Peers, Queers and Lipstick Dears: Effeminized Homosexual Consumption in Post-war Britain

queershead

Peers, Queers & Lipstick Dears:

Effeminized Homosexual Consumption in Post-war Britain

Owen Emmerson

The ‘Montagu’ trials of 1953 and 1954 have been described by Richard Hornsey as the ‘apex’ of the press’ ‘discursive explosion’ on homosexuality in the 1950’s.1 In an age where the security of visible sexual difference was undermined by scientific study, most notably within the work of Kinsey, press focus upon homosexuality was increasingly heightened in mid-century Britain. Using the ‘Montagu’ trials as a case study, I will explore the methods employed by Fleet Street in exposing ‘vice’ through notions of undesirable, extravagant and conspicuous consumption. My research will demonstrate how the press underpinned the boundaries of morality through exposing readers to details of excessive consumption of alcohol and make-up. These commonplace commodities were often subtly used to amplify the otherness of homosexual men, within a societal climate fraught with concerns surrounding masculinity, class fluidity and national security. This climactic period of press exposé sought to redefine the public and private boundaries of acceptable morality.

Pitt-Rivers, Montagu and Wildeblood

Pitt-Rivers, Montagu and Wildeblood

Whilst the press scrutiny and distortion of the consumption of lavish goods played a key component in sensationalising newspapers, it also undermined the ‘special relationship’ between the police and the press that Patrick Higgins details.2 More significantly it provided a model for many homosexual men to reject and to politicize against. Within a society increasingly dominated with reaffirmation of gender and class distinction, the ostracism intended by the press manipulation of homosexual effeminacy provided fear, rejection, but also identity. The struggle for an acceptable homosexual identity in post-war Britain, as detailed by Lucy Robinson, presented a model for which future homosexual groups would subsequently ‘define itself against’.3 The effeminization of post-war homosexual men, significantly within the Montagu trials, provided an identifiable sub-group for other homosexual men to distance themselves from, and obtain an apologetic window into Wolfenden’s privatised ‘liberality.’ Moreover its limitations of liberality provided another model for future activists to reject and politicize against.

Quentin Crisp by Angus McBean, modern bromide print from an original negative, 1941

Quentin Crisp by Angus McBean, modern bromide print from an original negative, 1941

Homosexuality had been comfortably identified within courts throughout early twentieth century Britain. Sufficient evidence to achieve a conviction could be found in the possession of such rigidly feminine commodities, such as a powder-puff or lipstick. Matt Houlbrook has pertinently stated that material commodities such as the powder-puff “…established the actuality of a man’s bodily transgression.”Flamboyancy was Quentin Crisp’s ticket to difference, and it freed him from the realities of national service.5 The outbreak of war inspired Crisp to hoard stocks of cosmetics and Henna and to parade as conspicuously as possible within the mask of the blackout.6 But the war also brought official rejection by means of exemption, the medical decoration of ‘sexual perversion’ reasoning it. Crisp’s consumption of lipstick and nail varnish was used as an essential tool in achieving his desire to make his homosexuality ‘…abundantly clear’.7 With a lucid tradition of hostility toward male homosexual consumption of make-up, the visibility of all homosexual men in Post-war Britain is of increased importance throughout our period. Kinsey’s scientific survey of homosexuality in America threatened the secure notion of visible distinction that had been so evident throughout the inter-war and war years. It was precisely this concept of effeminacy that was thrust upon every sniff of homosexuality throughout the post-war years, regardless of its relevance. Mass Observations’ ‘Little Kinsey’ dismissed homosexuality as ‘isolationist’, and that ‘…extensive ignorance of (its) existence (was) at least a possibility’.The defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Mclean to the USSR in 1951 threw homosexuality into the realm of explicit national danger; one that the press and the increasingly scientific establishment could and would not ignore. Their defection was explicitly reasoned by their perverted nature. Normality lay exclusively in the heterosexual sphere, and commonplace was the conviction that homosexuality was a ‘…bourgeois deviation of working-class sexuality’.9 The sensational second ‘Montagu’ trial of 1954 personified the class system, and it was a perfect opportunity to destabilise corruption within it by objectifying their ‘vice’. The consumption of lavish commodities, as reported in the press and in court, was condemned as homogenising links between boundaries, and therefore bourgeois trappings of corruption.

Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess

Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess

Having already been acquitted of sexual offences against a boy scout in late 1953, Lord Montagu had been exposed to numerous newspaper articles before his second trial of 1954. Working for the PR company ‘Voice and Vision’ had allowed an extensive familiarity within Fleet Street, however this connection could not protect him from the glare of the press. The political weight of the majority of publications leant firmly toward the right, bound by obligation to their key advertisers. With advertising as the chief financial source for the increasingly competitive and inexpensive publications, sensationalism became a key card in maintaining sales.  With 85% of people in Britain reading daily newspapers, the 1950’s newspaper industry was at a crucial competitor peak as radio and television sales increased.11 It was also a notoriously homophobic establishment to be working within. Peter Wildeblood, the royal & diplomatic correspondent for the Daily Mail stated that he could ‘…hardly have chosen a profession in which being homosexual was more of a handicap than in Fleet Street.’12 Heading the diplomatic role within the Daily Mail, Wildebood’s intimate relationship within Fleet Street ended abruptly with his arrest. His friendship with Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, his relationship with Edward McNally, and his connections with McNally’s friend Reynolds would become a daily feature within the pages of newspapers throughout his trial.

2_LORD-MONTAGU-Lord-Montagu-arrested-in-1954-for-homosexual-charges-Image-by-Getty-Images1

John Reynolds and Edward McNally, both working-class airmen, were confessed homosexuals, having been coerced into turning Queen’s evidence against Lord Montagu, his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers and the middle class Daily Mail journalist Peter Wildeblood. The sensationalism surrounding the case lay not only in the status of Lord Montagu, but also within the inexplicable class disparity between the men concerned. It was this disparity that the court and subsequently the press endlessly focused upon. Gendered roles were applied to those considered ‘inverted’ and ‘perverted’. Having formed a relationship with McNally, having met at the notorious ‘cruising’ ground of Piccadilly Underground Station, Peter Wildeblood had introduced Lord Montagu to McNally and his fellow serviceman Reynolds at the west end production of ‘Dial ‘M’ for Murder’. The prosecution devoured the ‘lavish’ setting of the leisure arena, and the consumption of Champagne. Despite Lord Montagu’s insistence in court that it was Cider that had been consumed, it was to be Champagne that was to be featured in the press.13 The consumption of this prestigious commodity within a popular hetronormative leisure arena which was not long out of rationing was used as a tangible and opulent indication of corruption and perversion.

Piccadilly Circus Underground, 1954

Piccadilly Circus Underground, 1954

The highly exclusive consumption of champagne objectified the disparity between the class boundaries of the men accused. Newspapers highlighted the intended significance of it by reporting the police’s efforts to establish them as fact. The News Chronicle dedicated a half column to the how the police had spent, in vain‘…hours in a grocer’s shop…trying to trace purchases from August 1952’, a shop that Lord Montagu occasionally made purchases from.14 The meal consumed at Montagu’s London flat after their evening at the Theatre, which consisted of bread and ham, was reported as a ‘lavish supper’.15 Placed uncomfortably within the hetronormative leisure arena, where men almost exclusively paid for women’s leisure pursuits during courtship16, it was the beginning of a series of carefully placed untruths that would direct both the court and the readers of the press into pigeon-holes of gender divisions. These fabrications dovetailed seamlessly with the prosecution’s own assertion that the witnesses, Reynolds and McNally, were ‘…men of the lowest possible moral character, men who were corrupted, and who cheerfully accepted corruption, long before meeting the defendants.”17 The ‘champagne’ evoked a nuance of corruption that mirrored their chequered pasts; a notion that ‘vice’ had been obtained through coercion by means of gift to the ‘infinitely inferior’ working class airmen. Morality was objectified within the commodity, but it was an invisible commodity, a description rather than the physical stability of the object itself. The suggestion of a coercive intrusion into the hetronormative London leisure arena was to be illuminated not only by inflated ideas of luxurious goods, but also in the distorted visible appearance of the accused.

