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.

‘Vile Rosa’ and The Cavendish Hotel

The Cavendish, circa 1930

‘There’s Snivelling Dick … knew him before he was born. Pots of money. They gave him a gold cigarette case when his trousers fell down in Piccadilly.’
‘Lady What’s-‘er-name over there looks like a tart but she isn’t.

‘People only come to the Cavendish to bounce cheques and pee.’
Some bon mots of Rosa Lewis, as reported in The Duchess of Duke Street, by Daphne Fielding.

Rosa in her dotage.

A semi-mythical character of St James’s, from the naughty nineties to the atomic fifties, was the cook and hotelier Rosa Lewis, invariably known as ‘The Duchess of Duke Street’. Her story illustrates the way in which the British class system could be short-circuited by a resourceful individual. Rosa had risen from domestic service in aristocratic houses to become a celebrated cook to royalty, catering for Edward VII (with whom she may have had an affair) and on one occasion Kaiser Wilhelm, the first female in charge of the kitchen at White’s club (briefly), and the proprietor of The Cavendish Hotel, a Regency-era building on the corner of Jermyn St. and Duke St.. Rosa bought the Cavendish in 1899 and stayed put for the rest of her long life. The hotel reflected Rosa’s increasingly eccentric, time-warped, personality, and retained its original Victorian and Edwardian furnishings right up to the end. By virtue of her many society connections, the Cavendish became a home from home for the children of the aristocracy, and had took on aspects of a private and erratically-run club. Rosa was the model for ‘Lottie Crump’ in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. Waugh’s description of Lottie and her establishment (he calls the Cavendish ‘Shepheard’s’, after the fabled Cairo hotel) summarises her unique qualities as a hostess: ‘…one can go to Shepheard’s any day, if Lottie likes one’s face, and still draw up, cool and uncontaminated, great healing draughts from the well of Edwardian certainty.

Unfortunately, Rosa didn’t care for Waugh’s face much after that: Vile Bodies may have been too close to the bone. By then, The Cavendish had lost its lustre, its Edwardian grandeur tatty at the edges, the pictures of long-dead grandees and sons of the gentry covered in dust. After a stay there in 1932, Aldous Huxley wrote: ‘It was like staying in a run-down country house – large comfortable rooms, but everything shabby and just a bit dirty’. But Huxley wasn’t much of a drinker and the Cavendish was a draw for serious topers. An evening’s drinking at Rosa’s could be a challenging proposition: for a chosen few, drinks were available well into the small hours served in the first floor drawing room, and the drink was invariably champagne (she was said to have inherited remnants of the late Edward VII’s wine cellar). The late night crowd was a peculiar admixture of well-connected ‘bright young people’, an occasional guardsman, baffled American tourists, regulars up from the country, and cameo appearances by familiar soaks like Augustus John and Nina Hamnett. Rosa presided over the ill- assorted throng with quasi-maternal affection and a certain studied offensiveness; as a professional ‘character’ her rudeness was part of her schtick (her insults delivered in antique stage cockney), as was her policy of presenting an entire night’s drinks bill to the person she reckoned could most afford it. Anthony Powell recalls an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ quality, also noting the hotel’s ‘macabre’ and ‘tense, menacing atmosphere’. This brittle, unreal quality made it a congenial spot for the leading lights of the doomed ’20’s party set, whose parents and even grandparents had been coming to Rosa’s for decades. The likes of Elizabeth Ponsonby (‘Agatha Runcible’ in Vile Bodies), Diana Guinness, Brian Howard, Stephen Tennant, Cecil Beaton, the Jungman sisters, etc., adopted Rosa as a sort of ‘nanny’ figure; this seems entirely appropriate, as many of the ‘Brights’ were attempting to prolong their childhoods in much the same way that Rosa was still living in a world that had died in 1914.

The Cavendish stayed open throughout the 2nd World War, but by this time proprietor and hotel were collapsing in synchronicity. The war had taken its toll on the clientele and Rosa was suffering from the kind of acute eccentricity that constitutes dementia but which in those days was never quite diagnosed as such. One of the guests in its final years was Royal Navy frogman Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb. Crabb was a decorated war hero who spent several months at the Cavendish, cheerfully squandering a legacy and leaving behind more than a few promissory notes. In 1956 he disappeared during an ill-advised attempt to inspect the hull of a Russian warship in Portsmouth Harbour during a Soviet state visit. Later reports suggest that his cover was blown by another St.James’s habitué, Kim Philby, and that Crabb was killed by a Soviet diver lying in wait.  

Buster Crabb and fans.

