High Society and Le Train Bleu
Eddie spent Christmas 1934 with the large house party at Horwood House in Buckinghamshire as a ‘performing guest’ of Maude and Frederick Denny.
It appeared to him as if nothing had changed for him socially and professionally as he began to take up the threads of his life and altered career. Time to renew old friendships. His fears of performing in London alone without the moral support of George were set at rest.
A remarkably detailed in Country Life article on Horwood House with superb period photographs creates the forever lost atmosphere of England is dated 10 November 1923 :
The greatest musical shock the Dennys provided for Eddie were the astounding new recordings of Liszt by the virtuoso Russian pianist Simon Barere.* Early in the New Year of 1935, Eddie drove the sixty miles to London for the Musicians’ Fund Dinner given in honour of Maude’s brother, the English art song composer Roger Quilter. Eddie started the Alvis that had been in storage without difficulty, negotiating the narrow, snowy English lanes at speed, wildly sliding the car just for the amusement of it.
Before her marriage to the poet Robert Nichols, the Dennys’ daughter Norah had been taught music by a musical friend of the Quilters, the Australian composer and virtuoso pianist Percy Grainger. Eddie loved the originality, the relative lack of intellectual complication of much of Grainger’s piano music. He admired his eccentric athleticism, his entertaining personality and his complete eschewal of atonalism in his compositions. They both wore their Australian heritage as a badge of pride.†
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At the recital for King George of Greece, Eddie had made the acquaintance of the largely forgotten sculptor Felix Weiss de Weldon, who was considered in his day ‘the Michelangelo of American sculpture’‡. He was commissioned by governments, presidents, royalty, artists and religious leaders, but would only sculpt figures he considered outstanding in their fields. He asked Eddie to sit for him. The fragile plaster head survived the bombing of Central London during the Second World War stored in a hatbox. Eddie had put it under the bed of ‘a certain lady’. Her house was severely damaged, almost completely destroyed, but the head survived. Eddie always subsequently referred to it as ‘The Royal Head’.
*Simon Barere (1896–1951) was born in Odessa. His legendary and stupendous bravura is now unaccountably neglected. In a similar way to Edward Cahill he began his astounding virtuoso career playing for the silent cinema in order to support his family.
He first studied at the Odessa Imperial Musical Academy with Benno Moiseiwitsch as a fellow student and then with Annette Essipova (one of the most brilliant pupils of Leschetizky) and Felix Blumenfeld (who taught Neuhaus and Horowitz). On 2 April 1951, Barere suffered a cerebral hemorrhage during a performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall. Eugene Ormandy was conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Barere collapsed and died shortly afterwards in the artist’s green room. His ‘supercharged virtuosity’ is once again being recognized through historic recordings.
Horowitz was reputed to be envious of Barere. Violinist Berl Senofsky was seated near Horowitz while Barere performed Liszt’s Reminiscences de Don Juan at Carnegie Hall. “As Barere launched into his trademark supersonic chromatic scales in thirds,” Senofsky remembers hearing, Horowitz stood up and silently mouthed: ‘I cannot stand this any more’, and left in the middle of the piece.”
† Percy Grainger (1882–1961) was a highly original Australian composer, arranger and concert pianist. Known to Eddie who championed his work, he shared rather similar aristocratic audiences for concerts in London but somewhat earlier than Cahill. A fine interpreter of Chopin.
‡ The Austrian sculptor Felix Weiss de Weldon (1907–2003) created more than 1,200 public monuments including busts of Elvis Presley, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy and Simon Bolivar. He is the only artist in the world with a masterpiece on all seven continents, including one of Richard Byrd at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica.
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Following the death of George and the house fire, Eddie practised the Roman Catholic religion more fervently than ever. As an altar boy, the aesthetic theatre of the Tridentine Mass had appealed to him perhaps above the spiritual content. He had always dreamed of visiting Rome. Before sailing to England he made strenuous efforts to realize his fantasy of meeting Pope Pius XI. During his work in musical education in Brisbane he had befriended the legendary Irishman Sir James Duhig, Archbishop of Queensland.*
Before sailing for England the Archbishop had written Eddie two letters of introduction to influential priests in Rome and the Vatican. An audience and brief recital were arranged for 24 February 1935.
