A look at the growth of 1920s London's bright young party set, whose sex, drink and drugs antics were enjoyed and scorned in equal measure by the gossip-hungry.
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85 years ago, the beautiful and the damned of the 1920s
knew ridicule was nothing to be scared of.
A world of glitter and glamour became, for a fleeting moment, the centre of the universe.
They looked like beautiful, hollow creatures and that was the image they tried to cultivate at the time.
Stephen has gold dust in his hair, he has Vaseline on his eyelids and he has lipstick.
Banded together in the pursuit of a good time, a killer wardrobe
and little else, the Bright Young People
ripped through British society and became notorious.
There was a kind of perverse wish to behave as irresponsibly and as childishly as they could.
A lot of drink, in some cases a lot of drugs and some very glamorous locations.
They are creating this fantasy which is a rejection of the values
of their parents but also the values of their time.
The Bright Young Things had a shimmering allure and inevitably the literati followed the glitterati.
A generation of artists drew inspiration from this flowering
of doomed youth and they used it to found their reputations.
People like Cecil Beaton were like the Malcolm McLaren of their day -
they were popularising it, they were making careers out of this.
Glamour and celebrity became an industry.
The cult of personality and the incestuous relationship
between the Bright Young People and the press is recognisable today.
I think the rest of the nation was enormously entertained by it
because it was like the celebrity culture now.
But who were the real Bright Young People?
Why were they such a phenomenon?
And how did something so short-lived come to be so immortalised?
The inter-war era is an age that we can't help but return to again and again.
So familiar are its nuances,
its sense of modernity, that it appears to exert a hold
and a lasting influence over the collective imagination.
The same can be said of its great social set.
The Bright Young Things, party pioneers of the 20th Century.
I'd have loved to have seen one of the Bright Young People in their heyday.
They had the most fantastic clothes, the most fantastic conception
of themselves, the most flamboyant way
of projecting themselves and it really was as much about identity as it was about vanity.
Defiantly partying while ignoring life's harsher realities,
their bitter-sweet world of decadent glamour and outrageous attention-seeking
holds a mirror to many of our present-day obsessions and fears.
There was a feeling of hopelessness and part of the partying was just
to push that away - "Let's go out, lets get drunk, let's not think about it."
What we recognise in them is the pose of superior entitlement,
the glossy perfection and idealised lifestyle
that contemporary luxury brands still sell us today.
What is different, though, is that the Bright Young People of the 20s
were not aping the behaviour of a previous generation.
They were the originals. The Bright Young People are still the very definition of decadent glamour.
At the very heart of this scene were a select few real Bright Young People -
absolute stars in their day but whose names have since been almost forgotten.
Aristocratic aesthetes like the flamboyant Stephen Tennant
were central to the new social set's rejection of conformity.
When Stephen left his house,
there was a reporter there to see him coming out in a football jersey
and earrings and driving across London in this Electric Brougham,
which was described as a shop window on wheels
and he's kind of waving to the people as he goes past - he is this celebrity.
His slender, androgynous frame, marcel waved hair and wardrobe
of embroidered silks made him a rebel but also the toast of London!
Comparisons with people like Boy George or any kind of
outrageous pop star are very acute - that was what Stephen was.
In an age before pop stars, Stephen was a pop star.
Newly freed from their Edwardian skirts and overbearing governesses,
well-bred, modern girls became party obsessed.
None more so than Elizabeth Ponsonby.
This flighty daughter of an MP had a dedication to partying
that marked her as the 1920s It-girl but would ultimately destroy her.
For us, it's interesting because of how she died.
She drank herself to death and she died before she was 40.
But in the 1920s, she was famous just for being a silly, frivolous girl who went to parties.
The hard-core hedonism and possibility of fame
drew high-born hipsters like actress Brenda Dean Paul
who was there from the scene's very inception.
There were Bright Young Women
who were able to sustain this existence more or less on air.
Brenda Dean Paul, who achieved fame as what was known as
the society drug addict, as the papers knew her in the early 1930s,
maintained that she spent several years living on brandy cocktails and salted nuts.
This outrageous self publicist learned that causing a sensation,
no matter how tragic, could be made to pay.
On the fringes of the set, drawn to these wild, glamorous luminaries
were artists, writers and entertaining types of all backgrounds.
Some out for what they could get, others revelling in the excess
but all of them observing and recording.
It is their interpretation of the scene
that sustained it and made it both legend and fable.
Among them Cecil Beaton, John Betjeman,
Nancy Mitford, Noel Coward and Evelyn Waugh have become synonymous
with the decade that roared and the beautiful but damned young people who partied to the end.
In a sense, Evelyn Waugh stood for that generation
of Bright Young People in that he was a rebel
and he loved the rebellion of it, the throwing over the rules.
He also loved getting really drunk.
At the same time, he knew perfectly well in his heart of hearts that he was not one
of the Bright Young People. He loved fooling around with them, he was enormously entertained with them,
he loved their glamour and he wanted to be part of them up to a point
but he knew he was different.
Waugh had got to know many of the Bright Young Men at Oxford.