Rosa died in her hotel in 1952. Ten years later, the Cavendish fell victim to the tenor of the times and was demolished; but not before it had been used as a set for a B movie called The Party’s Over about ‘young people who have opted out of society’, starring the young Oliver Reed. A BBC TV series based on Rosa Lewis’s life (The Duchess of Duke Street) was a hit on British screens circa 1975. The site is now occupied by the ‘new’ Cavendish – a charmless sixties block that does absolutely nothing for either Jermyn Street or Duke Street, and late-night drinkers must look elsewhere for champagne and verbal abuse.

Kingsley Amis at The Garrick

The author at his devotions; 1st edition hardback cover.

‘Fuck off. No, fuck off a lot.’
Kingsley Amis to a fellow member of the Garrick Club
(from The Life of Kingsley Amis, by Zachary Leader, Jonathan Cape 2006)

Kingsley Amis was a devout member of the Garrick Club, that famous bastion of Victorian (and ongoing) men’s-club culture which stands at 15 Garrick Street, WC2. Founded in 1831 by the eminent actor David Garrick, the club has always attracted members from the artistic, literary and cultural establishment, and boasts a fine art collection and an equally fine bar. One of its members was A.A. Milne, who bequeathed the rights to Winnie the Pooh to the club; one can only goggle at the deal that the Garrick subsequently made with Disney. Amis hymned the Garrick thus:

‘When bores and pedants drive you up the wall,
Come to the Garrick and forget ‘em all.’

Amis’ devotion to drink is illustrated amply in his early-1970s book On Drink – which remains an entertaining guide to drinking culture and etiquette, although it may be best not to use it as such if you want to retain your more moderate friends. Some of his drink recipes are unique:

‘Queen Victoria’s Tipple:
½ tumbler red wine,
Scotch.

‘The quantity of Scotch is up to you, but I recommend stopping a good deal short of the top of the tumbler. Worth trying once.’

Then there’s this:

‘Evelyn Waugh’s Noonday Reviver:
1 hefty shot gin,
1 (½ pint) bottle of Guinness,
Ginger beer.

Put the gin and Guinness into a pint silver tankard and fill to the brim with ginger beer. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the attribution, which I heard in talk, but the mixture will certainly revive you, or something. I should think two doses is the limit.’

Evelyn Waugh: an inventive drinker but don’t read him if you’re hungover (see below).

On Drink also contains a very useful section on ‘The Hangover’. Amis divides it into its two constituent parts: the physical hangover and the metaphysical hangover. The symptoms of the latter are defined by the author of Lucky Jim in revealingly autobiographical terms:

‘You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is and there is no use crying over spilt milk.’

Amis then suggests recuperative options for hangover reading and hangover listening. Suggested reading includes Milton’s Paradise Lost, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch (on the basis that ‘there are plenty of people about who have to put up with a bloody sight more than you do’), Ian Fleming and P.G. Wodeouse – but explicitly excluding Evelyn Waugh. His listening choices are primarily Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Brahms, and Miles Davis – the latter recommended only when he’s not playing with John Coltrane.

The Garrick gave Amis a platform upon which he could unleash his ‘Kingers’ persona: a full-throated, blimpish xenophobe. Some apologists say it was a merely an act, but the racist quips are no less appealing in print than they can have been when heard live, his listeners struggling to dismiss the offensiveness as just a curmudgeonly routine (except for those who actually agreed with his sentiments, and there would have been more than a few of those at the Garrick). In 1996, a year after Amis’s death, a memorial service was held at St Martin in the Fields church, just yards away, and the after-party was held at the Garrick. The very right-wing journalist Paul Johnson ducked out, complaining that the service had seen Amis posthumously kidnapped by the left. Amis was a conflicted and contradictory figure. In his memoir Experience Martin Amis offers some context and amelioration for his father’s public (and private) statements. He even mentions that Kingsley abandoned a novel because he feared the hero’s homosexuality might be taken by his Garrick chums as a confession on his part. He also suggests that Kingsley’s copious writings on booze were a kind of justification for the amount of time he spent consuming it.

Martin and Kingsley Amis in 1978: a study in dynastic awkwardness. Photo by Dmitri Kasterine.

Anyone curious about the ambience of the Garrick is advised to check out the London-set John Wayne vehicle Brannigan, a genuinely terrible action film from 1975, which includes a scene filmed inside the club. Wayne’s co-star was Richard Attenborough, a long-time Garrick member who managed to persuade the club to open its doors for filming. The Garrick is also the place where Brendan Behan got smashed in advance of his famous live Panorama interview with Malcolm Muggeridge in 1956.