Bright Young People

Society Shocker! Joel Bleifuss exposes the real-life 24-hour party people of Miss Pettigrew's world. Sex! Drugs! To-die-for handbags!

In Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, when the singer/actress/woman-about-town Delysia La Fosse pulls a poor, hungry mouse of a governess into her glamorously giddy world, Miss Pettigrew has never seen anything like it. Every where she turns, snappy, oh-so-clever young people are racing to fashion shows and parties, gossiping about who's in the paper and who just landed in prison, who's sleeping with whom and who hasn't slept in days. Whether Winifred Watson, the author of the 1938 novel, had partied with similar folk is doubtful. But more than likely, she, along with most of London, had read about such reckless, rich people running amok through London. The Bright Young People, as newspapers had dubbed them, were routinely featured (and pilloried) in society pages and opinion columns alike as they set the tone for a society teetering on the edge of an abyss.

The Bright Young People (or Bright Young Things, as others called them) are the British incarnation of an international phenomenon that had erupted in the 20s after World War I. "The Lost Generation" of Americans trying to find themselves in Paris gathered around Gertrude Stein in Paris. The swells and flappers of the Roaring Twenties made an appearance in The Great Gatsby. The decadence of the Weimer Republic was chronicled by Christopher Isherwood in The Berlin Stories, part of which was later adapted into Cabaret.

The most famous chronicler of the Bright Young People was Evelyn Waugh, whose 1930 novel Vile Bodies was originally titled "Bright Young Things" until Waugh decided the term had become too widespread and cliché. (Stephen Fry's 2003 film adaptation of Waugh's novel Bright Young Things reclaimed the original title). In one famous passage, Waugh summed up the whole exhausting, exuberant time:

"Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John's Wood . . . - all the succession and repetition of massed humanity . . . Those vile bodies."

But the Bright Young Things not only lived for each other and for the day; they also lived for the press. The name "Bright Young People" originally appeared as part of a Daily Mail headline on July 26, 1924. Regularly showing up in gossip pages and news reports, the movement was a cultural phenomenon. A 1927 cartoon in Punch magazine, for example, highlights their fame with a middle-aged lady aggressively addressing a society gentleman: "Are you one of the Bright Young People? I am."

One could argue this new Bohemia—peopled by artists and writers, musicians and actors, journalists and photographers, commoners and aristocrats—gave birth to what we know as celebrity culture. People started becoming famous for being famous, having been made that way by their fellow travelers, like gossip columnist Thomas Driberg and photographer, Cecil Beaton, who worked in the then burgeoning popular media. (You scratch my ass, I'll photograph yours.) In that celebrity culture the lives of the inhabitants—as well as the work they did to earn their living—became "news."

For them, all news, be it juicy details on the society page or stern admonitions from an editorial column, only increased their celebrity. Philip Hoare, the author Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant (1990), observes, "Driven by a headlong taste for excess, enabled by newly fluid social strata and publicized by new media—one party set the Thames on fire, with the help of 20 gallons of petrol—they scorned all values but their own." Were they alive today, the Bright Young People would be numerically ranked on the pages of People "The 50 Most Outrageous," or some such title.

While the mad denizens in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day are never identified directly as members of the BYP, they were kindred spirits. The film takes place on September 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war on Germany. That day also marked the end of the party for the young revelers. By this time, many had already died from drug overdoses and alcoholism, been killed in car accidents or by suicide, or, worst of all, taken up serious professions. While most were certainly young, not all were that bright. As D.J. Taylor wrote in a review of Hoare's biography of Stephen Tenant, "A Bright Young Person may have been a Bright Young Thing, but not all Bright Young Things were Bright Young People." Taylor, who recently wrote their history in Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation, 1918-1940, has come to recognize their worth as well: "Their legacy is still everywhere. Novelists like Waugh, Powell, Henry Green, the beginnings of a celebrity culture, household names like Beaton, Betjeman, Frederick Ashton all have their roots in this youth cult."

So who were these these young folks whose photos plastered in picture magazines like Vogue? They were very much like the people Miss Pettigrew bumps into on her special day. They were stylish, giddy, artistic (even if they never produced art), on the move, extravagant (even if they had no money), and above all sexually adventuresome. Philip Hoare notes in the Independent, "The culture was decidedly gay." True descendents of Oscar Wilde, the gay members of the BYP created a subculture of gay affections and affectations. Hoare describes them: "Brian Howard, tall, languid and dark, striding down the street with a pair of spaniels 'lapping at his feet'; Robert Byron, travel writer and abuser of cinema ushers; and [Stephan] Tennant himself, whose disastrous relationship with [Siegfried] Sassoon exposed both men to peril. The pair are shouted at in a London street: 'You two revolting bits of filth.'"

