-adapted Georgian townhouse and was founded in 1925 by the young aristocrat David Tennant as a place where he could go dancing with his girlfriend, the actress Hermione Baddeley. (In the 1970s, her sister Angela Baddeley achieved a kind of immortality as the plain-spoken cook Mrs Bridges in the 1970s Edwardian soap Upstairs, Downstairs.) By day the club was a straight-up venue for business lunches, but it came alive in the evenings, when the livelier members of London’s intelligentsia gathered to talk, drink and occasionally dance; no-one thought the resident band was any good but no-one seemed to care. The décor was especially noteworthy, having been supervised by none other than Henri Matisse: the ballroom was panelled with fragments cut from 18th century mirrors salvaged from a French chateau, and a pair of Matisse canvases completed the look. The Gargoyle immediately established itself as a very important cultural and social venue, even if Constant Lambert described the dance floor on Saturday night as being ‘packed with the two hundred nastiest people in Chiswick.’

Matisse’s Red Studio. The club also housed his Studio, Quai St Michel – both were sold in the early days of the war to pay club debts. The former is now in MOMA, New York, the latter in the Phillips Collection, Washington DC.

The club’s members’ list is an impressive inventory of the great and the good, but this entry concerns itself with some of the sleazier regulars. The louche diplomat and traitor Guy Burgess became a member in 1943 and found the ambience particularly to his liking. At this time Burgess was working for the BBC and, covertly, the KGB, for whom he had already recruited sometime lover and occasional Gargoyle visitor, Donald MacLean. Their fellow Soviet spy in MI6, Kim Philby, was also a member of the Gargoyle but largely avoided the club during the war, possibly to keep Burgess’s conspicuous recklessness at arm’s length. Burgess was also close to another flamboyant Gargoyle fixture: Brian Howard, poet, professional failure, and one of the models for Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited. Howard was, like Burgess, an old Etonian and a member of the gilded 1920s Oxford generation, which is where he encountered Evelyn Waugh. Later, he became associated with the party set beloved of twenties’ gossip columns. Unfortunately, Howard’s precocious poetic achievements petered out early and his youthful promise remained forever unfulfilled. Howard’s war time career was ignominious: thrown out of MI5 because he couldn’t keep a secret, he ended up in the public relations department of Bomber Command, a job title worthy of a Waugh novel. (Even in that post Brian Howard remained incorrigible. According to D.J. Taylor, in his book Bright Young People, Howard’s mother once interceded with her son’s RAF squadron leader concerning a uniform Brian had left in a pub toilet.)

Eaten up with bitterness, Howard functioned as the Gargoyle’s gargoyle, a sinister, mincing barfly who would assail people entering from the lobby with queeny insults (e.g.:‘Who do we think we are, dear, Noel Coward?’). Burgess, meanwhile, used the club as a pick-up joint, making passes at anyone who took his fancy, with mixed results. On one occasion he succeeded in luring an interior decorator back to his flat, whereupon he assailed him with coat hangers, but his approach to a young painter was less successful: ‘Would you like to come back to my flat? Would you like to be whipped? A wild thrashing? Wine thrown in?’ Howard and Burgess were occasional lovers, Howard indulging Burgess’s masochistic tendencies with enthusiastic firmness. There is also an intriguing episode in the summer of 1945, when Burgess and Howard went with their respective boyfriends to visit the ageing Lord Alfred Douglas at home in Brighton, thus squaring the circle: the louche gay spy and the Bright Young Person paying homage to Oscar’s beloved Bosie. Burgess wanted to show off his new boyfriend, who he believed was even more beautiful than Douglas had been in his fabled youth.

Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean. Burgess found MacLean sexually unappealing, ‘white and flabby’, in sharp contrast to the rough trade he preferred.

The Gargoyle celebrated its silver jubilee in 1950: later that year Donald MacLean was made a full member of the club. The troubled bisexual diplomat had recently returned from a calamitous posting to Cairo and was proposed for membership by a friend who thought it might cheer him up. Unfortunately, Maclean was deeply unstable: unhinged by drink, his confused sexuality and the pressure of his own treachery. He was by now head of the American desk at the Foreign Office but his behaviour in the club seemed designed to bring about his own unmasking. Club regulars were subjected to the unedifying spectacle of Maclean slurringly announcing that he worked for ‘Uncle Joe’ (Stalin). But they thought it was a joke. In the end, Burgess and MacLean were tipped off by Kim Philby and fled before they were exposed. They defected to Moscow in 1951, living miserable self-pitying, and booze-addled lives thereafter. As for Brian Howard, he went even more to seed, and lived a peripatetic life bouncing cheques across Europe, before dying of an overdose of sleeping pills at 52. By the time all this happened the Gargoyle was in terminal decline, and by the end of the fifties it was a strip club. It remained a club of sorts until the 1980s, and for a while was the home of The Comedy Store, that notorious bear-pit where anyone could try telling jokes in front of a baying audience and the demonic emcee, Alexei Sayle. (What does this tell us? Anything? Discuss.)


