Murray’s Cabaret Club: Discovering Soho’s Secret

Benjamin Levy’s book Murray’s Cabaret Club: Discovering Soho’s Secret (published by The History Press, with a foreword by Dita Von Teese) is out next week, and tells the tale of a unique institution in the history of British entertainment. Here the author explains why Murray’s was so special, and introduces the hundreds of costume designs that lie at the heart of the book, images that are now available for licensing through the Mary Evans Picture Library website, courtesy of the collection of poster dealer and expert, Charlie Jeffreys.

 

Cabaret Club Menu' - from Murray's Cabaret Club, 16-18 Beak Street, Soho, London.     Date: 1950

“Working at Murray’s left you in an unreal world: at night-time you entered this fantasy place, where the rich and famous queued for your attention; the days were an endless series of dinner and party invitations, and the social life was truly amazing. It was only after I left Murray’s and returned to the real world that I realised the strange underground fantasy life I had been leading” – Christine Keeler

Night after night, Murray’s Cabaret Club set imaginations ablaze, forged fantasies for deadened aristocrats and Arab businessmen, and provided refuge for the hounded celebrity. In that intimate basement beneath the pavements of Soho’s Beak Street, sexy was never sordid, and nude never naked. That is until the Profumo Affair—a sex-and-spying scandal that involved a love triangle between Murray’s showgirl Christine Keeler, Britain’s Minister of War John Profumo, and a Soviet spy Yevgeny Ivanov—erupted in 1963. In the middle was Murray’s regular, Stephen Ward, an osteopath and socialite who had taken Keeler under his wing. The furore resulted in the eventual downfall of the British government, the advent of the permissive society, and the birth of the Swinging Sixties. London would never be the same again.

 

(left) Christine Keeler, early 1960s. (centre) British Minister of War John Profumo retuns home after admitting an affair with Christine Keeler, June 18, 1963. (right) Stephen Thomas Ward (1912-1963), the high society osteopath who introduced Christine Keeler to John Profumo, 1963.
(left) Christine Keeler, early 1960s. (centre) British Minister of War John Profumo retuns home after admitting an affair with Christine Keeler, June 18, 1963. (right) Stephen Thomas Ward (1912-1963), the high society osteopath who introduced Christine Keeler to John Profumo, 1963.

 

The club began life in 1913, making it one of London’s very first modern nightclubs. In the Roaring Twenties, it spearheaded the craze for the Folies Bergère and tango fever. London’s Soho district was then a hotspot for gambling dens and clip joints—anywhere to fuel the demand for out-of-hours drinking—but Percival Murray’s nightclub was never part of this druggy underworld. During World War Two, the nightlife aficionado entertained off-duty officers with ingeniously costumed and choreographed cabaret floorshows, and Murray’s was soon employing a 130-strong staff including classically-trained choreographers, inventive lyricists, celebrated bandleaders, and skilled seamstresses.

 

Programme for Murray's Cabaret Club

 

The racy and respectable numbered amongst its illustrious roster of members: royalty (Princess Margaret, King Hussein of Jordan), film stars (Jean Harlow), politicians (Winston Churchill), and all sorts of louche business tycoons and shady sales executives. Racketeers like Peter Rachman, who dated showgirl Mandy Rice-Davies, rubbed shoulders with diplomats such as Henry Kissinger. Many showgirls, including Kay Kendall and Gertrude Lawrence, became household names. Not all for the right reasons; Ruth Ellis danced at Murray’s before shooting her lover, and becoming the last woman to be hanged in the UK. The tragic glamour model Vicki Martin, the peroxide blonde bombshell Carole Lesley, and even the founder of a satanic cult, Mary Ann MacLean, were all once in Mr Murray’s employ. The long-time companion of the actor John Hurt was a showgirl at Murray’s. Her death at a young age was the reason for Hurt’s decision to portray Stephen Ward in the 1989 film Scandal. Similarly, the mother of singer Sarah Brightman was a dancer at the club; this brought it to the attention of Sarah’s husband Andrew Lloyd Webber who, years later, staged the musical Stephen Ward.

