Archive for the ‘Knightsbridge’ Category

Pauline Boty, the Anti-Uglies and Bowater House in Knightsbridge

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Pauline Boty on her bed in 1963.

At 2.00pm on Monday, 8 July 1968, and nine days before the world premiere, three of the Beatles arrived at a press-screening of Yellow Submarine. It was at the 102-seat cinema situated inside Bowater House in Knightsbridge, a massive post-war office block that was distinctly ‘carbuncular’ in appearance. It had been built a decade before in 1958 by the developer Harold Samuel for the Bowater-Scott Corporation the world’s largest newsprint company, and the building completely dominated the adjacent Scotch Corner junction.

John Lennon was the Beatle missing at the film-screening, and he was almost certainly at home completely stoned, although Paul, George and Ringo jokingly posed for the photographers with a life-size cardboard cutout of John’s cartoon character. Harrison told reporters that because of the bad reviews of the Magical Mystery Tour the previous year, the Beatles from now on would only appear in animated form. He then tried to avoid answering a question about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi but McCartney interrupted and said that the episode was just ‘a phase’ and that ‘we don’t go out with him anymore’.

The Beatles at Bowater House in 1968. Spot who’s missing.

Three hours later the three Beatles were driven to the EMI studios at Abbey Road where they started another version of Ob La Di Ob La Da (there had already been three days of aborted sessions). At the studio, according to The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions by Mark Lewisohn, they were joined by Lennon:

“John Lennon came to the session really stoned, totally out of it on something or other, and he said ‘Alright, we’re gonna do Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’. He went straight to the piano and smashed keys with an almighty amount of volume, twice the speed of how they’d done it before, and said ‘This is it! Come on!’ He was really aggravated. That was the version they ended up using.”

Bowater House in Knightsbridge in 1958.

Bowater House, except maybe in size, was not an impressive building and now would be seen as typical of so much unimaginative post-war architecture springing up around London during the fifties and sixties. It is unsurprising that thrift and speed often took precedence over quality and taste when so much of the capital still had to be rebuilt after the war.

In 1959, Mies Van der Rohe was in London and in a taxi on his way to receive a gold medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects. His fellow passenger Erno Goldfinger pointed at the newly built Bowater House and said, ‘This is all your fault.’ To which Van der Rohe responded pointedly, “I was not the architect of that building.’

Just after Bowater House had been completed in 1958, and not half a mile up the road in South Kensington, a twenty year old Pauline Boty began her first year at the Royal College of Art in South Kensington. Boty was at the School of Stained Glass but had originally wanted to study painting but dissuaded because, especially as a woman, it was far harder to be accepted at the RCA as a painter. It’s worth noting that when in 1962 the specially designed, and much-complimented, RCA building opened next to the Royal Albert Hall there were no women’s toilets in the staff room. It was a man’s world, even at art college.

Pauline Boty in 1958, the year she started at the Royal College of Art.

Not long into Pauline’s first term, the rector of the RCA, Robin Darwin (the great grandson of Charles Darwin incidentally) invited an ex-RAF pilot called Ian Nairn to give a talk about architecture. Nairn had made his name with a special issue of the Architectural Review called ‘Outrage’ a few years earlier in 1955. The point of his lecture was that bad buildings weren’t just disappointing but should be seen as unacceptably offensive. He persuasively got his point across and the Stained-Glass students despaired that the general public were seemingly indifferent to what was being built around them.

After the lecture Nairn and a handful of Stained Glass first-years namely Pauline Boty, William Wilkins, Ken Baynes and Brian Newman, but also some other RCA students such as Barry Kirk, Ken Roberts, Ron Fuller and Janet Allen, thought it was about time something was done and Anti-Ugly Action was born.

Ian Nairn’s Outrage published in 1955.

