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.

 

 

 

 

The Dolly Sisters and Mr Selfridge

In the fourth and final series of ITV’s ‘Mr Selfridge’ currently showing on Friday evenings, two new characters are introduced – The Dolly Sisters. We’ve invited contributor Gary Chapman, owner of the wonderful Jazz Age Club Collection and biographer of The Dolly Sisters, to provide us with an introduction to this fascinating duo.

Welcome to the wonderful, glittering world of the delectable, dancing Dolly Sisters.

‘To me they appeared to be marvellous birds of paradise….If one could believe the tales, thrones were about to crumble and multi-millionaires willing to go broke for love of them…. In London under Cochran they were lionised. No Mayfair party seemed complete until they arrived, chattering like magpies, one taking up when the other paused for breath and trailing chinchilla or foxes or sables as if they were dish rags.’

The actress June in her autobiography The Glass Ladder

DOLLY BLOG 4
Image numbers (left to right): 10503017, 10235725, 10503053 & 10503018

The last series of the hit TV show ‘Mr Selfridge’, will bring the Dolly Sisters to a much wider, global audience. Let’s hope viewers realise that, like all the characters, they will be portrayed in the context of a make-believe drama, bearing only vague resemblance to their true, glamorous story. For a start, they were not blonde and they were identical twins – unlike the unrelated actresses who portray them in the TV show. Also, only one sister was the object of Harry Selfridge’s affection, not both of them.

The dark and exotic-looking Dolly Sisters first met Harry Selfridge at the Kit-Kat Club in London in the summer of 1925 when they were at the height of their fame and fortune. They had already conquered Broadway, London and Paris with their dainty dancing, glamorous good looks and immense charm and were, quite simply, legends in their own time on both sides of the Atlantic.

Born in Budapest, Hungary 25th October 1892, Janszieka (Jenny) and Roszicka (Rosie) were keen dancers but their father did not approve of his daughters becoming entertainers. Due to the unfortunate deterioration of his business he moved to America where the girls arrived with their mother in 1905, followed by their younger brother Edward (later to be a successful stage and screen choreographer). In New York, they began to earn their living as entertainers to help make ends meet. From their rather humble origins they swiftly danced their way to fame and fortune on Broadway finding work with the great Ziegfeld and the Shubert Brothers. They were close friends with the elite of Broadway and Hollywood and became the essential prerequisite for any Broadway festivity. Sporting sleek black bobs, their identical appearance and chic sense of style was a magnet for dress designers, significantly Lucile, Jeanne Lanvin and Jean Patou, who provided costumes and wardrobes for the Dolly Sisters in what was often a mutually convenient arrangement of celebrity endorsement.

Rosie married songwriter Jean Schwartz (1913) and Jenny married comedian and entertainer Harry Fox a year later. However, none of their friends was more important than the millionaire Diamond Jim Brady who indulged their every whim and taught them the art of a flutter with the horses. Such was his infatuation, he once bought them a Rolls Royce wrapped up in ribbon.

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In 1920, they abandoned their husbands and conquered London in shows produced by Albert de Courville and C.B. Cochran, showing off such numbers as the Dollies and the Collies and the Pony Trot. But they found Paris, Cannes, Deauville and Le Touquet far more to their liking and in Paris they appeared in a string spectacular revues with Paris Sans Viole (1923), Oh Les Belles Filles (1923), Paris En Fleurs (1925), A Vol D’Oiseau (1926) and Paris – New York (1927).

Earning incredible salaries, the Dollies invested in property and vast collections of jewellery. ‘Behung with baubles like a couple of Christmas trees’ they were renowned as the most extravagant gamblers in Europe.

The toast of, first London, and then Parisian society, they were romantically linked with dozens of named and unnamed men of title or wealth, including the Prince of Wales (later to become Edward VIII), King Alphonso of Spain, Henri Letellier and Viscomte de La Rochefoucauld. Each vied with the other in an elaborate game of falling in love, engagement, rumours of marriage and then cold feet.

DOLLY BLOG 1
Image numbers (left to right): 10503046, 10503060 & 10503038

When Jenny met Harry Selfridge, Rosie was engaged to the French socialite Francois Dupre, but Jenny had another prominent suitor in the form of Jacques Wittouck – a wealthy Belgian businessman. All was not simple and clear-cut. From 1925, Selfridge and Wittouck would be inextricably linked with Jenny for the next ten years, with constant rumours of marriage as each took it in turn to be her escort as they vied for her attention in a rather unusual menage à trois.

One of the oft-quoted pieces of mush leveled against them was that they had ‘ruined’ Selfridge and were ‘gold-diggers’. Let’s get this straight right away – Selfridge’s fall from grace and his ruination must be attributed to himself, no other. He was obsessed with all things beautiful, not least glamorous women, whom he showered with gifts. He also had a passion for gambling and was more than reckless. He did give Jenny expensive gifts, property, shares and aid her in a business venture. But she was also known for her acts of generosity and kindness as much for her jewels and furs. Their attraction was also re-enforced by their mutual love of gambling. This is the best description of their relationship ‘I should say that he saw at least part of his own daring and acquisitive image reflective in her tingling absorption in games of chance. She may have seen in him the father image, approving her daring.’

DOLLY BLOG 2
Image numbers (left to right): 10503042 & 10089352

Rosie, never married Dupre but instead, ran off and married, and then swiftly divorced, Sir Mortimer Davis Jr, the heir to an estate worth $150m and affectionately called ‘The Fat Boy.’ Much more gossip, scandal, and ultimately tragedy followed.

Although they were not the first sister act to appear on the stage, the Dolly Sisters were certainly the most famous and paved the way for many of the subsequent duos and trios that proliferated in their wake. Even the Gabor sisters followed in the Dollies’ dainty footsteps.

When they retired in late 1927, numerous imitators took their place, but none were more outrageous than the Norwegian Rocky Twins, two boys who dressed up in drag as the Dollies and parodied their routines.

DOLLY BLOG 3
Image numbers (left to right): 10503012, 10503073, 10503010, 10503024 & 10503071

Living close to the rhythm of the time the Dollies were adept at always being in the right place at the right time in the company of the right people. It was a recipe that was to maximize their success. As true icons of the Jazz Age, their lives mirrored luxurious ‘society’ on both sides of the Atlantic and their story provides a fascinating glimpse of this privileged world that was eventually eroded by the Second World War.

The TV show ‘Mr Selfridge’ can only introduce the Dolly Sisters with ‘cameo’ appearances, a little taster of what was a much bigger and more fascinating true story, every bit as dramatic and engrossing as the best fiction.

For a selection of our Dolly Sisters images please click here.

Gary Chapman is the author of the only biography about the Dolly Sisters and has also compiled a lavish picture book about them. He is an expert on the Jazz Age and has a private collection of material solely licensed through Mary Evans Picture Library.

 

The Dolly Sisters: Icons of the Jazz age

The Dolly Sisters in Pictures

www.jazzageclub.com

www.eddittpublishing.com