6 Debauched Parties We Wish We'd Been Invited To

By Londonist Last edited 27 months ago

Last Updated 26 April 2022

6 Debauched Parties We Wish We'd Been Invited To

Bright Young Things: the wealthy young men and women at the centre of London’s social scene during the 1920s and early 1930s, who became notorious in the press for their extravagant — often bizarre — parties. Here are six of their most legendary blow-outs. We're jealous we never got an invite.

1. The Bath and Bottle Party (13 July 1928, St George’s Baths)

You know it's a pool party when the guests try to get the police out of their uniforms and into the water. The Bath and Bottle party lived up to its name, with all guests being invited to attend wearing swimming costumes and to bring alcohol. The Bright Young Things spent the night dancing to the sounds of a live orchestra, enjoying jumping into the baths, and admiring the decorations on the water: Tom Driberg of the Daily Express described the "great rubber horses and flowers" that were scattered across the pool. Partygoers had such a good time that they didn’t want to leave: when the police arrived the next morning to attempt to remove the remaining guests, they responded by trying and failing to get the police officers to undress and join in the poolside celebrations instead. When the party finally broke up, the Bright Young Things walked away through the streets still wearing their swimming costumes.

2. The Mock Wedding party (January 1929, Coventry Street)

The cheeky Elizabeth Ponsonby. Image © Illustrated London News Group. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board

A wedding party making a toast to the happy couple. A car ready to take the bride and groom away on honeymoon. Classic wedding day, right? There was just one problem: the marriage wasn't real. Socialite Elizabeth Ponsonby staged the whole charade as a joke with a group of fellow Bright Young Things, including staging photographs of her and her 'husband' John Rayner in character as the newlyweds. A clergyman was even brought in during the wedding breakfast to make a blessing... however, unlike the rest of the party, he wasn't in on the joke. The London media were scandalised: were Ponsonby and friends making fun of the idea of marriage? The press were so indignant that Ponsonby had to escape from London to Surrey for a while until the outrage blew over.

3. The Circus Party (1 July 1929, Bruton Street)

Image © Illustrated London News Group

Wolves, horses and a dancing bear: startling features of the Circus Party of July 1929, along with 250 people who were invited to come dressed as fairground characters. Hosted by fashion designer Norman Hartnell — dressed, of course as a ringmaster — others at the party included Ivor Novello in a sailor suit, and one guest arriving with two snakes draped around her neck (a precursor to Peep Show's Super Hans). The circus excess was taken to extremes with horses being ridden indoors, and one pony even being rideen up the stairs by its owner, Eleanor Smith.

4. The Bruno Hat exhibition party (23rd July 1929, Buckingham Street)

Image © Illustrated London News Group. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board

A mysterious art exhibition in July 1929 brought guests ranging from Lytton Strachey to Winston Churchill to a house in Buckingham Street, where the work of emerging artist Bruno Hat was celebrated at a cocktail party. Evelyn Waugh had written the catalogue for the exhibition and many guests spoke admiringly of the work on display. However, the next day revealed the truth: 'Bruno Hat' was a hoax dreamed up by Brian Howard, an ambitious member of the Bright Young Things who longed to throw his own legendary party. Waugh, Strachey and a number of other people were well aware of the charade. The event was described by the Daily Express as an "amazing hoax on art experts", with the 'artist' at the party actually being Tom Mitford in disguise. We'll level with you — we think some of the hoax art's pretty good.

5. The Mozart Party (29 April 1930, New Burlington Street Galleries)

Image © Illustrated London News Group. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board

It began with the glamour of an 18th century ball. It wrapped with guests outside in the street posing with pneumatic drills. And according to the actress Brenda Dean Paul, it cost nearly £3,000: the equivalent of over £180,000 in today's money. The Mozart Party was one of the most lavish gatherings of the era: according to Tatler, "nearly everyone came in eighteenth-century white wigs," with the host David Tennant (not that one) dressed in character as Mozart's Don Giovanni. The party was designed to mark Mozart's visit to London back in 1764, and drew upon various aspects of that era, including using a cookbook once designed to serve Louis XVI of France as the basis for the menu. The night ended with some guests wandering out onto the street where they found workmen engaged in repairs, and decided to stage a tableau photograph next to them, still dressed in their wigs and gowns, including the photographer Cecil Beaton with one hand on a pneumatic drill.

6. The Red and White Party (21 November 1931, Regent’s Park)

Strawberries, ruby bracelets, lobsters, diamonds, white pyjamas, and ski suits: the red and white theme was the last great party of the Bright Young Things era. These jamborees now had such a reputation for excess that the police attended the bash to try and keep things in check. This time it was Brenda Dean Paul who was at the centre of the drama: first in a scuffle with fellow partygoer Sunday Wilshin, then being arrested by officers on drug charges. Afterwards the Bystander magazine slammed the "ill-bred extravagance" being "flaunted" by rich partygoers: the financial crisis of September 1931 meant London society was no longer so tolerant of wasteful displays of money and privilege. The press had had enough: they were done with indulging the Bright Young Things, scathing in their coverage of the event. The Red and White Party marked the end of an era.

By Jane Alexander