Wilde's actual descendant, his niece Dolly Wilde, lived as a lesbian in Paris, but she partied with the BYP when in England. Indeed strong women, both straight and gay, were essential to the Bright Young People. In fact, Delysia La Fosse would have fit right in with such other women as the poet Edith Sitwell, the novelist Nancy Mitford, the actress Tallulah Bankhead, Lady Eleanor Smith, Babe Plunkett Green, and most importantly Elizabeth Ponsonby. In his history, Bright Young People, D.J. Taylor perceives Ponsonby to be the emotional center of the group, the person whose unflappable party spirit pushed others onward.

Here's a roster, in no particular order, of some of those celebrities—the brightest of the Bright Young People—and some of their more notorious exploits.

Dolly Wilde (1895-1941)

Oscar Wilde's niece was renowned for her wit and her bohemian lifestyle. She was a lover of both men and women, particularly Natalie Clifford Barney, an heiress from Dayton who was famous for Left Bank literary gatherings where the "lost generation" found a home. She was involved with Barney from 1927 until her death. A heavy drinker and heroine addict, she was in and out of treatment facilities.

Elizabeth Ponsonby (1904-1940)

The daughter of a prominent labor politician, Elizabeth Ponsonby, was at the center of all of the fun. Rosemary Hill writes, "Elizabeth Ponsonby's name is no longer one to conjure with but for a time, in the 1920s and 30s, it was all over the papers, for she was one of the 'bright young people'." Ponsonby and her cousin Loelia became notorious for their high-flying vandalism. "Stealing policemen's helmets, dancing all night at the Ritz and, on one occasion at least, breaking into a country house and setting fire to Margot Asquith's nightdress, this was the essence of 'brightness', " continues Hill.

The gossip writer and her personal friend Thomas Driberg wrote of her: "She was a very emphatic and rather pathetic character at the same time…She was one of the vital sparks who got the parties going, and I liked her tremendously." While Ponsonby came from an established family—her grandfather was Queen Victoria's private secretary, Henry Ponsonby—she both flaunted and abused her credentials. Not particularly rich, she acted the part nonetheless. Her mother Dorothy Ponsonby wrote of her:

"E's standard of riches angers me... She lives like a person with £3,000 a year who spends £800 on her dress."

Connected to everyone, Ponsonby was repeatedly in the paper, much to her father's chagrin. Indeed she served as the model for Hon Agatha Runcible in Waugh's Vile Bodies. Hill describes how, "After a particularly marvelous weekend bash at the family home, during which Mr. Ponsonby resorted to hiding what little alcohol was left in the toolshed, he decided that 'E is not going to have another party in this house.' " But his efforts had little effect. She died of alcoholism in 1940.

Thomas Driberg aka Baron Bradwell (1905-1976)

An Oxford drop out, the only degree Driberg earned was a P.A.—Party Animal. He was a friend of the poets W.H. Auden and Edith Sitwell. Leaving university he moved to Soho, the Bright Young People hangout, where he got an apartment above a 24 hour café and worked as a waiter.

Sitwell got him a job interview with the Daily Express, which hired him to work on "Talk of London" gossip column that he later took over. In 1933, he was given the control of "These Names Makes News," a more salacious column, which he wrote under the nom de plume William Hickey.

Driberg had what he termed a "life long love hate relationship with lavatories," and was famously described as an "enthusiastic apostle of the doctrine that there is no such thing as a heterosexual male, but some are a bit obstinate."

However, he was not attracted to men with beards, a fact that led the Times Literary Supplement to observe, "This may explain the high incidence of beards on the Labour Left."

In later years he is rumored to have tried to seduce both Prime Minister Jim Callaghan and Mick Jagger, but died before completing his autobiography, Ruling Passions.

But it was from his perch as a gossip columnist, in the 20s and 30s, that he made his Soho friends famous. Friends like Brian Howard.