They belonged to a rather exclusive, Eton-educated, and titled class
above Waugh's middle-class background but his wit
and rebellious nature were all he needed to join the Bright Young Society.
All doors were opened suddenly, among the young anyway,
and if they were amusing, if they were entertaining,
then they were acceptable, they were accepted.
That was the criteria and that was the sole criterion really.
When the aspiring young writer took to London's Bright Young scene,
he found in it the characters and back drops for his first two novels - Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies.
In each book, the Bright Young Things' extravagant partying, dress sense
and even their affected and arch lexicon is perfectly documented.
I think Stephen Fry's film Bright Young Things which is based on Evelyn Waugh's book Vile Bodies
is actually really successful in portraying the sheer madness and mayhem of those events.
The opening sequence of the film
where you have this fantastic sort of Dante's Inferno party
with everyone dressed as demons and sometimes angels is fantastic
and it's set in obviously a Park Lane apartment
which existed before they were all pulled down indeed
before the Second World War.
You go through these red curtains into this amazing dance floor...
and you do have people like Miles Malpractice,
a character in Waugh's book who is based partly on Stephen Tennant,
David Lennox who is based on Cecil Beaton.
Miles Malpractice is snorting cocaine and kissing men with wolves heads,
all sorts of strange things like this.
One of the funniest things about the opening sequence
is where you have Nina and Miles just dancing madly,
you know, the Charleston on a cocaine high and there is madness going on all around them, mayhem.
-Adam not back yet.
Adam? Not back yet?
Any day now.
-Isn't this too dull?
-I've never been more bored.
There was a definite way of talking, almost a kind of argot which the Bright Young People developed,
all the kind of slang that Waugh puts into Vile Bodies -
"My dear, how too-too drunk-making",
"What a bogus man!", bogus meaning insincere or fake.
How too dreary, they're like flies.
I think they're after Agatha.
Her father made the most crashing speech about customs officers
in the House of Lords this evening - several bishops burst into tears!
It's that man. I swear he tips them off. Where are we going?
-Half-past three. How about the Ritz?
-Oh, talk sense, dearest! Not while I'm dressed like this.
The way they peppered their conversation
with this extraordinary mixture of jazz slang
with camp mannerisms, calling everyone da-a-arling
or things divi-i-ine.
Just over-emphasising everything.
The characteristic Bright Young Person's mode of speech, very high pitched and drawling
was developed simply so that it could be communicated above the noise
of gramophone records, so you could talk while you were dancing
to the noise of a wind up gramophone.
This was a younger generation craving a culture of its own.
Anything that represented the stoic patriotism and tradition of their parents was out.
Everything exotic and modern was in.
That included their taste in music
so the wild, primitive sound of jazz was a Bright Young Thing obsession.
These young people were clearly on a mission to enjoy themselves and to hell with everything else.
This was the generation that had missed the war so on the one hand they felt guilty almost for not
having been there and secondly they were sick to death of the war, the war
and nothing but talk of the war and they didn't want anything to do with it. I think that was
a large part of what was fuelling what - to the older generation - seemed outrageous behaviour.
There was a kind of perverse wish on behalf of
an awful lot of people to behave as irresponsibly and as childishly as they could,
largely as a way of cocking a snook at the people who expected so much of them.
I think there was a lot of that. A lot of deliberate copping out
from the approved rules and regulations and career paths
that one's parents perhaps wanted one to pursue.
They are like the first teenagers in a way. This is the first time
everything was expendable in a way.
Life was expendable - that's what the First World War had taught them.
It was actually carpe diem, live for the day, that was the whole thing. Just live for now!
The roots of the scene can be traced to the early '20s and the activities
of a few bored society women who began using central London
as a playground for increasingly elaborate scavenger or treasure hunts.
One of these girls who was very involved in these treasure hunts was asked how they started
and she said, "On blank afternoons we used to chase each other around London and one girl
"would have a head start of five minutes and then the others
"would chase her on the tube and on the buses..."
and you can imagine this group of kind of well-heeled, well-dressed young girls
shrieking as they went on these new forms of public transportation
which they wouldn't have travelled on in a normal situation.
You know, they would only have gone anywhere in a taxi or in a private motor car.
And this idea of mingling with the common people, for fun, was utterly new!
With huge imagination and time on their hands,
these treasure hunts grew in scale until swelled ranks of the well-to-do young
took to their motor cars and chased after
ever more extravagant artefacts via elaborately constructed clues.
Because they were mostly born into the purple and well connected,
these lists of items might include the Prime Ministers' pipe
or a pair of stays worn by a West End actress.
Some of these clues were extraordinary.
Lord Beaverbrook even agreed to publish clues in his newspaper!
They ended up in these mad-cap drunken charges
through narrow streets in Soho and Chelsea.
These cars being driven by these drunken fools.
A lot of women as well - women being drunk in public at that point was completely outrageous.
Although automobile production all but halted during the great war,
developments in mass production techniques meant that
the post-war era saw the motor car become
ever more popular and faster.
The Bright Young Things wouldn't have existed without the motor car - that's what gets them around.
They are driving around drunk half the time.
Waugh was always being prosecuted for driving the wrong way around a roundabout. These are toys to them!
