One of the most exclusive members-only night-club in London in the mid to late 1920s was Chez Victor, owned and run by the Italian Victor Perosino. It had a glittering, but short, 4 year career becoming‘a popular haunt with the gilded youth and flapperdom’ before it was targeted by the police and closed down in early 1928. Victor moved across the Channel and with noticeable panache re-opened various other Chez Victor’s in Paris and elsewhere. But Victor’s story, and his deportation, hide a scandal that eventually became public in 1932
Victor Perosino allegedly arrived in London in 1914 and had presumably already made his mark in the hospitality industry in Italy because he swiftly found favour in some of the top London eateries and clubs. He started out at the Savoy, became maitre d’hotel at the Carlton Hotel and then moved to the Grafton Galleries and the Mayfair club.
He established contact with a lot of well-to-do society people and was never to be ‘seen without a smile and it is this faculty of radiating cheerfulness that makes him so popular.’ He married Lucia Torchio in 1915 and had two children Eugenio (born 1916) and Yolanda (born 1919). He received the nickname of ‘Smiling Victor’ during the war from Lloyd George and was known to have an intimate knowledge of the catering trade in all its branches and the wine business.
In August 1924, Victor decided to open his own members only nightclub situated at 9 Grafton Street in the same block as the Grafton Galleries – once a popular cabaret and dancing venue. Chez Victor was a luxurious private members club that was immediately regarded as a charming lunch, dinner and supper rendezvous. It was lavishly appointed, had excellent service and superb cuisine. The club was small, and in fact 50 guests was considered a crowd, even though eventually it had a membership of over 1,000.
A lovely spiral staircase took you downstairs to the ballroom decorated in dove grey and sky blue with chandeliers of beaten copper and gloire de Difon tinted shades. It was a becoming room with mellow golden light. On the walls were beautiful oil paintings of Italian scenes. Here was a moderately sized oval ebony dance floor – which was regarded as a major attraction and reputed to be the best in Europe – with surrounding seating.
Upstairs there was a comfortable dining area with a pleasant bay window. Charles, the famous chef from Deauville was in charge of the culinary arrangements and was the provider of the most seductive English, French and Italian dishes to be had in London. The Wine cellar contained some of the rarest, as well as all the popular French and continental wines. The kitchen continued to trade well into the early morning hours and specialised in a novel bacon and eggs hour.
Upstairs was a Chinese room and another room known as the Poupee Salon that was almost entirely lit by the luminous shell frocks of little china dolls. This had intimate cosy corners and lighting and decorative effects that combined to make it one of the nicest rooms to be found in any London club. There was also an American Bar with sporting paintings and a delightful frieze painted by Lady Helena Gleichen, which was greatly admired by lovers of art and sport. ‘Jock’ Melville was the mixer who conjureed up the most seductive and appetising of cocktails.
Perhaps the most delightful room in the club was the Florentine Cottage used for private dinner parties. It was furnished with artistic Florentine furniture and the whole room with its electrically lighted bunches of grapes and general décor provided a charming glimpse of the fifteenth century.
The Sporting Times described it as ‘one of the most select and cosy clubs in and around the West End’and ‘a charming haven.’It was a big success because of its attractive ‘atmosphere of cosy comfort’ and it swiftly became ‘one of the most select and dainty clubs in the West End.’ It was also thought to be the ‘rendezvous for those who dance until the early morning’ and became‘a worthy institution in the entertainment of London’s haute monde.’
As the presiding genius of Chez Victor, Victor, with his ‘melting dark eyes’was never ‘seen without a smile and it is this faculty of radiating cheerfulness that makes him so popular.’ He was regarded as impeccable, urbane and scintillating and had a remarkable faculty for making himself agreeable. ‘Everyone knew Victor and Victor knew everyone.’
Chez Victor became ‘one of London’s show places, where you can rely on meeting people who ‘count’ at almost any time of the year and practically any night of the week.’
The club members, who patronised Chez Victor’s included cabinet ministers, MPs, clients of title and society, theatrical personalities and the royal family. Some of the fashionable patrons included The Earl and former countess of Kinnoull, the Earl of Northesk and his wife the former dancer Jessica Brown, Lord Weymouth (Henry Thynne, 6th Marquess of Bath) and Tallulah Bankhead. Also, described as ‘one of the most prominent members of Victor’s Club’ was Edwina, Lady Louis Mountbatten, wife of King George’s cousin Louis Mountbatten.
