Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bi lives: Nerina Shute/3


(Above: Nerina in 1995, aged c87, right. With Sue1066, left, whose pic this is)

There are so many things you can learn, and be inspired by, when you look at an individual’s life in depth. Studying Nerina Shute’s life through her writings has given me so much to think about. This is just the beginning:

Bisexuality over a lifetime
For many people who aren’t bi – and even for some who are – bisexuality is something that is for young people. Only for young people. I suspect that’s because many of them connect bisexuality with having lots of partners and/or not being “settled down”.

Not much is known about the ways in which people remain bisexual over the course of their lives, how their sexuality changes (or doesn’t), and how these changes interact with the changes in society.

But for Nerina (as with other people of her generation, now dead, such as James Lees-Milne, who have published volumes of diaries) we can see that her bisexuality was important throughout her life. In her 90s, she was happy to tell an interviewer she was bisexual (see this post); in her 80s, in her autobiography Passionate Friendships, she wrote at some length about the (late 1980s) fraught relationship between bi women and lesbians. She simply didn’t understand why this tension existed:
“We are bisexual. We are ambisextrous, as Aimee Stuart would say. Lesbians accuse us of wanting the best of both worlds. Well why not?”

Bisexual life in London
As I’ve already written, bohemian Londoners of this time – whether intellectual Bloomsburyites, or actual and wannabe actresses, people who worked in nightclubs and many etceteras – tended not to choose one opposite-sex marital partner and stay with them, forsaking all other. The blog I referred to in the first of these posts, Cocktails with Elvira, describes many of the personalities involved, and the merry-go-round of relationships in which they were involved. Some of these characters tended to be gay, some tended to be straight, but many of them seemed to have partners or occasional lovers outside of this. What there were, though, were (physical) fights, intrigues and quarrels – something Nerina complains about in We Mixed Our Drinks. No doubt alcohol played a large part.

Playwright Aimee Stuart, friend of Nerina’s from 1926 until Aimee died, introduced Nerina to many of these women through her “at homes”, where sex was frequently discussed and being “ambisextrous” far from unusual. One of them was almost certainly the wonderfully named Sunday Wilshin, who acted in the film version of Stuart’s play Nine till Six. She really intrigues me, and there’s more about her here.

This is a still from The Gentle Sex from 1943, co-written by Aimee Stuart, Moie Charles (also a friend of Nerina's) and others. Apparently there is a free download of the film on that site too!

It also seems that there was a group of women who saw themselves as specifically bisexual, as distinct from lesbian. This was certainly how Nerina saw herself as a mature woman. When young, she was unhappy about her attractions to women, didn’t like the contempt heaped on lesbians, and couldn’t understand the fact that she needed both women and men.

She saw her love for men, and her love for women, as mutually complementary. A relationship with a woman would not threaten her relationship with a man, or vice versa. Her friend and sometime lover, Helen Mayo, thought so too. This is a pic of Helen, left, and Nerina, right, on holiday in Ireland, 1939.

And in Passionate Friendships, she quotes Helen, in a conversation from the late 1950s:
“’To deceive him with another man would be wrong, but not with a woman. There’s no harm in it,’ said Helen, ‘because the love between two women is totally different. It’s a form of friendship, a passionate friendship.’
“Of course I knew exactly what she meant. There is little or no similarity between the lusty love-making of a man or tender or motherly love-making between women. A male lover is unthinkable for a married woman in love with her husband. A female lover can be delightful.”

To Nerina’s husband Howard Marshall, though, a lover was a lover; their relationship ended because he considered she had been unfaithful. The fact that her lover was a woman was neither here nor there. In Passionate Friendships, she blames herself for hurting him so much, and thereby ending their marriage, when she still loved him.

Helen and Nerina’s view of sex between women seems to have some connection with the romantic friendships of the 19th century and earlier, as detailed by Lilian Fadermann in Surpassing the Love of Men. Fadermann, writing in the early 1980s, saw romantic friendships as NOT being sexual. I don’t see that we can know, definitively.

