…masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity … Those vile bodies…
Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies
What a turban-tastic week this has turned out to be! The third of our pseudo-Levantine trio this week is Brian Howard. The English poet was, to be accurate, only a one-off Orientalist, one in a succession of guises and disguises he adopted as one of the Bright Young Things in the 1920s and 30s.
The BYTs, mostly moneyed and entirely hysterical — in the best and worst senses of the word — scintillate from afar but were most probably insufferable in person (cf. Warhol’s Factory). Howard more than anyone embodies this push-pull dynamic, at once magnetic and repellent, renowned as one of the wittiest men of his generation while being eminently slappable.
Howard’s fauxriental episode came in 1922, when he attended a party in a country manor dressed as “Prince Mohammed Chebbah”, an Algerian who had “learnt English in Strasbourg”. He evidently pulled off the ruse, and there was a complementary event the following year when, in a café in Tunis, Howard claimed to be “a famous English dancer” and took over from the dancing girls to “a roar of Arabian applause”.
This attention-seeking and make-believe had started precociously early; while at Eton Howard played girls’ parts in a number of theatre presentations (the main photo above is a souvenir of this time). But it was his fate to have his wit and vivacity aped and chronicled by others who invariably went on to become more successful than he. Waugh helped himself to large portions of Howard’s persona for the character of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, as did Nancy Mitford when creating Cedric Hampton in Love in a Cold Climate.
So while the young, waspish, fabulous Howard lived on in print, the real Howard had to somehow make his way in the world. It was a disappointing journey, as the title of Marie-Jaqueline Lancaster’s biography Portrait of a Failure makes clear, as does the chapter of D.J. Taylor’s book Bright Young Things entitled “The Books Brian Howard Never Wrote”. Howard got his drink on in a big way, and despite contact with just about every prominent between-the-wars gay man of letters, including W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Klaus Mann, the promise of the young poet who had been praised by Edith Sitwell remained stubbornly unfulfilled.
Howard’s end was triggered in 1958 after his lover Sam was accidentally gassed while taking a bath. Four days later, Howard listened to the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, took an overdose and died.