Sunday, 28 April 2013

Throwing shapes, sucking in their cheeks

Unknown punk and Steve Strange, 1978

Marilyn, Princess Julia and Boy George, 1978

Martin Degville (Sigue Sigue Sputnik), 1978

Boy George and Patti Bell, 1978

Jeremy Healy (Haysi Fantayzee), Andy Polaris (Animal Nightlife) and friend, 1978

Billy's Club punters, 1978

Joan, Marilyn and Kate, 1978

Princess Julia and Boy George, 1978

Siobhan Fahey and friend, 1978

Steve Strange and friend, 1978

"Anything went at Billy's, the more theatrical the better." - Photographer Nicola Tyson.

Back in 1978 Billy's Club, a small venue in Soho, held a David Bowie tribute night each Tuesday.

Although it only ran for three months this most influential of venues, run by Steve Strange and Rusty Egan (later to form Visage), and its punters - including Boy George, Simon Le Bon, Gary and Martin Kemp, Princess Julia, Marilyn, Siobhan Fahey and Isabella Blow - went on to dictate the tastes of the nation in the 80s and beyond. The club served as inspiration for other seminal London nights, such as Blitz (read my previous blog about that club) and Taboo, as well as the basis for the New Romantic style of dress and music.

Another mighty trendsetter, the writer and journalist Robert Elms, was there:
"We're starting a new club at place called Billy's in Soho, Tuesday nights, come along," said Steve Strange. The 1980s were about to begin a year and a bit early.

Tuesday night, the deadest time in this always near moribund playground, was the night we were invited out, to gather at Billy's, a small, unspectacular club down a suitably unmarked stairwell. Above it was the Golden Girl, a grubby whorehouse, where tarnished brasses lazily tempted the seedy mac men. The girls would occasionally give a whistle as we walked by, and we'd shimmy and blow kisses, confident that we had made it to our destination in one piece. Tuxedos and wing collars, padded shoulders and cummerbunds, T-shirts, diamanté brooches, taffeta gowns.

That first night at Billy's, I had on my quarterback PX top, a pair of voluminous white linen harem pants with Melissa Caplan had made and a pair of Kung Fu slippers from round the corner in Chinatown. I had no idea what I was supposed to look like, but we all knew you had to look and make people look. Steve Strange was on the door, camply clocking your get-up as he let you in and took your two quid. For the first few weeks he didn't have to try too hard to keep people out. The very idea of a one-off night, where an outside promoter fills and otherwise empty club with his own punters, was entirely new. The logic for the club owner (in this case a wide black guy named Vince) was obvious. On Tuesdays he couldn't even attract sufficient lotharios and nurses to make the place viable, so why not invite this weird Welsh shop assistant, who claimed to have lots of friends to take over and take a share of the takings? There were maybe only thirty or forty elaborate souls at most, gathered up by the bush telegraph, to answer the call. Billy's wasn't a big place, a couple of dark rooms and a shiny mirrorball, and the few who gathered there on the first few Tuesdays could find a corner each to lurk in, bits of their extravagant outfits protruding from the murk.

Rusty Egan was on the record player. As yet there wasn't much choice for the selector. A staple of Bowie and Roxy, Kraftwerk's Germanic machine music, and a touch of slick Euro-disco, like Georgio Morodor's pulsating The Chase. The sound was electronic, Teutonic, avowedly fake, a fabulous respite. From the murky corners of the club came a few dancers, posers rather than hoofers, throwing shapes, sucking in their cheeks and extending their lithe limbs for all to admire, proto-vogueing. I'd gone in my Chinese space-cossack attire with Chris Sullivan in monocle and spats, Ollie O'Donnell as a tartan Teddy boy, Melissa Caplan as a psychedelic swinger and Graham Smith as a mod matelot. Billy's was like a do-it-yourself, teenage version of a Neue Sachlichkeit painting.