London is just a big adventure playground to them.
You know, they are just let loose on this place!
This was a phenomenon in search of a name.
At the end of July 1924, the press gave it one.
Readers of the Daily Mail woke up to this inflammatory report which said that there was...the headline went,
"Chasing Clues: New Society Game", and then there was this banner headline that said...
The 1920's saw a kind of mania for "brightness".
In the immediate aftermath of the darkness of World War One
the word "bright" signalled the right kind of optimistic exuberance.
There were an awful lot of press campaigns, often for trivial things
like Brighter Golf and there was a whole campaign for a Brighter London at one point
in the 1920s, so the adjective "bright" was very much in the public consciousness at that time.
So a young person who did something extraordinary or in some way outlandish
wouldn't be surprised to be called a Bright Young Person in the context of the time.
With a handy label attached, stories about this new generation's exciting
but more and more outlandish behaviour both titillated and shocked the public.
The rise of the Bright Young People coincided with a mini-revolution in the world of newspapers
which they were exploited by, and able to exploit.
Daily popular newspapers like the Daily Mail, The Express and The Sketch
had been launched before the Great War,
but it wasn't until the '20s that they really started to take off.
Aimed at the burgeoning middle class and upper-lower class readers, their agenda and presentation
shifted intentionally away from the austere and rather serious Victorian press.
These popular papers were very different in content.
They prized human interest above all. It was about personalities,
celebrities, gossip scandal if it was there.
It was also about features about personal life, domestic life.
The private as well as the high political and the public.
There was a conscious effort on the part of newspaper proprietors
like Lord Northcliffe of the Mail and Beaverbrook,
to go for what young people were up to.
Flamboyant young people and their antics. They thought their readers would respond to this.
The search for a cast of personalities that could
populate the columns day in day out really led to the modern day gossip column
and these Bright Young People were there to be photographed, there to be talked about day in, day out.
Gossip wasn't entirely new to the newspapers and periodicals of the '20s
but the people who were employed to gather and write it certainly were.
The gossip writer of the pre-war period would probably have been
a woman with a certain amount of journalistic experience who worked for a society lady.
When that society lady was ill, she would have sent a note of this
expressing general regret to the newspaper
and when she was better, another note expressing general satisfaction would go to the newspaper.
If she attended the Eton Harrow Cricket match,
a photograph of her would be sent to...
but the people doing the insinuating were not the social equals of the people being written about.
Come the mid-1920s, when the newspapers woke up to the fact
that there were readers to be gained from this society gossip,
they employed people who actually went to the parties themselves.
A bit of extra cash in exchange for insider tips and gossip would have been of little interest
to the aristocracy before the Great War
but tax rises in the '20s meant many were in no position to turn it down.
One of the things that changes after the First World War is the position of the aristocracy is changing.
It's declining. The value of agricultural land has declined, the burden of taxation has risen,
the impact of the First World War in terms of deaths,
the changing political climate, all puts pressure on the aristocracy,
many of them are no longer as rich as they were before.
By the end of the 1920s you see what was a very unusual phenomenon in the contexts of the time
which is very well-educated and well-born young people becoming society columnists.
These people were living beyond their means, they wanted to attend
these parties and they couldn't afford their lifestyles unless they were subsidised by the papers.
People like Patrick Balfour who was Mr Gossip on the Daily sketch -
he is Evelyn Waugh's Mr Chatterbox in Vile Bodies,
or Driberg who was the Dragoman on the Express.
People such as that occupied positions of great power
in terms of gossip columns and many a Bright Young Person affiliated to Balfour and Driberg made pin money
by attending a grand party or a not-so-grand bohemian party
and at about midnight, finding a telephone and phoning in details of it
to whichever newspaper they had an entree into.
The Press and the well-connected Bright Young People developed
a cosy collusion in the '20s that delivered rewards on both sides.
It hadn't been done like that before.
There had been gossip and scandal
but the people who'd reported had never actually been mixing
with the people whose antics they were commenting on.
By the mid 1920s, The Bright Young People's scavenger hunts had given way
to stunt parties.
These events were elaborately themed, fancy dress affairs
that spun out of control and went on all night.
The dressing up parties speak for themselves.
Cowboy parties and circus parties and come as you were 20 years ago parties.
You dress up as a famous character from history there was obviously a lot of cross dressing.
Men dressed as women, women dressed as men.
Lesbians dressed as admirals, that kind of thing.
Men wore jewellery, make-up...
There would be Greek parties, there was an urban Dionysia.
I certainly know at one party that Lord Bath told me about,
they danced across the counters of Selfridges.
You have to see this in the context of what had gone before -
these dreary Victorian receptions and even the Edwardian era,
which was rather gayer, in the language of the time.
Before the Great War, the round of Debutante Balls and official dinners
that young Aristocrats would be subjected to as part of "the season"
were very strictly controlled environments, constructed with the barely veiled aim
of marrying off the participants as neatly as possible to their class counterparts.
The First World War changed that completely.
For the Bright Young Things, it's kind of a complete reinvention of the way one might hold a party.