download (2)

Concerns surrounding the visibility of homosexuality are of key significance to post-war Britain’s liberality. Kinsey’s sexual research undeniably heightened fears surrounding the ‘unknown’ and ‘invisible’ homosexual, with ‘…one male in three of the persons that one may meet as he passes along a city street” as a comparative statistic to the extent of homosexual activities.18 Wildeblood’s public confession of homosexuality during his trial provided a face and a reality to the ‘unidentifiable’ homosexual. He readily identified himself as an ‘invert’, rather than a ‘pervert’. It was a face that had featured daily in newspapers, but one that the Daily Mirror would endeavour to sexually characterise as the ‘pervert’. Wildeblood’s witness box rejection of his social superiority to McNally was reported in the Daily Mirror with an effeminized picture of him.19 (see below). Doctored to imply the usage of make-up, Horney describes that the lipstick effect allowed confirmation of his identity: “…betraying a clear anxiety that his deviance was simply not flexible enough across the surfaces of his otherwise conventional body.”20 Wildeblood’s rejection of this inaccurate portrayal was in expressing publicly his shared repulsion of the “pathetically flamboyant” pervert. It proved to be a crucially effective stance for him and for those who did “…their best to look like everyone else.”21 He explicitly asks not for tolerance of the ‘…corrupters of youth, nor even the effeminate creatures who love to make an exhibition of themselves.”22 Wildeblood’s custodial sentence, alongside Lord Montagu and Pitt-Rivers, spurred him to provide an account of his experience in his book Against the law, and a rejection of the perverted image that had been forced upon him. More crucially his face as the ‘invert’ would become synonymous with reform, having provided public evidence as a homosexual for the Wolfenden committee.

Wildeblood-88x300

Crisp and Wildeblood’s models of homosexuality are linked only in common by the desires which society at large deplored. The ‘pervert’ gave the ‘inverts’ game away with ease; conspicuously parading away his trump card, which would achieve the fragile link toward something of a homo-norm within hetronormative tolerance. Where lipstick had comfortably identified homosexuality before, its absence had caused a societal fear. It was a fear that could be comforted with a fabrication. But the attempted effeminization of Wildeblood, exposed through the perception of lavish alcoholic seduction and the flamboyant and perverted use of lipstick, inspired Wildeblood’s crucial public rejection of effeminacy from within the homosexual sphere. It allowed for security for the homosexual willing to accept tolerance contained within the seclusion of his domestic boundary, he who would pledge to accept his lot and who would make every effort to blend as inconspicuously into society as possible. Wildeblood concluded that “…most homosexuals are furtive and irresponsible” and that if a “…more tolerant and just attitude towards their condition is ever adopted by this country it will not be through their efforts.”23 But it was the lipstick adorned ‘other’ that characterised future struggles for liberation. Heavily politicized against a legality characterised indistinctly from their own identity, Wolfenden’s model of the acceptable homosexual would be challenged by those prepared to express and offer their distinctiveness with pride rather than shame.

