Today I am discussing a rather obscure melodramatic novel from 1929, which has not been re-issued since its first publication. The Chronicles of a Gigolo, written by actor and writer Arthur Applin under the pseudonym Julian Swift, is a roman-à-clef about the seedier side of London’s 1920s nightlife. The protagonist, Percy/Julian, is a gigolo – in interwar London a gigolo was a man whom women could pay to take them to nightclubs, dance with them, and generally entertain them. Undoubtedly that could also lead to paid-for sex, but in the Chronicles, Julian’s evenings with his clients end when he bids them goodnight in the hotel lobby or taxi.
The Chronicles of a Gigolo is a fairly sappy novel with a thin plot. Percy is an orphaned young man in training to become a lawyer, which he does not enjoy. One day he stumbled across the 43 club run by Mrs Meyrick in Gerrard Street. He goes in and enjoys the crowd of professional dancers he finds there. He decides to ditch his legal training and become a gigolo, adopting the name Julian. Initially Julian is very successful; many rich women take him out to high-end clubs and pay him handsomely for his time. Julian falls in love with Babs, a young dancer who wants to go on the revue stage. Julian and Babs spend some months in France, living off his savings. Then Babs gets offered a role in a West End revue and she returns to London. Julian eventually follows her back to England but finds he has lost many of his clients in his absence. His relationship with Babs runs to ground and he struggles to support himself, behaving increasingly erratically. By the end of the novel, Babs has married her producer and has a child with him, whilst Julian has descended into poverty and illness. It is strongly implied he dies at the end of the novel.
Despite the broad-brush arc of a man rising from poverty to riches and then falling back into poverty again, Chronicles of a Gigolo gives a detailed account of the intricacies of London’s nightlife, as it was written by a real-life professional dancer. The book name-checks real-life clubs and places them in a hierarchy. Mrs Meyrick’s 43 club is the one Julian likes the best; he describes it as a “jolly room”. Of the girls in the 43, he says “They looked jolly and laughed just as Mrs Meyrick had done and I soon discovered they were enjoying themselves, and I’d never seen girls enjoying themselves before.” For Julian, the 43 is a democratic space, where everyone can be themselves:
Of course, at Mrs Meyrick’s and places like that, clothes don’t matter because people go mostly for fun and there are often more men than girls, and it’s the men who pay the girls to dance with them so the girls only dance with a boy pro. when they want to enjoy themselves.
The downside of the 43, from a professional point of view, is that he is not able to make any money there. For that, he has to visit the more high-end clubs where his clients want to be seen. He mentions entertaining wives of MPs and aristocratic women. They go, for example, to the Orange-tree club on the Old Brompton Road:
The Orange-tree Club wasn’t a bit like the Forty Three. A long room with lots of pillars and little tables round it where everybody was in evening dress looking respectable and bored.
[The 43] was full and everyone enjoying themselves – not a bit like the Orange-tree. I mean everyone there was very decorous and unnatural as if they were afraid if they let themselves go they would be peculiar, which if course they were.
Yet despite the upper-class clubs being perceived as boring and artificial by Julian, they also hold an appeal for him. This becomes clear when one of his clients asks him to take her to the Kit-Cat Club on the Haymarket:
She suggested I should take her to the Kit-Cat. I did my best to hide my excitement – the Kit-Cat being one of the places I wanted to get into.
This sentence lays bare the peculiar power dynamic between Julian and his clients. They ask him to ‘take them out’; yet he needs their wealth and social standing to be allowed into the venues where they want to go. The Chronicles of a Gigolo pays close attention to the artificiality of dressing up and ‘faking it until you make it’; Julian strongly advocates dressing as if you have money, to attract money. Yet no matter how much he dresses up, a venue such as the Kit-Cat remains too exclusive for him unless he is accompanied by a truly upper-class woman.
As the novel progresses, Julian’s career struggles are reflected in the struggles of the nightclubs themselves. Police raids on clubs become more frequent as the narrative progresses. Initially the raids are presented as a rite of passage for the customer and a badge of honour for a club:
Chez Victors Club was the jolliest place. It was getting quite high-class so they raided it. I was there and they took my name and address and I felt important.
If a club has a high-profile clientele they are initially less likely to be raided, as the police and Home Office would not want to cause a big scandal. Later on, rebranding a venue from a nightclub to a restaurant could help keep the police at bay. This tactic, however, spelled bad news for the gigolo, who aimed to keep his entertaining costs as low as possible in order to maximise his profits.
It’s getting more difficult to earn a living as a professional dancer because the restaurants are taking the place of these clubs, and at a restaurant you must eat and drink a lot before you dance.
More time spent eating and drinking meant less time for dancing, and it also required a bigger financial outlay to pay for the inevitable champagne and oysters. When Mrs Meyrick was sent to prison for bribing police officers in 1929, that further hastened the end of the brief golden age of nightclubs and gigolos. For Julian, the Home Office’s drive to close down nightclubs is misplaced: he describes it as “bigotry.” Nevertheless, it is an unstoppable tide.
By the end of the novel, the free-spirited Babs has settled down for a conventional marriage with child; other professional dancers have found steady jobs, for example in Lyons restaurants. Julian is unable and unwilling to trade in the wild democracy of the dancefloor of the 43 for a more respectable life. As the nightclubs disappear from London, so must he; but not before celebrating the brief window of possibility that nightclubs offered to those willing to seek adventure.
 For more on Mrs Meyrick and the 43, see Judith Walkowitz, Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 210-211
 Julian Swift, The Chronicles of a Gigolo (London: T Werner Laurie, 1929), p. 9
 Ibid., p. 10
 Ibid., p. 20
 Ibid., p. 28
 Ibid., p. 32
 Ibid., p. 34
 Ibid., p. 42
 Ibid., p. 43
 Ibid., p. 78
 Ibid. p. 206
 Ibid., p. 213
 Ibid., p. 242