The notion of the Bring a Bottle party
was invented by the Bright Young Things
and it was partly because many of them were actually hard up,
or the other key thing was that a lot of them came from Oxford
and Cambridge where they weren't allowed to go to pubs.
They had bring a bottle parties so this was sort of a university thing.
With each week, a new party theme emerged.
David Tennant, who was Stephen Tennant's brother,
had a very famous party where everyone dressed up as characters
from Mozart and there are extraordinary photographs of them all in 18th century wigs
and breeches in the middle of the street
with a workman's steam hammer.
The Bright Young People became increasingly aware there was
an audience for their provocative behaviour.
The party elite understood the power of stunt photo opportunities and appearances in the gossip columns.
Their fame, or infamy, was growing.
Because they knew the press, they had reporters at their beck and call,
because some Bright Young People were reporters, quite small parties containing only a few people
in out of the way places, could be reported in newspapers as if the whole of fashionable London
had gone to them or wanted to be there.
This incestuous relationship with the nation's popular press allowed
the Bright Young set to control their own mystique and legend.
People in Bradford and Solihull did know who Stephen Tennant was,
they knew what the Bright Young Things were.
They might have taken the Mickey out of them but they also
gave them a laugh in a way and I think people like Stephen
would have been quite amused by that as well.
Hedonism and glamour ruled like never before
and the Bright Young People's happenings became increasingly provocative.
One party, which to us seems almost sick in a way, 1927, everyone had to come dressed as a beggar.
This is a year after the General Strike. I mean, how offensive is that?!
Of course, there are these descriptions of Stephen Tennant
dressed in wonderful rags, showing bit of leg...
it's kind of... You know?
Then it started getting utterly ridiculous.
People came dressed as babies, drinking alcohol out of bottles.
There was a famous party given by a woman
called Rosemary Saunders where they turned up in baby carriages.
One girl came driven in a pram by her mother wearing a full Victorian
children's outfit and the mother was dressed in her Victorian clothes.
Commentators of the time, in the mid 1920s, were very quick
to comment on the childishness of it all, the infantilism almost.
They really wanted to stay in the nursery I think,
and therefore what everything was geared towards
was having very childish, nursery behaviour continuing but in a grown up way,
in other words, with a lot of drink, in some cases a lot of drugs
and some very, very glamorous locations.
Though the elder generation were publicly disapproving,
privately they were prepared to indulge the new generation's naughtiness
and were even intrigued by its excesses.
"What I always wonder, Kitty dear,
"is what they actually do at these parties of theirs.
"I mean do they. . . ?"
"My dear, from all I hear, I think they do."
"Oh, to be young again, Kitty. When I think, my dear, of all the trouble
"and exertion which we had to go through to be even moderately bad."
Indeed the Bright Young People were up to all sorts.
Every exploit had to be more outrageous than the next.
Many of them involved expeditions down to Limehouse to score their cocaine.
There were harder drugs around to which several Bright Young People did ultimately become hooked.
Hashish, which was then known as Indian hemp,
was certainly smoked at some of these gatherings and licentious behaviour there certainly was.
A lot of these people were either addicted to cocaine, to heroin,
they're drinking all the time.
When you read Evelyn Waugh's accounts of life in Oxford, he was drunk all the time, all the time.
Not everyone was attracted to the scene purely because of these excesses.
In 1926, one aspiring photographer with one eye on advancing his career
was desperate to muscle in on some of the Bright Young Thing action.
Wow! So this is Sotheby's collection
of Cecil Beaton's prints, in fact his whole collection. It's extraordinary.
These are the actual filing cabinets that Beaton gave the collection to Sotheby's in.
Sold it and there are some unbelievable photographs
of the young and very exquisite photographer
at the very beginning of his career.
I mean this is a man who really created the Bright Young Things,
who created the image of them, and it is through Beaton's lens
that their beauty was memorialised.
But you can see Beaton himself was the most extraordinary looking character.
He was a very ordinary middleclass boy but he created himself into this exquisite figure.
Like Waugh, spare time and a limitless supply of money were not available to the young Cecil Beaton.
If he was to party in the higher echelons of society, he would have to make it pay.
If we talk about the Bright Young People
as occupying a sort of social mixture of classes
so that you've got the younger sons of aristocrats,
you've got daughters of aristocrats who want to do something fun
before they get married, or have a career themselves, you've also got these kind of
middle class boys in particular, who are hoping to make their career out of being a part of this group.
He wasn't a conventional Bright Young Person.
His father was a merchant, he'd been to Cambridge, which may not sound
like a disadvantage but was compared to the sons of noblemen who had been to Eton and Oxford.
He felt he was being discriminated against socially,
being looked down upon and was belittled because of his origins.
Although on the surface he became every inch the Bright Young Person,
behind the facade his decidedly middle-class entrepreneurial instinct and ambition
were working overtime.
His diaries are almost naked in their cynicism, in their interest
in what he calls the uprise, meaning his own uprise and his career path.
One can see the extraordinary lengths he was prepared to go to insert himself into high society.
Brilliantly, Cecil Beaton used to send photographs he'd taken of his sisters to Tatler Magazine,
pretending they'd been sent in by somebody else in order to promote his own name at Tatler.