The nucleus of what would become known as New Romantic, which would go on to define the 1980s stylistically, which would shift the tastes and the desires of an age, (and which would be derided like no other) was weaving its way through the wreckage of the "Winter of Discontent" to get to Billy's on Tuesday nights in 1978. This cadre in ridiculous clobber has been portrayed as the extravagant over-reaction to Punk's ripped and torn anti-style. But that is to completely misunderstand both movements. Almost all the kids, and there were few people in Billy's over twenty-one, who made it past Steve Strange in those early days had been punks. They'd been the eager-eyed young ones at the back, too young to really make a mark or form a band, but they'd been punks in the glorious early days, when Punk itself was an underground, individualistic, overdressed style statement. Billy's was like Louise's only more so. Billy's was for those who'd tasted the thrill of wearing "clothes for heroes" and wanted it back.

Punk had been a thrashing spasm of brilliance, but despite its apparent nihilism had actually shown that even here, in "sick Britain", you could accomplish something. The handful of self-obsessed, self-confident exhibitionists gathered at Billy's on a Tuesday night had learnt the lessons of punk and were determined to create shining lives for themselves, or at least look good trying.

After a couple of months, Steve Strange and Rusty Egan had a falling out with the owner of Gossips. The place had got a little more popular as word spread, and Steve began his gleeful act of rejecting anyone who wasn't sufficiently spectacular. But there still weren't more than sixty or seventy regulars and no one was really making money, so we were evicted.
The Way We Wore: A Life In Threads by Robert Elms

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Life is a party

"Only an expert fabricator could survive the public tightrope walk required of someone trying to portray herself as both the taste-making doyenne of European society and a self-effacing American nobody." - biographer Sam Staggs
If you weren't invited to an Elsa Maxwell party in the mid-20th century celebrity whorl, you were nobody. She knew something about everyone.

Elsa Maxwell injected a sense of fun into post-war society parties, and the great and the good came flocking to her door to lap it up, from royalty to Hollywood. The superstars of the entertainment world all carefully kept the grande dame on side, for fear she would launch a tirade against them in one of her syndicated newspaper gossip columns or numerous TV appearances.

She not only entertained in person and in print, she also wrote books on "etiquette", wrote and produced music for theatre and film (and appeared in a few) - and in 1959 she even recorded an album of her own, Elsa Maxwell - Her Voice and Music [oh, if only I had a copy of that!].

A bizarre mix of contradictions, Miss Maxwell was renowned for being coarse and vulgar yet aspired to mix with the highest echelons, and she was probably a lesbian (and quite possibly a stalker at that) yet publicly decried homosexuality. Certainly, by all accounts she was a much-feared harridan.

Her endless name-dropping and not-so-subtle snobbery belied the fact that she was (in her own words) "a short, fat, homely piano player from Keokuk, Iowa, with no money or background, who decided to become a legend and did just that."

Yet when she died, aged 82 in 1963, barely a dozen people turned up for her funeral. The party probably wasn't big enough, or fun enough. Or maybe the joke had simply run its course.

"Life is a party. You join after its started and you leave before its finished."

"I don't hate anyone. I dislike. But my dislike is the equivalent of anyone else's hate."

"Nothing spoils a good party like a genius."

"Laugh at yourself first, before anyone else can."

Elsa Maxwell (24th May 1883 – 1st November 1963)

Wednesday, 24 April 2013


"Andy Warhol looks a scream
Hang him on my wall
Andy Warhol, Silver Screen
Can't tell them apart at all"

- David Bowie

Photographic portraits of pop artist Andy Warhol that lay forgotten in a filing cabinet for more than 30 years are to go on show for the first time.

As one of the senior photographers at The Daily Express, in the summer of 1981 Steve Wood travelled to France for the Deauville Film Festival to photograph the celebrities attending. By chance he ran into his longtime friend, Elaine Kaufman, her new husband, and their friend Andy Warhol - and took the opportunity to badger the great artist for a photoshoot.

Once back in the UK, Wood apparently developed the images on to slides, filed them away under the letter "W" and promptly forgot all about them.

Last year, friend and fellow photographer David Munns was helping Wood to clear out the contents of his London studio. Among the myriad papers, notes and films, Munn came across the Warhol slides.

