Heddon Street is a small side-street and alleyway off Regent Street, close to Piccadilly Circus. Yet, the Handbook Guide to Rock and Pop (1997) lists the street as an historic London music site. The reason is David Bowie. His 1972 concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was based on a story of a fictional rock star named Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy is the human manifestation of a ‘space invader’. He is also the definitive rock star: sexually promiscuous, hooked on drugs, but with a message of peace and love. He is destroyed by his own excesses and by the fans he inspired. A film of the same name, directed by D.A. Pennebaker, was released in 1973. The cover of the album shows Bowie posing as Ziggie in front of no. 23 Heddon Street. Photographer Brian Ward created the photograph for the cover. Originally shot in black and white, Ward tinted the photographs to achieve the storybook style of the album sleeve. More importantly, however, it was in the basement at no. 9 Heddon Street that in 1912 England’s first cabaret club opened its doors.
The concept of cabaret is a Continental one. The first modern nightclub, the Chat Noir, opened in Montmartre in 1881. The club presented itself as a ‘cabaret artistique’, a new kind of public meeting place for writers, poets and artists. In an obituary of its founder Louis Rodolphe Salis, the New York Times of 23 March 1897 specifically referred to the artistic clientèle of the Chat Noir: ‘Here Alfred de Musset, Alphonse Daudet, and the frères de Goncourt assembled to write verses and eat their dinners, including wine, for twenty sous. Here Guy de Maupassant came nightly, brooding alone, at a table apart from the others. Paul Verlaine wrote verses here, seated at a marble table, with ink and a bottle of wine before him, and a quill pen in his hand’. The Chat Noir staged the integration of the artist as a social outcast, the ‘poète maudit’, into the gallery of criminals, revolutionaries, and libertines long associated with the shady underworld of pubs and clubs.
This, the first modern nightclub, was both a place of adversarial culture and a shrewdly planned commercial venture. Almost as soon as the Chat Noir opened in 1881, Salis turned the club into a money making enterprise, in part to advance the careers of writers and artists associated with the club. The Chat Noir exploited the medium of print to disseminate its brand of bohemianism. The club published its own weekly journal in tabloid format, with a print run that grew from 300 to 20,000 copies per week in a matter of seven years. Other publications included the Chat Noir Guide, a brochure listing art works that were for sale at the club; the Album du Chat Noir, a portfolio of drawings to be sold by subscription; song sheets of lyrics recited or sung at the club, and collections of stories concerning the club. Bohemianism was good business.
A significant aspect of the new nightclub was the design of its interior. Again, the Chat Noir had set a precedent. Its rooms were decorated seemingly at random. In reality, the cabaret’s environment had been carefully planned. It featured furniture and artifacts of the Louis XIII period, but arranged in such grotesque settings as to make them incongruous. Walls were covered with green paper or drapes. Panels were made with glazed doors of Louis XIII design. On all available wall space were hung paintings and prints created by the cabaret’s resident artists (the ‘artist-in-residence’ was also a new concept). Pots, plants, plates, and antiques hung from the ceiling or were stacked in corners and niches. The deliberate attempt was to mix the ancient and the modern, to blend the rococo and the commonplace, to combine the luxurious and the obnoxious, to fuse style and kitsch. Many clubs adapted themselves to specific themes.
One of the more outrageous attempts was made at the Cabaret du Ciel. Waiters were dressed as angels with wings and wigs. As guests sipped on the ‘ambrosia of the gods’, they were treated to ‘mystical illusions and celestial music’ while beholding burlesque religious rites (striptease in other words). Heaven was situated on the second floor of the house. The 1903 Pleasure Guide to Paris describes this abode in the following terms: ‘It is a vast grotto, in which hang stalactites of a golden colour. Here Saint Peter is represented by a robust mulatto, armed with a long key, with which he opens the door for the elect … Gorgeous transformations now take place in a mysterious manner, so as to favour the illusion that it is no longer this sad earth of ours, but a region ethereal and serene where all the angels are represented by women’.
At the Café du Néant visitors entered a dark chamber lit only by wax tapers suspended on a chandelier composed of human skulls and arms. Customers were welcomed by waiters dressed as undertakers and seated at tables made of coffins, from where they could ponder images of death, carnage and assassination that adorned the walls. After drinking ‘les microbes de la mort’, clients would be directed to the Hall of Incineration where they could enjoy a spectacle of death and decay. A chosen member from the audience was placed in an upright coffin. Using a projected image, glass and mirrors an illusion was cast to make it appear as if that person was slowly decomposing into a skeleton.
