Decade of decadence: How little time has changed the debauched ways we cope with financial meltdown
13:14 GMT, 28 August 2012
'To feed and dance, always to be moving, that is the thing. We daren’t risk more than an hour or two in sleep, in case something happens while we aren’t there.’
So wrote one participant of the London social scene of the Twenties. It was an era that became synonymous with hedonism, when gilded young aristocrats threw themselves into the frantic pursuit of pleasure.
It was a decade of revolution and novelty. The corsets and conventions of the Edwardian age were shrugged off, as women were finally given the vote — a minority of married women in 1918, then by 1928 all women — and the rigid social order began to shift, with dukes marrying showgirls and servants deserting their posts to earn a better wage in factories, shops or restaurants.
Footloose and fancy-free: Flappers doing the Charleston in a london Stage review during the twenties
The first nightclubs opened, serving new drinks called cocktails. Hemlines rose first above the ankle then — to the horror of the older generation — above the knee. More shockingly still, dresses became backless.
Girls cut their long hair into bobs, painted their lips red and bandaged their breasts to attain the fashionable boyish figure. None of these fads and fashions caused such a stir as the antics of a small group at the epicentre of society whose sole objective was to have fun. The public lapped up tales of the decadent lives of these Bright Young Things, as they were dubbed by the Daily Mail.
They went from lunch to tea dances to parties and on to nightclubs, returning home to sleep at the hour when ordinary men and women were going to work.
It is against this backdrop that the new series of Downton, beginning next month, will be set. And while World War I and the Spanish Flu brought tragedy to Lord Grantham’s household, it seems likely that the Roaring Twenties will bring even more drama to Downton, as well as sparking renewed interest in this glittering decade.
But beneath the gaiety lay a darker side. A riveting new book tells a rather different tale about the gilded youths who paid a high price for their lives of extraordinary excess.
Many of the Bright Young Things had lost fathers and older brothers in the war, and perhaps it was this that made them throw off caution and determine to live life to the full.
While ordinary men and women struggled to find jobs thanks to the economic slump that followed the end of the war — and many women who had wartime work found themselves jobless as men were given priority — the social elite had no such concerns. Jobs were for other people. Their mission was to enjoy themselves.
The romantic novelist Barbara Cartland
wrote in her memoir of the Twenties: ‘We were like nuns who had never
seen over the convent wall until now. Everything was unexpected,
fascinating, thrilling, unusual.’
Dame Barbara Cartland pictured with her pet dog Mai Mai in her arms
Before the war, it was impossible for a well-born girl to go anywhere without a chaperone — an older, married woman. Now, girls like Barbara arrived at parties, quickly gave their chaperone the slip, and drove off to a nightclub with a young man to go dancing.
The evening might even end with a kiss — an idea that shocked their Victorian-born mamas, for such intimacy had to be preceded by an engagement at the very least.
But things seldom went further. An unwanted pregnancy still meant social ruin, and in any case most girls were so innocent they had no idea what sex was.
When her mother explained to her where babies came from, Barbara Cartland was so horrified she immediately broke off her engagement to a young Army officer for fear she would have to engage in such a horrifying activity. She eventually got over her revulsion, accepting, she claimed, the 50th marriage proposal she received.
Marriage was still the goal of every aristocratic girl, though it did not always mean the end of flirtations.
Many married women conducted affairs, discreetly or otherwise: heiress Edwina Mountbatten was infamous for her flagrant adultery and the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), unofficial patron of the Bright Young Things, took a series of married women as lovers before falling for Mrs Simpson.
Edwina Mountbatten, Countess Mountbatten of Burma, was infamous for her flagrant adultery
He and his cronies were regularly to be found at nightclubs such as the Kit Kat club or the Silver Slipper, run by the infamous Mrs Kate Meyrick. The wife of a respectable doctor, she turned to running nightclubs as a means of funding her six children’s education at Harrow and Roedean.
This ‘wispy little woman’ with holes in her stockings was ruthlessly successful, buying up club after club and turning over 24 million in today’s money. She employed her own daughters as dance girls. It was a smart move, as their dance partners included dukes and earls. Three of them married into the peerage.