On Wednesday 10th December and choosing not to travel too far across the capital to make their point, not that they particularly needed to and they were art students after all, the Anti-Ugly Action or the Anti-Uglies as they quickly came to be known, marched down towards Knightsbridge Green accompanied by a bass drum beating out a funereal rhythm with everyone shouting ‘Outrage, Outrage, Outrage’. On the way they stopped outside the recently completed Bowater House and clapped, waved and gave it three cheers in appreciation of the architecture. It’s difficult to understand today their appreciation of this building as even Ian Nairn, who was actually on the demo that day, would later describe Bowater House as:

A curate’s Egg. Walls with a good deal of trouble taken over the materials and proportion, yet a roofline which is laissez-faire at its worst. This perhaps should be the average. Alas, it is far above it.

Bowater House, 1965.

The view through Bowater House from the Hyde Park side.

Their first target was Caltex House designed by a subsidiary of the Alliance Assurance Company and completed the previous year in 1957. It occupied the site of what used to be Tattersall’s auction yard which had been in the area since 1766 when Richard ‘Old Tat’ Tattersall (presumably that’s where the phrase comes from) opened his auctioneers near Hyde Park Corner, then on the very outskirts of London.  As a nod to the horses that once were traded at Tattersall’s, Caltex House was adorned by a sculpture of horses called Triga by Franta Belsky and made of metal-coated reinforced concrete.

Caltex House in 1958.

The Anti-Uglies outside Caltex House, December 1958.

Caltex House on Knightsbridge Green, 2013.

Tattersall’s auction yard in 1865.

Bidding in progress at Tattersall’s horse auctions in November 1938.

The second part of the Anti-Uglies’ protest that day, called ‘Operation Two’, was outside Agriculture House at 25-27 Knightsbridge. It was a monumental neo-Georgian building that was the headquarters of the Farmers’ Union and built just a few years previously in 1954. It had replaced two properties both badly damaged during the war. At number 25 a prestigious London showroom of the designer Betty Joel had once stood. The building featured a modernistic shopfront of plate glass and coursed slate and ‘shiprails’ to the first floor windows. Next door, at number 27 had been the once prestigious Alexandra Hotel which the journalist and former London editor of The Manchester Guardian James Bone, in 1940, once recorded as ‘that prim hotel of suites in Knightsbridge … probably the last hotel in London where country people still come up “for the season”’.

Betty Joel showroom at 25 Knightsbridge, 1938. She produced lavish interiors for the offices and boardrooms of Coutts Bank, Claridges, the Daily Express and Shell.

Agriculture House

Knightsbridge in 1958 with Agriculture House in the distance. This is what it would have looked like when the Anti-Uglies were protesting outside.

The Caltex Building and Agriculture House were both built in parts of Knightsbridge that had suffered badly from bomb damage. At around 12.30am, 11 May 1941 the Alexandra Hotel was hit by a single high explosive bomb. It smashed straight through five floors of the opulent hotel and detonated in the heart of the building resulting in twenty-four fatalities and sixteen people seriously injured. Three years later in 1944, and up the road at Knightsbridge Green, a V1 missile exploded which left 29 casualties and 6 dead.

Between 1955 and the time of the Anti-Uglies protest new large office buildings had changed the appearance of the Knightsbridge Green area considerably. Although the LCC wanted to go further, much further. There were already plans submitted where the road junction at Scotch Corner was to be turned into a huge gyratory-system comparable to those at Marble Arch and Hyde Park Corner. The massive roundabout would have been overlooked by three tower blocks more than 400 ft high.

The relatively diminutive 308 ft high Basil Spence-designed tower that is part of the Knightsbridge Barracks in Hyde Park that exists today was originally designed to just be part of a ‘visually appealing group’ along with the LCC tower blocks. By the late sixties, in the light of changed economic conditions and fashion, the great majority of the plans, which would have destroyed much of Knightsbridge, were thankfully dropped.

The day after the Anti-Uglies’ protest The Times talked not of the terrible architecture but of the students’ unusual clothes, describing them wearing:

“Lumpy coats, blue jeans, hats like tufts of gorse, and one case, green boots.’