* Sir James Duhig (1871–1965) was Archbishop of Queensland for almost sixty years – the longest-serving bishop in the Roman Catholic Church. Known as ‘Duhig the Builder’, in fifty years he added over 400 major buildings to the Brisbane cityscape – religious, educational and charitable institutions, as well as hospitals. (T.P. Boland, Australian Dictionary of Biography.)
Before this ‘pilgrimage’ he had spent much of January practising in the deserted London residence in South Street, Mayfair of Lady Gwynedd Quilter, the wife of Roger Quilter’s eldest brother Eley. She wrote to him: ‘Use the flat to your heart’s content if you would not mind the furniture being covered up.’
Travelling to Rome by train from London was an adventure in 1935. From the reports by his friends who raced cars at Brooklands, Eddie knew of the famous Blue Train Races and was particularly excited at the prospect of this journey.
He took his reserved seat in the Pullman car of the boat train from Victoria Station to Dover. Not being a particularly good sailor, he had organised a private cabin on the boat for the Channel crossing to Calais. He had booked a sleeping compartment as far as Menton in the exclusively first class, chic and luxurious Le Train Bleu (the steel ‘Grand Luxe’ carriages of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits were painted cream and dark blue). Passengers on ‘the millionaires’ train’ had the advantage of avoiding French customs delays at Calais before the 750 mile onward journey to Paris, Nice and the Côte d’Azur.
The train set off from the Gare du Nord for Nice in the early evening. Shortly after departure from the Gare de Lyon a great ringing of bells announced that dinner had been served. The long hours until bedtime were eased by a meal in the sumptuous haute cuisine restaurant followed by a leisurely coffee, cognac and a cigar in the mahogany-panelled salon bar.
During dinner he had made the acquaintance of a mysterious young Russian, the ‘Countess Maria Z ’ who was much taken with his playing of Chopin Nocturnes on the upright Bechstein that stood in one corner of the lounge. A romantic intimacy became quickly established between them. This was often the case with women when the handsome concert pianist played Chopin.
On returning to his compartment he noticed the attendant had already turned down his bed. Soon after retiring there was a gentle knock on the door and to his surprise the Countess appeared dressed in a spectacular creation by Schiaparelli, her throat adorned with Cartier jewellery and carrying a Pekinese. He spent an unexpectedly erotic night with her as the train haltingly made its way south.*
After a fitful sleep of broken rhythms he awoke the next morning to the dazzling sunshine of the Côte d’Azur. Palm trees and a riot of yellow mimosa lined the shore of the glittering Mediterranean as he poured coffee from the chased silver pot and broke open the feather-light croissants.
The Countess had silently quit his compartment during the night and he never saw her again. Eddie felt something almost deliciously sinful in this encounter as he journeyed towards the Vatican and his audience with the Pope. At Ventimiglia he changed trains to board the majestic Rome Express which travelled along the picturesque Ligurian coast across Tuscany to Florence and finally down to Rome.†
*Eddie often did not note or even remember the names of his ‘acquaintances of the night’, a phrase he used when describing such brief encounters to the author during intimate conversations later in Monaco in 1968.
† The Blue Train inspired many writers and artists. In 1924, it inspired Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes to create a ballet entitled Le Train Bleu.
The train is featured in the Agatha Christie’s novel The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928). The Blue Train Races were a series of record-breaking attempts between cars and trains in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It saw a number of motorists and their own or sponsored automobiles race against ‘le train bleu’. The Blue Train Bentleys (two Speed Six Bentleys) owned by the dashing ‘Bentley Boy’ Woolf Barnato took part in these races.
