Monday, June 24, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke


Jay Pomeroy – The Glory Years

My next post will explain how Jay Pomeroy, and others, made a lot of money by avoiding the Excess Profits Tax. For one blinding moment he thought he had discovered the perfect heist – a way of buying whisky stock at the price of pre-war manufacture (pennies)  selling it to other members of the consortium at gradually increasing prices until it could be sold on at  the wartime market price (many pounds). Home free – he thought he had found the perfect loophole! His first trade, for whisky brokers J.S. & J Brown,  set him on his new path, allowing him to not only come out of bankruptcy but also invest in his first opera venture. It was the beginning of his life as a public figure and someone of note in the cultural life of London.

In 1941 the Ukrainian-born conductor Anatole Fistoulari, who had escaped to London just before the occupation of France, had the idea that with the entry of Russia into the war the time was ripe for a project to celebrate Russian culture. Along with fellow Russian émigrés: designer George Kirsta, and entrepreneur Eugene Iskoldoff, they hit upon the rather unlikely project of Mussorky’s unfinished opera Sorochinsky Fair, augmented by sequences of ballet . Unfortunately none of them had any money so they had to find someone to pay the bills.  At this point there is nothing to suggest Jay Pomeroy would be their man, except that he was part of a community of Russian exiles. Someone knew of his sudden good fortune. Although he had no background in opera, there was something that excited his imagination and he was keen to get involved. Perhaps he really did see it as an opportunity to promote the culture of his homeland and catch the mood of the country. Perhaps he was attracted to the idea of becoming a player in a more glamorous world. Perhaps it was an instinctive mixture of motives or a whim; but whatever the reasons he came in first as a shareholder then for the full amount. He liked the idea. What is more the production was a great success. The three week season at the Savoy Theatre was sold out and it toured the country before having another London run at the Adelphi.

Some of the stories behind the production in Kara Vayne’s memoir¹ are quite entertaining but like Nick Carraway listening to the gossip about Gatsby I’m not sure how much to believe. Although she is a direct witness, as she was one of the sopranos, the whole tone of her book is so full of self-pity,  so full of the misdeeds of others, it reads like spiteful gossip. Her description of Jay Pomeroy as a man who “had probably never heard the word ‘opera’ , let alone understood the meaning of it” is just mean minded and petty. (We know he was well educated so there is no reason to believe he didn’t have a cultural hinterland). And when she described Russia’s entry into the war as “the USSR had recently reneged on Germany to Join Britain in the war against Hitler” I think one is justified in distrusting her judgement.

But back to the anecdotes: when progress on the production stalled after he had bought his initial shareholding, Pomeroy called a meeting to find out what was happening, when  told there were no other shareholders and the money had run out, he took some diamonds from his pocket, put them on the table and said ‘that should cover the costs’. From that point was the sole backer. Do I believe this story? I don’t know. She wasn’t there and it does seem a little fanciful, almost like something from a Hollywood gangster film – I can see James Cagney doing this with a great flourish. If it is true it suggests that Pomeroy was dealing in more than whisky and was making some other black market trades. Who knows.

There is also a story of him inviting her to lunch at White City greyhound track with two business associates, where she got the impression he was trying to offer her to the highest bidder. Was that the case or a misunderstanding? If true it is sleazy but if that was his plan you would think, at the very least,  he would checked beforehand if she was willing. Perhaps he just wanted to show off his connection to the theatre. Whatever happened it is obvious the two of them were not on the same wavelength and Kara Vayne was obviously quite resentful, especially as Pomeroy had a deep interest in one of the other sopranos Daria Bayan, who became his mistress. (Oh how city she is about Daria Bayan!).

Daria Bayan of cover of Picture Post

Now it is perfectly possible that Jay Pomeroy’s move into opera promotion after Sorochinsky Fair was because he wanted to further Daria Bayan’s career but that could not have been his only reason. He clearly liked being an impresario. There were many other operas, ballet and a couple of plays. He had found his passion.