However a more supporting John Betjeman wrote in the Daily Telegraph:

Art is coming into its own again after the worship of science and economics. What is more important, the art of architecture is at last coming in for the public notice it deserves.

It wasn’t just the newspapers and television reporters who found the protest difficult to understand, members of the watching public were confused too. Caltex house featured a retail parade of six shops, one of which was Bazaar, Mary Quant’s second shop. During the demonstration a perfectly dressed shop-assistant-cum-model emerged from the recently opened boutique to ask what the chanting was all about. She could only respond to the Anti-Uglies answer with ‘but you’re all so ugly yourselves!’

Daily Express, March 16th 1959.

This was patently untrue, at least as far as Pauline Boty was concerned, and she appeared in the Daily Express a few months later on March 16th 1959 in the William Hickey column next to a headline: ‘Of all Things She is Secretary of the Anti-Uglies’. Boty told the Express:

I think the Air Ministry building is a real stinker, with the Farmers’ Union HQ, the Bank of England [a huge curved block along New Change by Victor Heal, which has now been demolished] and the Financial Times as runners-up.’ And her own home? ‘A 1930s semi in Carshalton , normally termed “desirable”, sighed Boty. ‘I don’t approve, of course, but I daren’t say anything or daddy would be upset.

The photograph accompanying the article was taken by Lewis Morley, then a frustrated painter, but who would famously go on to take the iconic picture of a naked Christine Keeler astride a backwards-facing chair. He recalled:

Someone decided Pauline should be photographed to publicise Anti-Ugly Action. I took several photographs of her that day, showing a blonde, vivacious girl, filled with joie de vivre. She was stunning, a major factor in why the article found a place in the Express.

Pauline was also interviewed at one of the protests by the BBC TV local Friday evening news roundup ‘Town and Around’ and was asked: ’ What’s a pretty girl like you doing at this sort of an event?’. Instead of kicking him in the shins, Pauline smiled and said that the building was an expensive disgrace. The interviewer said that he had been told that it was very efficient inside, ‘We are outside’ she countered.

Pauline Boty by Michael Ward

At the time of the Anti-Ugly protests Pauline Boty was twenty years old, born in 1938 in suburban Carshalton in Surrey. The youngest of four children she won a scholarship for the Wimbledon School of Art when she was sixteen and went on to study there despite her father’s very strong reservations about her choice of career. Due to her good looks, personality and blonde hair her friends at the college called her the ‘Wimbledon Bardot’.

Brigitte Bardot was already famous to the British public, she had appeared in Doctor at Sea in 1955 and had actually already made seventeen films when ‘And God Created Woman’ made her an undoubted international star in 1957. It was directed by her husband Roger Vadim who had been Bardot’s lover since she was fifteen: “she was my wife, my daughter, and my mistress,” he once wrote. Although by the time the film was released, she was none of those things, and Bardot was living with her co-star Jean-Louis Trintignant and having an affair with the musician Gilbert Bécaud. Boty jokily enjoyed the comparison with the French actress and Charles Carey, Boty’s tutor at time, once recalled a younger student going up to her in the canteen at Wimbledon and asking her why she wore so much red lipstick: ‘ ‘All the better to kisssss you with,’ she said, and chased him out of the room.’

In 1957 one of Boty’s paintings were shown at the Young Contemporaries exhibition alongside Robyn Denny, Richard Smith and Bridget Riley and the following year she was accepted at the RCA. Although studying Stained Glass, Boty continued to paint at her student flat and in 1959 she had three more paintings selected for the Young Contemporaries exhibition.

Pauline Boty in front of a poster for the Blake, Boty, Porter, Reeve exhibition. Photograph by John Aston.


The two years after her graduation were perhaps Boty’s most productive, she had started to develop a personal ‘Pop art’ style by now. Her first proper group show ‘Blake, Boty, Porter, Reeve was held in November 1961 at the A.I.A gallery at 15 Lisle Street (where the restaurant Fung Shing is now) and may have been the first proper British Pop Art show, although the word ‘pop’ wasn’t used in contemporary reviews.