Helen Mayo and her partner (Dorothy Anderton) Andy Sharpe, friends of Nerina’s from 1939 until their deaths in the 1970s, are also interesting to consider. They were a dentist and obstetrician, respectively, so not obvious candidates for bohemianism. Instead, Nerina places them within a work-hard/play-hard, live life to the full framework. Andy had a fiancĂ© who was killed in WW2, and Helen had other lovers too, as well as Nerina. They were extremely sociable and life-loving, with their large house in Portland Place the scene of many parties. This was mentioned in Andy Sharpe’s obituary in the BMJ, with no further comment or explanation.

Things I don’t know about Nerina
Although I wrote above about Nerina’s lifetime of bisexuality, in fact there is little publically available information about her life in old age. I found a couple more pictures of later-life Nerina via Google Images, and they intrigue me. They are from Sue1066’s flickr account. Who are you, Sue1066? You obviously knew Nerina (see the picture of the two of them at the top of the post) and perhaps have some connection to her family – given that some of the other pics are of Nerina’s mother’s childhood home and a memorial with her maiden name Pepper Staveley. I hope you don't mind me using your pic.

Obviously, there are lots more things I don’t know. And sadly for my bank balance, these are the sort of interests that lead jobbing writers to attempt biographies.

The most obvious are: what were the real identities of her lovers Charles – abortionist turned condensed-milk salesman; and Josephine – Catholic monocle-wearer, met at a lesbian party, greatly in love with Nerina, and her assistant at Max Factor in the late 1930s? Cocktails with Elvira contains a number of candidates for Josephine, although I don’t think any likely monocle-wearers are mentioned.

Maybe Nerina was deliberately laying false trails for any future nosey-parkers.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bi lives: Nerina Shute/2

(Left, Nerina Shute in the late 1930s)

This is the second post in my LGBT history month series on bisexual writer Nerina Shute. If you haven’t read yesterday’s post on why I’m doing this, best to read here first.

Nerina's life and times

Nerina Shute was born to an upper middle class family in Northumberland in 1908, the daughter of Cameron and Renie. Her father was in the army, her mother wrote several scandalous novels which were optioned by Hollywood.

While in California (with Nerina), Renie invested all of her money in a married paramour’s gold mine and when Cameron came to visit them, persuaded him to invest his money too. The married man was killed in a car accident and the goldmine was found to be devoid of gold, meaning that the family lost all their money.

Nerina won a short story competition while still in the USA, despite the fact that she had left school at 14. She came back to Britain from California, aged 18, soon moving to London, where she became a typist at the Times Book Club. Attending dance classes, she met playwright and bohemian stalwart Aimee Stuart, who held frequent parties and gatherings in her central London flat. As Nerina wrote later in We Mixed Our Drinks (where she writes of herself in the third person:
“Shute was an odd, rebellious young woman who happened to come of good family but preferred to be thought a ‘bohemian’ than ‘a lady’ or even ‘a gentlewoman’. She was untidy, careless and heavily made up with lipstick and rouge and eye-black ... Behind a half-hearted attempt at flippancy she was deeply in earnest. Behind her sex-talk and her bad manners she was old fashioned, and full of what she herself sometimes called ‘twisted ideals’.”

In 1927, at the tail end of the silent picture era, Nerina was offered a job as a reporter on Film Weekly. She interviewed many celebrities, and did not mince her words, offending many film stars such as Madeleine Carroll, who she described as a “ruthless Madonna”.

Here she is in The First Born, a great (silent)film that was restored/relaunched recently by the BFI.

Nerina also made a nuisance of herself around film sets: director E A Dupont banned her from his productions, and she once returned disguised as a rabbi to see what was going on.