‘Ma’ Meyrick’s clubs were frequently raided for breaking the drinking curfew — it was illegal to sell alcohol after midnight — and she went to prison five times, once for bribing a vice squad detective.
None of this deterred her patrons, however, who included European kings and princes, gangsters, showgirls and the screen idols Rudolph Valentino and Tallulah Bankhead. The actress was notorious for her bisexuality and promiscuity. Beautiful and brilliantly witty with a breathy voice that captivated theatre audiences, she was what we would call a sex addict.
‘She would devour anyone, male or female,’ recalled an acquaintance. She ‘kept’ a steady girlfriend, but outside her hotel suite queues of pretty girls waited their turn. She was said to entertain up to 15 a night in her king-size bed.
Boys from Eton ventured off grounds to indulge in 'indecent and unnatural' practices with screen idol Tallulah Bankhead
But it was her behaviour beyond the
West End that brought her to the attention of MI5. The Home Secretary,
the starchy William Joynson-Hicks, was determined crack down on all this
immorality and encouraged MI5 and Special Branch operatives to look out
for bad behaviour.
was an obvious target. Then aged 26 and at the height of her fame,
according to MI5 she regularly motored down to the Cafe de Paris hotel
in Bray, Berkshire, where she would meet six boys from nearby Eton
College and indulge in ‘indecent and unnatural practices’ with them.
According to MI5’s somewhat slavering informant, it was common knowledge at Eton that five or six boys had been convicted of ‘breaking bounds’ — venturing beyond school territory — for associating with Miss Bankhead.
Special Branch duly sent down two detectives to Bray to investigate, but they found no evidence of the alleged ‘indecent and unnatural offences’. The headmaster of Eton refused to co-operate. ‘He wants to do everything possible to keep Eton out of the scandal,’ noted the file.
Lacking the necessary evidence to deport American Tallulah, MI5 was forced to drop the investigation.
Though few women pushed the sexual boundaries as far as Tallulah, lesbianism was a grave concern for the establishment and there were calls for it to be outlawed on the grounds it stopped childbirth and ‘debauches young girls and produces . . . insanity’. But the Government failed to act.
The Twenties brought unimagined freedom for many women. From 1923, a woman could divorce her husband for adultery: until then, only women could be divorced on these grounds.
Marie Stopes opened her first birth control clinic in London in 1921. Though some saw birth control as immoral or dangerous — one woman’s husband refused to use precautions because it ‘gives men consumption’ — gradually the birth rate fell.
Marie Stopes opened her first family planning and birth control clinic in 1921
At the same time there was a huge increase in the vice trade. /08/28/article-2194441-0C82CCDB000005DC-730_310x176.jpg” width=”310″ height=”176″ alt=”Cocaine kept the working girls going” class=”blkBorder” />
Cocaine kept the working girls going
In nightclubs and dance halls such as those owned by Kate Meyrick, girl dance partners also dabbled in prostitution. Though a lucky few made up to 80 a week in pay and tips — nearly 4,000 today — and even, like Meyrick’s daughters, ended up marrying aristocrats, for the majority of dance girls the work was exhausting and the only way to keep going was to take drugs.
Cocaine had become popular as a recreational drug during the war, and it was not until 1916 that possession of cocaine and opium was made illegal.
But by then the drugs genie was out of
the bottle. Cocaine became associated with the nightclub scene and
jazz, the new music imported from America that horrified the
establishment. ‘Crude and vulgar, it is performed by n*****s’,
harrumphed the Observer newspaper.
disapproval only fuelled the younger generation’s obsession with jazz
and the new, energetic dances that accompanied it, such as the Black
Bottom and Charleston.
The extent of drug use among dance
girls became known as a result of the tragic death of a pretty young
woman named Freda Kempton, who worked at Brett’s dance hall, one of Mrs
Meyrick’s establishments. She died from a cocaine overdose in 1922.
