BLACK TIE TALES
My Fashion Odyssey
I quickly fell into fashionable London life where my first job was found through a friend who knew a film publicist needing someone to run his office – a large room in Mayfair’s Mount Street. Jobs seemed so easy to acquire in those heady days – and although full of bravura for my age at 17, I added two years on my CV to give it more gravitas. My boss was an ‘old school’ American expatriate Hollywood PR man called Halsey Raines whose career had been honed at MGM where he had been on the team who handled – and hid – the secrets of the studio’s most famous stable of stars. Having been the Unit Publicist on the first James Bond film ‘Dr No’ in 1962 and latterly responsible for a monthly column on film for Vogue (typed – and sometimes researched – by me) his contacts book was deeply impressive.
Mr Raines worked erratic hours, often staying late to call L.A. I’d arrive the next day to find virtually undecipherable scribbled notes listing the morning tasks. Much of his day seemed to be spent at his old friend Siegi Sessler’s drinking/dining club at 47 Charles Street (now Mark’s Club) where I would often have to run over to deliver envelopes he had left at the office. Although pretty run-down in 1967 and with its Polish owner in frail health, Siegi’s was still the ultimate ‘Hollywood-in-Mayfair’ hang-out of film-industry titans like Sam Spiegal and stars like David Niven, Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, Bob Hope and Cary Grant. I often wondered what was in those envelopes – perhaps features written for copy approval? Theatre tickets? An address for a rendezvous? Maybe even cash! I never knew and never asked. But I relished being in the Mount Street office fixing drinks for Tony Curtis and Ava Gardener when they came calling. Being mentored by this well-connected if somewhat eccentric man left me with a lasting affection for the film industry and a deep-rooted knowledge of how to play the fame-game – something I would put to good use in the years to come.
My job earned me an invitation to my first fashion show. Since the Honey shoot, I’d followed editorials, watched Ready Steady Go to see what Cathy McGowan was wearing (like so many young fashion fans, I mourned the show’s closure) and bought myself a Wallis Shops copy of Yves St Laurent’s famous Mondrian dress from his 1965 Collection.
Fashion at that time, hovering as it did somewhere between the end-of-an-era formality of lady-like dressing, and the increasing rise of fashion rebels wearing the shortest of mini-skirts courtesy of Mary Quant, was striving to find an identity. In the main, daughters still dressed like their mothers. Women of a certain age clung to their hats, senior editors at Vogue wore gloves and smart hotels and restaurants refused to allow women inside wearing trousers. Happily for girls of my age, the late 1960’s was the era that democratised fashion and transformed it from something that was largely for the rich, to something less formal we could all enjoy and afford. Fashion-conscious girls took their weekly cash pay-packets, heading off on Saturday to search the racks at Biba – by now ensconced in a double-fronted treasure-trove of a shop on Kensington Church Street – or the nearby Bus Stop Boutique, or to rummage through the rails at Richard Shops, Wallis or Miss Selfridge. During several months in London I had acquired a big Biba habit involving numerous feather boas; a shocking-pink crepe smock cocktail dress with flowered rhinestone buttons; a silver brocade empire-line dress and a pink linen suit. I loved them all, but only the suit made my own archive because I was photographed for the Daily Mirror.
But probably the most fashionable piece in my wardrobe was a chocolate brown and white abstract printed PVC mac by a clever designer called Hilary Floyd – bought for me by a generous boyfriend from Miss Floyd’s showroom on the Kings Road.
