The Era of Misbehaving

Impersonation Party, 1927: Among the revelers are Elizabeth Ponsoby (back row), in wig as Iris Tree, with Cecil Beaton on her right. Seated from Left: Stephen Tennant, as Queen Marie of Romania; George Sitwell, with false nose; Inez Holden; Harold Acton. Foreground: Tallulah Bankhead as Jean Borotra.

“The social life of London
in “the twenties” must,
to the censorious young
of the present day,
appear like a prolonged
and rather vulgar orgie.

in sex
and gin
was its main
surface characteristics.”


Long before the media circus of our modern obsession with celebrity, there was a renowned group of young sparkling Londoners known as the Bright Young People. Considered one of the most extraordinary cults of youth and frivolity in history, they were a voraciously pleasure-seeking band of bohemian party-givers and blue-blooded socialities who romped through the newspaper gossip columns of 1920’s London. Evelyn Waugh immortalized their slang, their pranks, and their tragedies in his novel Vile Bodies and Decline and Fall.

Over the next half century, many–from Cecil Beaton to Nancy Mitford and John Betjeman–would become household names. It is, in fact, the indomitable Betjeman, founding member of the Victorian Society, poet, writer and broadcaster who described himself in Who’s Who as a “poet and hack” who is credited with the following little ditty describing one of the haunts that the group frequented: Patrick Balfour’s flat-cum studio in Yeoman’s Row, Knightsbridge:


The spurt of soda as the whisky 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
And Robert Byron and the Tuthven twins…


Some Bright Young People, 1931, including Elizabeth Ponsonby (far left).

In life they were, in the main, insolent, hedonistic, and, despite inner melancholy, deeply and aggressively shallow. The real wonder is that acclaimed critic, D. J. Taylor has made such an absorbing book (Bright Young People) about such a wearisome, generally untalented, and, for all their frenzy, essentially joyless group of people. Those with talent and depth or just talent were either exceptions or something like fellow travelers.
One affair in 1929 was billed as the Second Childhood Party

Bright Young People … are not to be confused with Bright Young Things: a looser, international genus of flapperdom, of which the Bright Young People were a small, distinct, British, and, notwithstanding their racketiness, exclusive species.

Born around 1905, they were most visibly drawn from privileged backgrounds of social consequence, though that mix was spiced up with artists, exotics, and would-be’s from other ranks. Their reign, distinguished by outré parties and dress-ups, public escapades, and drunken pranks, was short, lasting only from the mid-1920s to at best 1931. They were marked by hostility to the preceding generation, with which they associated the war and their own blighted prospects. They assumed an air of hectic doom or, in Taylor’s words, of

“sorrowing in the sunlight,

good times gone,

the myriad champagne corks

bobbing away on a stream

turned unexpectedly chill.”


Bright Young People
The Last Generation of London’s Jazz Age
Farrar, Straus and Giroux




~ by eaesthete on 11/09/09.

8 Responses to “The Era of Misbehaving”

  1. While I have been obsessed with this crew over the last year or so, I read Vile Bodies and did not feel it held up. For all the reasons you mention above. It surprised me that Waugh was its author so distinctly different did it seem from Brideshead.

    • Mrs. B,

      At least one reviewer from the Independent concurs with your assessment, saying that Waugh’s Vile Bodies “pale into insignificance,” compared to Taylor’s account. And the The Sunday Times of London rendered this on Bright Young People, “Shrewd and absorbing in his analysis of the way Waugh and Nancy Mildord…promoted the world they would soon skewer in fiction.”

  2. What a leap my heart took when I saw the title and lead photo! Fine on a day that I am losing to a creeping headcold. Thanks!

    “In life they were, in the main, insolent, hedonistic, and, despite inner melancholy, deeply and aggressively shallow.” Exactly the sort of thing I’m going for… deep and aggressive shallowness… got the rest about down. Perfect description and it made me chuckle. Have you seen the photo where they took over a construction site in Piccadilly after a fancy dress party? Priceless looks on the workers’ faces.

    Like Mrs. B., as obsessed as I am with that generation, “Vile Bodies” and “Decline and Fall” were difficult for me to connect with. Maybe I’ll give them both another stab as it’s been two decades since I read them.

    Just ordered the book (hope you get credit.)

    Mrs. B., “The Brideshead Generation” by Carpenter will give you good backgrounds on the main players of the era.

    • E,

      Your comments on this particular genre always make me smile. There is something to be said for consummate shallowness and shameless self promotion and this crowd certainly perfected the art of it.

      I just picked up the book at the iibrary and it looks quite good. Paging through it, there were other references up front before the contents by other writers who, at one time or another, had commented on the BYP. A brief excerpt from something entitled Odd Man Out by Douglas Goldring, 1935:

      “Brought up in a dishonored world, without the salutary criticism of their fathers and elder brothers, these irresponsibles and their female counterparts, started a “wild party” which lasted as long as their money did. Finding the gossip writers ready to paragraph their antics they called themselves “Bright Young People,” popularized gate-crashing, took drugs, indulged or pretended to indulge in unnatural vices, and drove their cars about at high speed, when under the influence of drink, in the hope, if there was a smash, that the case would be reported in the Sunday newspapers. … ”

      Ah, but as we well know in these storied lives, tragedy is always nearby. Goldring conclues with this:

      “Time has dealt harshly with many of them.”

  3. I’ve always been fascinated by this era, particularly the American group including Scott & Zelda, the Algonquin group, the ex-pats in Europe and so forth. Pretty sure I’d have died an alcoholic reprobate had I been part of any of those groups. But, they had to have some talent or social standing to participate so…

    Well written critique and the photos are great.

  4. What a coincidence! There was a BBC documentary (they’re doing a fantastic 1920’s series at the moment) on this very group just a week or two ago. I watched it through twice the same evening. Like other posters I’ve been fascinated with them since I visited a Stephen Tennant exhibition shortly after he died. And yet, I think you’re spot-on when you describe them as ‘joyless’. Almost impossible to believe when you see those ghostly, glamorous images that one of the regulars, Zita Jungmann died only in 2006 & so far as I know her sister Baby Jungmann is not gone yet.

    • My guess would be this topic is attracting interest with the release this year of Taylor’s book “Bright Young People,” which I’m currently reading. The author was given access to the papers, memorabilia and photographs of Elizabeth Ponsonby, which forms the heart of his narrative and provides some new insights.

  5. I know they were shameless and shallow dilletantes, but they were absolutely marvelous at it. Why does it seem that our times aren’t as fun? My merry little band of friends and I manage to pull off our share of chic good times and frivolity, but I get the distinct feeling sometimes that we’re in the minority.

    As usual, you hit it out of the park as far as subject matter goes. Looking forward to more wonderful posts from you!

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