Pauline Boty with her painting ’5,4,3,2,1″ Which featured Cathy McGowan and the words “Oh for a Fu…” Boty was actually a dancer on the early episodes of the show.

In 1962 Boty appeared in a film that was part of the BBC TV arts series Monitor. It was directed by Ken Russell and called Pop Goes the Easel, originally the title of a 1935 Three Stooges film. As well as Boty, it featured the artists Peter Blake, Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips and is now an important contemporary description of the relatively short-lived British ‘Pop Art’ movement. It was actually the first British documentary to use popular music as a soundtrack and the James Darren song’ Goodbye Cruel World’ used over shots of the four artists enjoying themselves at Bertram Mills Circus inside Olympia at the beginning of the film was also the title of one of Pauline’s recent collages featured at the AIA gallery the previous November. Boty said in the film:

It’s a horrible thing when people just look at my paintings and walk away and that’s it. I’d like my things to relate to everybody in the end. Things like beer cans may become a new kind of folk art; they’re like paintings on pin-tables: something else that people haven’t really looked at before.

Peter Blake and Pauline Boty from Pop Goes the Easel. 1962.

Pauline from Pop Goes the Easel.

Pop Goes the Easel by Ken Russell for the Arts series Monitor in 1962.

The Wimbledon Bardot. 1963.

The fashion designer Ossie Clark but then an RCA student wrote about Pauline in the summer of 1962:

The first time she noticed me, sunbathing in her bikini bottom sprawled out in the garden. Philip Saville was her current chap, beau lovers by the score. Freckles, innocent blue eyes, lips so full, a look direct eyeball to eyeball, melt away like Tom and Jerry heavy as mercury down a drain, or foolish as I did then – What subject should she paint? I’d suggested flags of the major powers, (Derek Boshier, Dick Smith, Peter Blake) China, Russia, America. ‘Naa! S’bin done!’ Green as the grass we lay in corn, in sunlight, as the storm clouds lift the golden rays from her smile. Those lips I was eventually to kiss, so soft like crying tears absorbed into a down pillow, maudlin, too pretty. Always swanking.

Philip Saville, mentioned in Clarke’s diary, was a married television and theatre director who usually turned his leading actresses into girlfriends. This time, however, it was the other way round and he encouraged Pauline to act, much to the dismay of many of her friends and art college contemporaries who thought that she should concentrate on her art. She appeared in television plays directed by Saville and appeared on stage at the Royal Court in a play called Day of the Prince by Frank Hilton.

Phillip Saville.

In January 1963 Saville directed a play broadcast on the BBC called the Madhouse on Castle Street which featured Bob Dylan’s first British television appearance as an actor and singer and indeed it was his first trip outside the USA. Phillip and Pauline picked Dylan up from London Airport and he stayed at Pauline’s flat for four days. As was the BBC’s wont, the play is of course wiped now but Dylan was apparently too stoned to remember his lines as Bobby the Hobo and could only sing two of his songs.

It is said that the relationship between Julie Christie and Dirk Bogard in John Schlesinger’s film Darling was partly based on Boty and Saville’s love affair. Ironically Boty would later herself audition for the role eventually played by Christie in the rather dated film.

In June 1963 Saville introduced Boty to a friend of his, the left wing actor and writer Clive Goodwin. Ten days later Pauline sent Saville a telegram which was opened by his wife fearing an emergency, it read: “By the time you read this I will be married to Clive Goodwin. Please forgive me.” . Boty described her new husband in an interview with the writer Nell Dunn (who personally thought Goodwin too dull for her) as:

the very first man I met who really liked women, for one thing – a terribly rare thing in a man…I mean here was someone who liked women and to whom they weren’t kind of things or something you don’t quite know about – and because you kind of desire them they’re slightly sort of awful, because they bring out the worst in you , this funny sort of puritan idea, sort of Adam and Eve and everything.

