London’s night club scene in the early 20th century? Heady, decadent and teeming with feted party animals, scandalous gossip and very fashionable soirées. An intriguing era, no doubt – and the subject of a fascinating afternoon of Scent & Scandal hosted by Odette Toilette and Mary Evans Picture Library.
Taking place on March 22nd, the Crazy Coqs Cabaret Theatre provides an evocative art deco setting for the event. Guests are promised a fragrant journey, with Odette Toilette pairing vintage scents with the stories and pictures from Mary Evans to recreate the sights and smells of this most glamorous and intriguing era.
Ahead of the event, Mary Evans’ Lucinda Gosling shares a few of the highlights of London’s scandalous nightlife….
Ethel Margaret Whigham was quite simply the toast of the town in 1930. The only child of wealthy parents, she was hailed Deb of the Year and quickly gained a reputation as the girl to have at a party. Whigham’s memoirs recall how she held the first coming-out party of the season: a risky strategy if none of her guests’ mothers were to return the invite, but one that happened to pay off. Within a year, she had ensnared a fiancé from the peerage in the form of Charles Greville, 7th Earl of Warwick but – exercising an It-girl’s prerogative – called off the wedding with just weeks to go.
The impeccably-styled Whigham also helped launch the career of designers Victor Stiebel and Norman Hartnell, and wore a spectacular Hartnell frock when she did eventually get married – to American golfer Charles Sweeny in 1933. A fawning press frequently praised Whigham’s beauty, and she really epitomised the brittle chic typical of the 1930s. Pencil thin (all the better to wear those slinky, bias-cut evening gowns) with dark, neatly bobbed hair, Whigham’s slightly hooded green eyes gave her an air of languid boredom while her thin, painted lips hinted at a maturity and sophistication lacking in more wholesome, mousey girls. A 1931 issue of Harper’s Bazaar describes her as a “most graceful dancer, an enthusiastic skiier, a keen racegoer and possessing great dress sense” and in 1934, at the apogee of her popularity, she was name-checked in Cole Porter’s hit, ‘You’re the Top.’ What a gal!
The Embassy Club
The Embassy Club was Margaret Whigham’s favourite nightspot and no wonder. Described by The Tatler in 1924 as, ‘the gayest and brightest centre in London,’ the prestigious Bond Street club was run by an Italian named Luigi Naintre. Offering the best in music and cabaret entertainment from around the world, the club even had is own in-house pet in the form of a black cat called Jackson. It claimed the famous ‘Gibson’ cocktail as its own and was where the worlds of celebrity, aristocracy and even royalty seamlessly merged. The Prince of Wales felt very much at home there (he called it, ‘that Buckingham Palace of night clubs’ in his memoirs) and he and his brothers would often drop by for the evening when off-duty, much to their father’s displeasure. Afterwards, they would continue their partying at the Prince’s London residence, York House at St. James’s Palace, dragging along acts such as Fred and Adele Astaire or Paul Whiteman’s Jazz Band to provide entertainment into the early hours.
Despite its top drawer clientele, the Embassy club was not without its whiff of scandal and in 1927, the skimpy costumes worn by dancers Roseray and Cappella were considered so risqué their act was temporarily suspended until the following evening when Roseray appeared wearing a more modest outfit. In 1932, the Embassy underwent a refurbishment and emerged the sparkling epitome of art deco glamour with a mirrored bar, coloured glass ceilings and jade glass walls etched with celestial fantasies. Regulars included the French tennis star Jean Borotra, Lady Ashley (who would later become the third wife of Douglas Fairbanks) and of course the Sweenys who held their engagement party there in 1932.
The Russian Influence
The legendary performances by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1913 was just the beginning of Britain’s love affair with all things Russian. Russian ballerinas such as Karsavina, Astafieva and of course, the great Anna Pavlova, oozing style, grace and exoticism, were as well-known as pin-ups as they were for their dancing, and the romance of Imperial Russia meant that many exiles in London were welcomed as a glamorous addition to the social milieu.
