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.
was its main
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…
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.
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