In 1931, her first, autobiographical novel, Another Man’s Poison was published, causing scandal with her relatives, and attracting reviews, as one of its main characters, Paula, describes herself as ambisextrous. This received a fortuitous review from Rebecca West in The Daily Telegraph:
“Miss Shute writes not so much badly as barbarously, as if she had never read anything but a magazine, never seen any picture but a moving one, heard any music except at restaurants. Yet she is full of talent.” (Shute, 1944:40)

This was excellent publicity for Nerina, despite the fact that she was hurt by it, thinking it an accurate criticism. As “the girl with the barbarous touch” she wrote a series of articles for the Sunday Graphic newspaper at 10 guineas a week (compared to £4 for her job at Film Weekly), giving the opinions of “the ultra-modern girl”. Subsequently, she was invited to Lord Beaverbrook’s estate (he was then owner of the Express newspapers) and given a job as a general reporter at the Express, where she was sacked again, this time after six months.
“Far from being a good reporter, she was inexperienced, useless at writing a straightforward news-story, and on top of these fundamental drawbacks, as everyone probably knew, she disliked her job.”

Nerina was aware of her attractions to women from the 1920s on, and was nervous about them. She did not want to become a lesbian, feeling that the societal opprobrium was too great, and she felt “hurt and diminished” by this prejudice.

But around this time, she met “Charles”, a doctor who had been struck off for performing an illegal abortion. Feeling lonely, and anxious to lose her virginity, they began a relationship and were soon in love. After some months, she went to “live in sin” in Liverpool with him, where he had got a job as a condensed-milk salesman. She became jealous, however, which caused arguments, and so she left him and returned to London. Here they are, posing on Blackpool Pleasure Beach, in 1930.

Once more, she became a journalist, where she says she was obliged by her editor to write light stories which she felt were wrong in times of terrible poverty. For instance, she was sent to investigate nudist clubs and colonies “which were springing up in the green fields of England like rude little mushrooms”. She went to visit nudists in Earl’s Court but was amused to find that, for the interview, they were clothed. The editor wanted her to write stories about how they were immoral but she liked the nudists she met and wouldn’t do it.

Like very many creative (and other) people of that time, she was attracted by what appeared to be the greater equality in Russia, although after a trip there she also offended Russian Communists she met by saying they had replaced religion with politics.

Around this time, she also began a relationship with a woman she calls “Josephine”, who was a close friend and lover until the end of the 1930s.

Disillusioned with journalism, and by the lack of success of a play she had written, in 1935 she began to work for Max Factor as their publicity manager, doing what she described as “commercial propaganda” and becoming what she called a “Bond Street blonde” – well dressed and groomed, wearing high heels and bleaching her brown hair. This was a dramatic contrast to her previous look of androgynous messiness, complete with black hat. She was also briefly married to James Wentworth-Day, a high Tory journalist, who attracted her with his strongly felt ideals, even as she furiously disagreed with them. The marriage only lasted a year.

He was around 40 when they married, so I imagine this is him in the 50s:

By 1937, Nerina had lost her eagerness to write:
“A few years ago Shute had been the budding novelist and journalist, a young woman of rebellious thoughts who dreamed each night of rising up and up into the golden heights, creating with words the brave people and the lovely places she saw so clearly in her New World. Full of ambition, she had been a pig-headed untidy young romantic; she intended to write what she believed, live as she wanted, and to hell with criticism”.

In 1939, while riding her horse in Rottingdean, Sussex, she met Helen Mayo and Andy Sharpe, two women who lived in Portland Place in London and worked as a dental surgeon and obstetrician respectively. She went to live with them, becoming Helen’s lover, and worked as a nurse, almoner, and ambulance driver, throughout the war.

She also met her second husband, Howard Marshall, in 1940, a very prominent radio journalist, and the first person to broadcast ball-by-ball cricket commentary.

For the duration of the war, their relationship was intense and idyllically romantic, much of it carried on in intense secrecy as he was both famous and still married, his wife and sons being in America for safety.

This – Begin the Beguine - is one of the songs they used to dance to:

They married in 1944 and were both strongly socialist at this time, endlessly discussing what a better world might look like. Still, however, she had creative ambition: “... she was not a good enough writer. With all her heart she envied the experienced word-wealthy people”. She did, however, publish We Mixed Our Drinks (discussed in the previous post).

In the immediate post-war period, their relationship was “blissfully happy” despite the fact that they were both unemployed and in general found this period difficult:
“When all the excitement was over we all had a feeling of anticlimax. We had done our job. We had won the war. We were unprepared for the long littleness of life.”