At first there was no entertainment but by early 1925 that had changed and for the next few years Victor would present various cabaret acts. By May 1925, for example, the dancing of Fay Harcourt and Harry Cahill was seen. A year later in mid 1926 there was Max Darewski’s exuberant syncopation on the piano, the dancing of Molly Dodd and Ivy St Helier’s imitation of actresses and singing at the piano. This was followed by the addition to the programme of the humourist Gwen Farrar and the American singer and dancer Barry Oliver.
By November 1926 the attractions were named as the Southern Three (or the Novelty Three) from C.B. Cochran’s show Blackbirds (two large black men and a small black women all in European evening dress) sang negro melodies and spiritual songs. There was also the character comedy act of Miss Piccadilly Pom with her dog and gentleman. There was also the continental dancer Emmy Magliani with her partner Berge who had previously been dancing at the Opera Comique in Paris and the Paris Opera.
However, perhaps the most significant and, star turn, through most of 1927 was the black singer and pianist Leslie Hutchinson, known simply as ‘Hutch’ who presided upstairs in the small Chinese room and sang such songs as ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘The Butterfly in the Rain.’ Hutch had been born in Grenada in 1900 and was a sensational character and gifted singer and pianist. But that was not his only gift as many found out. Although some did not think he was particularly handsome, he was striking and well-built. He was also bisexual, promiscuous and uninhibited about sex. Hutch had performed in New York’s Harlem and Palm Beach and after a trip to Spain moved to Paris. Here he worked at various venues including Zelli’s and was part of the black American Bricktop’s circle where he met Cole Porter with whom it is alleged he had an affair. Seemingly at the same time Tallulah Bankhead also became enamoured with him. Hutch spent the summer of 1926 at the Lido entertaining Porter’s entourage, including Bricktop, with his Jazz Band.
In early 1927 Hutch turned up in London and performed with Opal Cooper at the Café De Paris and then toured appearing, for example, at the Holborn Empire in March 1927. Thereafter, he took up residency at Chez Victor. But that was not all, because he was also engaged by the theatrical impresario C.B. Cochran to perform in his show One Dam Thing After Another at the London Pavilion from May 1927.
At some point either in America or Paris, Hutch met Edwina Mountbatten, wife of Louis Mountbatten, and their affair, according to Andrew Lownie, became ‘an open secret.’ Their liaison was evident at Chez Victor’s and according to the socialite Joan Vyvyan he sang to her directly and once she took off her scarf, put it around his neck and kissed him while he was playing. This flagrant behaviour must have caused more than a ripple in the little Chinese Room. Nowadays it is known that Dickie Mountbatten was not amused by his wife’s antics and was hugely angered and jealous.
During September 1927, the American dancing team of Miller and Farell opened a 4 week engagement doubling up at the Cafe de Paris and Chez Victor. Two other dancers made their stage debut at Chez Victor. The Norwegian Rocky Twins – Leif and Paul – had arrived in London aged 18 in September 1927 and befriended the American socialite Charlotte King Palmer. She introduced them to Victor and sometime in October 1927 they were given a two-week engagement. On the first night Leif made a giant leap and ended up under one of the tables. Victor was horrified since at the table sat David, Prince of Wales (later King Edward V111), who had recently returned to London from his Canadian trip. Despite Victor’s consternation, the Prince invited them to sit with him and enjoy the rest of the evening. Sadly, their debut was viewed as a bit of disappointment and they finished after a week, but they had earned enough money to get to Paris where they did in fact find stardom.
At about the same time, in October 1927, Victor also secured the services of the American singer Aileen Stanley. She was also booked to do an 8-week engagement from January 1928 as part of a national tour.
According to the Stage, the Charleston dance was popular with the management and they ran special Charleston Tea daily. They also arranged special events such as mannequin parades and in January 1925 for example, Mrs Patrick Macnaughton gave a private the dansant with an extensive celebrity guest list.
In May 1927 Victor announced that he was converting the private members club into a regular venue to become ‘a blameless public restaurant where the elite may dine and dance and drink without the perpetual nervous expectation of a police raid.’ Victor said ‘there is too much suspense in night clubs… many prominent men – including lawyers and politicians – tell me they spend their evenings in night clubs afraid of a raid with its unwelcome publicity.’ However, it was made clear that club managers had voiced their concern that the police were too free in raiding night clubs but at the same time there had been repeated violations of the liquor licensing laws.
