The first half of this compelling but disconcerting book tells the totally unedifying story of a botched jewel robbery at the Hyde Park Hotel in London in December 1937. Four upper middle-class “playboys” short of the cash necessary to sustain their high style of living invited Cartier’s London manager to come to a hotel room with jewelry for sale, violently attacked him, and absconded with the jewels. They were easily caught. Their trial at the Old Bailey was of both national and international interest—a crowded social event attended by the likes of the Duke of Rutland and Margot Asquith. McLaren provides a detailed account of the previous and subsequent lives of the four defendants, all well born and well educated at reputable public schools (Radley, Harrow, Wellington, and Oundle).
The defendants went to jail. The flogging with cat o’ nine tails that two of them endured caused a debate about the legitimacy of such brutal punishment, with the unattractive subtext of whether it was appropriate for the well-born. McLaren is legitimately fascinated with the social aspect of the crime and its punishment. At times, his text is almost like a social column; when first introduced, most of his many characters are given their full names, their parents’ names and residences, and their fathers’ professions. Given that McLaren is writing a social history, all of this information is relevant.
At the conclusion of the story about these deeply unattractive young men, one wonders how it can be significant. The remainder of this short study is devoted to showing how it illuminates the shaping of English society in the 1930s and beyond. McLaren uses an impressive range of sources, both primary and secondary, to plunge deeply into the world of Mayfair men not only in the 1930s but also in the postwar world. In a sense, they were the successors of the flappers and the Bright Young Things of the 1920s. But the shortage of cash that the Depression caused made their life of minimum work and maximum pleasure difficult to maintain. Their doings, as reported by the popular press, were the subject of continual fascination to the public, providing the double pleasure of titillation and disapproval. The public schools that the four attended were supposed to have given them the high character needed to rule [End Page 150] an Empire that was about to disappear. Rather, their backgrounds and education endowed them with a sense of entitlement to a life of self-indulgence—dining and drinking and a fair amount of womanizing (ironically, the hotel employees who observed them commented on their effeminacy). In order to acquire cash, they resorted to various schemes that were almost always unsuccessful and frequently, as most dramatically exemplified in the case of this robbery, fraught with legal consequences. They had even attempted to sell weapons to Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War.
What was the role that entitled young men were to play in the 1930s? How new was the problem? Upper-class scoundrels had existed in earlier periods. But as McLaren makes clear in the chapters named for the categories in his subtitle, their style was different in the 1930s. The misbehavior of the upper classes, because of the press, became far more accessible to the public. The playboy, addicted to pleasure, was a new category arising out of the 1930s. As a life style, however, it was not as ineffective as McLaren seems to suggest. Although most of his examples are of hopeless individuals, at its best, his narrative might well be a triumph of English understatement and insouciance hiding an inner toughness. Beneath his charm, Noel Coward exhibited a firm belief in the need of the upper classes to justify their positions of privilege, as in his play Cavalcade (1932) and his script for the film In Which We Serve (1942). Beneath his stylized manner, Leslie Howard was the Scarlet Pimpernel in the film of the same name (1934). There was also something to be said in favor of...