Pauline Boty in front of her painting of Jean Paul Belmondo in 1964. Photograph by Lewis Morley.

‘Scandal’ – Pauline repays Lewis Morley, using his already famous image of Christine Keeler. 1964.

Pauline Boty, by Michael Seymour, 1962

Pauline Boty by Lewis Morley, 1963.

In June 1965, two months before she filmed a bit part in the film Alfie, Boty found out she was pregnant. During a prenatal examination, however, she was found to be suffering from malignant lymphatic cancer. She refused an abortion but also chemotherapy that may have harmed her baby. Her daughter, who was called Boty Goodwin (so she would always have her mother’s name) was born in February 1966. Too ill to cope with a baby Pauline looked after her for just four days before her parents took over responsibility of their granddaughter.

Pauline Boty’s last painting was entitled Bum, dated 1966, and would have been completed not long before she died. Kenneth Tynan had commissioned it during early preparation of his erotic revue Oh! Calcutta!

Pauline in an uncredited scene in Alfie. She was already pregnant and knew she had cancer when she filmed this scene.

Mr Pauline Boty, Clive Goodwin.

 Goodwin was devastated and never married again. In November 1978, he flew to Los Angeles for various business meetings, including one at the Beverly Wilshire hotel, where he met with Warren Beatty (who was living at the hotel at the time) to discuss the script for Beatty’s upcoming film ‘Reds’. The next day, Goodwin, who had complained about a headache earlier, began vomiting in the hotel foyer before falling unconscious. The clerk and a security guard assumed he was drunk and called the police, who handcuffed him, hauled him outside and took him to the Beverly Hills police station. Goodwin died later that night of a brain haemorrhage, alone in the cell, likely never regaining consciousness.

After her death Pauline Boty’s paintings were stored way on her brother’s farm and were almost thrown away more than once. For someone so well known in the art-world in the early sixties Boty and her work were almost completely forgotten. In the early 1990s the art historian David Mellor watched Pop Goes the Easel and wondered what had happened to Boty’s paintings. He tracked them down and some were exhibited in a 1993 Barbican exhibition called The Sixties Art Scene in London. Boty Goodwin, who was now at art college in Los Angeles, came to the Private View.

Incredibly, the Barbican show was the first time Pauline Boty’s work had been exhibited since she had died. Time Out included in their review of the exhibition:

Boty’s paintings shower with critical blows the macho stance of Pop.

Boty Goodwin at the Barbican exhibition in 1993.

Boty Goodwin had been brought up initially by Pauline’s parents but from the age of five by her father. She was eleven when Goodwin died and she moved back to Carshalton for the next few years. Boty eventually moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s where, following her mother’s career, she went to Cal Arts. Unfortunately the Boty/Goodwin family tragedies still continued and in 1995 she died in her studio of a heroin overdose. She was only 29.

Over fifty years after the protests it’s interesting to look at the buildings in Knightsbridge that upset the Anti-Uglies so. Agriculture House, never a particularly popular building, was eventually demolished in 1993 for two separate properties that architecturally don’t seem to be much of an improvement, but are of a size more respectful of the area. Along with its equine sculpture celebrating ‘old Tat’ and his auction yard, Caltex House still stands and is still stodgily unexceptional and dull as when it was built, despite a facelift in 2001.

One Hyde Park overlooking Scotch Corner, 2013.

For some reason the One Hyde Park security man didn’t want photographs taken from the Knightsbridge pavement. 2013.

Jacob Epstein’s last sculpture ‘Rush of Green’. Now moved round the back of the building. 2013.

Bowater House, the building that the Uglies cheered as they walked past, was demolished in 2006 without too many people mourning its loss at the time. It’s replacement One Hyde Park was called by its once idealistic architect Lord Rogers, “a 21st-century monument” – although a monument to what no one really knows, but it seems to be some kind of celebration of the ostentatious ultra-rich and the ever-growing widening gap between the rich and poor in London. Two years ago in 2010 at the height of the credit crunch a penthouse flat in the building sold for £140 million.