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Eddie wrote an account of the Papal audience on 25 February 1935 published in the Australian Women’s Weekly. The description by ‘Mr Cahill, who has played before almost every crowned head of Europe’ was breathily introduced as being ‘as exciting as any film story or a novel of the sixteenth century.’
‘The Glory That Is Rome!’
by Edward Cahill
All this glory seems to be concentrated in that one vast and palatial dwelling – the Vatican. The special suite where the Pope holds audience is a dream of splendour. One enormous salon leading into another. The public reception salon, the Throne Room, and the more exclusive and smaller Thronetta where the private audiences are usually held and where I was privileged to have a personal conversation with His Holiness.
Massive bronze doors, decorated with beautifully wrought panelling lead from one room to the other, and the rich claret-coloured carpet tones with the purples and wine-shades of the tapestries which cover the walls, and the brocade covering the massive gold furniture. Pomp and ceremony are everywhere.
The young noblemen who form the special Papal Guard are sumptuously attired in papal blue and gold with dazzling brass helmets and long swords. It is a special honour to be appointed to the Throne Room guard, and the highest born of the young Roman nobles vie for the honour.
While I waited in the Throne Room I saw the guard being changed, and a very impressive sight it was. All the ladies present who were awaiting the ordinary public audiences wore the customary veils and high-necked dresses. I wore full evening dress, tails and a white tie, which is the correct attire, although it was only one o’clock in the afternoon. I was received by Father P. Murray, Superintendent General of the Redemptorists, who a couple of years ago came out to Australia and was the guest of Archbishop Duhig of Brisbane. Archbishop Duhig had written to them. That was how I was able to have the honour of un’udienza speciale.
I must confess to feeling more excited here than I have ever felt when faced with my greatest concert audiences. The Pope is a majestic figure although, apart from the enormous emerald ring on His Holiness’ first finger, he was dressed in great simplicity. The Pope talked with me in German, as he doesn’t speak any English. He showed me the gold watch which he always wears, and told me it was presented to him by His Grace the Arch- bishop Duhig, of Brisbane and the pupils of All Hallows Con- vent. He pointed out that it was made of Australian gold. He sent his blessing and good wishes through me to all Australian musicians.
After the udienza speciale Eddie lunched with Father Murray at the Redentoristi and afterwards in the concert hall gave a piano recital to over 100 priests, one of them an Australian. He continues:
I was still feeling the reaction of this rich, emotional experience as I descended the noble marble staircase and made my way out to the piazza. Suddenly I heard my name called, and turned to find a young friend from the Scandinavian Embassy. I felt, and probably looked, somewhat unusual, bareheaded and in formal evening clothes on the clear winter afternoon. Besides I was in a hurry to get to the opera.
Glancing at the clock I realized how little time there was, and calling good-bye to my friend I started to dash down the street. Suddenly I felt a grip on my shoulder. I was under arrest. Mus- solini was to pass that way in a few minutes. There had been a warning that a dangerous character was around and I was a suspect.
‘Where are your papers?’
‘Why are you glancing at the Vatican clock so furtively?’
‘Who are you?’
I searched for my papers. Of course, I had left them at the hotel when I changed into my dress clothes for the audience. I was taken to the police-station, and kept there for some hours until my identity was proved. Of course, I missed the opera.
Even so, my adventures were not over. My train, the Rome Express, was the ill-fated train which just missed a terrible avalanche. All the passengers had to get out and drive through the Alps by car to connect with another train.*
Eddie remained in Rome for a week or so, attending the opera and sightseeing. Early in March 1935 Sabine had agreed to meet him in Berlin to begin their short concert tour of Germany.
The inveterate traveller made his way back to Cannes once more on the Rome Express and then joined the luxury Riviera Express to Berlin. After the loss of George he was greatly looking forward to performing once again with a sympathetic and talented musical partner, quite apart from the fact she had once been a distant inamorata. The Russian Countess was already a distant memory.
*Australian Women’s Weekly, Saturday 30 March 1935.