It’s sadly gone – I know not where – but it would be a collector’s piece today, as indeed is anything by Barbara Hulanicki for Biba and even more so from the design duo whose show captivated me so much in January 1968 – Alice Pollock and her protégé and creative partner Ossie Clark – the lead designer at Alice’s quintessential late ‘60’s Chelsea boutique Quorum. Theirs were bo-ho clothes for a wealthy, hippy-chic crowd, priced at around 15 guineas a piece rather than £5 meaning Quorum was the fiefdom of rock-chicks and models who could afford Ossie’s floating chiffons in his (then) wife’s Celia Birtwell’s ravishing prints. While girls of my acquaintance in need of a ball gown for their ‘Season’ were perched alongside their mothers on gilt chairs at Hardy Amies, I was sitting at the Revolution Club in Bruton Place, watching Ossie’s ‘Summer of ‘68’ confections to a soundtrack played out to more than a few Beatles numbers – hardly surprising given that George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd was Ossie’s star model and both George and John Lennon were in the audience. It was a blast. Fortunately for fashion historians, Pathe News were there to record the event:
The Revolution was a perfect place to hold a show – at least for Ossie. The venue was redolent with an atmosphere of edgy, rather tawdry decadence. I can describe it with total recall because – not that I knew it when I was at that show – a few months afterwards I started working there, about which more later. The main floor had tiered seating surrounding a circular dance-floor with shaded lights on the tables, red-plush banquettes and vast gilt-framed mirrors reflecting the strobing spotlights. It was a big space by discotheque standards and had a very large stage which made it the perfect venue for music-industry band performances and record launches. Throughout the 1950’s and early ‘60’s it had been a member’s supper and cabaret club called Le Prince – one of the many establishments where a small band played while hard-faced dance hostesses fleeced wealthy customers from out of town – the busiest being those who offered a risqué, semi-nude cabaret. 1960’s London was still awash with these clubs: the Astor, the Stork, the Latin Quarter, Churchill’s, the Gargoyle – where the waitresses wore cat outfits – and Eve where so many international diplomatic corps personnel gathered to watch the voluptuous showgirls perform that owner Helen O’Brien was reported to be on the payroll of MI5! This fascinating slice of 50’s and 60’s nightlife would probably have faded to obscurity without the ‘Profumo scandal’ which has earned one of these jaded joints – Murray’s Cabaret Club – a place in history. On stage at Murray’s the girls posed in little more than ornate ropes of plaited gold braid and faux jewels before sashaying around the tables to stroke the shoulders – and the egos – of the male clientele. Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies famously amongst them!
But times were changing. Kick-started by French cabaret star (and rumoured Royal favourite) Helene Cordet’s early ’60’s club called the Saddle Room in Hamilton place – and acknowledged as London’s first discotheque – late-at-night life took on a new dimension. Helped along by the 1960 Gaming Act which legalised casino gambling, London’s club scene rapidly changed as venues could legally combine gaming with drinking and dancing, all of which attracted an entirely new clientele.
Quick to cash-in on the opportunity were East End gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray. In 1961, the twins bought out the owner of a faded night club called Esmeralda’s Barn in Knightsbridge, applied for a casino licence and used brother Charlie’s ‘Entertainment Booking’ agency to procure performers like Noel Harrison to sing there. Esmeralda’s operated under the watchful eye of Charlie Kray’s childhood friend Laurie O’Leary as General Manager and for better or worse (mainly the latter) the dissolute Mowbray Howard, aka Lord Howard of Effingham, was paid £10 a week by the twins to bring down his ‘society pals’, many of whom lost a lot more than they could afford at the gaming tables. Several of the same faces meanwhile could be seen at John Aspinall’s first ever legal casino, the Clermont Club in the exquisite town house at 44 Berkeley Square where, in 1963, clients and gamblers could descend a private staircase to the cellars to dine and dance at Annabel’s.
The triumph of style and sophistication that was Annabel’s was created by the urbane Mark Birley and named after his (then) wife Lady Annabel. From opening night, Annabel’s attracted a high-society minted crowd of ‘East Meets West’, and was packed out with British nobs, New York’s elite, Hollywood stars and Middle Eastern potentates. All were willing to flash the cash, and all had pretty girls in their arms on the dance floor – the men being mainly with their mistresses and even on occasion with their wives! As Mark Birley hired the best staff outside the Palace, service was sublime. Mabel, the club’s uber-nanny-cum-fiercely-snobbish cloakroom lady presided over a coat cupboard in her Ladies Room stuffed with sumptuous furs and was – without exception – arguably London’s greatest fur-connoisseur.
Here I have to make a confession. I have a weakness for fur. Not that I owned a fur in 1968 when I first went to the club, escorted by a boyfriend wealthy enough to take me there. Instead, I passed over my purple matte satin evening coat to Mabel and, on exiting later that night amidst the flurry of sables and minks being handed from the rail, she smiled condescendingly at me (she did it so well) and in a dead-pan put down said: ‘yours is the cloth coat isn’t it madam?’ The anecdote entertained the audience of members when, years later, I was back at Annabel’s, this time hosting my own special event when ‘In Conversation’ with my friend – raconteur extraordinaire, style arbiter and latterly lounge-lizard singer, Nicky Haslam. Our ‘special subject’ being nightclubs!