That's how he got his first job, he went from Tatler to Vogue to Vanity Fair. Mission accomplished.
Beaton presented nothing as tiresome as reality, but instead an idealised fantasy.
This concoction was irresistible to both the image obsessed Bright Young Person, and to those vicariously
enjoying the lifestyle through the magazines who published his work.
His lens was very flattering. He was a great one with the airbrush, or the airbrush of his day.
He was a great re-toucher.
This is a man who had the eye, but he was also part of the action, he was part of that society.
Really, Beaton helped define the Bright Young Things.
These people were really geniuses in terms of image and creating image and scene setting.
In the same way as when we look at Gainsborough portraits we can get an
idea of what the 18th-century aristocracy wanted, how they
wanted to project themselves, we get exactly the same thing from Cecil Beaton's photographs of the 1920s.
The immediacy of photography meant that, more than ever, the notion of
image and how one was seen became something to be played with and exploited.
The way they look at the camera, there is an incredibly knowing glance there.
There is a complicity, there's a contract, really, with the man
who's photographing them, with the people who are going to look at them.
"You want to see me, I am some example of your dreams.
"I live beyond your ordinary, boring life.
"I don't exist in your world, but here's a little bit of me that I'm sharing with you."
And it is really that, and it's a piece of alchemy in a way, but it is also
a Devil's contract because we know the price of that, for them, is also
very often, oblivion.
Poster boys and girls for little more than an attitude, the Bright Young Things found themselves
being used as both clarion call and warning sign for modern appetites.
They encapsulated an aspirational, glamorous and dangerous existence.
It's the first time the notion of a lifestyle is evolved, in a way,
so the commercial power of that is very important.
The Bright Young Things, in a way,
are almost there to sell clothes and perfume.
They might not be advertising them - although many of them did -
but that becomes the start of that new kind of society.
That's really an important part of what they represented.
Despite the commercial appropriation of the Bright Young brand, the everyday activity of the
party set continued, with a wit and a knowing kind of irony that emphasised its exclusivity.
Events like the impersonation party of 1927
were seized upon as opportunities to revel in their own notoriety.
You were invited to come to a house in Mayfair dressed as somebody else,
and it was a mark of their reflexiveness, and the rather
incestuous quality of the movement that several Bright Young People came as other Bright Young People.
They were that celebrated, even then.
Tom Driberg, the society columnist, he was the Dragoman as he was known
on the Daily Express, arranged his hair so that he looked like Brian Howard.
But other people came in more respectable guises.
Stephen Tennant famously appeared as Queen Marie of Romania,
possibly looking more feminine and regal than the lady did herself.
The actress Tallulah Bankhead came as Jean Borotra, the tennis player.
That made an extraordinary stir, the impersonation party.
Look at this, Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich, John Gielgud. They're all here.
But I'm looking for someone in particular...
Ah! Gosh. Stephen Tennant.
A whole file.
God, this is so exciting.
When the sun set on Bright Young heyday in the 1930s, Stephen Tennant
retreated from the world and lived the life of an eccentric recluse in his Wiltshire home.
Although he outlived most of his Bright Young contemporaries, when he died in 1988,
his place in the Bright Young era had been all but forgotten.
These are archive prints from Wilsford,
the house Stephen lived in, where I actually visited him in 1986.
This is a man who really defined the 1920s, as far as I'm concerned.
Born in 1906, Stephen Tennant was the youngest son of the Earl Of Glenconnor.
He was a precocious, artistic child, indulged by his mother and babied by his nanny.
This is what he grew up to be.
Probably the most androgynous, the most extraordinary man of his generation.
I mean, I say "man",
I know the sculptor Jacob Epstein said that Stephen was the most
beautiful creature, male or female, he had ever seen in his life.
Independently wealthy, with an eternally childlike passion for
only beauty and pleasure, Stephen was the absolute Bright Young Man.
Not in the least concerned about the fuss his clothing and make-up
caused, Stephen Tennant, in a very modern way, was his own work of art.
And if that attracted attention, so be it.
Stephen has gold dust in his hair,
he has Vaseline on his eyelids and he has lipstick.
But the effect is not effeminate, it's just an otherworldly image.
It could be from Andy Warhol's Factory in the 60s.
It's so modern, I think, and I know Caroline Blackwood, who was Lucien Freud's wife, said Stephen was the
nearest thing to David Bowie they had in those days, really, and there
is a degree of that glam rock allure about him, the sheen.
Indeed, the whole of his bedroom was papered in silver foil.
It really is like some '60s acid casualty, in a way.
But the thing about Stephen was he was this extraordinary, artificial creation,
and that is what is most exciting about this box,
is that it contains all we have of him now. That's all that's left,
in this box.
# Rebel, rebel
# How could they know?
# Hot tramp, I love you so. #
Although he was a proficient sketcher, painter and enthusiastic writer, other than the photographs
that Cecil Beaton took of him, Stephen Tennant would leave no tangible personal legacy.
His art was an ephemeral performance that, to his creative friends like Beaton and the young Nancy Mitford,
offered the most magnificent inspiration.