At the centre of London society throughout the Great War and the 1920s was the Grand Duke Mikhail Mikhailovich and his two daughters Countess Zia and Countess Nada Torby. Their father had been banished from the Russian court in 1891 for making a morganatic marriage without permission, and the family lived in some style in Cannes and then London where they leased Kenwood House in Hampstead. Zia married into the terrifically wealthy Wernher family and became Lady Zia Wernher. Nada, the younger sister, who married Prince George of Battenberg (later Mountbatten) in 1916 had a reputation as a bohemian and a bisexual with rumours of relationships with Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt (herself the twin sister of one of the Prince of Wales’s lovers, Thelma Furness) not to mention her sister-in-law Edwina Mountbatten. Their brother Michael, known as ‘Boy Torby’ had an artistic streak and dabbled in dress design, exhibiting at the couture house, Reville & Rossiter in 1918.
Elsewhere, two more Russian émigré s were Felix and Irina Youssopov. Felix enjoyed the dubious reputation of having a hand in the murder of Rasputin, and the couple were part of a group of surviving Romanovs who escaped the Bolsheviks aboard HMS Marlborough in 1919. They set up a fashion house in Paris in 1924 under the name Irfe, blending the first two letters of each one’s name and opened a branch in London’s Berkeley Street in 1926. In 1932, they successful sued MGM for after the film company had alluded to a sexual liaison between Irina and Rasputin in the film, ‘Rasputin and The Empress.’ Three years later, the fashion house launched four fragrances – Blonde, Brunette, Titiane and Grey Silver – each scent designed to suit women according to their hair colour.
Chu Chin Chow
The influence of Orientalism in fashion and the arts as propagated by the designer Paul Poiret, found a wider audience in England when the show, ‘Chu Chin Chow’ opened at His Majesty’s Theatre on Haymarket in August 1916. A kind of adult pantomime based loosely on the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, its oriental theme was undoubtedly influenced by the Ballets Russes staging of Scheherazade before the war. The Tatler magazine’s verdict was that, ‘the dresses are just too utterly lovely for words. Poiret and the far East mixed, you know, with a dash of Bakst and the Russians, and for the faces – London’s prettiest.’
Among the pretty faces was the dancer, Dacia, a frequent pin-up in society magazines and it’s easy to picture her dabbing a few drops of Oriental fragrance to get her in the mood, pre-show. ‘Chu Chin Chow’ ran for five years and 2,238 performances playing to an estimated audience of 2,800,000 attracted by the spectacular stage sets, the live animals (including a camel) but most of the all, the exotic and revealing costumes worn by the cast. To keep the show fresh, new costumes were introduced at intervals with photographs published in magazines of the fantastical and scanty creations. Little wonder that ‘Chu Chin Chow’ was an essential destination for soldiers when on leave in London, and it was soon joined (but never bettered) by similarly Orient-inspired shows such as ‘Eastward Ho!’ and ‘Afgar’ both staged in 1919.
Dressing Up and Having a Ball
There were night clubs, there were parties, and then there were balls. And usually, they were fancy dress balls. The Albert Hall in particular played host to scores of balls during the First World War and 1920s, where the themes were often prescriptive and the costumes infinitely creative. Take, for instance, the Pan Ball, held on 15 January 1920 at Covent Garden in aid of Bart’s Hospital. It was organised by the newly launched Pan magazine, which advertised itself as ‘a modern journal for modern people – daring in its views – audacious in its art – but never vulgar.’ Iris and Viola Tree came as a futurist Pan and a tree nymph respectively, Betty Chester as a Bacchante and Anita Benson, who posed for the cover of The Sketch magazine, wore, ‘a dress of piquant charm’.
The Chelsea Arts Club Ball at the Albert Hall, always a flamboyant affair, was themed around the principles of ‘Dazzle’ in March 1919, the method of camouflage that had been used during the war in the painting of ships. And at the Victory Ball held in November 1919, costumes varied from Mrs Ashley as a powder puff and box to the actress Edmee Dormeuil as a bunch of grapes. At another ‘Victory Ball’ in the immediate aftermath of the Armistice, the up and coming actress Billie Carleton appeared in a shockingly transparent costume designed by her friend and drug dealer, the fashion designer Reggie Le Veull. She was found dead in her apartment the following day by her maid, apparently of a drug overdose, a discovery that sent shockwaves through society and proved to the post-war world that not every ball ended happily ever after.
All images © Mary Evans Picture Library with thanks to the Illustrated London News Ltd.
Lucinda Gosling is author of several books including, ‘Debutantes & the London Season’ (Shire, 2013) and ‘Great War Britain,’ (History Press), due for publication June 2014. To find out more about Mary Evans Picture Library, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, visit www.maryevans.com or www.prints-online.com to buy prints from the collection.