My memories of Annabel’s through the decades led to a commission in 2013 to trawl the legendary club’s archives – selecting strands to add texture to otherwise anecdotal history – for the documentary made by Ridley Scott Productions to celebrate the club’s 50th anniversary, called ‘A String of Naked Light Bulbs’
Annabel’s, was gorgeous to look at, but was never ‘cool’. Nowhere in those liberated days with a dress code policy that dictated jackets and ties could possibly be ‘cool’. From the mid-’60’s onwards that accolade belonged to other clubs in London’s by now throbbing night-life scene which had exploded in the extraordinary fusion of music, fashion and the liberating social freedoms that had rocked the 1960’s. These clubs represented the Zeitgeist – the spirit of the age – and for a few (although perhaps not many!) just being there without being ‘high’ brings misty-eyed memories to this day. As well as music pumped out by a DJ (the best of who imported soul records from the US) live music was played by the new wave of music makers – musicians and singers who would go on to become legends – replacing jaded quartets playing the Mambo.
Owning a club was a risky business. Their ability to attract – and keep – their allure was a complex mixture of ‘dark arts’ involving an owner with savvy business strength in the background (and preferably well connected enough to negotiate a good rate for the inevitable ‘protection’); management with an eye for creativity and a stellar address book at the helm, and a decent sound system! Too low and the dancers complained. Too loud and it affected the neighbours. The Ad Lib – opened in 1966 and famously the favourite of the Beatles for a year or so – failed on the latter, being obliged to close because of ‘noise’ meaning they lost their licence. The Beatles moved on to have their own table at ‘King of Clubs’ entrepreneur Louis Brown’s Scotch of St James (Brown also owned Le Kilt, Lulu’s and Samantha’s) and, from time to time were seen at the Cromwellian where young Reg Dwight – before he morphed into Elton John – played piano in the house band Bluesology and the Beatles manager Brian Epstein was a high-stakes regular at the roulette table. The Comwellian was fun in a rock-meets-rough-and-scruff way and definitely one of the best clubs for people watching. Meanwhile, clever club-man Johnny Gold and his partners opened Dolly’s in Jermyn Street (circa ’67) which swept into ‘fashion favour’ before closing it down, expanding to his new, larger club – Tramp – which Mr Gold and his partners opened in 1969. Like Annabel’s, Tramp has uniquely endured with both still open today. Neither are owned by the original founders (and Annabel’s has shifted a few doors down to a new location), but even so, that they are still open is something of a global record for entertainment longevity and loyalty. I haven’t been to Tramp for years but was at the ‘old’ Annabel’s at 44 Berkeley Square – to say a fond farewell – when Nile Rogers and Chic played up a storm in June 2017.
In the 1960’s – then as now – all the clubs relied heavily on PR, with professional (and amateur) publicists calling in stories to the columnists who happily paid tipsters for their gossip. The going rate for a ‘celebrity squib’ from William Hickey on the Express was £3.00 and could be a lot more. Rarely out of the press, the club with the highest profile at that time was Sibylla’s. No more than a footnote in club history now, it’s back story is extraordinary. Opened in 1968, Sibylla’s was conceived and run by a syndicate trio of well-connected amateurs working in advertising and music promotion, one of them – Kevin MacDonald – being a relative of the Daily Mail owning Harmsworth family. Largely financed by young, rich, champion amateur jockey Sir William Pigott Brown – who had apparently inherited £750,000 and seemed to be doing his best to spend it all at once – the club was named after ‘Society It Girl’ Sibylla Edmonstone (grand-daughter of Chicago store billionaire Marshall Field). Decorated by David Mlinaric – the most stylish interior designer de jour – the walls were lined in blue Perspex and the sound system was reported as the most ‘technologically advanced of any club’.
It was all achingly fashionable, even down to ‘gangster chic’. The club manager was none other than Laurie O’Leary (of Esmeralda’s Barn fame) who was still working with Charlie Kray in his ‘Entertainment Agency’ and still booking cabaret acts and bands into clubs where the twins had an interest. By now the Kray brothers had been catapulted to fame courtesy of David Bailey’s photographic sessions and had become the West End’s ‘dangerous but divine to know’ duo amongst a certain set. Having Laurie around presumably meant a safe route through the minefield of paying protection money and helped keep violence at bay.
Sibylla’s board of directors read like a who’s who of ‘60’s glitterati, amongst them young, flamboyant Guinness heir Tara Browne and club-loving Beatle George Harrison; while members included Julie Christie, Michael Caine, David Bailey, Cathy McGowan and Michael Rainey, along with most of the Rolling Stones and all of George’s fellow Beatles. It also included the man I would later marry – Colin Woodhead – who cited Sibylla’s as ‘his club’ in a rather amusing guide-book on ‘taste, style and where to go’ called aptly enough ‘Swinging London’.
