Let Frivolity Reign: London's Roaring 1920s

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/99799765/99844577" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript
Guests of the Second Childhood Party, 1929 i

The lost generation's youthful spirit is on full display at a "second childhood" party in 1929. Courtesy of Illustrated London News Picture Library hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Illustrated London News Picture Library
Guests of the Second Childhood Party, 1929

The lost generation's youthful spirit is on full display at a "second childhood" party in 1929.

Courtesy of Illustrated London News Picture Library

Books We Like

Reviewer Troy Patterson calls Taylor's skillful reconstruction of London's jazz age in Bright Young People a "lasting party favor." Read the full review or an excerpt.

Bath and Bottle i

The "Bath and Bottle" party (above) was a follow-up to the "Bottle and Pajama" party. Courtesy of Punch archive hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Punch archive
Bath and Bottle

The "Bath and Bottle" party (above) was a follow-up to the "Bottle and Pajama" party.

Courtesy of Punch archive
American Party i

Elizabeth Ponsonby attends an "American" party in 1931. Born to a well-connected family, Ponsonby embraced the outrageous partying of the Jazz Age, but eventually succumbed to alcohol poisoning in 1940. Courtesy of the Ponsonby family hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the Ponsonby family
American Party

Elizabeth Ponsonby attends an "American" party in 1931. Born to a well-connected family, Ponsonby embraced the outrageous partying of the Jazz Age, but eventually succumbed to alcohol poisoning in 1940.

Courtesy of the Ponsonby family

In 1920s London, as the Jazz Age blossomed, an eclectic set of young socialites issued in an era of irresponsibility and gilded fun. Known as the Bright Young People, this group of aristocrats, middle class adventurers and bohemian artists lived large and furnished the press with a stream of snippets and invented "youth culture."

"It was a very, very interesting group," biographer D.J. Taylor tells Weekend Edition's Jacki Lyden. "They were all people ... [who] were just too young to fight in the First World War, [but] whose brothers perhaps or whose fathers had fought in it."

Taylor, who chronicles London's "lost generation" in his new book Bright Young People, says that for all the frivolity and sparkle, it was "a very pessimistic age that was always looking over its shoulder at the 'black dog' trailing it."

Despite their uneasiness — or perhaps because of it — London's Bright Young People embraced a life of partying. The tradition started late one evening, when a small group of friends decided to have a not-so-ordinary scavenger hunt.

"As they were all terribly well connected and knew everybody in upper British society, [the hunt] items would be things like the prime minister's pipe, or a pair of corsets owned by a celebrated actress," explains Taylor.

More revelry followed — midnight car chases, a "Bath and Bottle" party, a ball where all the food served was red or white. Gradually the debauchery spread out beyond central London.

Throughout it all, the exploits of the Bright Young People played out in print, as newspapers scrambled to cover the exploits of various "it" girls.

"When you look at the 1920s in Britain, you can see the very beginnings of what we would call modern celebrity culture," says Taylor.

But newspaper coverage of gilded triflers was a mixed bag. While readers loved titillating stories of extravagance, they also often took it all in with a disapproving eye.

"There's a lot of residual English Puritanism involved when [the Bright Young People] did something disreputable," says Taylor.

Call it an enduring fascination: Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh's fictional account of the 1920s London scene, is still a hot commodity at some local libraries.

"It's extraordinary, isn't it? To think that a book that Waugh wrote very quickly in late 1929 should be so extraordinarily popular nearly 80 years later," Taylor says.

"It's the idea of slightly depraved and debauched young people having a wonderful time while the economic recession is looming," says Taylor. "There they all are playing away as the Titanic begins to sink beneath them. It does turn into a type of morality tale."

Young, Idle And Terribly Jaded In The Jazz Age

'Bright Young Things'
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age
By D.J. Taylor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 361 pages
List price: $27

Read an excerpt.

D.J. Taylor

British novelist D.J. Taylor won the Whitbread Biography Award for his 2003 book Orwell. Katie Vandyke hide caption

itoggle caption Katie Vandyke

Combining diaries, biographies, news reports and novels to paint the social life of 1920s London, D.J. Taylor has created that rarest of books — one you can safely recommend both to scholars of Evelyn Waugh and the entourage of Paris Hilton. The engaging Bright Young People, written by a critic and novelist best known for his biography of George Orwell, reads like a case study in youth culture, trendsetting, log-rolling and cultivated bohemianism. It examines the symbiotic relationship between a loose-knit group of partygoers and a media that, in gossip columns and mocking denunciations, made them the first celebrities who were famous, in our contemporary sense, for being famous.

By the most generous estimate, there were never more than 2,000 souls among the ranks popularly known at the time as the Bright Young People. By most accounts, those souls were self-absorbed, self-mythologizing and terribly jaded. Their defining exploits included boisterous scavenger hunts, extravagant hoaxes and the "stylized debauchery" of more fancy-dress balls than you can shake an engraved 16-inch-high invitation at — including the Bath and Bottle Party, the Circus Party, the Hermaphrodite Party, the Great Urban Dionysia and the Mozart Party, where the menu came from a cookbook owned by Louis XVI. They excited the public imagination — and incited a moderate moral panic — with their fast living and reflexive flippancy.

The greatest talents associated with the movement were Waugh and the photographer Cecil Beaton. Taylor deftly traces how the former drew on his friends' exploits for the hysterical satire of Vile Bodies and Decline and Fall, and how the latter — an Edmund Hilary among social climbers — used his to further his career. Lesser accomplishments detailed here include Singing Out of Tune, a novel by brewery heir Bryan Guinness that documented the Bright Young Person's daily routine: "waking up late, meeting people for lunch, bringing the lunch party home for tea, moving on to cocktails and dinner... and ending up with a communal trek around the fashionable restaurants of the West End."

But in this realm any accomplishment was an exception, and the non-career of the occasional poet Brian Howard proved emblematic of this wasted youth revolt. "The books Brian Howard never wrote would fill a decent-sized shelf," Taylor writes, elsewhere noting that the man lived out his frustrating life "in that exotic never-never land where the Ritz bar meets the out-of-season Continental resort." The fun ended soon enough; by 1931, England was in financial crisis and a 10-hour-long Red and White Ball rang down the era. But Taylor's skillful reconstruction of the whole hazy time feels like a lasting party favor.

Excerpt: 'Bright Young People'

Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age
By D.J. Taylor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 361 pages
List price: $27

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

Prologue

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.

Books Featured In This Story

Bright Young People

The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age

by D. J. Taylor

Hardcover, 361 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Bright Young People
Subtitle
The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age
Author
D. J. Taylor

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Vile Bodies

by Evelyn Waugh

Paperback, 321 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Vile Bodies
Author
Evelyn Waugh

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.