What a telling quote! Their intense relationship soon began to show cracks: she wanted to go out, he wanted to stay in. For some years, she acquiesced to this, despite increasing loneliness. When Howard began to work in PR in late 1945, they hired a French housekeeper, "Renee". Renee brought fun and joy into what, over the next few years, became an increasingly unhappy marriage. They loved each other but were wildly incompatible.

Howard did, however, support her quieter, more intellectual endeavours. Nerina studied English at London university, and began to write the first of her historic novels. This one, about Shelley, was published in 1951

After a few years, Nerina and Renee began a sexual relationship (instigated by Renee) which seems to have been maternal on Nerina’s side. Renee, however, was in fact in her 30s, and her mental health was deteriorating. Her family had died in a bombing raid in France, and she had found parts of her mother’s body scattered in the ruins of their home.

Towards the end of her three-year stay with Nerina and Howard, Renee had a serious nervous breakdown, eventually returning to France. Nerina then became very depressed as well and sounds as if she were on the edge of a breakdown herself. “The longing to escape had returned ... this time I felt a desire to die”.

During a furious argument with Howard on New Year’s Eve 1953, several years after Renee had returned to France, she told him she had had sex with Renee. He had known nothing about her attractions to women. Despite speaking on the phone and writing letters, they never saw each other again, although she maintained until the end of her life that she still loved him.

This is Howard, perhaps in the 1940s.

Nerina went to stay in Sussex with her mother and her mother’s much younger and alcoholic sixth husband, Noel. While her depression lifted rapidly, she, her mother and step-father struggled financially, negotiating with the Inland Revenue, trying to make money on renovating houses and moving, or selling off parcels of land. Over the next four years, as her mother’s health deteriorated, Nerina wrote a memoir of Renie’s life Come into the Sunlight, designed to be a reflection of her mother’s joyful philosophy of life. After her death, Nerina and Noel soon moved to London, where they lived in Chelsea, at this time just starting to be the centre of Swinging London.

When she and Noel decided to take ballroom dancing lessons (so Nerina could take Noel’s mind off drinking) they were taught by Phyllis Haylor.

Nerina and Phyllis began a relationship and remained lovers until Phyllis’s death. This was, according to Nerina, a very happy relationship although no particular details emerge in her late-life autobiography Passionate Friendships.
“Phyllis made me happy with an adoration based on a need for motherly tenderness which only a woman can give to another woman. Now, late in life, Phyllis was giving it to me and I was giving it to her. It was like a marriage. We became passionate friends, and our friendship lasted until the day of her death.”

During the 1970s, Nerina wrote two travel and history books about London’s villages, as well as a volume of tell-little autobiography, The Escapist Generations and, in 1986, The Royal Family and the Spencers.

In 1981, Phyllis died suddenly of a heart attack and Nerina was alone once more. Although this is not mentioned by Nerina, her obituaries mention that she began a relationship with another woman, Jocelyn Williams, in 1989, and they stayed together until Nerina died.

In later life, Nerina became as fervent a conservative as she had once been a socialist, but she remained interested in the contemporary world, even as she distanced herself from some of it. With the publication of her final autobiography, Passionate Friendships (1992), she was able to talk more freely about her bisexuality:

“I believe there are many women in the world who need the love of another woman in addition to the love of a man. We are bisexual. Usually we hide this fact from our husbands for fear of ending a happy marriage. I made the mistake of telling my husband ... By explaining how it all happened, and how it ended, I may possibly give help to others.”

So not exactly what bi people tend to think these days, then! Nerina was a product of her class and time, but/and I warm to her and think she would have made a marvellous companion.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll be writing about some of the questions and issues that studying Nerina’s life has led me to consider.

(The information in this post comes primarily from Nerina’s memoirs and autobiographies, with additional information from Shepperton Babylon, by Matthew Sweet, and from various obituaries.)

Monday, February 27, 2012

Bi lives: Nerina Shute

Nerina Shute, in the early 1930s

February is LGBT history month (in the UK) and – although I have several other blog posts in the offing/promised/massively overdue - I really want to add my twopennorth while I can.

Actually many more pennorth than that. This is a long post, so I’m splitting it into three, to be published over three days, thereby just about squashing it in before the end of the month.