Somehow One Hyde Park has managed to make people remember Bowater House almost fondly. Firstly for it’s opening in its centre that enabled anyone to drive or walk though onto Hyde Park, and secondly the sculpture ‘Rush of Green’ placed in the centre of the road for everyone to see. It was the last work by the sculptor Jacob Epstein and he was still putting the finishing touches to it on the day he died in 1959. Rush of Green has now been placed round the back of the buildings by a small road that leads to Hyde Park, although it’s cleverly designed to look private so hardly anyone uses it.

If Pauline Boty was alive today and the Anti-Uglies were still protesting I suspect that One Hyde Park, a building architecturally more suited to Qatar and Abu Dhabi than Knightsbridge, would have been first on their list.

“Outrage! Outrage! Outrage!”

Pauline Boty’s last painting from 1966. ‘Bum’.


Thank you to Eve Dawoud who introduced me to Pauline Boty and Adam Smith’s unpublished (why?) Now you see her – Pauline Boty – First Lady of British Pop.  A gallery of photographs of Pauline Boty by John Aston can be found here and at the National Portrait Gallery here.


The Cafe de Paris, the Trial of Elvira Barney and the death of Snakehips Johnson

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009
Elvira Barney after her trial in 1932

Elvira Barney arriving at her parents house at 6 Belgrave Square, 7th July 1932

Visiting England apparently on a whim and a year before she appeared in her first film late in 1925, Louise Brooks became a dancer at the Cafe de Paris in Coventry Street. She was just seventeen and it was here that she reputedly became the first person to dance the Charleston in London. The Piccadilly nightclub had quickly become fashionable with London society after it had opened in December 1924, not least because the Prince of Wales became a regular visitor.

Brooks later wrote about the so-called ‘Bright Young Things’ she had met during her time in London and waspishly described them as a ‘dreadful, moribund lot’. She added that when Evelyn Waugh wrote Vile Bodies about them, only a genius could have made a masterpiece out of such glum material.

The Cafe de Paris in 1932

The Cafe de Paris in 1932

Louise Brooks in 1924

Louise Brooks in 1924

Marion Harris in London in 1932

Marion Harris in London in 1932

In May 1932, and eight years after Brooks danced in front of the rich and famous at the Cafe de Paris, the celebrated American singer Marion Harris was in the middle of one of her long engagements at the night club. Harris was known to audiences at the time as the first white woman to sing the blues and after moving to England at the beginning of the thirties was performing to great success in London. The Prince of Wales was actually a big fan and often came to see her sing. One night after she had performed, the manager came into her dressing room excitedly announcing that the Prince had been so impressed that he would like her to have a drink at his table. Miss Harris coolly declined, telling him that “If your customers get to know you too well, they don’t come back and pay money to see you. The illusion is destroyed.”

She may have been on stage singing ‘the blues’ – the acts began their set at eleven – when just after midnight on 30th May 1932 an intoxicated couple (both of whom would have undoubtedly considered themself a Bright Young Thing), entered the famous West End night for a rather late supper.

The couple were Elvira Barney and her louche bisexual lover Michael Stephen and they had travelled by cab to Coventry Street after holding one of their numerous parties at the home they shared in Williams Mews just off Lowndes Square in Knightsbridge. After they had finished their meal at the Cafe de Paris and had further drinks at The Blue Angel in Dean Street they returned back home in the early hours of that morning.

It wasn’t long before the neighbours, not for the first time, started to hear screaming and yelling from the first floor and Elvira was reported to have shouted:

“Get out, get out! I will shoot you! I will shoot you!’

Almost immediately the street heard the report of a pistol shot echoing into the night and almost immediately a neighbour heard Barney crying

“Chicken, chicken, come back to me. I will do anything you want me to.”