Nancy modelled Cedric in The Pursuit Of Love and Love In A Cold Climate very much on Stephen Tennant.
His beauty and his extraordinary affectations and the coat,
the dark blue coat with the red piping that so enrages her father
in the novel, in fact, was all taken from life and all comes from Stephen Tenant.
He was the kind of ne plus ultra of the outrageous,
beautiful, gay young man, and Nancy couldn't get enough of it.
A glitter of blue and gold crossed the parquet and a
human dragonfly was kneeling on the fur rug in front of the Montdores,
one long white hand extended towards each.
He was a tall, thin young man, supple as a girl, dressed in rather a bright blue suit;
his hair was the gold of a brass bed-knob, and his insect appearance
came from the fact that the upper part of his face was concealed
by blue goggles set in gold rims quite an inch thick.
A man to look the way Stephen did in 1927 was a kind of gesture against
everything that had gone before.
It was a gesture against patriarchal society.
It was a gesture against all the kind of values that caused the First World War.
For someone to actually look like that now was really sort of two fingers against the world.
In an era with very strict dress codes, the Bright Young Things pushed the sartorial boundaries
to breaking point.
For a decade, it was hemlines at dawn.
Shiny, transparent, short, androgynous and louche, if it broke the rules, they wore it.
A Bright Young Person did their best, I think,
to shock their parents, which, when it came to the girls, meant short skirts, a lot of make-up,
shingled hair, all the things that your parents would have raised their eyes to the ceiling in horror.
At the heart of the Bright Young party set, costume became a competitive obsession.
Presented with only the most blase of attitudes, attention to detail,
wit, and, of course, excess, were what was most prized in an outfit.
So preparations for an evening out for someone like Stephen Tennant would be, you'd be talking a week
of preparations for a particular evening out.
The costume fittings, this was like an 18th-century courtesan.
So there would be costume fittings, then there would be a series of phone calls between friends
agreeing what you are going to wear, and the great thing that Stephen would always take the Michael out of
Cecil Beaton was that Cecil would say, "I'm not going to dress up. I'm just going to rummage around."
And then of course he would arrive, a sort of Marie Antoinette in full wig and gown and everything.
He'd spent weeks getting this costume together.
It was fun for the Bright Young aristocrats and hangers-on to race
around partying in the capital, but the need for ever-more extravagant
ways to fill their spare time saw them hit the road for more exclusive adventures.
This notion that you decamp to someone's stately pile
for a weekend was key, and of course the fact that they all had motorcars to drive there was part of the fun.
For Cecil Beaton, it was being invited to Stephen Tennant's house, Wilsford Manor, just outside
Salisbury, was really one of the moments he felt himself being taken into the society.
For Cecil to arrive in his leopard-skin pyjamas, lay them out on the bed, just amazed at
being in this 12 bedroom house, and the fact that you would have a footman laying out your underwear.
He'd had to go and buy new sets of underwear from Selfridges the day before.
He puts on his dressing gown and just feels he is completely part of it.
And it is one big choreographed performance.
I kind of feel sorry for the guests at Wilsford because they were all dragooned by Stephen into
fancy dress for the whole weekend,
and probably the most famous image, really, of the Bright Young Things
is this image from Wilsford Manor, taken by Cecil Beaton of Stephen's fete champetre, which was this
recreation of an 18th-century watercolour on a bridge over the River Avon at the end of the garden,
and you have these people, you have Rex Whistler, Cecil Beaton himself, Georgia Sitwell, William Walton,
the famous composer here wearing full make-up, Stephen Tennant, of course, and the Jungman sisters.
This is theatre. And, in this respect, it's theatre for a private audience.
This is the real heart of Bright Young Thing society,
where there isn't even an audience.
They're doing it for themselves.
They all look like immensely stylised morris dancers, but worse than that, sort of harlequinade.
In fact, the whole scene was observed by Lytton Strachey, who happened to
be calling at the time and saw this extraordinary tableaux enacted in front of him, and was just
incredulous and said, "extraordinary people with a few feathers where brains should be",
which is an over-simplification, because some of the Bright Young People were immensely
astute and immensely clever, but they invited you not to
take them seriously, and a lot of people consequently didn't take them seriously.
But of course, Lychton Strachey brings
Siegfreid Sassoon, the great war poet, who falls in love with Stephen.
It's the great Bright Young Thing romance - doomed to failure, of course,
but it's the great gossip of the day.
In the 1920s, even though homosexuality was illegal and punished severely,
within the confines of the Bright Young society, gay and lesbian affairs were accepted.
Using fancy dress as an excuse to wear make-up and cross dress,
Stephen Tennant was by no means alone in his obvious homosexuality.
The Bright Young set was awash with similar gay young dandies.
That notion of homosexuality as being
accepted is really key to that period.
It's what binds a lot of these people together.
There is a lot of lesbianism as well, because of course the first "lesbian" book,
The Well Of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, is published around this time.
It's the first time these conditions, as people regard them, had been given names.
No longer are their sexualities or their otherness means of weakness or of attack,
they're means of strength.