According to one American newspaper report Chez Victor had been in vogue in 1927 (indeed had in fact been popular for several years since opening in 1924) but ‘before that a limited number of the very nice Mayfairites patronised it, but there was no crowding in at two or three in the morning.’ One of the many patrons at this time was the vivacious Australian socialite, Sheila Chisholm who had married Lord Loughborough in 1915 but had also caught the eye of Prince Albert, the future King George VI in 1919 (before he married Elizabeth Bowes Lyon) and had become part of British high society. According to her biographer Robert Wainwright, Victor was described as ‘a struggling nightclub owner,’ which was not an accurate or appropriate description. Sheila liked Victor and liked the atmosphere of the club. Robert Wainwright added that Sheila liked Victor because he was discrete and because ‘he was a former waiter trying to make good.’
At some point in 1927 she asked him how business was doing and Victor answered ‘badly… expenses are big and money is slow.’ She replied casually ‘I promise you that this place shall be the most successful place in London within the month.’ It may have been a coincidence but the next night the Prince of Wales arrived and ‘after that there was a scramble among members to get tables.’As a result Chez Victor became ‘transformed into the favoured late-night club of London’s younger blue-bloods who clamoured for membership.’But eager though Victor was to make the place pay, he did not dare to take on new members because he had no place to put them. It became a customary pattern for the ‘Bright Young Things’ to dance at the Cafe de Paris until 1.30 and then the fashionable set often led by the Prince himself, descended on Chez Victor’s. So too did the best-known theatrical stars. In fact the place does not really wake up until 2am.
In addition to David Prince of Wales, who became a favoured guest, another press reported suggested that the Duke and Duchess of York were principally responsible for popularising the place, as Chez Victor was where they made their first private appearance in public after their Australian trip in the summer of 1927.
Although royal patronage was beneficial, Chez Victor had already been highly sought after. After all, it was widely recognised that ‘the chic thing to do now is to dine or sup Chez Victor.’ We must remember that the club was patronised from the outset by many leading society personalities and from all available press reports was a huge success – ‘British aristocracy rallied to its doors at the outset.’ It is not clear when the Prince of Wales visited the club although, like the Duke and Duchess of York he was a visitor in 1927. In fact the royal visits were the ‘icing on the cake’ and could be seen as the ultimate conquest of London’s fashionable set.
Since it was known that Prince of Wales admired Aileen Stanley, the American singer and ‘Gramaphone Girl,’ Victor lured her away from her booking at the Kit-Cat club on a fabulous salary as a means of securing the patronage of the Prince and keeping the club to capacity. It was the Prince’s diversion of an evening to drop into Victor’s with his brother George at suppertime and invite her to his table. It was also whispered that the Prince’s voice could be heard in the chorus of her recorded songs.
Allegedly, at was at this time when Victor’s ’troubles’ began following what was called the famous ‘divorce party.’ Without consulting Victor, an American dancer (perhaps Barrie Oliver) thought it would be a good wheeze to give a dinner for divorced peers to win a bet. It was supposed to be a secret but another Lord thought it would be even more fun to invite all the ex-wives, so he did. This made proceedings doubly awkward because everybody at Victor’s knows everybody else. But to make things worse, it was only on the night of the double party that Victor knew what was going on and the Duke and Duchess of York decided to visit. ‘to save them embarrassment of seeing their intimates in the predicament in which they found themselves’ Victor was forced to take the unheard-of step of refusing admission to the royal couple.
A little later, Aileen Stanley had been re-engaged and it cost Victor a pretty penny to acquire her broken contracts with the Kit Cat restaurant ‘but to please the Prince he thought it worth while.’ Victor hadspent heaps of money to make a gala event and his florist bill alone was over £200 turning the club into a bower of blooms imported from the South of France The Prince had reserved a table for 18 people for Aileen Stanley’s first night but when the Queen Mother’s brother – the Marquis of Cambridge died on 24thOctober 1927 – the Prince could not attend nor could his entourage that included Prince George and the Duke and Duchess of York. This was a big blow.
Then early one Saturday morning on 12th November 1927, everything changed as Chez Victor had been under suspicion of selling liquor after hours for sometime by Scotland Yard. Shortly after 1am, in an elaborately contrived ruse, the police contrived a car accident outside the club complete with a screaming woman to distract the doorman and at this point 3 cars arrived and various individuals in evening dress emerged and entered the club unobtrusively except for a red poppy in their lapels. After a while one stood up and announced they were from Scotland Yard and said ‘please do not be alarmed.’ The police examined the guest register and 40 names were taken and samples taken from the glasses on the tables and then they left.
