It was a peculiar but kind of brilliant editorial decision by Life magazine during its death spiral to dig into their lode of photographs and resurrect a story about a long-ago London carnival, the Chelsea Arts Ball of 1947.
This party was just one in a series which had been held every New Year’s Eve since 1908 beneath the aegis of the club of the same name at the Royal Albert Hall opposite Kensington Gardens.
The Life headline exulted that it was “The Most Scandalous Party of New Year’s Eve” gleefully throwing in that it was both “infamous “and “shocking.”
Well, was it really so?
Program notes for British TV coverage of the event now on Google, read: “People dancing in costume, people sitting at tables drinking Balloons descending from ceiling, people reaching for balloons, Floats parading around hall, Nude woman on float past camera, Students climbing up on float, knocking float over, milling crowd breaking up float.”
That sounds pretty standard New Year’s Eve behavior in any big city, not Sodom and Gomorrah, and it seems rather to the point that a biography of Dylan Thomas—the Welsh poet from whom Bob Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman, borrowed his name—observes that he and his wife Caitlin were also present at the 1947 Chelsea Arts Ball, wearing respectively Chinese and Spanish costumery.
Thomas was an alcoholic and a purposeful troublemaker, rather on the lines of his almost exact contemporary, Jackson Pollock—he would die at 39 after binge-drinking while he was staying at the Chelsea Hotel, New York—but the poet neither misbehaved himself nor apparently did he notice infamous or shocking behavior amongst others. And poets notice stuff like that.
The Life pictures were shot by Anthony Linck and George Rodger. It’s worth noting that Rodger had joined the magazine after taking photographs of the London Blitz and that he entered history with searing photographs of heaped corpses at Belsen.
So those pictures of the 1947 ball deserved unearthing. Later that same year Rodger was one of the foursome along with Robert Capa, David “Chim” Seymour and Henri Cartier-Bresson that founded the great photo-agency, Magnum.
The ball came fairly soon after the war, just as Disco had followed Vietnam, and the western capitals were in a mood to party and the Linck/Rodgers pictures show some groping and drunken sprawling. But just how actually infamous did those parties get?
Appallingly so, if you are to judge by some of the after-the-event coverage I have read, seen and/or heard.
They were attended by “several thousand bohemian artists, socialites and ordinary Londoners dressed in decadent or barely-there costumes … The balls were well-known for reports of public nudity, drunken displays of affection, fighting and unreserved homosexuality, which was then still illegal … A parade of floats made by artists made a tour of the dance floor during the evening, which became the focus of a bizarre tradition to then destroy them … (a) rather shocking British Pathé newsreel from 1954 shows the crowd (mostly art students) trying to wreck the floats …”
And, as for the gay men—‘gay not a word much in use then, I think—they were “wearing drag, dressing outrageously, and socializing unashamedly while never appearing to be anything out of the ordinary. In so doing, they were further protected by the Albert Hall’s unique legal status: it was outside the Met’s operational sphere. For once, temporarily and locally, men could fully escape police surveillance.
Wow! Such mean-spirited sexual politics would have been utterly alien to the Chelsea Arts Ball crowd. And, as for the balls themselves, as events, they were clearly good-natured fun but even in my late teens they didn’t seem particularly wicked to me.
Indeed I have memories, albeit rather indistinct ones, of squiring a girl, who was looking less naughty than she fancied in black fishnets. It was a time when I had been trying to acquire some dancing expertise and I remember being surrounded by old folks—in their forties, ugh!—wearing rented fezzes, tricorn hats and Pompadour wigs, jiggling up and down in primitive waltzes and foxtrots while a few pushy couples threw themselves anarchically around attempting the brand-new moves of rock and roll. Debauchery? Not that much that I could see.
The last Chelsea Arts Ball was held in 1958. So the event had lasted half a century, not a bad run, and I really miss that old-school Bohemian art world, a culture in which way the most famous Brit artist was Augustus John, and a far warmer place than the sleek Arts Industry that has sprung up in its place.