Jay Pomeroy – The Years of Obscurity

For three quarters of his time Jay Pomeroy’s life was low-key and obscure. He got by, alternating periods of modest business success with failures. He was never particularly rich and didn’t even having his own bank account until the 1930s (the household expenses seemed to be managed by his wife).  His Times obituary dismissed it all in one sentence: “A capable man of business, he amassed a considerable fortune in a few years and, had this been his only interest, he would, no doubt, have followed the dull example of other rich men and retired into obscurity”. However, like most things written about him, this is only approximately right. His capability as a business man and the way the way he amassed his fortune is rather moot and if he hadn’t moved into the arts his role in the whisky tax case would still have given him a small amount of notoriety. Nevertheless the central point is correct: it was only in one decade, when he was between 45-55 , that he become a man of substance, a player.  He was someone who arose, seemingly from nowhere, to put on ambitious and artistically successful performances of opera, dance and theatre that enlivened the London stage. He had a flamboyance. In the whisky community, though, his reputation was not as rosy. Whisky, for him, was just a commodity that provided the money to fulfil his wider ambitions.

What a strange career! Something that was for so many years precarious, suddenly and briefly blossomed into wealth and high living. The  circumstances that led to his lucky break, how he discovered a way to get round the ExcessProfits Tax, or who first thought of the scheme, we will probably never know. What is interesting is not that he managed to make money but the fact that he chose to spend his fragile wealth with aplomb, and discover the world of opera, ballet and the theatre.

He was born Joseph Pomeranz in 1895 in Taganash, Crimea but as he is described as coming from Feodosia, I assume the family moved there. The Jewish community of Feodosia at the time was approximately 3,000 out a total population of 24,000.  Even though this proportionately large they would have been at the bottom of the social hierarchy, as under the Romanovs Jews were akin to Untouchables in the Hindu caste system. They were forbidden to own land outside of cities, there was a quota of 10% of those who could go into higher education and there was a range of legal discriminations embodied in some 1400 statutes. The last two tsars were openly ant-semitic and Nicholas II viewed pogroms  as acts of patriotism and loyalty by good and simple Russian folk. Nevertheless Joseph attended medical school for three years in Geneva after an education that had included stints in Paris and Berlin. His family must therefore have been quite well-to-do and cosmopolitan and his background privileged.  However he did not graduate as a doctor as he left in 1915 to accompany someone described as being ‘mentally defective’ on a journey from Geneva back to Russia. Why they came via London I don’t know, it seems a strange route, perhaps they needed to visit somebody. Whatever the reason they came and it was here the companion’s condition worsened,  he became violent  and was confined to an institution. Joseph decided to stay rather than go back and from that time England was his permanent home.

He started by studying languages but needing to earn his living he became a rep for Kelly’s Directories, then worked for a timber merchant and then traded in hosiery. In 1919 he formed his own company ‘Export Traders Ltd’, which was successful for a time but not so successful it stopped him taking a job as chief executive of a new company, Dano Ltd in 1921. This did not last and so he went back to being a traveller and agent for other companies. For a time he worked for a pork pie company and this is probably my favourite thing: the last thing I expected to find about a theatre impresario was that he had once been a pork pie salesman!  After working for others he then tried to revive his company but only managed to lose money and had to take a loan of £1000 from a relative of his wife had to go back to being a sales manager for another company.

This is the chequered career that takes us up to the time he was granted British nationality in 1930. He applied for it two years earlier but the Secret Service, who reviewed all such applications from Russians, were not that keen. Their enquiries they could find nothing against his character and all his referees said he was a solid sort of chap, but they didn’t like the business record and there was a question mark about an association with a known undesirable. a White Russian, called Alexander Broudt, who had a firm based in Berlin.  However the connection was slight: his sister-in-law had previously worked fro Broudt before going to India (the web of this family is nothing if not cosmopolitan). So there were no grounds for refusal and nationality was granted, after a postponement for two years.

