At about 4:20 on the afternoon of December 20, 1937, Henrietta Gordon, a housemaid at the luxurious Hyde Park Hotel in London’s West End, heard some unusual noises—like something being smashed—coming from room 305. She alerted Enrico Laurenti, a waiter, who detected what he thought sounded like “muffled laughing.” Concerned that something was amiss, they knocked. When they received no response Laurenti used his master key to get in. He was shocked to find a large man lying on his back in a pool of blood. The maid thought he was dead, but he soon revived, crying out, with a distinct French accent, “Help, help! They’ve got my rings.”
I came across this dramatic scene several years ago when trolling through the British tabloids of the 1930s in search of a new research topic. I was initially puzzled to read that a gang of playboys had attacked a jeweler with a “life preserver.” For Americans, a life preserver (or life jacket) was a floatation device. In 1930s Britain it also meant a truncheon or what North Americans called a “blackjack”—a short club, heavily loaded with a lead weight at one end and a strap or lanyard at the other. Easily concealed, it was purportedly designed for self-defense, hence the name. A single forceful blow could cause concussion and even prove fatal. The type of weapon used in the Hyde Park Hotel robbery was of scant legal importance. Nevertheless the curious term “life preserver,” did play a role in attracting me to the case.
I was even more surprised by the countless column inches the tabloids dedicated to the nefarious activities of “Mayfair playboys.” Historians have told us that 1950s America produced the “playboy,” a new model of masculinity. So how was it that two decades earlier the British press was asserting that such self-centered young men already haunted the bars and restaurants of London’s West End? And why were such young men on the make associated with Mayfair, the swankiest neighborhood in London?
As I tracked my jewel thieves through police reports and press accounts, I realized, to my surprise and excitement, that an investigation of the public response to their misdeeds offered a fresh perspective on many aspects of 1930s British society. Of course, to devote a book to the self-serving schemes of conniving playboys during the depths of the great depression might appear perverse. The usual focus of histories of class in the 1930s has been on the damage the slump did to working-class life. This book differs in juxtaposing laborers’ immiseration against the supercilious and very public lives of the rich, the famous, and those who lived in or on the margins of Mayfair society.
Spurning the appeal of the ever popular histories of the landed aristocracy and the country house, this work focuses on urban elite cultures and life styles. But more particular, its subject is the ruthless playboy who figured in the police reports in the context of the economic crisis of the 1930s. Though the middle and upper classes did not experience anything like the working-class’s brutal drop in family income, there were always some who suffered from relative deprivation, who imagined themselves threatened by any perceived shrinkage of the precious gap separating the propertied from the impoverished. Some playboys portrayed themselves as the “new poor,” deprived by the depression of what was their due. Such class preoccupations dominated the newspaper and film dissections of playboys and Mayfair men, but the resulting investigations also cast a revelatory light on a host of other social issues.
In the reports of the 1938 trial of the Hyde Park Hotel robbers and in the subsequent discussions of politicians, journalists, novelists and movie makers, the notion of the playboy performed what can be called “cultural work.” The robbery and its aftermath did not create the anxieties that some felt in the face of evolving class and gender relations, but for many it crystallized such worries. The trial became a cultural referent, offering those preoccupied with the threats posed by the depression and the social changes accompanying modernization with the cause and the occasion to air their concerns. Ironically enough they dragooned the playboy—this indolent, self-centered character, whose guiding principle was avoidance of honest labor—and set him the burdensome task of personifying many of modernity’s most worrisome challenges.
Angus McLaren is emeritus professor of history at the University of Victoria. He is the author of Sexual Blackmail: A Modern History, Impotence: A Cultural History, and A Prescription for Murder: The Victorian Serial Killings of Dr. Thomas Neill Cream. His latest book is Playboys and Mayfair Men: Crime, Class, Masculinity, and Fascism in 1930s London.