The photos will go on display at the appropriately-named Lost Then Found exhibition in New York from 2nd to 12th May 2013 - but some of the images will also go on show in London from 10th to 12th May 2013 as part of a pop-up exhibition at the brand new Conran-designed luxury South Place Hotel in Finsbury Square, near Moorgate.

Lost Then Found website

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

George's Day

"Where on the screen I am invariably a sonofabitch, in life I am a dear, dear boy."

George Sanders (3rd July 1906 – 25th April 1972)

More George

Monday, 22 April 2013


How imagine my office should be.

Closer to the truth, however...

"The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office." - Robert Frost

Hey ho.

Sunday, 21 April 2013


Today is the centenary of one of the most influential fashion photographers Britain ever produced, Norman Parkinson.

Read my previous tribute to the great man.

Norman Parkinson CBE (21st April 1913 – 15th February 1990)

Friday, 19 April 2013

Jayne had a lot more

"A 41-inch bust and a lot of perseverance will get you more than a cup of coffee - a lot more."

"I like being a pin-up girl. There's nothing wrong with it."

"I will never be satisfied. Life is one constant search for the betterment for me."

"Most girls don't know what to do with what they've got."

Jayne Mansfield (born Vera Jayne Palmer; 19th April 1933 – 29th June 1967)

Thursday, 18 April 2013

A monster? Or a sacrificial lamb?

Take the most hideous, the most repulsive, the most complete moral deformity; place it where it fits best - in the heart of a woman whose physical beauty and royal grandeur will make the crime stand out all the more strikingly; then add to all that moral deformity the purest feeling a woman can have, that of a mother ...

Inside our monster put a mother and the monster will interest us and make us weep. And this creature that filled us with fear will inspire pity; that deformed soul will be almost beautiful in our eyes ..."
- Victor Hugo (from his preface to his play Lucrèce Borgia)
But was she really the "monster" or "creature" that Victor Hugo (and Donizetti, upon whose opera Hugo's play is based) portrayed her? Not according to many recent historians. I reprint in full this rather good article by Tanya Smith on Helium website published in 2009, that seeks to redress the balance:
Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) was the illegitimate daughter of Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, and is one of the most unjustly disparaged women of the Renaissance period. Legend portrays her as an immoral murderess who conspired with her power-hungry father and brothers to further her family's influence in Italy and Europe. However, like most high-ranking women in the Renaissance period, Lucrezia would have had few choices in relation to her personal life. Marriages were made for political alliances and Lucrezia was used to form such alliances for the Borgias.

Her family's ruthless tactics in breaking off her betrothal to a wealthy Spanish nobleman named Cherubino Juan de Centenelles, in order to betroth her to a more powerful contender for her hand Gasparo da Procida, resulted in making the young girl an object of anger and injured pride. The situation worsened when her father ascended the Papal throne shortly thereafter and decided that his daughter should marry even higher. Rodrigo Borgia cancelled the second engagement to Gasparo da Procida and entered into a new agreement with Giovanni Sforza, Count of Pesaro. Lucrezia became the innocent pawn between the two rival suitors at the tender age of twelve.

Eventually, it would be her first husband, Giovanni Sforza who was the source of her worst defamation. Lucrezia seemed happy enough with the marriage, but after six years, she had not become pregnant. The Pope did not need the alliance with Sforza any longer and since no heir was forthcoming, he annulled Lucrezia's first marriage. Sforza was furious and embarrassed that an examination of Lucrezia had proven that she was a "virga intacta". He blurted out a horrible statement that would blacken Lucrezia's name for centuries, accusing the Pope of wanting Lucrezia back for himself.

Shortly thereafter, Lucrezia was married to a young, handsome man who appeared to make her very happy. Upon meeting Prince Alfonso Bisceglie of Aragon, it was said that Lucrezia experienced un colpo di fulmine' literally, a thunderbolt' of love at first sight. She became pregnant with his child soon after their marriage. However, her happiness was not to last. Along with Lucrezia, the Pope had come to feel very affectionate toward his new son-in-law. This angered her brother, Cesare. In a fit of jealousy and fear of losing his position, Cesare murdered Alfonso Bisceglie, just as he did his own brother, Juan, who had also threatened his influence with their father. Lucrezia was almos inconsolable. Barely having recovered from the loss, she was married off to Alfonso D'Este, a man who matched her family in power and was therefore able to remove her from their life of treachery and deceit.