The raid on ‘the favourite supper club of the Prince of Wales’ was done with tact and discretion ‘without catching His Royal Highness’ because Scotland Yard had done its homework and they knew that he would not be there that particular nigh because he had beenleading a delegation to the Cenotaph in honour of the fallen in the Great War and so would be absent. The police had to sneak in because otherwise they might not have acquired the evidence they needed.
The police raid was circumspect and proper in every respect and Victor said that it was done ‘so calmly that nobody seemed disturbed and the dancing went on as usual. I don’t think anyone was upset.’ When they left ‘they wished me goodnight in a friendly way.’ The police had not always been so discrete when a raid took place and allegedly they had recently entered another premise in a rather ‘gung-ho’ way and had found a VIP whose name ‘under no condition might be mentioned in a British court.’ This faux pas may well have made them act in a more moderate way in entering Chez Victor’s.
A few weeks later Victor and Lt Col Ernest English, Secretary of the Club were summoned for unlawfully supplying intoxicating liquor after the permitted hour of 12.30. They were also accused of selling tobacco, wine and spirits by retail without a licence. Fines were imposed totalling £250 and defendants were also charged with consuming liquor and fined £5-£10 each. Finally, on 9th February 1928 the name of the club was struck off the registry and the doors closed. But this was not the end of it because Victor was also given a deportation order.
This was a huge surprise and a big blow to Victor and caused a minor upheaval in London high society. This action clearly had much opposition because Victor had many friends and considerable influence. Victor objected strenuously and declared he had just completed plans for enlarging his business and said he could not return to Italy because Mussolini was ‘unfavourably disposed toward him’ but he was clearly outgunned. Leaving his wife and two children behind Victor was deported on 14thApril 1928 and sought refuge in Paris. He said ‘I am heart-broken at having to leave England’ and claimed that he court case and its consequences had cost him more than £4,000.
The decision to close the club and deport Victor was unprecedented, perplexing and mysterious, because other cabaret proprietors who had been similarly convicted of violating the law had been merely fined but nothing more. For example, there had been a raid on the Kit-Cat club in December 1926 and a raid on the Bullfrogs Club in March 1927 and in both instances fines were given.
So why was Victor fined and deported? Therein lies an intriguing story. According to an American press report there would appear to be several different answers and one had to read between the lines to perhaps get at the truth. The official answer from Scotland Yard was simple – he transgressed the law. ‘He is an alien and therefore merits deportation.’
However, part of the true explanation lay in the comment ‘although undoubtedly there are some scions of British aristocracy who are sorrowful at Victor’s enforced departure, there are others who breath easier with the fascinating little Italian frequenting other shores.’ It was clear that ‘one must be privy to a fair measure of swanky scandal before the real underlying reasons can be revealed.’
The underlying reason was the interesting fact that where society gathered so did gossip and where there is gossip there is also scandal. ‘Secret’s were taken into Victor’s and some of them popped out with a champagne cork.’Some of these secrets were apparently harmful to specific individuals, the first families of Britain, the government and to the Empire. Although Victor was seen to be totally discrete he became known as the‘man who knows the deadliest secrets of London society.’ There is no evidence that he abused any confidence but clearly a certain uneasiness pervaded parts of society.
Simply put ‘this man knows too many secrets.’ So, in spite of society’s approval ‘smiling Victor’ had to go. At the end of the day Victor ‘KNEW too much.’
So what was it that Victor knew? Or rather what would have been the biggest ever scandal at the time that might or might not have involved Victor? A big clue as to what really happened was described very poignantly in the Graphic who said that Chez Victor closed downbecause ‘of a private grievance a very important woman in Society had against him.’
It is my view that the core of this story and the reason for the clamp-down against Victor lies with Leslie Hutchinson and Edwina Mountbatten. Five years after Hutchinson’s appearance at Chez Victor’s, in 1932, the People published a sensation story about a society woman having an affair with a black entertainer. The connection was made with Edwina Mountbatten but the erroneous suggestion was that the black entertainer was Paul Robeson. Of course it was Hutchinson. The resulting furore did indeed cause a sensation. Edwina denied everything and sued the People and won. The establishment and the royal family closed ranks and Hutchinson sadly became persona non grata.