A middle-class girl who had become a
dancer after her father abandoned the family, Freda began taking cocaine
to remain vibrant and full of energy even at 4am.
the last few weeks of her life, she became a lover of Chinese
restaurateur Billy ‘Brilliant’ Chang. He was one of the most vilified,
but fascinating characters of the decade. Born in China, he had come to
Britain in 1913. Then in his 30s, he was small — barely 5ft tall — and
dapper. He wore grey suede shoes, a fur-collared coat and his thick
black hair was so shiny women rushed to run their hands through it.
Chang supplied Freda with cocaine in return for sex.
villain was needed to blame for the cocaine craze and Chang — seen as
the personification of depraved Oriental cunning — fitted the bill
perfectly, the evil foreign dope king corrupting innocent white girls.
Jazz nightclubs around London became infamous with drugs such as cocaine
There was insufficient evidence to connect him to the cocaine that killed Freda Kempton, but the police and public remained convinced that shady foreigners were flooding Britain with drugs.
The police raided Chang’s apartment and found him in bed with two chorus girls.
There was also a stack of letters he used to proposition women he met in the street beginning ‘Dear Unknown’, but no drugs.
Eventually, one of his lovers was persuaded to testify against him. The extent of his amorous activities was laid bare at the trial.
In his beautiful ‘den of iniquity’ above his restaurant, it was said that ‘half a dozen drug-frenzied women together joined him in wild orgies’.
‘It is you and men like you who are corrupting the womanhood of this country,’ fulminated the Recorder when Chang was sentenced to 14 months in prison, followed by deportation.
That same year in Cardiff, a Chinese man named Yee Sing was discovered dead on a bed in the upstairs room of a Chinese laundry. Beside him were three semi-clad girls who were, it transpired, not dead, but unconscious.
They were three sisters, one of whom had been Yee Sing’s lover and had a child by him, while another also had a baby with a Chinese boyfriend.
Once again the Press went wild: yellow and black men were luring innocent girls into white slavery.
Then handsome Jamaican crook Edgar Manning, who also had several white women as lovers, was convicted of dealing drugs in London using a hollowed-out, silver-topped walking stick.
‘Evil n**** caught,’ rejoiced the News of the World. He was given three years’ penal servitude.
American socialite Alice Gwynne openly used cocaine and heroin and became known among London society as ‘the girl with the silver syringe’.
She had many lovers, including the Duke of Kent — the bisexual fourth son of George V — himself a drug user.
Homosexuality was rife among the Bright Young Things.
‘Nearly every English boy I knew had a terrific exposure to homosexuality. Some stuck with it, some didn’t,’ wrote Jessica Mitford.
Evelyn Waugh had lovers of both sexes before his marriage, while the black jazz pianist Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson — said to be exceptionally well-endowed — had affairs with male and female members of the aristocracy, including Edwina Mountbatten.
Though class boundaries were hardly crumbling, some pretty girls bridged the social divide by marrying aristocrats.
Sylvia Hawkes, a working-class chorus girl, caught the eye of Lord Ashley, heir of the Earl of Shaftesbury, and married him in 1927, to the horror of his family. They divorced six years later and she notched up four more husbands.
The high-life came to an end at the same time as crowds appeared outside the London Stock Exchange following the 1929 Wall Street Crash
While many aristocrats continued to live the high life — skiing in Switzerland, spending the summer on the Riviera, gambling in Deauville or cruising along the Nile in Egypt — others were beginning to feel the pinch.
Their servants were deserting them to work in restaurants and nightclubs — a waitress in one of Mrs Meyrick’s clubs could earn 25 a week compared with 1 as a maid in a private house — and as income tax rose, some were forced to sell their stately homes, paintings and jewellery, often to American buyers.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 brought the glittering, decadent decade to a shuddering halt.
The flappers retired into obscurity, the crazy, debauched parties became rarer, and the Thirties ushered in a more sedate, less frenetic existence.
n BRIGHT Young Things by Alison Maloney is published by Virgin on Thursday at 9.99. To order a copy at 8.99 (P&P free), tel: 0843 382 0000.