A Quick Sharpener Before Doomsday

It should, by now, be apparent to everyone that we are living in a dystopian sci-fi scenario, but who wrote it? John Wyndham? Too cosy, perhaps. Or there’s J.G. Ballard … he wrote extensively about various kinds of societal collapse, either in ‘hard’ sci-fi novels like The Drowned World, or in his later sly and speculative manner, e.g. High Rise. But Ballard didn’t do comedy and the black absurdity of Donald Trump requires a satirical touch. Kurt Vonnegut’s brand of savage, slapstick sci-fi fits the bill, but I have been unable to locate my copies of Cat’s Cradle or Galapagos to refresh ecstatic youthful impressions. (It has also been suggested to me that Channel 4’s 1982 comedy show Whoops Apocalypse is relevant, chiefly with respect to its portrayal of the President of the United States as a total cretin.)

But one work of science fiction that has been haunting me over the past few weeks is the 1961 film The Day the Earth Caught Fire, directed by Val Guest from a script written by himself and Wolf Mankowitz (the same team behind the Soho musical Expresso Bongo). The idea behind this inventive British movie is that nuclear testing has thrown the orbit of the earth out of whack and sent our planet spinning toward the sun. London becomes hotter than Cairo and the city’s residents wilt and go mad in the heat. It is a great time capsule of London locations, and the heroes of the film – as unlikely as this sounds now – are journalists working on the Daily Express, then still operating out of its beautiful Art Deco building on Fleet Street, right opposite St. Bride’s church. The nominal stars are Edward Judd (the producers wanted Richard Burton but couldn’t afford him), Leo McKern, and the delightful Janet Munro. The newspaper scenes have a sense of authenticity amidst the dodgy science, and the verisimilitude extended to the casting of the editor of the Daily Express, a character played by a former editor of the paper. (Arthur Christiansen, editor from 1933 to 1957. A nice conceit, but Christiansen couldn’t really act.)

Fleet Street’s finest … Leo McKern, Edward Judd and Janet Munro feeling the heat outside The Express Building.

There’s a lot wrong with the film: the banter-ish, ‘Front Page’ type dialogue is cringeworthy, Edward Judd is a charm-free zone, and the special effects are often risible – but for all that it remains unsettling and eerily prescient. The clever use of genuine news footage, indicating drought and out of control weather, now looks like an anticipation of recent wildfires in Australia and California. The evocation of oppressive, unnatural heat is very effective: everything dries up or burns up and water becomes the most precious of all commodities. Black market water is spreading typhoid, alcohol is in short supply and even a warm Coke will cost you. As society buckles under the strain, decadent young people express their nihilism by wantonly chucking buckets of priceless water about, drenching themselves to the implausible sound of trad jazz. (‘Beatnik music by Monty Norman’ is the byline in the credits. The crazed, trumpet-touting kids were perhaps inspired by riots at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in 1960. Was Acker Bilk a baleful influence on British youth? Discuss. )

And, as you’d expect in a film that trades in Fleet Street clichés (‘They say you used to be a writer’), there are many episodes where the hacks go the pub. The pub in question is ‘Harry’s Bar’, a private members’ club just next to St. Bride’s (a fictional one, as far as I am aware). By the end, the trip to Harry’s Bar has acquired a devotional aspect: the film concludes with our heroes assembled in the club – one that by now looks more like a bar in the Australian Outback – and wait to hear whether an operation to save the planet has worked. (The great powers set off ‘corrective’ nukes in an attempt to blast the Earth back to its correct orbit.) Harry’s Bar has run dry, but the manageress gives the small band of regulars a drink on the house from a special, reserved bottle of scotch. This scene reminds me of the titular bar scene at the end of Ice Cold In Alex, where an ordinary glass of lager is a miraculous answer to a fervent but unspoken prayer. And this link between booze and prayer feels pertinent to where we are now. Many of us are offering prayers of one sort or another, even non-believers like me who are simply praying for the pubs to re-open. Of course drink is not always the answer; but whilst we might not be able to drink Covid19 away, we can at least toast its demise. As Leo McKern says as he raises his glass in Harry’s Bar: ‘To the luck of the human race’.

In Harry’s Bar, listening to the countdown over the radio …

For the cineastes out there, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is also notable for Michael Caine’s film debut in a bit part as a policeman (‘Stay clear of Chelsea, they say it’s pretty rough down there’); and also a groundbreaking moment of nudity in British cinema, when Janet Munro’s nipple is briefly glimpsed in her bathroom mirror. Society would never be the same again … At time of writing, you can see the entire film (handsomely restored by the BFI) on YouTube.