Notes and Sources

  1. Hornsey, R. Francis Bacon and the Photobooth: Facing the Homosexual in Post-war Britain in Visual Culture
    in Britain, (Vol. 8, No. 2, 2007) p.94
  2. Higgins, P. Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male homosexuality in Postwar Britain. 2nd ed. (Fourth Estate Ltd. 1996) p.242
  3. Robinson, L. Gay Men and the Left in Post-War Britain: How the Personal Got Political. 1st ed. (Manchester University Press, 2007) p.4
  4. Houlbrook, M. ‘The Man with the Powder Puff’ in Interwar London in The Historical Journal, 50, 1 (2007), p.27
  5. Crisp, Q, The Naked Civil Servant. 2nd ed. (Jonathan Cape, 1968) p.109
  6. Ibid., p99
  7. Ibid., p108
  8. Stanley, L, Sex Surveyed, 1949-1994: From Mass-Observation’s ‘Little Kinsey’ to The National Survey and the Hite Report. (London, 1995) p.199
  9. Robinson, L. Gay Men and the Left in Post-War Britain, p.23
  10. Ibid.
  11. Bingham, A, Family Newspapers? Sex, private life and the popular British press 1918-1978. 2nd ed.(Oxford University Press 1999), p.19
  12. Wildeblood, P, Against the law. 3rd ed. (Penguin, 1957) p.36
  13. News Chronicle, Tuesday, January 26th 1954. p.5, The News of the World, Saturday, January 31st 1954. p.7, Daily Mail, Tuesday, January 26th 1945. p.2
  14. News Chronicle, Tuesday, January 26th 1954. p.5
  15. The News of the World, Saturday, January 31st 1954. p.7
  16. Langhamer, C. Women’s Leisure in England 1920-1960. 1st ed. (Manchester University Press, 2000) pp. 126-127
  17. News Chronicle, Tuesday, March 18th, 1954.p.7
  18. Kinsey, A.C. Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male, 3rd ed. (Indiana University Press, 1998) p.656
  19. Daily Mirror, 19th March 1954, p.6
  20. Hornsey, R. The Spiv and the Architect: Unruly life in Post war Britain. 1st ed. (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), p153
  21. Wildeblood, P. Against the Law, 3rd ed. (Penguin, 1957) p.7
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid., p185

Bibliography

  • Bingham, A, Family Newspapers? Sex, private life and the popular British press 1918-1978. 2nd ed.(Oxford University Press 1999)
  • Chesser, E. Live and Let Live: The Moral of the Wolfenden Report. 2nd ed. (Hertfordshire 1958)
  • Higgins, P. Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male homosexuality in Postwar Britain. 2nd ed. (Fourth Estate Ltd. 1996)
  • Hornsey, R. Francis Bacon and the Photobooth: Facing the Homosexual in Post-war Britain in Visual Culture in Britain, (Vol. 8, No. 2, 2007)
  • Hornsey, R. The Spiv and the Architect: Unruly life in Post war Britain. 1st ed. (University of Minnesota Press, 2010)
  • Houlbrook, M. Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918–1957, (University of Chicago Press, 2005)
  • Houlbrook, M. ‘The Man with the Powder Puff’ in Interwar London in The Historical Journal, 50, 1 (2007)
  • Mort, F. Mapping Sexual London: The Wolfenden Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution: 1954-7 (New Formations: Sexual Geographies 37 – 1999).
  • Robinson, L. Gay Men and the Left in Post-War Britain: How the Personal Got Political. 1st ed. (Manchester University Press, 2007)
  • Stanley, L, Sex Surveyed, 1949-1994: From Mass-Observation’s ‘Little Kinsey’ to The National Survey and the Hite Report. (London, 1995)
  • Weeks J, Sex, Politics and Society, The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800, 2nd ed. (London, 1989)
  • Weeks, J, Coming Out – Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the present. 3rd ed. (London 1990)
  • Wildeblood, P. Against the Law, 3rd ed. (Penguin, 1957)

Primary Sources

  • Crisp, Q, The Naked Civil Servant. 2nd ed. (Jonathan Cape, 1968)
  • Daily Mirror, 19th March 1954, p.6
  • Daily Mail, Tuesday, January 26th 1945. p.2
  • Kinsey, A.C. Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male, 3rd ed. (Indiana University Press, 1998)
  • News Chronicle, Tuesday, January 26th 1954. p.5
  • News Chronicle, Tuesday, March 18th, 1954.p.7
  • The News of the World, Saturday, January 31st 1954. p.7
  • Wildeblood, P. Against the Law, 3rd ed. (Penguin, 1957)
Advertisements

One response to “Peers, Queers and Lipstick Dears: Effeminized Homosexual Consumption in Post-war Britain

  1. Pingback: Downstairs Queers: Homosexuality within Domestic Service on TV | Headmaster Rituals or Barbarisms Began at Home?·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s