LESBIANS DRESSED AS ADMIRALS

We take a step back in time, to the 1920s, and into the glamorous yet ultimately tragic world of the Bright Young People

Where were the seeds of modern celebrity culture first sown? Many social historians would argue that the plot in which they took root and grew consisted of a few square miles of London’s 1920s-era West End—the pleasure ground of a group of well-connected and hugely influential party-goers known to posterity as the Bright Young People.

Exclusive, exuberant and wildly hedonistic, the Bright Young People had an impact on Jazz Age Britain that was wildly disproportionate to their tiny size: there were never more than a few hundred paid-up members. They began in a small way, with treasure hunts and elaborate practical jokes, before graduating to what were known as ‘stunt parties’—the Impersonation Party of 1927, for example, or the notorious Bath and Bottle extravaganza of July 1928, when guests danced the night away at a public swimming pool.

In an age of mass-market newspapers with a relish for scandal, the Bright Young People were a publicist’s dream—all the more so in that many of them boasted celebrity parents. For example, Elizabeth Ponsonby’s father was a government minister, while Bryan Guinness belonged to the famous brewing family. But taken together they formed what the novelist Evelyn Waugh called ‘High Bohemia’, a small but oddly democratic space in which blue-blooded aristocrats, writers such as Waugh and his fellow-novelist Nancy Mitford, and avant-garde painters like John Banting and Ed Burra, could meet on equal terms.

The atmosphere of a typical gathering can be gleaned from Anthony Powell’s observations. He was another writer who witnessed their activities first-hand, leaving a revealing description of the parties held on the Friendship, a pleasure boat moored on the River Thames, near Charing Cross Pier. “At one end of the scale there’d be quite smart people. At the other there’d always be a lot of these girls who were living on the margin… And then it would tail off into the queer, almost criminal world—lesbians dressed as admirals, that sort of thing.”

Even those who were there had difficulty in quantifying the Bright Young People ‘style’, for so much of it was a matter of intangibles—a way of speaking, a glance, a gesture (there was even a private language, keen on coterie adjectives such as ‘blush-making’ and ‘bogus’). But behind the surface pizzazz and the night-long carouses lurked a great deal of unhappiness, the fractures and insecurities of a generation traumatized by the guilt of not having fought in the Great War and determined to rebel against stuffy and conventional parents who looked on with horror. Ponsonby’s father, Arthur, reckoned his daughter lived “a life beyond belief.”

Yet, despite being revered, like most youth cults, the Bright Young People phenomenon was over almost as soon as it had begun. By the early 1930s, Britain was in the grip of economic depression. The celebrated Red and White Party of October 1931, in which both guests and cuisine followed a strict colour code, coincided with a march of unemployed workers on London, and was denounced by the same society magazines that had played a part in raising the movement’s profile and popularity.

For several of the key figures the road ran down into tragedy and despair: like in the case of Ponsonby, who died of alcoholism before she was 40. The most successful survivors tended to be writers and artists, who could put their experiences to professional use.

And so the Bright Young People’s most enduring legacy can be found in Evelyn Waugh’s early novels—for example, Vile Bodies (1930) —and Cecil Beaton’s photography; his glittering mementoes of a world devoted to high-octane pleasure-seeking with little thought of what the morning after might bring.

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