They danced all night

I’ve been really enjoying the BBC4 documentary series Golden Age of Glamour which has been airing over the past couple of weeks. It’s my favourite kind of TV. Well researched, very interesting, high quality documentaries and drama on a period that I’m really interested in.

I’ve always loved the 1920s-30s. I love everything about the period: the Art Deco styles, the fashion, the golden age of travel – cruise liners such as the White Star Line and Cunard. And this was the age when air travel got going, too. There have been some great documentaries as part of the series on both the ships and planes of the period.

The Handley Page H.P.42 and H.P.45 were British four-engine long-range biplane airliners designed to a 1928 Imperial Airways specification by Handley Page of Radlett in Hertfordshire.   The H.P.42/45 were the land-based airliners of Imperial Airways and along with the airline’s later flying boats are well remembered. Eight aircraft were built, four of each type; all were named, with names beginning with the letter “H”. One was destroyed in an airship hangar fire in 1937 but the remainder survived to be impressed into Royal Air Force service at the outbreak of the Second World War. No lives were lost in civilian service (a record thought to be unique for contemporary aircraft) but by 1940 all had been destroyed. More info.

The documentary on aviation – How Britain Took to the Air – was great. Amy Johnson was the UK’s  ‘aviatrix’ of the age:

Amy Johnson was the first female pilot to fly alone from Britain to Australia, which she achieved at the age of 26. Her flying career began in 1928 and other triumphs included becoming the first female ground engineer licensed by the Air Ministry, and being awarded the C.B.E. for her flying achievements. Source.

I absolutely love the great liners of this age, like the SS Normandie:

SS Normandie

SS Normandie was an ocean liner built in Saint-Nazaire, France, for the French Line Compagnie Générale Transatlantique. When she entered service in 1935 she was the largest and fastest passenger ship afloat, and maintains today the distinction of being the most powerful steam turbo-electric propelled passenger ship ever built.

Her novel design featured and lavish interiors led many to consider her the greatest of all ocean liners. Despite this she was not a commercial success and relied partly on government subsidy to operate. During her service career as the flagship of the CGT she made 139 transatlantic crossings westbound from her home port of Le Havre to New York and one fewer return.

During World War II Normandie was seized by United States authorities at New York and renamed USS Lafayette. In 1942 the liner caught fire while being converted to a troopship, capsized, and sank at the New York Passenger Ship Terminal. Although she was salvaged at great expense, restoration was deemed too costly and she was scrapped in October 1946. Source.

There’s just something about the era. It was temporal and absolutely transitory – bookmarked by two horrific wars that would change the world forever. And by the 50s, the 30s seemed incredibly indulgent – those halcyon days, gone forever.

And what about the Bright Young Things? The young, party-loving arisocrats who personfied the era. I am fascinated, not least, by the strong bias toward bi- and homosexuality in this infamous, excessive, party loving group.

Dolly Wilde (1895-1941)

Oscar Wilde’s niece was renowned for her wit and her bohemian lifestyle. She was a lover of both men and women, particularly Natalie Clifford Barney, an heiress from Dayton who was famous for Left Bank literary gatherings where the “lost generation” found a home. She was involved with Barney from 1927 until her death. A heavy drinker and heroine addict, she was in and out of treatment facilities.

Elizabeth Ponsonby (1904-1940)

The daughter of a prominent labor politician, Elizabeth Ponsonby, was at the center of all of the fun. Rosemary Hill writes, “Elizabeth Ponsonby’s name is no longer one to conjure with but for a time, in the 1920s and 30s, it was all over the papers, for she was one of the ‘bright young people’.” Ponsonby and her cousin Loelia became notorious for their high-flying vandalism. “Stealing policemen’s helmets, dancing all night at the Ritz and, on one occasion at least, breaking into a country house and setting fire to Margot Asquith’s nightdress, this was the essence of ‘brightness’, ” continues Hill.

The gossip writer and her personal friend Thomas Driberg wrote of her: “She was a very emphatic and rather pathetic character at the same time…She was one of the vital sparks who got the parties going, and I liked her tremendously.” While Ponsonby came from an established family—her grandfather was Queen Victoria’s private secretary, Henry Ponsonby—she both flaunted and abused her credentials. Not particularly rich, she acted the part nonetheless. Her mother Dorothy Ponsonby wrote of her:

“E’s standard of riches angers me… She lives like a person with £3,000 a year who spends £800 on her dress.”