The affair between Leslie Hutchinson and Edwina Mountbatten was clearly being played out in public at Chez Victor and it must have been this scandal and this story that had to be silenced. Any whiff of this scandal in the public at large had to be suppressed. Perhaps Victor had inadvertently said something to someone. Perhaps he had reproached Edwina. Whatever occurred it is more than likely that it precipitated the onslaught on Victor Perosino from Scotland Yard and his removal from the country.
Victor did not gloat or become idle. He immediately began rebuilding his success in Paris. In October 1928 Victor was permitted to visit the UK for one week to enable him to recruit a staff of porters and bar tenders for a new restaurant and dance room, which he was planning in Paris. Finally, on New Years Eve 1928 Victor opened a new Chez Victor at 30 Faubourg Saint Honore, aptly, immediately opposite the British Embassy. It was described as the ideal meeting place for lunches, teas, cocktails, dinners and suppers. The Graphic in London announced ‘We all like Victor; he is one of the charming kind of Italians, those really marvellous hosts.’
His new establishment in the Elysee district had an oyster bar on the ground floor, with a second and more intimate bar on the mezzanine floor which was attractively fitted out with modern furniture and décor and a ladies bar. The restaurant and nightclub was on the first floor and decorated in Louis XV style. It looked refreshingly cool with its green walls, field flower cretonnes and dark oak panels. The Bystander thought that ‘by the time you reach the restaurant on the third floor you are feeling perfectly fine.’ The bars and adjoining rooms as well as the restaurant were to be utilised for afternoon teas. The nightclub opened at midnight with an orchestra playing for dancing and Al Shayne, the well known American singing comedian had been engaged for an indefinite period to delight the guests with his novel interpretation of popular songs. A notable gathering of English and Americans inaugurated the first night including the British Ambassador Sir William Tyrrell. Victor even had the audacity to invite Sir William Joynson-Hicks, the Home secretary to visit his new place.
In the summer of 1929 Victor was adding an entertainment to proceedings and had engaged the act of Muriel and Bob. The shingled Muriel was an extremely clever American who played the piano and Bob, a good-looking English-American, sang with his banjo accompaniment. Variety thought that they both fitted Chez Victor’s ‘like the well-known glove. Their style of entertaining seems to be just what the high hat American and English visitors want for a place has been running to capacity.’ The Tatler thought that the new Chez Victor was a ‘cosy little place’ and was ‘quite one of the pleasantest haunts in Paris just now’
Also, in the summer of 1929, Victor opened another Chez Victor at the Normandy Hotel on the Rue Saint Jean, Le Touquet. He presented Balada Snow (billed as the greatest sensation since the late Florence Mills) for the first time in Europe and the world famous Versatile Four Kings of Harmony. Perhaps this became a regular feature in Le Touquet. Back in Paris for the autumn season of 1929 he retained the Versatile Four Kings of Harmony. Then in September 1931 Victor undertook the direction of the Grand-Vatel with an entertainment by the artistes from Chez Florence including Opal Cooper, Charles Lewis, Elisabeth Welch, Harvey White and Sammy Richardson and dance music by the International Five.
Victor was allowed to visit the UK for a week in March 1933 to arrange education for his two children in Kent and still hoped that ‘someday…I may be permitted to resume my business in this country.’
Victor’s empire expanded nicely and in late 1932 he remodelled the famous Berry Restaurant on the Avenue des Champs Elysees and added a cabaret and a bar. It was noted that he was also in charge of another establishment at the corner of the Rue de Berri. By late 1933 it was made clear that he controlled both Chez Florence at 61 Rue Blanche and the Grand Vatel and a year later in late 1934 he had branches of Chez Victor and Chez Florence in Cannes, both of which were regarded as ‘the most important rendezvous in Cannes of English and Americans.‘
What happened after 1934 is not known but presumably Victor’s success continued in Paris until the war. Nothing is known what happend afterward. Chez Victor in London became Toby’s and then the new Florida Club. There was a Chez Victor at 45 Wardour Street that opened in 1930s and endured for sometime, but it is doubtful that his had anything to do with Victor Perosino.
Charles Graves in a feature in the Bystander in 1934 said ‘Between ourselves, if it had not been for Victor, the clean up of the night clubs – and incidentally, of some of the West End police – would never have been possible.’
Describing Victor’s Cannes establishment, Charles Graves observed ‘Nothing can be more attractive than Chez Victor.’ This indeed summed up the success of Victor Perosino.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
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