SUNDAY 21 JULY  2024


Wine, women and cigars, how the sex-mad Beaver partied as Britain burned

The exotic Dolly Sisters took the eye of party host Beaverbrook.They were showered in diamonds by admirers.

NO ONE could call Beaverbrook a handsome man. Quite the opposite. Even the women who adored his power and wealth and slept with him, often described this hugely rich newspaper magnate as ugly and gnome-like. But they nearly all agreed in their letters and diaries that he was “good in bed”, even though they probably ended up hating him. His dismissal cards to their affairs were a large box of red roses and no more communication.

The Beaver was on the small side (about 5ft 6in), with a large head and a big mouth which was usually spread in an impish grin. But whatever his contemporaries thought of his looks, his charm was not in doubt. And his money was no doubt at all. Most of all he liked to have fun.

The strongest example of this is evident in the 1920s, when he was in his prime. The Beaver partied when Britain was burning. Putting aside his breathtaking power, talents and career and all he did for his newspaper and his country, what he loved most were women, alcohol, cigars and high society.

In 1921, a cold wind was blowing from the North across the affluent suburbs of Kensington and Chelsea and soon its icy fingers of poverty would touch even the heart of London.

The birth of the 1920s was bringing with it, slum housing, unemployment, deprivation and hunger. People were not buying newspapers and food and energy costs had rocketed.

An old document reveals that at this time Beaverbrook, and his editor Ralph Blumenfeld were faced with a dying and bankrupt Daily Express, and, like so many other publishing houses, were searching for a cure.

They decided to get out and meet the readers, taking daily walks in London’s Hyde Park where the horses and carriages had mostly gone, and only a few cars were in their place. The country was not a happy place. It needed a voice.

The two men spent a week walking around the park counting people who read their paper and noting any readers of the opposition. They interviewed them trying to find out what they wanted to read in the depressing economic climate, what their answers were.

The post-war period of prosperity was well and truly over. Our coal reserves had been depleted during the conflict and Britain was now importing more coal than it was mining. Things looked bleak for the Express which had been planning expansion on a major scale.

But even in the darkness that lay ahead; the world of Fleet Street, politicians, celebrities and businessmen who had money went on as always — after all it was the Roaring Twenties, the decade of vast parties at vast expense. And of all the parties, Beaverbrook’s was the place to be. He revelled in it.

In the Beaver’s society you were either IN or OUT. Drink, sex, business deals, careers sealed or destroyed, it all went on at his homes and the homes of his close friends, even public functions. Bankers, diplomats, peers, writers, artists, tycoons, and film stars, it seemed, just Charlestoned on while in the back streets of Britain simmering discontent grew. Prime Minister Lloyd George, a Welsh cobbler’s son, was warned. And the Beaver knew it, but he carried on.

One man, Express Cross-Bencher, Lord Leslie Hore-Belisha, (1st Baron Hore Belisha), an Express Cross-Bencher, left his own unpublished memories of this time. He wrote: “In the 1920s, Beaverbrook introduced me to so many rising lights in politics of both the left- and the right-wings, framed in cigar smoke and champagne, that I began to think he represented a stage in the political neophyte’s education.

“On one big night, Cabinet Minister and Labour MP Jimmy Thomas, stood at the top of the stairs identifying for me all the new arrivals as they ascended into the ballroom. ‘Look! There are two bloody dukes. Watch that one. Always does the wrong thing.’ As if to provide apt illustration, the duke promptly knocked over a vase.”

Belisha went on: “Garden parties on the cropped lawns of stately homes; studio bottle parties where the crush was so great that one had to move out into the street to lift one’s elbow, music parties, fancy-dress parties, folk-dance and ballet parties, sporting nights-out at the big boxing matches with Brighton hotel entrepreneur and philanthropist Harry Preston.

“Anything less than a hundred guests to a plain party was a quiet evening at home. I bought a new larger house and joined in with throwing parties on the circuit myself, which shook our quiet suburb. By the end of the 1920s I felt I knew my London and all the people in it.”

The parties obviously took their toll on the Beaver.

Belisha added: “In my first eight months I was paid £4,000. I used to see Lord Beaverbrook at the Vineyard, his house in Fulham, in his flat in the Temple, in his room above the Daily Express, at Stornoway House, in the house at Newmarket, at Cherkley Court, at the flat in Park Lane and the flat in Arlington Street. |

“But I never saw him sit at a desk. He was either lying down on a sofa, covered with a rug or dosing himself with bicarbonate of soda under a blanket on the armchair. Other times he would be sleepily talking to someone on the telephone or sitting about falling asleep in his dressing gown.