Brian Howard (1905-1958)

Driberg reported to his readers on two parties hosted by Brian Howard, the Swimming Pool Party in 1928 and The Great Urban Dionysia in 1929 (in which guest dressed up like Greek mythological figures).

An Eton-educated American, Howard met Driberg's at Oxford, where he was famous for being openly homosexual and more than a bit flamboyant. His one time friend Evelyn Waugh once described him as "mad, bad and dangerous to know." Sebastian Flyte, the teddy bear-holding character from Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1945), was possibly based on Howard.

At Oxford, his friend, the poet Edith Sitwell, introduced Howard to Gertrude Stein, who was the inspiration for his Oxford Portraits of 1925-6 in the Manner of Miss Gertrude Stein. He was also a close friend of W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Klaus Mann, and W. Somerset Maugham.

Between 1930 and 1947, Howard wrote more than 70 stories for the New Statesman.

In 1940, he wrote in his diary, "Drink has become the No. 1 Problem." After World War II, alcoholism got the better of him. And he committed suicide in 1958, after the death of his partner Sam.

At a dance party in December 1926, Howard met photographer Cecil Beaton, who chronicled Bright Young People like Noel Coward for Vogue and Tatler.

Noel Coward (1899-1973)

Noel Coward helped teach his friend Cecil Beaton how to dress. "I take ruthless stock of myself in the mirror before going out," he warned the young photographer. "A polo jumper or unfortunate tie exposes one to danger."

Coward was famous for his dressing gowns, and for being photographed in them. He first wore one on stage in The Vortex, his 1924 play about Nicky Lancaster, ravishingly struggling to escape a cocaine addiction and a domineering mother. "If the part requires one, you couldn't keep me out of it, because they're so comfortable to act in. And they've got swing," he said.

Robert Sacheli writes in "From then on the actor-playwright was endlessly photographed and caricatured in dressing gowns, which for his fans became a visual shorthand for all that was enviably up-to-the minute in Coward's personal design for living. Coward the actor recognized the robe's onstage allure: Coward the playwright found something even more valuable than swing. By wrapping his works and his performances in high style, he was able to put on stage ideas and characters that might be considered unacceptable if presented in the drab guise of realism: Pleasure, promiscuity and drugs among the indolent society set (The Vortex), the sexual bond of emotional soul mates trumping the dull, conventional bond of marriage (Private Lives), and the bohemian freedom to find fulfillment in more than one lover's—or gender's—arms (Design for Living)."

Edith Sitwell (1887-1964)

Edith Sitwell, along with her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, were part of the social nexus of the Bright Young People. Born into an aristocratic family, Sitwell divorced herself from an earlier age, choosing instead to live with her governess in a dilapidated 4th-floor walk up in a working-class neighborhood.

She published her first poem in 1913 at age of 26, and soon rose to be arbitrator of modernist English poetry with her two brothers, collectively known as "the Sitwells." While her love was poetry, she wrote several popular histories that were commercial successes, including two histories of Queen Elizabeth (with whom she shares a birthday). While more eccentric than excessive, Sitwell was the close friend and confidant of many of gay artists of the time, including Cecil Beaton, Stephen Spender, Ronald Firbank and her brother Osbert. Indeed her one great—and tragic—love was with Pavel Tchelitchew, a gay Russian painter.

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

Heir to a wealthy Baghdad Jewish family, Sassoon early on turned to poetry and cricket to sustain himself. Joining the war effort in 1914, Sasson's life would be deeply changed by this experience. At first a war hero (recognized for single-handedly capturing a machine gun nest), he later became a pacifist, actively protesting against the war effort. Deeply effected by the pain and the death of such friends as the poet Wilfred Owen, Sassoon's future literary work reflected this.

After the war, Sassoon's sexuality opened up as he ran through a series of relationships with well-known men, ending with his most significant one, a four-year affair with Stephan Tennant in the late 1920s. After Tennant unceremoniously broke it off, Sassoon later married and fathered a child.

Stephen Tennant (1906-1987)

Some people maintain that it was Stephen Tennant, not Brian Howard, who was Evelyn Waugh's model for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited.

Tennant, a man, whom it was said spent most of his life in bed, was Siegfried Sassoon's lover for four years.

An aristocrat, he was the youngest son of Lord Glenconner, of Scotland, and Pamela Wyndham, who was a cousin of Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde's lover. He was friends of artist Rex Whistler, Lady Diana Manners, the three Sitwell siblings , and the three Mitford girls. Nancy Mitford based Cedric Hampton of Love in a Cold Climate on him.