 

The exterior and interior of Murray's Nightclub, Beak Street, London (1920s)
The exterior and interior of Murray’s Nightclub, Beak Street, London (1920s)

Though the enduring fascination of Murray’s Cabaret Club is borne out by the attention it has received in the press, in exhibitions, and on stage and screen, all physical remnants of the club apparently disappeared without trace – the whiff of exotica extinguished. “There’s nothing much left of [Murray’s] except the legend and memories,” wrote Keeler, years after the Profumo Affair. She was wrong. In 2014, two albums containing hundreds of costume designs were unearthed at an obscure auction in Surrey. After research, it became clear that this treasure trove, hidden away for decades, was of great value, capable of illuminating the untold history of post-War cabaret in London.

 

Murray's Cabaret Club costume design

 

Soon, hours of film footage documenting the floorshow routines in glittering technicolour, as well as hundreds of photographs showing life amongst the showgirls off-premises, were discovered sitting in the archives of major public collections, such as London’s V&A Museum. Scores of surviving dancers were tracked down and interviewed and their stories have been preserved in the book: of late-night adventures with businessman Paul Getty; and spy meetings held in the club itself by movie producer Harry Alan Towers. Film footage was found that captured Percival Murray and his wardrobe mistress Elsie Burchmore sifting through those very same portfolios of designs that were revealed sixty years later.

First and foremost, Murray’s Cabaret Club: Discovering Soho’s Secret celebrates the ingenuity and inventive wit of the costume designers who chose Murray’s as their stage. Ronald Cobb’s costumes celebrate the Latin craze that was rife through London’s dance clubs of the Fifties, and played out through the sambas of Carmen Miranda and mambos of Perez Prado. Visions inspired by the aesthetics of space exploration and sci-fi movies of the period mingle with costumes that predate the style of Cecil Beaton’s idiosyncratic attire for My Fair Lady and that reflect the glamour of Horst P Horst’s Vogue models. Naughty nurses, stern-stockinged policewomen, racy Bo Peeps, and women wearing nothing but chandeliers don G-strings that incorporate all sorts of sexual puns from fans to violins. Many of these designs are still covered in glitter and gold foil. Michael Bronze’s lithe vamps complement Cobb’s Deco pin-ups. They reflect the costumier’s dual profession of theatre designer and chic dress designer for London’s high society. Hilda Wetton’s ‘fan dancers’ extended a form of entertainment seen at the popular Windmill Theatre to the nightclub scene; historically, the dancers dodged censorship laws that forbade nudes to move on stage by skilfully manipulating a set of ostrich feathers so as to titillate though never reveal all.

 

'Little Bo' - Murray's Cabaret Club costume design

 

The overheads were enormous; at half a million pounds in today’s money for each show, the club’s performers were some of the most expensively-clothed showgirls ever to grace the West End stage. Each costume took around 300 hours to construct, and were made by a team of six seamstresses who worked all year round in permanent employment from a workshop on Percival Murray’s country estate. The extremely elaborate jewelling and ornamentation was intricately stitched by hand. The headdresses were often comprised of thousands of tiny beads or sparkling sequins, and the expense of the fabrics matched the level of craftmanship; for example, only real furs were used. It all made Percival Murray a very rich man indeed. Yet the fleet of Rolls Royces, sumptuous flats in Whitehall and Mayfair, and the country house in Surrey weren’t to last. The Playboy Club arrived in London in 1966 and was sexier and edgier, though—to Mr Murray—unacceptably artless. The writing was on the wall; the club closed, and the dream ended.

Today, 16-18 Beak Street is a burger bar. Step downstairs to the basement and the waitresses, most of whom were born long after the club’s closure in 1975, flit between the tables serving the tourists of Carnaby Street. The wood panelling has been whitewashed, resembling the muddy grey of ‘Bombsite Britain’ in the Fifties. Post-war, the West End may have been blighted by austerity, but underground, the oak walls of Murray’s once shimmered as they reflected the sparkle of costumed showgirls dancing.

 

Original costume design for one of the performers at Murray's Cabaret Club, 16-18 Beak Street, Soho, London.     Date:
Original costume design for one of the performers at Murray’s Cabaret Club, 16-18 Beak Street, Soho, London. Date:

 

Murray’s Cabaret Club: Discovering Soho’s Secret preserves the wonderful visuals and is an invaluable resource for fashion students; retro enthusiasts; cabaret and burlesque fans; and professional designers looking for fresh source material.