One of the comments on the file that amused me was that “He had made efforts to reduce his debt, which shows honest intent, but I don’t know how long this will last once we have granted him nationality.” There was a reluctance to give nationality to someone is so much debt but as it was to a family member who was not pressing for repayment it was let pass.¹

After he was naturalised Joseph Pomeranz officially changed his name to Jay Pomeroy, his wife Sophia became Sonia Pomeroy. Two ex-Russians, now freshly minted as English with English sounding names stepped out into the Twickenham air, along with their two children, Oscar, born in 1922 and Beryl, born in 1929, but they never lost their roots. Throughout his career Jay was always known as a Russian and associated with other expats, also there was the rest of the family. His parents had fled to Poland after having all their possessions stripped from them by the Bolsheviks and one of his brothers loved to Paris but a brother and a sister remained in Russia. During this time Pomeroy continued to send £4 a week to his parents and £1 to his brother Israel, in Paris, to help support them. I find this detail telling because whatever financial scrapes he might have got into he obviously maintained a strong sense of family obligation. he was a social being.

As for his interests there is nothing mentioned to indicate music or whisky, rather it is politics that engaged his attention. He was an active  member of the Conservative Association and was also fond of confronting socialists on the street to argue about Russia. In 1928 he planned to write a book called “The Bolshevist Russia from the inside” but this did not materialise, like many things. I get the impression he was a man who liked to dream big, build his castles in the air, confident about his own value and abilities but someone who lacked perseverance. As one project started another opened up and he was always keen to move onto the next thing.Probably that is why he enjoyed, and was suited to, being an impresario as this is a job where you are always looking for the next thing.

During the 1930s his business life carried on much as it had done before i.e. with ups and downs. The firm he started in 1929, Flexalite Disposals, was a wholesaler of surplus stock and was successful enough so he moved into retail with a couple shops and a new company: Surplus Sales Ltd. However there was a fire at the warehouse in 1936, which destroyed £100,000 of stock that had only been insured for £5,000. The business never fully recovered and eventually Jay Pomeroy was declared bankrupt in 1940 owing £5,800 but with zero assets

It is interesting reading the report of the Official Receiver² because it is obvious he was quite sceptical as to whether there had been a full disclosure of assets, particularly as another company, Pomis Ltd, had been set up. Had resources been siphoned off? He also questioned the idea that Pomeroy worked for a time without salary when trying to clear the debts. “What did you live on?” was the question that never received a convincing answer. However it was difficult to get a answers as the record keeping of all his firms was out of date and a hopelessly mess.  This is a recurring theme – he never kept proper records and this alone would disbar him from being the ‘capable man of business’s described in the Times obituary. He is someone who liked to deal.

This is all I know about Jay Pomeroy before his whisky and opera years. A fancy goods merchant (as he described himself in the 1939 Register), he was far from a high roller. He was much more of a trader who had ups and downs.

Objectively this period ends in failure but that does not take into account the optimistic buoyancy of the man and his unwillingness to acknowledge the setback. He might have been personally bankrupt but Surplus Sales and Pomis Ltd carried on trading, nominally owned by former employees, Mrs Margaret Honey and Mrs Florence Mackezie, but under his direction. That was just a front and he carried on much as before up to the point in 1941 when he made his first big score. Everything was then transformed. In one deal he had struck it rich!

¹ HO 144/12209 – Nationality and Naturalisation: Pomeranz, Joseph, from Russia. 1930. This file on the vetting of Joseph Pomeranz was originally sealed for 100 years but as there is nothing remotely sensitive in it, it is now open at the National Archive

²  National Archive Court of Bankruptcy and successors: Proceedings under the Bankruptcy Acts  B 9/1347 – POMEROY, Jay

P.S. The picture at the head of this post is called Sunrise in Feodosia by the Nineteenth Century marine artist Ivan Aivazovsky, who was one of Feodosia’s more famous sons. I found it here. If you want to know more about him there is a blog post here

The Pomeroy Posts:

  1. An Introduction
  2. The Two Jays – how a novel can be used as a lens to compare characters.
  3. The Years of Obscurity – the first ¾ of his life.
  4. The Glory Years – His  years as an impresario.
  5. The Whisky Tax Case – the revenge of the Revenue
  6. Sam and Jay – There were some similarities between Sam Bronfman and Jay
  7. Chinese Whispers – how the whisky literature has misrepresented Jay Pomeroy
  8. McBain and Maclean – A source of some misunderstandings
  9. And Finally – at last
  10. Kritz not Pomeroy – Mistaken identity?