People in the bisexual community often talk about the need for more information about bi lives – people who are now, or were in the past, some kind of bisexual. And whereas there can often be debates or confusion about whether we now can give a contemporary identity (bisexual) to them then, with Nerina there is no confusion. "I am bisexual," she said to writer Matthew Sweet, when she was in her 90s. "What does your generation think about such things?"

Nerina Shute: 1908-2004
This isn’t the first time I’ve written on this blog about Nerina – teenage film critic of the silent era, novelist, London bohemian, laugh-out-loud memoir writer and explicitly bisexual at a time it is so often assumed that people weren’t. But since 2006, when I wrote about her before, I've had more time to think about her, and her life and times.

I first found out about Nerina when I read her memoir We Mixed Our Drinks in around 2000, while I was doing research for another project. Published in 1944, WMOD is the story of her life from her teenage years in the USA when her mother lost all their money in a goldmine fraud; her time as reluctant film critic – she didn’t like film stars; an even more reluctant journalist – she didn’t know what she was doing; and an eager young novelist (nicknamed “the girl with the barbarous touch”).

At the time, WMOD was considered very shocking. Nerina is open about having lived with a man without being married, about being taken to a Chelsea orgy (where the hostess wore a vest that was both too long and too short, and they were thrown out for not taking off their clothes), about the “pansy” and lesbian circles in which she never quite said she moved.

I am fascinated by Nerina for a whole range of reasons, some of which may already be apparent. So fascinated, in fact, that even though writing about her was a significant part of my master’s degree in life history research, I still google her and her gang to see if anything new shows up. Sure enough, I found this superlative blog Cocktails with Elvira. It’s based around a notorious court case – of socialite Elvira Barney, who shot her lover in 1932.

The blog also contains a lot of information about bohemian London of that time, much of which would now be (and somewhat differently would have been then) considered “queer”. This is not simply the haute intelligentsia of the Bloomsbury Group, which has been well-documented. The various overlapping London bohemias of the 20s and 30s (and earlier, and later?) seem to have been overwhelmingly queer. Musicians, actors, models, chorus girls and boys, journalists and people about town seemed to have been strikingly unstraight. Not to mention artists, particularly those condemned with the word “Chelsea”.

“Hello darling, how’s your sex life? Lousy, darling, how’s yours?”
While Matt Houlbrook’s brilliant book Queer London looks at all the different ways in which men at this time interacted with each other for sexual/romantic purposes, there has been very little published about women’s relationships with each other outside of the most famous instances – Violet Trefusis and Vita Sackville-West, for instance.

Now that I’ve read all Nerina’s memoirs/autobiographies, it seems really apparent that there was a lively lesbian/bi/queer women’s scene in London in the interwar period and afterwards. There is more information about some of these characters in Cocktails with Elvira, and I wish I had the time to research this properly. This scene was mainly based around friendship networks of various sorts, rather than the cottaging/picking up/Turkish baths scene etc, described by Houlbrook.

While these women were often well-off, sometimes rich and independent, they weren’t necessarily so – Nerina came from a once-rich background but in the 30s she was often without a shilling for the gas - indeed the whole mix of class and bohemias seems to be to be quite complicated. I’d love to know how much, if at all, any sexual/romantic friendship networks spread to “ordinary women”.

It also seems that there was a group of women who were actively, explicitly, bisexual, who sometimes wanted to distance themselves from lesbians and sometimes had relationships with them. I’ll be looking at this in a bit more detail in a couple of days.

When I read Shepperton Babylon by Matthew Sweet – about the British film industry - I was delighted to discover that Nerina was bisexual, and quite happy to talk about it. I was much less delighted to find out that, at the time I was first devouring We Mixed Our Drinks, Nerina was actually still alive and living in Putney. She didn’t die until four years later. I suppose that’s the hard lesson for oral historians: the people you really want to speak to are often just beyond reach.

Tomorrow, I'll be posting more about Nerina's life and loves. Then finally, I'll be looking at some of the questions that her life, and what I know of her thoughts and opinions, pose for bisexual people today.