At about 4.50am, after a frantic call to his house just ten minutes earlier, Doctor Thomas Durrant arrived at 21 Williams Mews and came across Barney continually repeating:

“He wanted to see you to tell you it was only an accident. He wanted to see you to tell you it was only an accident.”

On the stairs, shot in the chest at close range, lay a distinctly moribund Michael Stephen.

‘There was a terrible barney at no. 21′, a neighbour later told the police, apparently unconscious of the pun.

Michael Stephen

Michael Stephen

21 William Mews and a dead Michael Stephen

21 William Mews and a dead Michael Stephen

21 Williams Mews today, the name seems to have gained an 's' in it seventies development

21 William Mews today

Macdonald Hastings wrote about the fatal evening in his book The Other Mr Churchill, (this Mr Churchill was a forgotten about firearms expert and not the prestigious Prime Minister) and he described the police being incredibly shocked when they entered the mews house:

‘Over the cocktail bar in the corner of the sitting room there was a wall painting which would have been a sensation in a brothel in Pompeii. The library was furnished with publications which could never have passed through His Majesty’s Customs. The place was equipped with the implements of fetishism and perversion.’

Shocked or not, and despite Elvira at one point striking Inspector Campion in the face saying: “I will teach you to say you will put me in a cell, you vile swine,” after she had made her statement, the police, obviously knowing their place, simply allowed her to go back to her family home at nearby 6 Belgrave Square. She was accompanied by her parents, Sir John and Lady Mullens.

Four years previously, a twenty-three year old Elvira, despite her parents protestations, had married an American singer and entertainer called John Sterling Barney. When they met, at a society function held by Lady Mullens, he had been performing in a ‘top-hat, white-tie and tails’ trio called The Three New-Yorkers. They were relatively successful in the UK at the time and often played at the Cafe de Paris.

The Three New Yorkers at The Cafe de Paris - John Barney is on the left

The Three New Yorkers at The Cafe de Paris - John Barney is on the left

The Three New Yorkers and a couple of Bell-boys

The Three New Yorkers and a couple of Bell-boys

By many accounts the facile John Barney was a rather unpleasant man and a friend of Elvira’s once recalled:

“One day she held her arms in the air and the burns she displayed – there and elsewhere – were, she insisted, the work of her husband who had delighted in crushing his lighted cigarettes out from time to time on her bare skin.”

Violent rows started within weeks of the marriage and after a few months the American returned back to the United States never really to be heard of again. Elvira, according to her biographer Peter Cotes, went off the rails and ‘started sniffing the snow…and became the demanding but generous mistress of a number of disorientated and sexually odd lovers.’ Unfortunately he doesn’t really go into any more detail but the description goes someway to explain how, at the start of 1932, she ended up sharing her bed (and her bank account) with the drug-dealing ‘dress-designer’ Michael Scott Stephen.

Sir John Mullens, with his society connections managed to persuade the former Attorney-General Sir Patrick Hastings to defend his daughter. Hastings, in his early fifties, was at the height of his fame as a Kings Council and towards the end of the trial made a final address to the jury, that the judge – a Mr Justice Humphreys – later called the best he had ever heard.

The Honourable Mr Justice Humphreys on the way to court

The Honourable Mr Justice Humphreys picking up a London Metro on the way to court

Sir Patrick Hastings on the cover of Time in 1924

Sir Patrick Hastings on the cover of Time in 1924

The jury must have also been impressed with Sir Patrick’s speech and after two hours returned a not guilty verdict. On his way out of the court Mr Justice Humpheys exclaimed:

‘Most extraordinary! Apparently we should have given her a pat on the back!’

The jury had acquitted her but Fleet Street weren’t going to let her off that easily and they gleefully reported that Elvira Mullens (the name she had reverted to) had shouted on the dance floor of the Cafe de Paris soon after the court case,

‘I am the one who shot her lover – so take a good look at me.’