Author Karl Dallas listed just 24 of the people who make ‘London swing’ (Colin amongst them) and counting up their favoured clubs, Sibylla’s scored a total of 10 as did Dolly’s – making them unquestionably the leader of the pack.
None of this made any difference when just a few months after opening, one of the owners – Kevin Macdonald – jumped to his death when high on LSD; followed just a few weeks later by the death of Tara Browne when crashing his sports car into a parked van. The club lasted a year of so longer but, haemorrhaging money, it’s chief investor William Piggott Brown closed his cheque book, and, deciding that fashion was a better bet than nightclubs, opened a boutique on South Molton Street called Browns – which would turn out to be the launch-pad for my 30 year career spent in fashion.
By 1968 club-land was becoming dominated by music industry professionals who were booking their ‘acts’ as well as staging launches. Emergent bands were becoming successful – and rich – and spending time and money in their favoured venues. Leader of the pack in the music world was the trio of clubs owned by property and gaming tycoon David Shamoon (Blaises, the Revolution and the Speakeasy). His music-industry group manager was Jim Carter-Fea; Laurie O’Leary joined the team as manager at the Speakeasy and a favoured impresario was Bryan Morrison who amongst others managed T.Rex; Pink Floyd; Fairport Convention, all of whom went in and out of his offices upstairs above the Revolution Club, the latter being Jim’s main base. This is where I learned about the music business when I took a job waitressing there two nights a week in the summer of ’68 – initially for just two months – but in the end I stayed for eighteen.
Anna Wintour once famously said ‘everyone should get sacked at least once’ reckoning it concentrated the mind on the next stage to success. In her case it was 1975 in New York when she was fired from a junior job at Harper’s Bazaar. For me it was late in 1968 when I was fired from an up-market niche PR Agency. Mine was an ‘entry level’ role – my second – or maybe third – publicity-related office job since coming to London. On average, my jobs lasted six months. Either the project folded, or I moved on having been ‘poached’ as head-hunting in the era was called. This time I was fired!
My dreams of drama school now rapidly fading, the Agency I joined was owned by a chilly lady called Norah Owen. Called Newslines, she specialised in food and drink publicity with the added advantage that her beautiful model sister Wenda was married to Vogue photographer Norman Parkinson. Through the connection, some interesting projects came her way. One of them was for organising the London boutique opening for New York’s brilliant costume jeweller Kenneth J. Lane. Ostensibly my job was to answer the phone, handle Mrs Owen’s correspondence and mark up the newspapers every morning (a task drilled into me and so useful that I still do in my home office to this day). I didn’t enjoy the job, but I was learning – at least that’s the theory. In reality, I seized moments as they arose. At the opening night of Kenny Lane’s shop I was supposedly ‘assisting on the door’ (for which read taking the coats). Instead I invited the Account Executive to step back from holding her clipboard and marking off guests whilst I took the task over.
For any aspiring event organisers reading this, don’t ever underestimate the power of checking names off a list. As the elegant Mr Lane was one of the leading ‘society’ walkers of his era, possessed of a triple ‘A’ address book, within the hour I had put a face to a name from a score of his fans including the American Ambassador’s wife – the sublimely chic Evangeline Bruce – Annabel’s owner Mark Birley; food critic Quentin Crewe; Mrs Betty Kenwood (who wrote Jennifer’s Diary on Harpers & Queen) along with Wenda Parkinson who arrived with an entourage from Vogue. When they all swished off to dinner at the American Ambassador’s residence Winfield House, I went home on the bus. But I can truthfully say I had a great time!
The pay at Newslines was terrible and so, needing money, I took on a second job. A friend of a friend knew Jim Carter Fea at the Revolution and I knew (and loved) the club. A week or so later, having been kitted out with my uniform of a silver sequinned waistcoat by Alistair Cowin (who designed for a label called Grade One) I was allocated the six tables in the downstairs bar where guests retreated to eat – and drink – in semi-privacy.
One night, Frank Sinatra and a rather noisy party of his guests and assorted bodyguards arrived. It was the era of his volatile ‘Mia marriage’ and he used to slip in an out of London where he had recently been filming, and kept a flat in Grosvenor Square. ‘Frank followers’ say he was also keeping a weather eye on Ava Gardener who by now had her own home in London. At any event, Frank’s party came to sit at my table at the Revolution! Amongst their orders for steak sandwiches and copious amounts of Jack Daniels was a request for two bottles of champagne. To get the latter I had to make a quick dash through the kitchens, cut around the dance floor tier, go on up a narrow flight of stairs to the dispensary bar and return with the bottles intact in their ice buckets. So awed to be facing Frank that my hands shook, the bottle – already shaken up – responded as only fizz can. The cork popped with a bang and the bubbling contents pretty much soaked his suit.
