The Royal Irish Academy has posted a new entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. This relates to Kate Evelyn Meyrick (also known as Ma Meyrick and, to Waugh readers, as Ma Mayfield). She was born in Kingtown, Dublin into what sounds like a middle class family but lost both her parents in her childhood. She lived from 1875-1933. The character of Ma Mayfield in Brideshead Revisited is heavily based on Meyrick’s life and career. In the novel, Charles and Sebastian, encouraged and accompanied by Boy Mulcaster, visit what is known in the novel as the Old Hundredth at 100 Sink Street, which is a night club based on Meyrick’s 43 Club on Gerrard Street.
According to the RIA’s entry, written by Margaret Elliott:
…Meyrick had taken the first steps on the road to her glittering and notorious career as the ‘queen of the nightclubs’, becoming a partner in a new club, Dalton’s, that opened at 28 Leicester Square in April 1919. She claimed that the reason for her somewhat unusual choice of career was that she was determined to provide financial security for her young family. Dalton’s was soon followed by the Bedford, then Brett’s, but it was the infamous 43 club (later renamed Proctor’s) situated at 43 Gerrard Street, Soho, opened in November 1920, which became the star of her ever-shifting nightclub empire. In total Meyrick went on to own or hold an interest in around nine clubs but the 43 was her longest running enterprise.
With their heady mix of illicit drinking, gambling, drugs and prostitution the nightclubs of Soho thrived during the decade after the first world war. The generation of the ‘bright young things’, desperate to escape the tedium of conventional society, flocked to such venues. One of the chief draws of the 43 appears to have been Meyrick herself. Seated behind her desk in the front office, she collected door money and effectively vetted the clientele, a rite of passage which was an adventure in itself. Once inside it fell to the dance hostesses, nicknamed ‘Meyrick’s Merry Maids’, to entice the customer to spend lavishly and while away the night listening to the world’s greatest jazz artists. […]
Meyrick, despite her short stature and diminutive physique, had an uncanny knack of disciplining rowdy and drunken crowds. Observing that her normally hard-headed customers would empty their pockets in the pursuit of pleasure, Meyrick did not spend much on extravagant decorations in the majority of her clubs. The 43 was sparsely furnished, dingy and full to capacity at eighty people, the crowded and sleazy atmosphere adding to the thrill. The one exception was the Silver Slipper on Regent Street, with its illuminated glass dance floor and glass doors engraved to look like spider webs.
Anyone familiar with Waugh’s description of the Oxford students’ visit to the Old Hundredth in Chapter 5, Book 2 of Brideshead (Revised Edition, 1960, pp. 127 ff.) will find much that is familiar in the foregoing entry. See also previous posts.
According to the RIA, Meyrick is one of 66 so-called “missing persons” just added to the DIB. Half that number were women. These are apparently cultural or historical Irish figures overlooked by previous RIA administrations. The DIB entry concludes with this:
Immortalised in the works of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, Kate Meyrick had lived life to its fullest, defiant of the legal and social codes which defined her era. For it was in her nightclubs, so much a feature of the fast hedonist environment of the roaring twenties, where she records she found the ‘joy of living at highest pressure’ (Kate Meyrick, Secrets of the 43 Club, 1994, p. 102).