Sir Patrick Hastings described Elvira during the trial as ‘a young woman with the rest of her life before her’. Unfortunately the rest of her life lasted a only four short years and she was found dead in a Parisian hotel room. After a typical long night of drinking and taking cocaine she had decided to return back to her room complaining that she felt cold and unwell. She was discovered later that night half on her bed, half off, with signs of haemorrhage around her mouth. The years of drinking and drug-taking had finally taken their toll.

The police holding back the crowd at the Old Bailey during the trial of Elvira Barney

The police holding back the crowd at the Old Bailey during the trial of Elvira Barney

Marion Harris in New York

Marion Harris in New York

Not long after Elvira Barney’s death in Paris, Marion Harris retired from showbusiness and married a successful English theatrical agent called Leonard Urry. In early 1944 their home in Rutland Street (just a few hundred yards west of Williams Mews) was razed to the ground by a V1 flying bomb.

Harris returned to America completely traumatised and never really recovered from seeing her home completely destroyed. On Sunday, April 23, 1944, alone in a New York hotel room she fell asleep while smoking a cigarette. It set the room alight and it was never disclosed whether she died of burns or suffocation from the smoke.

The Cafe de Paris, unlike the majority of theatres and nightclubs in the West End, remained open at the start of the second world war. This was probably because of the rich and famous patrons having a slight influence on the wartime licensing regulations, however it was said that the dance-floor was so far underground that it would be completely safe when the air-raid sirens sounded.

Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson

Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson

On Saturday 8th March 1941 Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and the West Indian Orchestra were playing at the Cafe de Paris as usual. While carefully not mentioning the actual club or the band leader (due to wartime censorship) Time magazine reported what happened subsequently:

The orchestra at London’s Cafe de Paris gaily played Oh, Johnny, Oh Johnny, How You Can Love! At the tables handsome flying Johnnies, naval Jacks in full dress, guardsmen, territorials, and just plain civics sat making conversational love. The service men were making the most of leave; the civilians were making the most of the lull in bombings of London.

Sirens had sounded. Most of London had descended into shelters, but to those in the cabaret, time seemed too dear to squander underground. Bombs began to fall near by: it was London’s worst night raid in weeks. The orchestra played Oh, Johnny a little louder.

Then the hit came. What had been a nightclub became a nightmare: heaps of wreckage crushing the heaps of dead and maimed, a shambles of silver slippers, broken magnums, torn sheet music, dented saxophones, smashed discs.

A special constable with the rather splendid name Ballard Berkeley was one of the first on the scene. He saw Snakehips Johnson decapitated and elegantly dressed people still sitting at tables seemingly almost in conversation, but stone dead. He was shocked to see looters, mingling with the firemen and the police, cutting the fingers from the dead to get at their expensive rings. Ballard Berkeley many years later became famous as the actor who played the major in Fawlty Towers.

Cafe de Paris, 9th March 1941

Cafe de Paris, 9th March 1941


In 1929 British International Pictures released Piccadilly starring the beautiful Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. The scene where Wong’s character Shosho performs her exotic dance in front of an adoring nightclub crowd was filmed in location at the Cafe de Paris. The film also includes a brief appearance from Charles Laughton playing a gluttonous diner – his first feature film performance.

In 1948, the Cafe de Paris was refurbished and seven years after the tragic death of Snakehips Johnson the doors reopened. Although it was again graced by royalty, notably Princess Margaret, the club never really regained its sophisticated aura it had before the war.

The only evening of note I can find was on 29th September 1965 when Lionel Blair introduced, to an extremely grateful public no doubt, his new dance called ‘The Kick’.I’m not sure but I don’t think it was a storming success.

Lionel Blair accompanied by Cilla Black, Joe Loss and Billy J Kramer dance 'The Kick'

Lionel Blair accompanied by Cilla Black, Joe Loss and Billy J Kramer dance 'The Kick' at the Cafe de Paris in 1965

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