A more honest witness of the man is Diana Menuhin² who not only danced in Sorochinsky Fair, she maintained contact by being a principal member of the ballet company Pomeroy set up afterwards. Unlike Kara Vayne she got to know him well as as well as she was more than a performer as she took on a lot of responsibility for the running of the company. She was obviously fond of him and described him as “warm, kindly and generous”. However there was a bump in the road in August 1942 when a years worth of work in building up a ballet company and planning a new season was suddenly stopped. Pomeroy had a heart attack and could not fund further ventures and she found out that  “his business, as he was the sole progenitor that earned the money, could not be put in another’s hands and so long as he was in hospital all sources were sealed.” By 1943 though his fortunes were ‘mysteriously’ restored and he was back, promoting three successful theatrical productions.

The opera and ballet world give a better account of the man than the whisky press. From Oda Slobodskaya, a highly distinguished singer but one approaching the end of her career in 1941, we learn that the Sorochinsky Fair cast called him ‘Pommy’ and that as he had put up the money he thought he had the right to tell people how things should be done and on occasion address the cast from the stage; but as she says: “It was difficult to support Pommy’s ideas for, although his heart was in the right place, he did not know a great deal about the theatre and nothing about Sorochinsky fair” ³. So here we have a picture of a man with confidence in his right to be heard and who valued his own opinion, even when he had no direct expertise.

Ian Wallace started his career at the New London Opera and was grateful, and not a little surprised that someone with so little experience was given opportunities he would not have had elsewhere. This says something about the openness of Pomeroy’s hiring policy and his willingness to encourage people. From Ian Wallace we also learn that the name he was know by was now ‘Pom’ and we also have a physical description: “short and stocky with dark eyes that blinked rapidly when he was thinking of a suitable reply to a an awkward question” ⁴ I can’t think too badly of any body called ‘Pom’. It is an affectionate name. At the same time, I can’t help thinking that, during his life, he probably did a lot of blinking!

Peter Ebert’s book ⁵ about his father Carl, the famous opera director, contains an anecdote about a proposed merger of The New London Opera Company with Glyndebourne (with which Carl Ebert was associated). For no clear reasons this came to nothing but nevertheless Pomeroy still wanted Ebert to mount a production of Rigoletto at his Cambridge Theatre. This happened and was a success and from it we learn that the working atmosphere in the Cambridge was excellent. This again says something about the way he managed and the ability of Jay Pomeroy to put the right people in charge and give them enough freedom. He had obviously grown into his role and knew how to assemble a company to mount an artistically successful production. The premiere of Rigoletto coincided with the 21st birthday of Ebert’s daughter, who acted as his assistant. “At the reception after the performance Mr Pomeroy made a speech revealing that the real genius behind the production was Renata and her father was only the front man. He also presented her with a first-class ticket on the Mauritania to New York, to sail in style to her wedding and new life in the States.” When we think about him at his worst, when facing the Inland Revenue over claims for unpaid tax, we should also remember his humour and generosity.

In terms of the quality of the productions he mounted he was a success as an impresario. I He enlivened the cultural scene of London, both during the war and in the immediate post-war years, and in doing so performed a public service. His most ambitious coup was to buy the Cambridge Theatre at Seven Dials as a permanent base for his companies ‘The New London Opera” “New London Ballet” and “New London Orchestra”. His season of Italian opera between 1946 and 48 was a direct challenge to Covent Garden and was recognised to be of a higher artistic standard. He threw down the gauntlet and was convinced he  he could do things better than the old guard of opera managers, especially those at Covent Garden. He thus made a serious bid to take over the running of the country’s most prestigious opera venue. The establishment and the government were not to keen on this idea and he was thwarted by the government intervening to take ownership of the building and then sponsor the resident company through the Arts Council. Perhaps the government were aware of his other little difficulties!