High Society and Le Train Bleu
Towards the end of 1934 Eddie Cahill, an inveterate traveller for some 20 years, decided to leave Australia on another tour of England. He agreed to give a series of concerts at the invitation of the ever loyal Mrs Denny in Buckinghamshire. However on this occasion he would be performing as a soloist and judged entirely on his own merits. With his limited funds he was forced to taking passage to England on the cargo liner SS Stuart Star.
In October he boarded as the first and only passenger on the newly inaugurated Blue Star Line Brisbane to Southampton route. On the day he sailed his sister Bessie, an outstanding mezzo soprano, laid on a farewell tea at the cottage in the grounds of the Belle Vue Hotel in Brisbane. He played some Chopin and appropriately the melancholic Adieu for piano attributed to Beethoven. Eddie would never see Australia again.
On the long voyage he gave a number of concerts on an old upright piano which were much appreciated by the crew. Being alone gave him the opportunity to work up additions to his repertoire for his new programmes for London and the concerts Sabine had arranged in Germany. He practised Liszt’s virtuosic Hungarian Fantasy for two pianos, a challenge for a pianist with such small hands. He was also able to learn the piano part of the sonatas he would perform with Sabine – Beethoven’s magnificent Kreutzer and Spring sonatas for violin and piano as well as Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in E major, BMV 1016 for violin and harpsichord.
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In the warm Queensland sun, Eddie had not considered the living conditions and social problems of the England he was approaching in the 1930s. He thought conditions for classical musicians could not be worse than in Australia. Eddie possessed an established reputation and promises of lucrative engagements in London that only lay in hibernation. He was brimming with optimism.
The inclement winter climate and unhealthy air of the British Isles checked this mood. Fog in the English Channel, among the worst in living memory, delayed the boat from docking for fifty-eight hours. While waiting on board a friendly radiogram arrived from Mrs Denny at Horwood: ‘Welcome home. All waiting for your arrival.’ which lifted his spirits. Grey light and smog lay oppressively over London as he chugged past the grim urban brick dwellings on the steam train from Southampton. Millions of smoking chimneys rather than white Pacific beaches filled the narrow window of the carriage.
The economy of England had been at least as affected by the Wall Street debacle as that of Australia. An economic blizzard was howling through the land. ‘Times, we all thought, had never been worse or England closer to the abyss.’* The style of life, social status and political power of many in the milieu of peers Eddie had frequented in the 1920s had continued its inexorable decline during his absence. The profound upheavals resulting from the deaths in the Great War of perhaps two generations of a single family continued unabated. Crippling rises in taxes and punitive death duties, the depression of agricultural revenues and the lure of overseas investments in the United States or the South American railways meant that the secure predictability of Edwardian upper-class life was slowly leaching away.
Numerous historic seats were sold or demolished during the interwar years. All the great estates in the entire county of Middlesex, except for a number of parks, were subsumed under brick and concrete. Broad acres were broken up and sold off piecemeal for sterile modern housing developments. Some great houses were simply abandoned and fell into irreversible disrepair.†
* Diana Cooper, The Light of Common Day (London 1959), p. 102.
† John Martin Robinson, Felling the Ancient Oaks: How England Lost its Great Country Estates (London 2011), p. 31.
In 1933 Duff Cooper writes in his diary of a party he attended at the later notorious Londonderry House with the ‘most beautiful woman in England’, his wife Diana. The tone is rather revealing of upper-class attitudes and the savage differences remaining within society:
It was an exceptionally delightful party. Young and old admirably mixed. […] It is of course true that nowhere else in the world nowadays, and not often in England, are there parties where statesmen, ambassadors and debutantes meet. We didn’t get home till past three. […] We went to Breccles for the weekend.
