The Bombing of the Café de Paris: Background information when reading The Splendid and the Vile

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The Splendid and the Vile

A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

by Erik Larson

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson X
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
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    Feb 2020, 608 pages

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The Bombing of the Café de Paris

This article relates to The Splendid and the Vile

Print Review

Café de Paris Erik Larson's The Splendid and the Vile recalls how the Café de Paris, a London nightclub, was bombed shortly before Winston Churchill's daughter, Mary, arrived there for a planned night of dancing.

The incident, which killed at least 34 people and wounded many others, was part of the Blitz, a prolonged bombing effort carried out by the Germans against the United Kingdom during WWII that lasted from September 7, 1940 to May 11, 1941. The bombs that struck the Café de Paris were dropped on the evening of Saturday, March 8, 1941. Other bombs were dropped that night in the general area of the West End where the club was located, between Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus.

The Café de Paris had previously catered to a rather exclusive clientele, but the war had turned it into a more accessible venue with lowered prices that was popular with celebrities and the upper class as well as soldiers on leave. It had become a hotspot for live music and dancing that appealed to those looking to shake off the stresses of the war.

The building was hit by two bombs, which went down a ventilation shaft and exploded inside the club, instantly killing and wounding many people. One victim of the bombing was Ken "Snakehips" Johnson, a musician and band leader from British Guiana (now Guyana) who had come to the UK at the age of 14. On the night of the bombing, he had walked to the Café de Paris against the advice of friends who, expecting bombs in the area that evening, thought taking a taxi would be safer. His walking delayed his arrival at the club, but unfortunately not by enough to save his life; the bombs struck just a few minutes after he got there. Some others were luckier: A group of cabaret dancers who were at the club to perform, for example, were shielded from the blast because they were waiting offstage when the bombs hit.

As is shown in The Splendid and the Vile, on learning that the club had been bombed, Mary Churchill and her friends decided to go dancing elsewhere that night. At the time, it wasn't unusual to continue an evening of revelry after traumatic events had occurred, as the Blitz had become a fact of life. In fact, Buckingham Palace was hit by a bomb on the same night. Even some of those who witnessed and survived the horrific blast at the Café de Paris promptly moved on to other venues to continue their evening out.

The Café de Paris closed for the remainder of the war, but reopened later on, and is still operating as a cabaret and nightclub today.

The Café de Paris entrance in 2013, by Andy Mabbett, CC BY-SA 3.0

by Elisabeth Cook

Filed under People, Eras & Events

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Splendid and the Vile. It originally ran in March 2020 and has been updated for the February 2020 edition. Go to magazine.

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