The gay figures in Brideshead Revisited, people like Anthony Blanche,
who's based on Harold Acton and Brian Howard,
these are people who were not
effete, really. They were kind of
out about it, very pugnacious about it.
About six of them came into my room,
the rest stood mouthing outside.
My dear, they looked too extraordinary.
They had been having one of their ridiculous club dinners and were all wearing coloured tail-coats -
a sort of livery. "My dears,"
I said to them, "you look like a lot of most disorderly footmen."
Then one of them, rather a juicy little piece, accused me of unnatural vices.
"My dear, " I said, "I may be inverted but I am not insatiable.
"Come back when you are alone."
They were modern figures.
This is the way they saw the world going.
This was a way of modern life.
Within the Bright Young coterie, aristocratic women were also freed from the era's
most genteel expectations, and for better or worse, smoked, drank and took centre stage.
Evelyn Waugh was so impressed and fascinated by one of these wild,
irresponsible modern women, that he immortalised her as a lead character in his satirical novel Vile Bodies.
One of the scenes in Bright Young Things, which is an adaptation of Vile Bodies, has Agatha Runcible,
the anti-heroine, we could call her, who's based on somebody called Elizabeth Ponsonby.
She is caught and searched by customs officers at Dover
as the ship lands at the start of the film.
I never saw you on the boat. I can't tell you the things that have been happening to me.
The way they looked... Too, too shaming.
Positively surgical, my dear. And such wicked old women.
I should ring up every cabinet minister
-and give them the most shy-making details.
-I've got troubles of my own.
She utterly ignores her friend's predicament.
He's actually in real trouble, he's had a book, on which his future depends, confiscated.
All she is interested in is the party that they're going to
go to in London that night.
So she is utterly unaffected by how ridiculous she looks.
It's going to be a lovely party tonight, so we simply must catch the
-next train or I shan't have a chance to dress.
Oh, you poor things. Have you been waiting here all this time?
Elizabeth Ponsonby, like her fictional rendering, Agatha Runcible,
was a magnet for the press. Her passion for partying, coupled with having an aristocratic
politician for a father, made her a prime target for photo opportunities and gossip stories.
But the truth was that Elizabeth Ponsonby couldn't really afford the extravagant life she chose to lead.
Her father's home, Shulbrede Priory in Surrey, was the destination for
the odd Bright Young weekend and is still the Ponsonby family residence.
We are extraordinarily lucky, because her family preserved almost everything - diaries, letters,
photographs, stage pictures and playbills, the marks of Elizabeth's early fascination with theatre.
Her family belonged to a rather obscure quadrant of English
social life these days, who I can only describe as the aristocratic poor.
By using every penny of her allowance, the coppers she could
make from pawning her possessions, and amassing enormous debts,
Elizabeth achieved legendary status as the '20s It girl without whom a party just wasn't a party.
poem that John Betjeman wrote for his friend Patrick Balfour on his
70th birthday, where he reminisces about that whole late 1920s scene.
It goes, I hear the clink of glasses in my memory's ear
A spurt of soda as the whiskey rose
Bringing its heady scent to memory's nose
Along with smells one otherwise forgets
Hairwash from Delhez, Turkish cigarettes
The reek of Ronuk on a parquet floor
As parties came cascading through the door
Elizabeth Ponsonby in leopard-skins...
Without any particular intellectual ability or talent, there wasn't a great deal
a young woman like Elizabeth Ponsonby could do in the 1920s.
So she made the best of what she knew she was good at,
and that was throwing parties, and drawing attention to herself wherever she went.
This was an age in which everyone colluded with the media,
and the Bright Young Person was really judged by the weight of their press cuttings and photographs.
What we have here is an album that Elizabeth kept herself.
It's a chronicle of the life she lived in the
late 1920s, the people she lived it with, the celebrities that she came across,
and in each photograph this
pale and sometimes not terribly happy-looking woman stares forth.
You can see in the Bright Young People and their relationships with the media,
you can see the beginnings of modern celebrity culture.
You can see the beginnings of people being famous for being famous.
Someone like Elizabeth Ponsonby, for example, did nothing except turn up in society columns.
She would be involved in one outrageous stunt after another,
and people would be able to track her career through the press by means of this.
Where Elizabeth Ponsonby was a hapless but gifted amateur
in the game of self-publicity, other Bright Young People took to it like professionals.
The most famous one of all, whose celebrity was as such that eventually it went all the way down into the
tabloid newspapers like the News Of The World and The Star and papers like that, was Brenda Dean Paul,
known as the society drug addict, who spent years in and out of prison, in and out of rehab,
and whose career was monitored by the press in much the same way that Katie Price and Peter Andre are now.
Whatever she did, there would be a newspaper headline to match.
Always more Hollywood wild child than Mayfair deb, the Baronet's daughter turned wannabe actress
had swung it in nightclubs of Weimar Berlin and lounged in the fleshpots of permissive Paris,
where she infamously first got acquainted with heroin.
People like Brenda Dean Paul were great users of the media of their time.
She would write journalism when she needed money, basically for drugs.
She threw her suitcases down the stairs once at some reporters who were harassing her,
but a fortnight later she would be hard up and write a series of articles
about her holiday in Tahiti, and the whole thing would go on again.