 

 

 

 

Pan’s People

On 15th January 1920, the Pan Ball was held at Covent Garden in aid of Bart’s Hospital. Among the attendees were the actresses Betty Chester, who came as a Bacchante, and sisters Iris and Viola Tree in the costumes of a futurist Pan and tree nymph respectively. The ball’s theme of Pan, Greek God of pastures, forests and flocks, was to be one which would dominate the early 1920s. The ball had been organised by a new magazine, launched a couple of months earlier. Pan described itself as ‘a journal for saints and cynics’ and was devoted to a light-hearted confection of entertainment, gossip, wit and illustration aimed at creative and bohemian readership. Very much in tune with the fresh, post-war vogue for celebrating youth and vitality, the magazine attracted some of the finest artistic and literary talent. Covers were designed variously by Herbert Pizer, William Barribal, Wilton Williams, H. M. Bateman and Tom Purvis; writers included E. F. Benson, Reginald Arkell and the gossip columnist Olivia Maitland Davidson, who had famously written the ‘Letters of Eve’ column in The Tatler magazine. Pan’s influence saturated every aspect of the magazine. The editor’s letter was replaced by ‘Pan’s Parable’; another column was entitled, ‘Pan’s Pipings’ while the women’s fashion page was known as ‘My Box’ by Pandora.

From left, Miss Iris Tree as a futurist Pan, Miss Viola Tree as a tree nymph and Miss Betty Chester as a Bacchante, all guests at the themed 'Pan' Ball held at Covent Garden in aid of Bart's Hospital in January 1920. The theme of Pan was hugely popular during the 1920s and the ball was organised by the newly launched, but fairly short-lived, Pan magazine. Date: 1920Miss Iris Tree as a futurist Pan, Miss Viola Tree as a tree nymph and Miss Betty Chester as a Bacchante, all guests at the themed ‘Pan’ Ball held at Covent Garden in aid of Bart’s Hospital in January 1920. The theme of Pan was hugely popular during the 1920s and the ball was organised by the newly launched, but fairly short-lived, Pan magazine.
Covers of Pan Magazine, January and February 1920
Covers of Pan Magazine, January and February 1920

If Pan represented the 1920s enthusiasm for the cult of Pan, it was not the only magazine to recognise the god as a potent emblem of the times. Other titles such as The Bystander and The Sketch frequently published pictures casting modern day flappers in sylvan landscapes, their innocent ramble or solitary reading session suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a hairy-haunched, cloven-hoofed companion with a lascivious expression signalling a mind that was as horny as his forehead. He made an unnerving suitor, stalking his prey through mountains and wooded glades, or even materialising as an apparition in suburban gardens, blowing seductive and hypnotising melodies on his pan-pipes, which, as legend has it, were fashioned from reeds into which the nymph Syrinx was transformed when fleeing from his amorous advances. The contrast of animal legs, naked torso and virile hirsuteness with the pristine, bobbed neatness of the 1920s female, make such scenarios as erotically charged as they are repellent. Other scenes are less disquieting – sometimes a more boyish Pan entertains fairy-like nymphs, or fauns and satyrs caper with bright, young things on a golf course. Nevertheless, the themes closely associated with Pan, those of spring, fecundity and a lusty vigour for life, offered illustrators endless inspiration.

Drawing on a popular theme of the 1920s, a rather sexually rampant looking faun with horns, disturbing red hair and beard and huge hairy legs ending in cloven hooves, sits with a virginal looking blonde girl, her white stockinged legs and pink dress in stark contrast to his virile, hirsuite appearance. Date: 1928
A naked woman, who appears to be camping alone on a beach is startled to discover a small satyr playing pan pipes nearby. Very strange. 1919A young woman flees from a wood, pursued by a satyr or faun. Pan and associated motifs were very popular during the 1920s and numerous illustrations appeared in magazines, usually showing flapper type girls being seduced or pursued by such creatures! Date: 1927

Colour illustration showing a dream-like scene of a piper playing for a beautiful lady with butterfly wings. Date:

Pan­—and associated mythological figures—had been popular with artists over the centuries, but the renaissance of Pan in the 1920s owed a debt in part to the arrival of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in London in 1912. The combination of dazzling costumes and sets by Leon Bakst, music by Claude Debussy and an animalistic, muscular performance by Nijinsky in L’Après-midi d’un Faune (Afternoon of the Faun) were a sensation. Inspired by the designs on Grecian urns and vases, Faun was considered one of the first modern ballets, its inescapable erotic sub-text imprinting itself firmly in the minds of those who witnessed it and triggering a cult of Pan that quietly gathered followers throughout the war years. Grecian-style, bare-footed dancing under the tutelage of pioneers such as Margaret Morris and Isadora Duncan became increasingly popular, and many fashion and hair styles among women frequently took inspiration from the Classical era. By the end of the war, as society looked ahead to a new, more optimistic decade, Pan and his followers had found the perfect time to flower.