Just before luncheon the butler blew his brains out, which was rather distressing.*
However the decline of the powerful and privileged in society was all but invisible to the majority. The elite seemed to float effortlessly above strife, always mindful of keeping up appearances. Fun and games were still pursued with a vengeance by some members of the upper classes during the thirties:
Treasure-hunts were dangerous and scandalous, but there was no sport to touch them … A clue might lead to a darkened city court, there to find a lady in distress, with a dead duellist at her feet, who would hand the next clue through her tears. This might lead to a plague-spot where a smallpoxed ghost would whisper a conundrum that took you to a mare’s nest in Kensington Gardens, and thence to a Chinese puzzle in Whitechapel. Quick thought, luck and unscrupulous driving might bring you first to the coveted prize.†
There is no finer description of the favoured circles Eddie moved within than the entries from the diaries of Harold Nicolson. He was a diplomat, politician, author and famous diarist also the husband of the writer Vita Sackville-West. In the 1930s they moved to magnificent Sissinghurst Castle in Kent.
Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon‡ in 1934 lived in some splendour at 5 Belgrave Square in a house next door to the notorious Prince George, Duke of Kent. Monsieur Boudin of Jansen came to us this morning with his final drawings and estimates for our dining-room which is to imitate and, I hope, rival the Amalienburg. It will shimmer in blue and silver, and have an ochre and silver gallery leading to it. It will shock and stagger London. And it will cost over [GBP] 6,000. Honor came into the paneled room and smiling sweetly asked ‘How much?’ Channon recorded on Monday 29th July 1935.
King Edward VIII came to dinner with Mrs. Simpson on Thursday 11th June, 1936. Channon wrote an extraordinary account of a dinner with King Edward VIII “…he was in ecstasies over it […] it was the very peak, the summit I suppose.”
Harold Nicolson describes Channon’s house:
All Regency upstairs with very carefully draped curtains and Madame Récamier sofas and wall paintings. Then the dining-room is entered through an orange lobby and discloses itself suddenly as a copy of the blue room at the Amalienburg near Munich – baroque and rococo and what-ho and oh-no-no and all that. Very fine indeed. (Harold Nicolson (1886–1968), Diaries and Letters 1930–39 (London 1966), p. 244.)
* John Julius Norwich (ed.), The Duff Cooper Diaries 1915–1951 (London 2005), pp. 222, 225
† Cooper, The Light of Common Day, pp. 112–3.
‡ Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon (1897–1958) was an American-born wealthy Conservative politician, author and famous diarist.
Some inheritors of great wealth persisted in fecklessly gambling entire fortunes away in extravagant and mindless pleasures, sinking vast sums into the world of horses or falling victim to their own financial incompetence. Eddie’s royal patrons were scarcely affected by anything during the decade.
Lower down the social scale, the middle classes during this decade experienced a significant expansion in suburban housing. This satisfied the English desire for a self-contained house with a small garden where one might pleasantly occupy snatched hours of leisure. The intractable problem of long-term unemployment among the working class in the industrial North remained. An average of twenty-two per cent of men were ‘on the tramp’ (searching for work) during the decade.
… groups of idle sullen-looking young men stood at the street corners … Everything had the look of a Sunday that had lasted many years … a disused, slovenly, everlasting Sunday.†
Eddie took up residence at 7a Manchester Street, Westminster.‡ Scarcely venturing outside Mayfair and Belgravia and attending the fashionable dinners hosted by his well-insulated patrons, he would have been only vaguely aware of ‘actual hunger – hunger gnawing at the stomach, hunger making one dizzy and weak, hunger destroying one’s body and destroying one’s mind.’§
Thy mother is crying Thy dad’s on the dole:
Two shillings a week is the price of a soul
A Carol, C. Day Lewis
† The poet Edwin Muir quoted in Juliet Gardiner, The Thirties: An Intimate History (Lon- don 2010), p. 34.
‡ Destroyed by bombing during the Blitz.
§ Fenner Brockway, Hungry England (1932) quoted in ibid., p. 61.
His Australian relations and friends accused him of becoming an arrant snob and social climber in London. However in such a brutal economic climate one can scarcely criticize him for the career he valiantly set out to carve for himself among the English upper classes through his contacts, talent and charm. In the arena of fashion and privilege, Eddie Cahill was merely a society pianist (albeit a brilliant one) forced to earn a living entertaining the haut ton who were passing through, as Lady Swaythling put it, ‘the most wearisome economic times’.