In 1885, Aristide Bruant opened a club called Le Mirliton. Its famous owner – the man in the red scarf and black cape featuring on Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters – composed and performed accusatory songs in Parisian slang about the fate of the poor and downtrodden, and about crime and violence in the city. His mix of song, satire and entertainment was popular with the affluent classes slumming in the Montmartre district. The ‘chanson réaliste’ made an instant impact and became part of the repertoire of most cabaret performers in the European capitals. This repertoire consisted of poems of loss and hopelessness. It listed songs that dealt with the struggle for life in poorest parts of the city, and with the thugs, pimps, and tarts that called them home. Its themes were poverty, abandonment, deprivation, combined with socio-political commentary. Novelists had been a major influence on the development of the genre which had been preceded by such literary movements as Realism and Naturalism. Later, the art form was performed mainly by female vocalists. It was brought to perfection by Édith Piaf.
Once the madness of the Great War was behind them, Parisians rebounded in a carnival of cosmopolitan hedonism known as ‘les années folles’. There was a new aspect to this particular orgy of pleasure: the influx of American youngsters who were sick of prohibition and puritanical small-mindedness back home. Some of them had plenty of dollars in their pockets taking advantage of the strong exchange rate, while others arrived with the sole ambition of making it as an artist. Many nightclubs cultivated a deliberately coarse and promiscuous atmosphere. In Berlin, these were known as ‘Tingeltangel’ clubs.
The sleazy atmosphere of such establishments is captured in Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film Der blaue Engel (based upon a novel by Heinrich Mann) with lusty Marlene Dietrich as the chanteuse Lola Lola.
The story line was inspired by clubs such as Zum hungrigen Pegasus (opened in Berlin in October 1901 by artist Max Karl Tilke), where one could enjoy performances by a poet named Dolorosa (real name: Maria Eichhorn) reciting erotic and sadomasochistic verses, or artists performing ‘niggersongs’.
The identification of jazz with the ‘spirit of the times’ formed the essence of many articles and essays during the 1920s. When in May 1938 Hans Severus Ziegler organized the ‘Entartete Musik’ exhibition in Düsseldorf, he included work by Schönberg, Kurt Weill, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Mahler, Krenek, and many others. He specifically turned against the Berlin craze for jazz. Ernst Krenek had incorporated jazz influences into his opera Jonny spielt auf (1926). Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill were interested in the means of expression found in jazz, but in the Nazi interpretation of German high culture there was no place for ‘Niggermusik’.
With an audience consisting of artists, scholars, writers, financiers, well-connected ladies, prostitutes, and criminals, the nightclub was a place where middle-class citizens could pretend to be bohemians and, for one night at least, release themselves of all shackles of respectability. These weekend bohemians introduced the recreational practice of ‘slumming’. Middle-class city dwellers visiting naughty clubs in marginal neighbourhoods became an ingredient in the allure of modern European urban nightlife. The OED dates the first use of the word ‘slumming’ to 1884. Social commentators and reformers visited London slum neighbourhoods in order to observe social life in those parts. Once Oscar Wilde incorporated the theme of ‘slumming it’ in The Picture of Dorian Gray the idea became fashionable and held a fascination for authors and artists alike. Nocturnal club life added spice to the concept.
Outside France, the authorities looked at such developments with a degree of concern. The presence of cabaret performer Hans Hyan, the owner of Zur Silbernen Punschterrine (The Silver Punchbowl) which had opened in Berlin in November 1901, was closely watched by the police. After all, Hyan had a criminal record. In 1891 he had been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for aggravated burglary; ten years later he was (unsuccessfully) investigated for robbery. He was fined for libel and suspected of writing and publishing pornography. For a while, Hyan was the talk of the town. He was celebrated as Berlin’s counterpart to Aristide Bruant.
Like his French model, he used local slang, sang songs about criminals and outcasts, and verbally insulted the curious audience that came to see his cabaret. To be treated rudely and abused aggressively was all part of the fun of slumming. Hans Hyan was a master of this game. He had the skill to imitate the speech of various social groups in the city, in particular the slang of the criminal fraternity. His command of the Berlin dialect was masterful. No one less than Kurt Tucholsky remembered Hyan for his capacity of capturing phonetically the ‘Berlin manner of thought, the Berlin soul’. Hans was Berlin, Berlin was Hyan. The relationship with the authorities worsened when Dolorosa started to perform regularly at the Punschterrine. Her list of explicitly erotic and masochistic songs, of which ‘The Song of Songs of Pain and Torture’ was a particular favourite of the club’s clients, became morally intolerable to many respectable observers. Cabaret had become a celebration of immorality. The club was finally shut down in 1904.
Frida Strindberg was very much a product of the European avant-garde of the early twentieth century. Born in Austria as the daughter of the editor of the Wiener Zeitung, Frida Uhl worked as a writer and translator in Vienna. In 1893, at the tender age of twenty years, she met forty-three year old Swedish writer and dramatist August Strindberg, who had achieved fame as the author of more than twenty plays, several novels, autobiographical works and collections of stories, poems and essays. He was a controversial figure whose sexually frank works had incurred the intervention of Swedish and German censors. Fame was not accompanied by money. At the time Strindberg proposed to Frida, the writer was heavily in debt and being pursued by his first wife for child support payments. Friedrich Uhl opposed the marriage, doubting the author’s ability to support his daughter.