Regardless of her innocence and inability to make her own marital choices in life, Lucrezia still became the target of malicious gossip. As a female, she was the weakest member of a powerful family, and therefore, the easiest to attack. Her name was sullied by the Borgia's enemies, who claimed she had incestuous relationships with her father and brothers. Her role in her family's machinations was grossly exaggerated.

Yet, by the end of her life, at age thirty-nine, Lucrezia's image had changed. She spent the second epoch of her life helping the needy, protecting the rights of Jewish people in Italy, encouraging peaceful agreements, and devoting herself to family, friends and the service of God. She died as a beloved patron of the arts, immortalized by poets such as Pietro Bembo and Ercole Strozzi.

Her third husband, a hardened warrior who was known to have been reluctant to marry Lucrezia, fainted with grief at her funeral. Even the Doge of Venice said he "grieved for her as if she had been his own daughter". Despite these evidences of her better nature, famous composers such as Donizetti portrayed Lucrezia as a spoiled, murdering woman of ill-repute. Victor Hugo based his Lucrece Borgia on Donizetti's opera and thus the false legends of Lucrezia Borgia were carried to popular culture.

Finally, it is the cruel words from an epitaph written by Pontano, twenty years before her death, that are most commonly associated with her today: "Here lies in her tomb a Lucrezia in name, but a Thais in fact. Daughter, wife and daughter-in-law to Alexander VI". History has not been any kinder to Lucrezia and does not often account for the fact that she was no more than an innocent daughter and sacrificial lamb to the Borgia family.
However, in high art and culture, everybody loves a villainess - so it is the Donizetti/Hugo portrayal that provides us with the campest version. And, in the immortal words of Anna Russell (read my blog about her), ...that’s the beauty of Grand Opera, you can do anything so long as you sing it!"

Lucrezia Borgia (18th April 1480 – 24th June 1519)

Monday, 15 April 2013

Friday, 12 April 2013

Miller, liked

Johnnie Lucille Collier, better known as Ann Miller (12th April 1923 – 22nd January 2004)

Facts about Ann Miller:
  • She was "discovered" by Lucille Ball and talent scout/comic Benny Rubin, aged just 13.
  • As a child she had rickets, and dancing was seen as good therapy for the condition.
  • Miss Miller is credited with popularising the wearing of tights (pantyhose).
  • It was claimed that she could tap 500 times per minute, but the sound was in fact looped in later.
  • Her first (credited) screen role was in New Faces of 1937, and her last was in the David Lynch movie Mulholland Drive in 2001.
Read our previous entry for Miss Miller

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Elegance is a state of mind

Oleg Cassini’s designs for Jaqueline Kennedy - "The Jackie Look" - were described by none other than the great Hollywood costumier Edith Head as the "single biggest fashion influence in history".

Alex Witchel in the The New York Times described him thus: "His name has always suggested glamour, champagne, polo ponies, a box at the opera, he was married to a movie star, and engaged to Grace Kelly before she became a princess. The son of Russian aristocrats banished to Europe after the revolution...he designs clothes that betray a lifelong ache for lost grandeur, there is about him in every gesture from knocking ash from his cigar to straightening his tie an echo of old world distinction."

Mr Cassini - whose first wife was that great style icon Gene Tierney, and among whose other myriad clients were Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, Joan Crawford, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood and Gina Lollobrigida - was the fashionista behind such fashions as the A-line skirt, Sheath dress and Empire Strapless gown.

It is his centenary, and even now, on the catwalks of the 21st century, his influence is everywhere.

"Fashion anticipates, and elegance is a state of mind... a mirror of the time in which we live, a translation of the future, and should never be static."

Oleg Cassini (11th April 1913 – 17th March 2006)