Connected to everyone, Ponsonby was repeatedly in the paper, much to her father’s chagrin. Indeed she served as the model for Hon Agatha Runcible in Waugh’s Vile Bodies. Hill describes how, “After a particularly marvelous weekend bash at the family home, during which Mr. Ponsonby resorted to hiding what little alcohol was left in the toolshed, he decided that ‘E is not going to have another party in this house.’ ” But his efforts had little effect. She died of alcoholism in 1940.

Thomas Driberg aka Baron Bradwell (1905-1976)

An Oxford drop out, the only degree Driberg earned was a P.A.—Party Animal. He was a friend of the poets W.H. Auden and Edith Sitwell. Leaving university he moved to Soho, the Bright Young People hangout, where he got an apartment above a 24 hour café and worked as a waiter.

Sitwell got him a job interview with the Daily Express, which hired him to work on “Talk of London” gossip column that he later took over. In 1933, he was given the control of “These Names Makes News,” a more salacious column, which he wrote under the nom de plume William Hickey.

Driberg had what he termed a “life long love hate relationship with lavatories,” and was famously described as an “enthusiastic apostle of the doctrine that there is no such thing as a heterosexual male, but some are a bit obstinate.”

However, he was not attracted to men with beards, a fact that led the Times Literary Supplement to observe, “This may explain the high incidence of beards on the Labour Left.”

In later years he is rumoured to have tried to seduce both Prime Minister Jim Callaghan and Mick Jagger, but died before completing his autobiography, Ruling Passions.

But it was from his perch as a gossip columnist, in the 20s and 30s, that he made his Soho friends famous. Friends like Brian Howard.

Brian Howard (1905-1958)

Driberg reported to his readers on two parties hosted by Brian Howard, the Swimming Pool Party in 1928 and The Great Urban Dionysia in 1929 (in which guest dressed up like Greek mythological figures).

An Eton-educated American, Howard met Driberg’s at Oxford, where he was famous for being openly homosexual and more than a bit flamboyant. His one time friend Evelyn Waugh once described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Sebastian Flyte, the teddy bear-holding character from Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), was possibly based on Howard.

At Oxford, his friend, the poet Edith Sitwell, introduced Howard to Gertrude Stein, who was the inspiration for his Oxford Portraits of 1925-6 in the Manner of Miss Gertrude Stein. He was also a close friend of W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Klaus Mann, and W. Somerset Maugham.

Between 1930 and 1947, Howard wrote more than 70 stories for the New Statesman.

In 1940, he wrote in his diary, “Drink has become the No. 1 Problem.” After World War II, alcoholism got the better of him. And he committed suicide in 1958, after the death of his partner Sam.

At a dance party in December 1926, Howard met photographer Cecil Beaton, who chronicled Bright Young People like Noel Coward for Vogue and Tatler.

Noel Coward (1899-1973)

Noel Coward helped teach his friend Cecil Beaton how to dress. “I take ruthless stock of myself in the mirror before going out,” he warned the young photographer. “A polo jumper or unfortunate tie exposes one to danger.”

Coward was famous for his dressing gowns, and for being photographed in them. He first wore one on stage in The Vortex, his 1924 play about Nicky Lancaster, ravishingly struggling to escape a cocaine addiction and a domineering mother. “If the part requires one, you couldn’t keep me out of it, because they’re so comfortable to act in. And they’ve got swing,” he said.

Robert Sacheli writes in “From then on the actor-playwright was endlessly photographed and caricatured in dressing gowns, which for his fans became a visual shorthand for all that was enviably up-to-the minute in Coward’s personal design for living. Coward the actor recognized the robe’s onstage allure: Coward the playwright found something even more valuable than swing. By wrapping his works and his performances in high style, he was able to put on stage ideas and characters that might be considered unacceptable if presented in the drab guise of realism: Pleasure, promiscuity and drugs among the indolent society set (The Vortex), the sexual bond of emotional soul mates trumping the dull, conventional bond of marriage (Private Lives), and the bohemian freedom to find fulfillment in more than one lover’s—or gender’s—arms (Design for Living).”

Edith Sitwell (1887-1964)

Edith Sitwell, along with her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, were part of the social nexus of the Bright Young People. Born into an aristocratic family, Sitwell divorced herself from an earlier age, choosing instead to live with her governess in a dilapidated 4th-floor walk up in a working-class neighborhood.

She published her first poem in 1913 at age of 26, and soon rose to be arbitrator of modernist English poetry with her two brothers, collectively known as “the Sitwells.” While her love was poetry, she wrote several popular histories that were commercial successes, including two histories of Queen Elizabeth (with whom she shares a birthday). While more eccentric than excessive, Sitwell was the close friend and confidant of many of gay artists of the time, including Cecil Beaton, Stephen Spender, Ronald Firbank and her brother Osbert. Indeed her one great—and tragic—love was with Pavel Tchelitchew, a gay Russian painter.

