Sunday, 11 July 2010

Brenda Dean Paul - 1920s "society drug addict"


Although Brenda Dean Paul became a famous drug addict, her background was anything but squalid. Born in 1907, her mother was a Belgian pianist and her father, Sir Aubrey Dean Paul. As a teenager she haunted the theatre to “strain her eyes at the leading stars.”

In 1924 she landed a role in a theatre company touring “filthy little” towns where she shouted down jeers and cat-calls. But when her chance came in 1927 Brenda blew her film test in Berlin, because she was more interested in “the intriguing, highly coloured underworld.” 


Bright Young Thing?
Back in London she joined the infamous 'Bright Young Thing' set and rubbed sequinned shoulders with Evelyn Waugh and Cecil Beaton at “massed drinking orgies,” never going to bed “before four or five in the morning.” But when she became seriously after an abortion or miscarriage, Brenda grew dependent on morphine, using it as “a barrage between herself and reality, mentally and physically.”

One of the most discussed young women in London”
 
Brenda's morphine-medicated hold on reality was growing thin. In February 1931 she made her first court appearance charged with bouncing a cheque. During the next two decades she was in and out of the courts, receiving sentences of up to six months in prison for: possession of dangerous drugs; obtaining goods on false pretences (buying goods on other people's accounts several times); incurring debt by fraud (refusing to pay taxi drivers). Soon she was “one of the most discussed young women in London.”
In 1932 she was at her lowest ebb. As Prisoner 54086 in Holloway she developed bulimia, dropping to five stone. Over the next few years she was in and out of nursing homes and her doctor told the police that she would never be completely cured.

I want to become an actress, perhaps a great actress”

By 1935 Brenda somehow managed to go stop taking drugs – and her ghost-written memoirs, My First Life, were published, concluding with her ambition to “become an actress, perhaps a great actress.” Sadly, the closest Brenda came to the stage was tottering to Boots the Chemist in Coventry Street, where hertame doctor supplied her with “Cocain Hydrochloride...large quantities of Tincture of Opium...[and] Heroin".

As Brenda's behaviour became increasingly bizarre, she started using false names (Penelope Page, Isolla Hampton, Penelope Paul, J. Beard) “because I am treated as a cross between an imbecile and a crook if I use my own name.” In 1939 she was evicted from her flat because she “walked about naked” and “answered the door in the nude.” In court for buying goods on other people's account in 1940, she wore “a black balaclava helmet,” and protested that she was unable to get work because she “dressed in trousers.”


there is nothing smart, sensational or clever in the habit...it is not even fashionable"

Partying with artists, tottering about London on high heels, clutching a lapdog, Brenda was notorious. Although she claimed to have worked “as a waitress in a club....a confidential maid to a lady and later a store saleswoman” Brenda's real professional was drug addict.
In the mid-1950s, young artist Michael Wishart watched her sitting in a restaurant, taking a syringe of heroin from her handbag and filling it “from a vase of flowers on the table.” In 1951 she bragged to a reporter that she was cured and preparing to open her own addiction clinic: “there is nothing smart, sensational or clever in the habit and this it is not even fashionable now.”

But she hadn't recovered. In 1952 her former flatmate wrote to the police to tell them that Brenda “augmented her income by allowing sadists to whip her” and had tried to make him take cocaine. Raddled with addiction but still beautiful, “mummified...in her prime,” Brenda finally achieved her ambitions to act when she played the lead in Ronald Firbank's play The Princess Zoubaroff


One of the sweetest people you could ever have known”
By the late 50s Brenda was a celebrity in the drug world, receiving “a string of...queer callers at her flat and allegedly “creating addicts” and consuming a “fantastic” amount of cocaine. In 1957 she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Rome “intoxicated and suffering from neuropsychic depression” with a parcel of cocaine in her possession. The parcel wrapping paper is still in her file at The National Archives.

The police must have been relieved to finally close Brenda's large file when she died in London on 26 July 1959 of natural causes. She was 52. A friend from her Bright Young Thing Days told the newspapers, “She really was one of the sweetest people you could ever have known.”

The National Archives holds a fat Metropolitan Police file on Brenda Dean Paul in series MEPO 3/2579.

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