Frida and August married soon after their first meeting in spite of her father’s disapproval. Strindberg’s reputation allowed her access to the bohemian circles he frequented, and make lasting contacts with some outstanding artists of her day. In marrying Strindberg, a morose misogynist if ever there was one, she sacrificed not only the relationship with her family but also her career as a writer and critic. Taking his financial affairs in hand, she at once tried to organize a production of his work in England. However, Strindberg did not approve of the active role Frida was taking in his business affairs, and the marriage in which one daughter was born ended in divorce in 1895. It has been suggested that their stormy relationship inspired Strindberg’s tirades against women in general and against married women in particular. Frank Wedekind, the German playwright who in his work laid bare the shams of sexual morality in his time, was the father of Frida’s second child. She sent both her children away to be cared for by her parents.
Fin de siècle Vienna was a major centre for arts and culture. It was the most exciting period in the capital’s cultural history. The literary and artistic movement known as ‘Jung Wien’ (Young Vienna) was composed of such remarkable artists as Gustav Mahler, Arthur Schnitzler, Gustav Klimt, Adolf Loos, and others. Frida was closely involved with several writers of the Young Vienna movement, such as the poet Peter Altenberg for whom she organized a subscription, and the journalist and outstanding satirist Karl Kraus whom she convinced to sponsor a reading of Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box. Her affair with the writer Werner von Oesteren was particularly problematic. She threatened him on two separate occasions with a revolver. Details of this relationship were made public in 1905 when she sued Werner for harassing a detective she had hired to follow him. In 1908, on New Year’s Day, she fired a gun in a Viennese hotel. This may have been an attempt to take her life.
The event caused such publicity in her native town that she decided to move to London where, in 1912, she opened the Cave of the Golden Calf (named after one of the rooms in the Parisian Chat Noir) at no. 9 Heddon Street, off Regent Street, England’s first ‘Cabaret Club’ housed in a large basement below a warehouse. She intended her club to be a meeting place for writers and artists, an avant-garde rival to the nearby Café Royal where Oscar Wilde once was one of the regulars. The club offered a cheap meal and reduced admission to young artists. The Cave served as a kind of avant-garde soup kitchen. For better-off clients, of course, there was lobster salad on the menu.
The Continental inspiration for the club, apart from the Chat Noir, was the Kaberett Fledermaus in her native Vienna. In her ‘Preliminary Prospectus’ to the opening of the club, issued in April 1912, Frida proudly announced that the interior of the establishment would be ‘entirely and exclusively’ decorated by ‘leading young British artists’. The ‘Prospectus’ was illustrated with woodcuts by Wyndham Lewis. It claimed that the cabaret would do away with the necessity of crossing the Channel in order ‘to laugh freely and sit up after nursery hours’. As this comment suggests, the Cave of the Golden Calf looked to the Chat Noir for inspiration. Moreover, the Cave opened only three months after Marinetti’s notorious first visit to London, which gave an added Futurist impetus to Frida’s plans for her club. Among its ‘resident’ artists were Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and Wyndham Lewis. Frida insisted that the club presented itself properly in print, from its ‘Preliminary Prospectus’ to programs, announcements and menus.
Typography was essential. All printed materials were designed by Wyndham Lewis according to the latest Continental styles. Sculptor Jacob Epstein transformed the cellar’s structural columns into plaster female figures described by Ford Madox Ford in his 1923 novel The Marsden Case as ‘white caryatids with heads of hawks, cats, and camels picked out in red’. Opening night saw performances by Norwegian cabaret singer and founder of the Oslo Chat Noir Bokken Lasson, shadow plays by Wyndham Lewis, an actor reciting Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, and, in true cabaret fashion, a young cockney shouting foul mouthed abuse at the audience.
Ezra Pound admired Frida’s achievement. Other luminaries who frequented the establishment included Katherine Mansfield, Ford Madox Ford, and – of course – Augustus John. The Cave attracted London’s bohemian set, the mad, bad and decadent. It contributed to the erosion of class identities in the capital. Here guests could enjoy the full cabaret repertoire, plays and poetry, jazz and ragtime music, song and dance, with champagne served until dawn. The Cave went bankrupt in 1914, but not before Strindberg herself had become disappointed by its failure as an artistic experiment. It proved nevertheless to be an influential venture and became the model for a number of nightclubs of the 1920s. The Cave of the Golden Calf had certainly made a contribution to modernism in Britain. The club had served as the after-hours headquarters for what would become the vanguard movement of Vorticism. London’s first avant-garde movement was born in Frida Strindberg’s nightclub. After closure of her club, Frida left for the United States, where she secured a job with Fox Film.