Just fancy that …

Daily Express editor at time of the General Strike in 1926, was Ralph Blumenfeld and he wasn’t having any of it. A former printer in his past, he brought out a one-page edition himself when the miners and print workers finally walked out in unison. He pulled out the metal forme from the case-room; set the type, leaded it in, locked the page and proofed it … today it is a collector’s item. Imagine one of us touching a forme with our fingertips in the Seventies. It would be bitten off – or worse!


But the tide was finally turning …

By the 1930s, as the clouds of war in Europe gathered, the tide had turned for the Express. The paper was now the most circulated in the world with sales of up to 2.25 million.

Beaverbrook didn’t hesitate, despite the rantings of a little house painter with an Arian moustache across the Channel. He commissioned three Express buildings in London, Manchester and Glasgow to boost more growth, ordering that all three should be of the highest architectural quality, and assigning talented engineer Sir Owen Williams to the project.

Sir Owen also brought us Wembley Stadium, the Dorchester Hotel and tramways in England. We had come a long way from those strolls in Hyde Park. The London building opened in 1931, followed by the Glasgow building in 1937 and the Manchester in 1939. Sir Owen loved Wembley Stadium so much, he lived there in his own apartment the rest of his life.

The Express had changed from the days of the Hyde Park walk from being a dull-looking news digest of mostly text, read by the aristocracy and well-off of the day, to being a vibrant, paper of the people, packed with pictures well displayed. People were reading it in the pubs and work canteens from Watford to Glasgow. As circulation grew, so did the Beaver’s partying.

A fascinating note found among Arthur Christiansen’s personal effects explained partly why. For many years, writers for the paper were among the rich and famous and included aristocracy, academics and politicians. But education was changing and more people in Britain were able to read than ever before.

Christiansen said: “When I joined the Beaverbrook group in 1926 the Sunday Express was ‘edited’ by James Douglas. He was a ‘writing’ editor, a breed that finally gave way to technical men who could not only write (if necessary) but lay out, sub-edit and in fact bring out the whole paper. Often, they could even put the paper together in metal if they had to!”

These people he saw as the forerunners of today’s production executives, people who used their flair and imagination to project a story on a page, rewrite the copy to make their ideas work and place the stories throughout the book. And the choice of stories was about people like themselves.

Christiansen added: “The managing editor was T.A. Innes; he was the man who produced the paper, in fact. The editorial staff consisted of these two with two assistant editors — Valentine Heywood [later Assistant Editor of the Sunday Times for many years] and F.W. (Freddie) Wilson. These men would mean nothing to us today, but for years they were steering the Express to greater heights.”

New politicians and celebrities turned up in corners of the Beaverbrook parties. The rich and famous were in every room, people like Beaver’s great friend Winston Churchill, and other Prime Ministers and Ministers past and present. It was apparent that the little magnate had a way with women, no doubt about it. Thousands of words began to be written about his alleged affairs, linking his name with posh women of the time … and those not so posh, such as The Dolly Sisters of Deauville, Rosie and Jenny. (Although great pains were taken to deny the Beaver’s relationship with them).

Remember the Dollies featured in the TV drama series Mr Selfridge? They were the wild exotic dancing sisters of Vaudeville Music Hall fame who allegedly ‘milked’ randy Kensington store owner/gambler Harry Selfridge back in the day.

He spent millions on twins Rosie and Jenny and once presented them with four carat blue diamonds set by Cartier into the shells of two live tortoises and had ice cream flown over from London to Paris just because he knew they liked it. Harry regularly covered their gambling losses that ran into several million francs.

Wherever they went they found benefactors enticed by their exotic lifestyles, including Prince Edward at the time. Some historians say the Beaver was among their favourites.

Beaverbrook’s home, Cherkley Court

The years to come saw the Beaver move through a series of top Government jobs, one as chief of aircraft production during the war, as Drone columnist Alan Frame wrote about recently. One historian once said about the Beaver: “It doesn’t matter if he goes to heaven or hell; he will soon arrange a merger between the two.”

Churchill – in spite of some volcanic quarrels over the next half-century – came to rely on Beaverbrook, not only as a political and journalistic ally but as an unfailing source of optimism. Who knows? Britain’s greatest Prime Minister might have failed without the stimulus of his little chum beside him.

Beaverbrook died, aged 85, at his Cherkley Court estate in Surrey on June 9, 1964. Two weeks before his death, fellow Canadian newspaper magnate, Lord Thompson, organised an 85th birthday dinner at the Dorchester for 650 people to remember his press-baron friend. Scores of women were invited.

But his second wife, the eccentric Lady Dunn, whom he married when he was 84, uninvited all the female guests at the last minute after reading the list. The party ended up a stag do. Men only.


8 July 2024