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

Heir to a wealthy Baghdad Jewish family, Sassoon early on turned to poetry and cricket to sustain himself. Joining the war effort in 1914, Sasson’s life would be deeply changed by this experience. At first a war hero (recognized for single-handedly capturing a machine gun nest), he later became a pacifist, actively protesting against the war effort. Deeply effected by the pain and the death of such friends as the poet Wilfred Owen, Sassoon’s future literary work reflected this.

After the war, Sassoon’s sexuality opened up as he ran through a series of relationships with well-known men, ending with his most significant one, a four-year affair with Stephan Tennant in the late 1920s. After Tennant unceremoniously broke it off, Sassoon later married and fathered a child.

Stephen Tennant (1906-1987)

Some people maintain that it was Stephen Tennant, not Brian Howard, who was Evelyn Waugh’s model for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited.

Tennant, a man, whom it was said spent most of his life in bed, was Siegfried Sassoon’s lover for four years.

An aristocrat, he was the youngest son of Lord Glenconner, of Scotland, and Pamela Wyndham, who was a cousin of Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover. He was friends of artist Rex Whistler, Lady Diana Manners, the three Sitwell siblings , and the three Mitford girls. Nancy Mitford based Cedric Hampton of Love in a Cold Climate on him.

He was also friends of Cecil Beaton, who often photographed him, and Cecil’s sisters, Nancy and Baba, two of the more beautiful Bright Young People.

Nancy and Baba Beaton

The Bright Young People still have their fans. The young woman at “Bright Young Things” blog writes:

“My favorite is Baba Beaton, Cecil’s sister and first muse. This is one of his famous photos of her, ‘A Symphony in Silver.’??She is awesome, no? When I first read about her, I decided that had to be the greatest name ever. When I get a female cat, she will totally be named Baba Beaton.”

Cecil Beaton (1904-1980)

Cecil Beaton, the Bright Young People photographer, published his first photo in Vogue in 1924, a portrait of George “Dadie” Rylands, a Shakespeare scholar at Cambridge. Beaton described the photograph this way: “It was a slightly out-of-focus snapshot of him as Webster’s Duchess of Malfi standing in the sub-aqueous light outside the men’s lavatory of the ADC Theatre at Cambridge.”

In a childhood diary, Beaton described himself as a “terrible, terrible homosexualist.” While his longest relationship was with art collector Peter Watson, he is also known to have had affairs with Greta Garbo, British socialite Doris Viscountes Castlerosse, American socialite Marjorie Oelrichs, artist Rex Whistler, Gary Cooper (so he claimed) and Stephen Tennent (so it was rumored).

“My pictures became more and more rococo and surrealist,” he said, describing his art. “Society women as well as mannequins were photographed in the most flamboyant poses, in ecstatic or mystical states, sometimes with the melodramatic air of a Lady Macbeth caught up in a cocoon of tulle … ladies of the upper crust were to be seen in Vogue fighting their way out of a hat box or breaking through a huge sheet of white paper… Chinese lanterns, doilies or cutlet frills, fly whisks, sporrans, eggbeaters or stars of all shapes found their way into our hysterical and highly ridiculous pictures.”

Some of his most famous pictures were of members of the British royal family, for whom he worked as court photographer.

Rex Whistler (1905-1944)

Rex Whistler, a British artist who was killed in World War II, posed for Cecil Beaton and painted Stephen Tennant. It was Tennant who originally pulled Whistler into the Bright Young People’s circle, having met him originally at the Slade School of Art. As a painter, he created portraits for many of the Bright Young People. More he was more well known for his graphic designs, producing illustrations and posters for Shell Oil, and creating China designs for Wedgwood. Many know his work for the famous 1927 mural “The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats” in the Tate Restaurant of the Museum. Sexually, Edith Olivier, Laurence’s sister, says Whistler liked both men and women.

Rosemary Hill writes: “George Orwell might think they had ‘feathers for brains,’ but they had Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford to fictionalise them. Cecil Beaton photographed them; John Betjeman put them in verse. They reviewed their friends’ books, wrote about one another in gossip columns and went to fancy dress balls dressed as each other.”


3 thoughts on “They danced all night

Add yours

  1. I tink that bear wiff the bouquet is adorable! I want picture blown-up poster size so I can hang it in my future smart-person library in my future [read as: probably non-existent] dream house!

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