In September 1923, L’Après-midi d’un Faune was due to be adapted into a film with screen idol Rudolf Valentino in the starring role. The Sketch magazine printed a publicity shot of Valentino on its front cover, dressed in costume as the faun, his chest bare and burnished, his gaze sultry as his lips grazed his panpipes. Considering the magnetic effect the star had on the cinema-going public, it was an inspired casting decision that may very well have sent the world Pan-crazy. Unfortunately, though the script was written, the film was never produced and by the late 1920s, the cult of Pan, and the memories of the Ballets Russes were beginning to fade.

Vaslav Nijinsky, in the title role in AFTERNOON OF A FAUN, 1912. Rudolph Valentino as a faun, 1923
Vaslav Nijinsky, in the title role in AFTERNOON OF A FAUN, 1912. Rudolph Valentino as a faun, 1923

Pan’s star may very well rise again. Indeed, perhaps he never went away. One verse from Panache’s 1920 poem ‘Pan and Peter Pan’, celebrating the immortal god’s irrepressible lust for life, is as relevant now as when it was written.

London shirkers, London workers,

Ball-room, work-room, green-room lurkers,

Do you think that Pan is dead

Or his lusty years are sped?

When the midnight hour is ticking

PAN’S alive, alive and kicking!

Snatch each hectic careless minute,

And be thankful – PAN is in it!

A Snapshot in Time

In 1946, photographer Jean Straker formed a short-lived photographic firm known as Photo Union at 12, Soho Square in London. It specialised in the photo-essay, a form of pictorial journalism undertaken mainly with miniature cameras with lots of detailed images and bridging shots. Four years later, in 1951, the agency went into receivership when Straker sank capital into colour photography, which was to prove too costly. The archive, now at Mary Evans, consequently documents a particularly brief period of time but in many ways, it is all the more fascinating for it.

Woman on London routemaster bus, 1940s

Ley-On's Chop Suey Restaurant, Soho

Jean Straker was born in London in 1913 to an émigré Russian father and English ballerina mother. He began his career in journalism during the 1930s, specialising in film and launching ‘The Talkie’ magazine. A conscientious objector during the War, he combined duties as an ARP warden with working as a surgical photographer in London’s hospitals. But it was in the 1950s, that fame—or perhaps infamy—finally found a foothold. With the failure of Photo Union, Straker abandoned commercial photography to pursue personally satisfying projects. He set up the Visual Arts Club and as part of this, organised nude photography sessions for members. In 1959, ‘The Nudes of Jean Straker’ was published by Charles Skilton Publications, one of the first art photography books of its kind. Despite his activities being pretty similar in practice to life drawing classes, sensibilities were shocked and he was prosecuted in 1962 under the Obscene Publications Act. Arguing that there was nothing depraved or corrupt about the naked human body, Straker spent the rest of the decade refusing to curtail his activities or compromise his artistic integrity leading to a continuous cycle of prosecutions and appeals. By the late 1960s, Straker had given up photography but continued to campaign and lecture on censorship until his death in 1984.

Nude Danae by Jean Straker

Though Straker’s Photo Union collective was a commercial venture, whose subjects were necessarily more conservative, some of the images seem to hint at Straker’s background and personal interests. There are backstage shots of showgirls and candid shots of jobbing musicians, evocative images of Soho streets and long-gone West End restaurants while guileful London girls are pictured on dates with American GIs. They hint of freedom and a certain type of seedy glamour in an age of rationing and austerity. There are other pictures too, which project a more innocent nostalgia: apprentice carpenters, Kentish apple pickers and the 1947 Royal Wedding. But occasionally, the odd, artistic nude reveals the agency founder’s true, fleshy metier. The Photo Union collection is an eclectic and evocative picture of post-war Britain, and particularly London.  To see a selection of images from the archive on the Mary Evans website, click here.

VE Day Celebrations - Piccadilly Circus

Ballet dancers training