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Wars, Wives & Work


two world wars, three wives

and numerous careers

“...but life was like that. Life was a matter of women and making ends meet. The devil of it was that no sooner did you make ends meet than some skirt or other moved one of the ends.” from The Urgent Hangman

Peter’s first ‘professional’ piece of writing was at the age of 14, when he won a literary competition in a boys’ magazine (the prize was half a guinea, and he asked the editor why it couldn’t be the full one). At 17 he started writing skits for stage stars George Carney and Bransby Williams. Reggie decided to give up his law career, to his mother’s regret, to write full-time for the theatre, but this promising start was interrupted by the First World War.

Stanley signed up at the out-set and a year later Reggie, aged 19, left on 7 June 1915 to train for the army. By virtue of his short spell in a law firm he joined the Inns of Court Regiment and spent three months basic training in the grounds of Lord Brownlow’s estate at Berkhampsted. Here he found a real-life hero in the shape of Captain Evelyn à Court Bergne. The appreciation was mutual, Captain Bergne promoting Cheyney and putting him forward for officer training – Cheyney, in one of many self re-inventions, adopted the captain’s first name to become Evelyn Southouse Cheyney (later he even added a hyphen to the surnames).

He was shipped over to Flanders, transferred to near the Somme in 1916, wounded, promoted to full lieutenant and given a job in the Labour Corps Records Office in Nottingham in July 1917. His work was dull, but it did bring him into contact with great material for future characters in the dossiers of the renegade soldiers.

Cheyney turned to poetry, as many writers did at this time, even having two volumes, Poems of Love and War and To Corona and Other Poems published in 1916. But it is generally accepted that his was very bad poetry indeed.

Post-war, Cheyney had some limited acting success, but he and his brother Arthur agreed that his future lay with, rather than on, the stage. In 1919 he invested his army gratuity in a half share of a building in New Oxford Street and set it up as rehearsal, interview and writing rooms for theatre folk.

Later that year he fell in love: Dorma Leigh, a woman five years his senior and, at that time, quite a famous stage performer. On 27 November 1919 they married in the registry office at St Giles. At the wedding he gave his name as Reginald Evelyn Peter Southouse Cheyney (occupation of ‘company director’), but signed Evelyn Southouse Cheyney, and gave his address as 77 New Oxford Street, although he still lived with his mother in Whitechapel. They honeymooned in Paris.

Around this time Cheyney became friendly with Mrs Margaret Roxbury, a woman who had had a good stage career, but forced her from the stage by a serious illness. She arranged with Cheyney to rent one of his rooms to teach dance. On 1 February 1932 the divorce between Peter and Dorma was finalised, the papers cite Mrs Margaret Roxbury and Haddon John Southby Cave on Dorma’s side (for a transcript of the divorce documents see Dorma’s biography).

In 1920 Cheyney lost his medical pension when the medical board decided that the bullet wound to his ear was no longer a hardship. There was still a small income from the rehearsal rooms and Dorma was making good money and when funds were low his mother, Kate, would help with the odd ‘loan’.

Meanwhile, Arthur, now in his mid-thirties, was finding the physical nature of his stagework to much and decided to become a bookie. He needed some start-up capital and Mrs Roxbury had been wanting to buy the rehearsal rooms, so Peter sold up and joined his brother’s new venture.

The post-war boom was coming to an end, so after two hard years they wound-up the business. It was a huge set-back, but was to be the turning point in Peter’s writing career. He went to visit Mrs Roxbury at the re-named New Oxford Galleries and told her he was flat broke. She gave him a desk and a telephone at the Galleries. He also dabbled in a dress making company, but that fared badly, as did his marriage, both coming to an end by September 1923.

Cheyney’s main distraction was the rise of the new entertainment medium: the wireless. In 1922 the British Broadcasting Corporation began regular broadcasts. Together with Margaret Roxbury he formed a singing quartet. Finally now using Peter (having been Reginald, Evelyn and even Everard) 1924 saw him writing short-stories, acting, a BBC ‘turn’ and song writer. He joined the last of the London Bohemian clubs – The Hambone – where “all the right people went” and it suited him perfectly in his monocle, cape and, later, his bright red sports car.

In the years between then and submitting his first novel to William Collins in 1935, he ‘got around’, including times of near poverty, which brought him into contact “with all that seedy half-world in which he encountered, not so much the characters of his later writings, as their mentalities and the tricks which are the most characteristic products of their mentalities ... those ‘nearly a hundred’ clubs must have taught him more than all the imagining could have done.” (Harrison)

In the late 1920s Peter’s brother Arthur (pictured right) took up the lease on a pub. Stanley now had a family and was a success at his tailoring, and the successful part of Peter’s life began when he formed Editorial and Literary Services (London), he had his own office away from New Oxford Street at 32 Shoe Lane, and took on Miss Mildred Evelyn Sprague, who remained with him until his death. And he was to be seen at his most flamboyant: “over a suit of palest grey he wore a black, flowing cloak, lined with scarlet silk, and fastened at the neck by a gilded chain which joined two lions’ masks. His hat was pale grey, wide-brimmed and put on at a rakish cock, so as to shade one eye – the one which did not wear the monocle. His long ivory cigarette-holder...” He also joined the Metropolitan Police Special Constabulary.

Cheyney was not exactly reconstructed in his politics, which have been described as immature and naive, and he was noted for his views on black people – there are few black characters in his writing, but those that do appear, notably in Dark Bahama, are treated no differently from anyone else. Cheyney joined Sir Oswald Mosely’s New Party and Michael Harrison believed that Cheyney was attracted to Mosely – an expert fencer – more as a sportsman than a politician, and Cheyney did not follow Mosely when he changed the New Party into the British Union of Fascists. Cheyney was a keen marksman and took up judo and golf. Aged 34 and putting on weight, he took up fencing, having some success in his 40s, winning his club championship and representing England against Scotland in 1938.

In 1932 Cheyney Research and Investigations was formed. At this time Stanley moved to an haute couture company and Peter, known for his own style, and already familiar with the details of dressmaking, now gained knowledge of fine clothing, as can be read in many character descriptions.

On 24 November 1934 he married Mrs Kathleen Nora Walter (née Taberer) at Kensington Register Office (pictured right). Kathleen, the daughter of a Rhodesian District Commissioner, was a grounding influence on Peter during the next 14 years, the period of his greatest publishing success.

The next year, 1935, Peter’s mother Kate died. Peter was on the verge of the success that she had always dreamt of, and he had lost the one constant support in his life.

The Second World War started and Cheyney registered for the forces, but despite his sporting activities, he was deemed unfit for active duty. He joined the 1st County of London Battalion of the Home Guard – “Dad’s Army”. He became Captain and then Major Cheyney and revelled in the role.

Peter married Lauretta Singer (neé Groves, from Westchester County in NY State) in 1948. Over the next few years he became progressively more unwell, falling into a coma, in 1951. During this coma his brother Arthur died. Peter recovered for a short time, then fell into a second and fatal coma, dying on 26 June 1951, in Chesham Street, London. His brother Stanley died just a few weeks later. Peter left, what was then a huge sum of £52,864 8s 6d. Lauretta Theresa Groves married again to the Honourable Henry Charles Hiley Bathurst, and died on 17 April 1957.

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