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Excerpt: 'Bright Young People'

Excerpt from Bright Young People, by D.J. Taylor


Toward the end of June 1928, a curious invitation began to descend upon certain doormats in the southwestern postal districts of London. It was the height of the metropolitan season and the mantelpieces of Chelsea and Belgravia were crammed with requests to attend debutante balls and evening parties — the Countess of Ellesmere's ball at Bridgwater House was shaping up to be the summer's most talked-about social event --and yet this particular rectangle of stiff white cardboard seemed unusually distinctive. Printed, rather than engraved — an economy that any Mayfair hostess would have instantly remarked — issuing from 44 Grosvenor Square, SW1, but without the customary instruction to RSVP, it advertised what, in the context of postwar London society, was a unique entertainment. Here, in short, irregularly set out lines of script, "Mrs. Plunket Greene, Miss Ponsonby, Mr. Edward Gathorne-Hardy and Mr. Brian Howard" requested the pleasure of the invitee's company

at St George's Swimming Baths, Buckingham
Palace Road, at 11 o'clock, p.m. on Friday,
13th July, 1928.
Please wear a Bathing Suit and bring a Bath towel and a Bottle.
Each guest is required to show his invitation on arrival.

Who were the hosts? None of the prospective guests — idle young men living in Mayfair mewses, blooming specimens of aristocratic girlhood from Pont Street and Lowndes Square, tatterdemalion "artists" hunkered down in Chelsea basements, gossip columnists on the London society magazines — had the least trouble in identifying them. Young — at twenty-seven, Elizabeth Ponsonby was the oldest by a year — louche, irregularly employed, they were all indefinably glamorous, well-connected, and, as such, had been a fixture of newspaper society columns for the past three years. Elizabeth Ponsonby was the daughter of a former government minister destined to become Labour leader of the House of Lords; "Babe" Plunket Greene, stepdaughter of Arthur Bendir, the chairman of Ladbroke, was married to Elizabeth Ponsonby's cousin David, grandson of the composer Sir Hubert Parry; the Honorable Eddie Gathorne-Hardy was a younger son of the Earl of Cranbrook; Brian Howard the scion of a successful art dealer and impresario who conducted his business from Bryanston Square and spent his leisure in a sixteen-bedroom country house (which his son thought inconveniently small) in Sussex. Together they were the embodiment of a group of twenty-something men and women — fast, rackety and pleasure-seeking — sometimes known to the newspapers who wrote up their goings-on as "the younger set" but more often filed under the name by which history now remembers them: the Bright Young People.

Convened beneath the darkness of a sultry summer night, the "Bath and Bottle Party," as it came to be known, was the Bright Young People's apotheosis. No subsequent gathering approached it either in terms of novelty or notoriety. Gossip columnists who had failed to secure invitations hastily defended their absence. Nobody believed "Johanna" of The Lady, who, inveigled to the dirt-track racing at the White City, pronounced that she "did not regret a bit missing the amusing 'bathing party.'" Among several press reports, the most authentic was provided by Tom Driberg, a young Oxford graduate who assisted Colonel Percy Sewell on the Daily Express's "Talk of London" column. Driberg's eyewitness account, which appeared in the next morning's edition, mixed resolute attention to detail with what, to most of his middle-class readers, would have been the whiff of scandal. "Bathing costumes of the most dazzling kinds and colors were worn by the guests," he gravely reported, while dancing took place to the strains of a Negro orchestra and the hardy leaped into the bath, "of which the water had been slightly warmed." Roving across the assembled throng, Driberg's copy-hungry eye noted:

Great rubber horses and flowers floated about in the water, which was illuminated by colored spotlights. Many of those present brought two or three bathing costumes, which they changed in the course of the night's festivities. Cocktails were served in the gallery, where the cocktail-mixers evidently found the heat intolerable, for they also donned bathing costumes at the earliest opportunity. A special cocktail, christened the Bathwater Cocktail, was invented for the occasion.

As for the guests, Driberg found he could recognize the Honorable Stephen Tennant, son of the late Lord Glenconner, in "a pink vest and long blue trousers." A less obvious reveler was Clive Bell, the Bloomsbury art critic, while among the ladies "Miss Elizabeth Ponsonby looked most attractive in a silk bathing costume of which the lower part was red and the bodice rainbow-like with its stripes of blue and red." Amid much preening and carousing, a certain amount of bona fide swimming took place. Brenda Dean Paul remembered Mary Ashley Cooper giving "some really wonderful exhibitions of diving," while a group of Mayfair debutantes "remained in the pool the whole time ducking those who came their way." Meanwhile, an older category of guests looked more or less benignly on. The only available seats were in the changing cubicles, Brenda recorded, "but by this time the older generation of dowagers had acclimatized themselves to almost anything. Nothing seemed to surprise them any more." Looking back on the scene, the baronet's daughter could still picture this group of elderly ladies, "quite contented like plump hens in cubby holes, sitting in dim solitude ... with lorgnettes fixed at the dripping parade."

No photographs of the Bath and Bottle Party survive. Written accounts, on the other hand, confirm that most of the activities associated in the popular imagination with the Bright Young People were triumphantly on display, a compound of cocktails, jazz, licence, abandon and flagrantly improper behavior. The party continued beyond dawn: policemen had to be brought in to encourage the final guests to leave; passersby on their way to work were startled by the sight of scantily clad young men and women in search of buses and taxis. Much more disquieting, from the angle of newspaper moralists, was the musical accompaniment. "Great astonishment and not a little indignation is being expressed in London over the reports that in the early hours of yesterday morning a large number of Society women danced in bathing dresses to the music of a Negro band at a 'swim and dance' gathering organized by some of Mayfair's Bright Young People," the Sunday Chronicle observed. A "well-known society hostess" remarked that her principal objection to the party was "the colored element."

Excerpted from Bright Young People by D. J. Taylor. Copyright © 2007 by D. J. Taylor. Published in January by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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D.J. Taylor