He was also friends of Cecil Beaton, who often photographed him, and Cecil's sisters, Nancy and Baba, two of the more beautiful Bright Young People.

Nancy and Baba Beaton

The Bright Young People still have their fans. The young woman at "Bright Young Things" blog writes:

"My favorite is Baba Beaton, Cecil's sister and first muse. This is one of his famous photos of her, 'A Symphony in Silver.'??She is awesome, no? When I first read about her, I decided that had to be the greatest name ever. When I get a female cat, she will totally be named Baba Beaton."

Cecil Beaton (1904-1980)

Cecil Beaton, the Bright Young People photographer, published his first photo in Vogue in 1924, a portrait of George "Dadie" Rylands, a Shakespeare scholar at Cambridge. Beaton described the photograph this way: "It was a slightly out-of-focus snapshot of him as Webster's Duchess of Malfi standing in the sub-aqueous light outside the men's lavatory of the ADC Theatre at Cambridge."

In a childhood diary, Beaton described himself as a "terrible, terrible homosexualist." While his longest relationship was with art collector Peter Watson, he is also known to have had affairs with Greta Garbo, British socialite Doris Viscountes Castlerosse, American socialite Marjorie Oelrichs, artist Rex Whistler, Gary Cooper (so he claimed) and Stephen Tennent (so it was rumored).

"My pictures became more and more rococo and surrealist," he said, describing his art. "Society women as well as mannequins were photographed in the most flamboyant poses, in ecstatic or mystical states, sometimes with the melodramatic air of a Lady Macbeth caught up in a cocoon of tulle ... ladies of the upper crust were to be seen in Vogue fighting their way out of a hat box or breaking through a huge sheet of white paper... Chinese lanterns, doilies or cutlet frills, fly whisks, sporrans, eggbeaters or stars of all shapes found their way into our hysterical and highly ridiculous pictures."

Some of his most famous pictures were of members of the British royal family, for whom he worked as court photographer.

Rex Whistler (1905-1944)

Rex Whistler, a British artist who was killed in World War II, posed for Cecil Beaton and painted Stephen Tennant. It was Tennant who originally pulled Whistler into the Bright Young People's circle, having met him originally at the Slade School of Art. As a painter, he created portraits for many of the Bright Young People. More he was more well known for his graphic designs, producing illustrations and posters for Shell Oil, and creating China designs for Wedgwood. Many know his work for the famous 1927 mural "The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats" in the Tate Restaurant of the Museum. Sexually, Edith Olivier, Laurence's sister, says Whistler liked both men and women.

Rosemary Hill writes: "George Orwell might think they had 'feathers for brains,' but they had Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford to fictionalise them. Cecil Beaton photographed them; John Betjeman put them in verse. They reviewed their friends' books, wrote about one another in gossip columns and went to fancy dress balls dressed as each other."

The Bright Lights

These days, the Bright Young People's descendents, or at least their genome, populate Us Weekly and ET. Occasionally, someone crawls out of a Rover without panties or "loses" a boudoir video to the Web or runs out of rehab, and that makes the news.

But what about the stories that don't make the front page? Like when Ryan Seacrest peed into Paris Hilton's handbag during a screening of Epic Movie. When asked if the simple beauty was angry, he told a cohort, "Not really. She probably thought it was what people are doing these days to tan leather."

Of course, that incident didn't get reported. Perhaps because it didn't happen. (Though when has reality constrained Star editor Bonnie Fuller?)

However, in the 1920s in London, Eddie Gathorne-Hardy did urinate into Rosamond Lehmann's purse during the screening of an avant-garde film. When asked if she was angry, he replied, "Not very, my dear. Perhaps she thought it was all part of the surrealist ambience."

Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, whom writer D.J. Taylor describes an "impossibly languid figure," was a toff (a member of the British upper class), who, while a student at Oxford, was propositioned by Anthony Eden. (Eden, the 1st Earl of Avon, was the British PM from 1955 to 1957.)

Gathorne-Hardy—and Eden—and Rosamond Lehmann were what were known in their time as Bright Young People, the characters who populate Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day.

As the urinating-in-a-handbag story demonstrates, celebrity culture is, alas, not what it was. And neither are social circles. Can you imagine a future president of the United States having once propositioned Ryan Seacrest?