She had the story of her life ghosted, My First Life, which was published, and she came back almost
to promote it, she had this amazing drug collapse at the airport when she was coming back from Paris.
She was sort of picked up off the floor, and it's a kind of publicity stunt.
Like modern celebrities who complain about being harassed and badgered by the press, but at the
same time are setting up incidents in which they know the press will be able to help them to their advantage.
This Faustian pact struck with the press in the 1920s clearly could not last.
As the new decade dawned, onlookers found less to be entertained by
and more to criticise about the antics of the Bright Young People.
Even within the scene itself, the anticipation of a massive
collective hangover was beginning to take hold.
I think certainly there was a feeling that...
this was the party at the end of the world, and everything
was going to change, and going to change not in a nice way.
The champagne corks were always bobbing away on a stream that
was leading somewhere not terribly pleasant.
In the autumn of 1931, the ill-timed Red and White Ball
was the lavish Bright Young party that for the press - and public - was a party too far.
You came dressed in red or white, you ate things like strawberries or
red-coloured cocktails, you smoked white cigarettes, you ate white chicken,
and it went on all night. I think Brenda Dean Paul was arrested for trying to pull some woman's hair out.
I think there may have been a drugs bust, and this was the party, the symbolic party, after which
even the society magazines turned on the Bright Young People because reports of this coincided with
a march of unemployed workers from the North down to London.
The party decade of consumption and boom was being symbolically paid for
by industrial unrest and fiscal uncertainty.
Across Europe, economies and governments were collapsing,
with the extremes of fascism and communism taking hold.
The thought of a rarefied few kicking up their heels and ignoring
the sober realities of the day had grown increasingly repulsive.
Even The Bystander said, "You cannot go on behaving
"like this when starving men are coming south from distressed areas to petition their MPs."
And that was more or less the winding up
of the pleasure-seeking last six or seven years.
The main players are no longer major players. They're bored.
Also, society as a whole is bored of what the Bright Young People had got up to.
They're much more interested in international politics at the time,
with the spectre of German power reviving.
They're more interested in rebuilding the British economy.
It's a different world in the 1930s,
and the Bright Young People just don't fit into it any more.
The Bright Young chroniclers were the first to spot the decaying of the movement,
and ultimately, they were the survivors.
Waugh's novel Vile Bodies, written in 1929, had predicted dire
consequences for the pursuit of the lifestyle he'd been so attracted to.
As soon as Vile Bodies had been published, he abandoned
this milieu and went off travelling around the world, was received into the Roman Catholic Church
and effectively abandons the social scene of which he'd very sparingly been an ornament.
Like Waugh, Cecil Beaton moved on.
Selling his highly glamorous vision of the Bright Young lifestyle to an international audience,
he established himself as one of the 20th century's most innovative photographers and designers.
People like Cecil Beaton were the Malcolm McLaren of their day.
They were popularising it, they were making their careers out of it.
Cecil Beaton remained a Bright Young Thing for the rest of his life.
That's why he was still hanging out with the Rolling Stones at the age of 70.
So Beaton betrayed them, in a way.
But people like Stephen Tennant and Brenda Dean Paul, who took
it to the extreme, who either almost died for their art
or sort of still lived in that moment.
Stephen was still living in that moment in 1986 when I met him at Wilsford.
Things hadn't changed. There were still letters from Virginia Woolf
on the carpet as if they'd just arrived.
Where Stephen retreated from public life all together,
Elizabeth Ponsonby failed to notice that no-one was watching.
Elizabeth kept on being a Bright Young Person
long after it was prudent for anybody to behave in that kind of way or to
so openly admit that pleasure was what they sought and that they would pay almost any price to obtain it.
The path led down and ever down, so instead of going to the kind of parties that are written
up in the Tatler and the Sketch, she's going to entertainments that are not written up anywhere.
She's making friends yet more disreputable than
the ones she made in the 1920s, and by the late 1930s, no longer a young woman of course,
she's eking out a career as a nightclub hostess on remittances from her parents.
And on the 31st of July, 1940, just as the Battle of Britain and
the Blitz are about to be unleashed, her father gets
this telegram from a doctor, "Regret to inform you Elizabeth died suddenly this morning."
Elizabeth Ponsonby, that great mercurial figure,
the great symbolic partygoer of the 1920s and early '30s, died of drink before she was 40.
Elizabeth's passing was met with little fanfare.
It's ironic that the bitter realities of her
lifestyle and early death, like the Bright Young decade's miserable end, only underline how modern the era
seems to us now and captures exactly what the '20s were -
decadent, doomed... but eternally irresistible.
The very essence of glamour.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
The story of 1920s London's Bright Young People is a tale of sex, drink, drugs and a gossip-hungry press. Beautiful and Damned traces the growth of 1920s London's bright young party set whose antics were enjoyed and scorned in equal measures by a watching nation. And the more artistic of the merry band - Cecil Beaton, Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford among them - saw their work make the characters and attitudes of the era both legend and fable.
Contributors include Philip Hoare, DJ Taylor, Selina Hastings, Lucy Moore and Adrian Bingham.