Before Bewitched

To my surprise and delight, I came out of an antiques market yesterday with a copy of Play Pictorial magazine that had been waiting who knows how many years for me to happen upon it. The featured play is Freedom of the Seas, in which Billie Carleton appeared the night before her death in November 1918 from what the ensuing inquest ruled to be a cocaine overdose. She was the female lead, but the cast’s other actress had the livelier part.

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Carleton played an old-fashioned kind of young woman – as she seems to have done in her life offstage. ‘I fancied somehow that a woman could only find happiness with the love of a strong man who dominated her,’ her character says, and eventually does.

The other woman on the stage presents a much more modern image of womanhood – dressed for action in oilskins, trained as a wireless operator and serving, it turns out, as a Secret Service agent. She was played by Marion Lorne (who was married to the play’s author Walter Hackett).

Lorne achieved her greatest fame much later in her career with a character who also possessed special and secret abilities – Aunt Clara in the 1960s TV series Bewitched. But although the show was subversive in its own fluffy way, Clara’s enchanting niece Samantha being the real power in her suburban dream-home marriage, empowerment wasn’t extended to the older woman. As far as the scriptwriters were concerned, old meant confused, and that was comedy in those days.

On the other hand, Lorne’s career trajectory defied the obstacles that the entertainment industry puts in older women’s way. It started before the first world war and peaked more than twenty years after the second.

 

 

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A Hundred Years of Drug Crime

A hundred years ago this month, there were no illegal drugs in Britain. A hundred years ago next month, the unauthorised possession of cocaine was made an offence under wartime emergency regulations. This was the beginning of the prohibition regime under which drugs have been controlled ever since.

The ban came after a florid panic, centred on the West End of London, about the use of cocaine by prostitutes and soldiers. To mark the centenary, I’m tweeting on-this-day headlines and quotes.

The first is today’s story from the London Evening News: ‘Practically unknown a few years ago, cocaine-taking has spread like wildfire in all classes of the community.’

There’ll be a mid-June flurry, then the story really gets going next month. Follow it  @marekkohn, #DrugBan100.

 

 

 

 

The Palace of Great War Varieties (Club Mix)

Honoured and grateful to presenter-about-town Matthew Sweet and impresario-producer Phil Tinline for the opportunity to make my debut as a variety turn at the BBC’s Maida Vale studios last night. Matthew compered his Palace of Great War Varieties, a freewheeling tour through the popular culture of the First World War, with his usual aplomb and a stock of jokes a hundred years old. It’ll be broadcast as Radio 3’s Sunday Feature on December 28 from 6.45 to 7.30pm.

I learned a huge amount from fellow contributors Fern Riddell, Helen Brooks, Ian Christie and Neil Brand about music hall, theatre of different stripes and cinema … and was quite carried away by their enthusiasm, a tremendous demonstration of how the period can still speak to us and fire our imaginations.

And what did I bring to the show? Clubs, drugs and a brief tour of the West End finishing at the scene of London’s first cocaine bust, outside what is now the Ivy.  Matthew and I took in Ciro’s nightclub, or rather the National Portrait Gallery archive which now occupies the building, and gazed at photos of its former splendour while standing on what was once the dance floor – boards trodden later in the club’s history by Audrey Hepburn, who danced and sang there in 1950.

 

 

From Reggie to Patti via the Chelsea Hotel

Patti Smith turned her show at the Cadogan Hall in London into a William Burroughs celebration on the 100th anniversary of his birth. As she reminisced about loitering in the Chelsea Hotel lobby in order to pounce on him when he left the bar next door (‘My dear, I’m homosexual,’ he had to explain) it struck me that she’s just three degrees of separation from Reggie de Veulle, the louche anti-hero of Dope Girls.

It goes like this: In London during the First World War Reggie knew (and maybe bought cocaine from) the mysterious Don Kimfull, who I believe was ‘Joseph Dean’, the legendary proprietor of Dean’s Bar in Tangier, who met (and took a dislike to) William Burroughs, who became friends with Patti Smith in New York.

Oh, and she did ‘Birdland’ like it had just come to her, in a vision.

Digital Dope Girls!

I’m delighted to be able to announce that the good people at Granta have made Dope Girls available as an ebook. You can download it from sellers such as Kobo and Amazon.

I rather like the idea that as it heads into its third decade, Dope Girls has taken a form that the people it’s about wouldn’t recognise. But if you’d like a traditional paper copy, just order it online – here, for example – and the system will run one off for you.

Tales of the Riverbank: The Maidenhead Scandal

Once upon a time, the Thames-side town of Maidenhead was an alternative destination to Monte Carlo or Park Lane for wealthy pleasure-seekers. Reggie de Veulle, glimpses of whose character and exploits are visible in the posts below, was said to have attached himself to one such host for a season that came to an abrupt and scandalous end.

According to ‘Reggie Lindsay’, de Veulle’s barely-disguised avatar in the 1912 novel Les Fréquentations de Maurice, the host spent £300 on a ‘chic soirée’ complete with a Gypsy orchestra, Japanese lanterns in the garden, and orchids throughout. As an enthusiastic cross-dresser, he took similar trouble over his outfit, greeting the forty fashionable guests Reggie had invited in a blue chiffon gown with antique lace trimmings and a four-metre train. After supper, he tossed flowers, fruits and coins to the locals who had gathered to listen to the revels. Stones started to fly through the windows and the police intervened; Reggie made his escape by boat.

Reggie admitted his anxiety that his ‘uncle’ Alec would be angry with him over the episode – but he didn’t admit that, as rumour had it, he himself had been in drag. When that came up, he whisked his guests out of the door with uncharacteristic alacrity.

It’s rather satisfying for me to be able to report this after more than twenty years wondering where the tale was hidden; and that it was in the British Library all along. It’s equally pleasing that Reggie claimed the incident had been reported at length, with all the names, in two periodicals. The story is still to be continued.

Curious Friendships With Older Men

Other people’s lawyers just wouldn’t leave Reggie de Veulle alone. ‘I put it to you that while your youth lasted you often made curious friendships with older men?’ insinuated one. Those friendships, he went on, were ‘very remunerative’. Before the Great War, Reggie had received about £2000 from a middle-aged businessman, to clear debts and send him to the United States. He had also been linked with an attempt by a married couple to blackmail the businessman, who they believed had formed a homosexual relationship with their son.

Les Fréquentations de Maurice (see here and here) leaves little doubt about Reggie’s modus operandi, gleefully relating how ‘Reggie Lindsay’ was kept in the style to which he wished to be accustomed by a very wealthy married man from Liverpool, Alec Kemball. (The real-life businessman was from Manchester, which suggests a clef, but he was single and lived with his mother.) Kemball would take Reggie to the finest establishments, keeping him furnished with cigarettes, clothes, flowers and so on. Reggie, never overburdened by shame, referred to him as ‘my uncle from Liverpool’.