* * *
Eleven years had passed since Eddie as a raw colonial witnessed his first royal wedding in 1923. By coincidence he had arrived back in England just in time to witness the marriage of the controversial, privately scandalous figure of Prince George, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of George V and Mary of Teck.* He was to marry Marina, the beautiful daughter of Prince Nicholas of Greece and Denmark and Elena Vladimirovna, Grand Duchess of Russia (a granddaughter of Tsar Alexander II). It was to be the last marriage between the son of a British sovereign and a member of a foreign royal house.
The 29th of November 1934 dawned romantically foggy. Eddie felt that the misty haloes surrounding the gas mantles along the route created the atmosphere of an hallucinatory dream. He saw the opulent state carriages with postilions in royal livery wearing tricorn hats, black Rolls-Royce Phantoms, Daimler limousines and the mounted regiments of the Life Guards moving like disembodied ghosts. London was in festival mood, with Bond Street decorated in waxed paper flowers and the Greek and British flags.
How the Royals were adored by the public in those days! A world that has disappeared forever…
Here is a spectacular 7 minute British Movietone News souvenir of the wedding with commentary.
I feel I must quote Nancy Mitford once more:
‘It’s rather sad,’ she said one day, ‘to belong, as we do, to a lost generation. I’m sure in history the two wars will count as one war and that we shall be squashed out of it altogether, and people will forget we ever existed. We might just as well never have lived at all. I do think it’s a shame.
Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love (London 1945)
This was the first royal wedding to be broadcast on the wireless. Previously the Westminster Abbey Dean and Chapter had refused this technology fearing that disrespectful people ‘might hear the service, perhaps some of them even sitting in public houses, with their hats on.’
Two days before the marriage there had been a ball at Buckingham Palace. Among some eight hundred guests were a Mr and Mrs Ernest Simpson, friends of the Prince of Wales. The Prince introduced Mrs Simpson to his parents. ‘It was the briefest of encounters. A perfunctory greeting, an exchange of meaningless pleasantries and we moved away,’ she wrote later (Quoted in Barrow, Gossip: A History of High Society from 1920 to 1970, p. 73)
* Prince George, Duke of Kent (1902–42) was a strong advocate of the policy of appeasement and was immensely popular with the public. He died in the mysterious crash of a Short Sunderland flying boat in Scotland in August 1942. He was a colourful and sexually scandalous member of the royal family.
Marina was a favourite royal with Eddie and he closely followed her activities for much of his future life. After the ceremony at Westminster Abbey, the ‘dazzling pair’ drove back to Buckingham Palace to appear on the balcony before the multitudes who were waving white handkerchiefs. Eddie noted the scene was ‘like foam on a wind-tossed sea’. A Greek Orthodox ceremony took place immediately after this balcony appearance. They set off for their long honeymoon from Paddington Station in the midst of huge cheering crowds.†
Eddie was requested to play at the farewell party given for the handsome, exiled King George II of Greece‡, who was leaving for Paris shortly after the royal wedding. The King had been living at Brown’s Hotel in London and would be restored to the Greek throne in November 1935. Diana Cooper wrote of him:
His life, they say, is a very sad one. He has not one man he can trust or take advice from, and not one personal friend. He’s made himself more or less of a dictator, he says, though disapproving of dictators …§
Eddie felt the familiar elation ‘bordering on vertigo’, the damp palms, that particular inspiration that electrified his nerves when playing once again for a royal audience.
† Description of the wedding taken from Edward’s notebook and Alison Weir, Kate Williams, Sarah Gristwood and Tracy Borman, The Ring and the Crown: A History of Royal Weddings 1066–2011 (London 2011), pp. 110–15.
‡ King George II of Greece (1890–1947) reigned from 1922 to 1924 and from 1935 to 1947.
§ Diana Cooper, The Light of Common Day, p. 182.