Nevertheless he was invited to become part of the Arts Council’s Opera Panel in 1948. The outsider had become the insider even if many treated his flamboyance with suspicion. For someone who came into the field by accident and pursued it initially because of an affaire he learnt on the job and obviously had flair. What he was not good at was the thing he prided himself on – business. One of his pitches to take-over Covent Garden was the idea that it would be better run by a businessman but in terms of profit and loss he was hopeless. His 1946-48 season of Italian opera lost over £200,000 yet in spite of this he always had the optimism to make bigger plans.

The most remarkable thing about his optimism is his ability to compartmentalise (i.e. ignore) his problems. Buying the Cambridge in 1946 and then promoting and ambitious and expensive season would seem to be the mark of someone confident he had the resources to back-up his ambition but at the time he must have known he was in great danger. The 1945 the Court of Session, in Edinburgh, had already found against him and made him liable for Excess Profit Tax at 100%. He would have to repay almost all the money he had made – money he had already spent it. 1945-48 was thus period of limbo because of an appeal to the House of Lords but he still acted as if he were cock of the walk. You had to be wilfully blind to not think that in the end it would all come crashing down. Nevertheless he continued.

I can only think of the ending of ‘The Great Gatsby’:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further … And one fine morning –

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Jay Pomeroy died of a heart attack, June 1955, aged 60. He still owed £500,000


P.S. The illustration at the head of the post is an architects sketch for the Cambridge Theatre, which comes from this site, which gives a history of the theatre

P.P.S. The fact that Daria Bayan was featured on the cover of the Picture Post is an indication of the reach of this production.

¹ Vayne, Kyra, and Andrew Palmer. A voice reborn. London: Arcadia Books, 1999.

² Menuhin, Diana. A glimpse of Olympus. London: Methuen, 1996.

³ Leonard, Maurice. Slobodskaya: a biography of Oda Slobodskaya. London: Victor Gollancz, 1979.

⁴ Wallace, Ian. Nothing quite like it. London: Elm Tree, 1982

⁵  Ebert, Peter. In this theatre of man’s life: the biography of Carl Ebert. Lewes, Sussex: The Book Guild, 1999

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?

5 thoughts on “Jay Pomeroy – The Glory Years

  • My Father and Jay were fellow migrants from Ukraine, not Russia. I only remember him initially as being a salesman in glass manufacturing. He very kindly allowed me to begin my sketching career at rehearsals at the Cambridge Theatre, with the LSO, with guest artistes such as Andre Segovia, Paul Tortelier and Gregor Piatigorsky, and he New Symphony Orchestra under Alec Sherman, and to attend Carl Eberts’s rehearsal of his production of ‘Falstaff’ with the great basso Mariano Stabile.Have many copies of these sketches still in my possession.

    • Thank you Ronald. I am grateful to hear of your connection. It his interesting that a man with such a tangled business career could have such a big impact on the artistic life of London and then be forgotten. He died a broken man. The other person he reminds me of is Alexander Korda, who similarly had no real money but managed to keep up the show of wealth and produce significant films.

      I take your point about Ukraine and will amend

      • Ronald Stein

        Forgot to mention Ginette Neveau was another artiste sketched at one of his events. Also he was a family friend,with his wife and daughter living in in South London. Would you like me to send a couple of my connected sketches?

        • Ronald that would be amazingly generous. If you like to contact me by email, we could talk more securely.

          • Ronald Stein

            Also forgot to mention it was in Richmond where they lived. Another amusing thing was he created ‘Music Art & Drama’ for some of his activities at the Cambridge – MAD in initials!!!! Another artiste/conductor was Albert Coates, an English boy studying in Russia,who told us that as a young boy in Ste. Petersburg he was playing the piano when someone tapped him on the shoulder and said ‘Choracha’ ! He turned round and found it was Tchaikovsky!!!!!

            Will send sketches by your secure link today.

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