I went white. ‘Mr Sinatra’ I said nervously, ‘I’m so incredibly sorry. My father’s never going to forgive me – he’s such a fan of yours’. Somehow this mollified Frank. Giving me a steely look he said: ‘and you’re not?’ Struck dumb by the debacle, all I could do was nod and smile and find a tea towel to wipe down his jacket. He took it well. Somehow I not only managed to keep my job, but pocketed a tip for £100 from the very generous Frank Sinatra which I promptly spent buying a red fox fur coat. I couldn’t wait to show it to Mabel.
Working at the Revolution left me with many memories, and an invaluable stream of life skills. I gained the ability to add up a bar bill in the dark against a throbbing background of Aretha Franklyn. I learned to survive heckling from tough – often drunk – customers and how to apply false eyelashes one at a time as my colleagues and I got ready for work at around 7.00 p.m, dressing our faces with mountains of Max Factor pancake, the preferred choice for a seven hour shift that lay ahead. I became familiar with some dubious catering tricks – from salting the ice to re-filling wine bottles. I met the most extraordinary people and made some good friends. I loved every minute of it. Where else would a teenage girl see Ike and Tina Turner or hear the magnificent Edwin Hawkins singers belt out ‘Oh Happy Day’ live on stage?
The long nights did cause sleep deprivation, Never a morning person, I struggled with even the short commute from my flat behind Sloane Square to Green Park – the stop for the Dover Street office – and was endlessly late for work. The inevitable result was that Mrs Owen fired me. ‘I hope I’m not making a mistake’ she said as she wrote my leaving cheque, ‘As I think you have potential. But not here and not working for me’. I retreated back to the club, adding an extra couple of nights to my rota while considering my next move – which took me back into the film industry’.
In 1969 I joined the British outpost of an American film company called Commonwealth United, who had settled into particularly lavish offices in London’s Brook Street. They were in the midst of producing what they described as a ‘dark comedy’ – for which read anarchic – called the Magic Christian, starring Peter Sellers, Ringo Starr and a list of famous names that made me tremble as I read them. Many were acting out of character – Yul Brynner as a transvestite cabaret singer springs to mind as being particularly memorable! Christopher Lee, Laurence Harvey, Roman Polanski, John Cleese, Spike Milligan and Dickie Attenborough all floated in and out of their roles and somewhere in all of that was Raquel Welch playing ‘Priestess of the Whip’ as she struck out at 100 barely dressed female galley slaves. Paul McCartney was busy writing the soundtrack (with some help from Noel Coward) and the whole thing was late, over-budget and causing headaches all round as my boss was back-to-back with another production.
Eventually it wrapped and a celebration party was planned under the watchful eye of Peter Seller’s fiancée Miranda Quarry. The bash took place at Les Ambassadeurs, a movie-tycoon and millionaire’s watering hole in Hamilton Place which had once housed the Milroy nightclub – much favoured by Princess Margaret in her pre-Tony Snowdon days. Les A were thrilled to be having the Beatles (well, most of them at least) alongside Peter Sellers and an assorted crowd of celebrities – there was even a grand-slam gambling session with faux paper money inscribed with the guests names in different denominations. How I wished I had kept a few of those!
Sadly I didn’t keep a souvenir. I didn’t keep my job either as my boss – totally over budget on the picture and who had just arranged for Ringo and his wife, Peter Sellers, the producer and director and entourage to sail to New York on the recently launched Queen Elizabeth 2 in a high-profile publicity stunt – was re-called to LA and his London office closed down.
A short while later I joined the press office at Columbia Pictures where I spent several months working for another ‘old school’ publicist (this time a woman) who took me in hand and showed me how to write a press release (no more than a single page) and caption a photograph – always a strong headline, date it and don’t forget to put in the name of the film! My job involved hospitality for their stars. I recall delivering some photographs to Charlton Heston for picture approval at the Dorchester. He answered the door himself, invited me to comment, said ‘call me Chuck’ and had the most beautiful manners. When the musical War Paint was launched in New York in 2017, we were having a celebratory lunch at ’21’ (one of my favourite places) where Mr Heston’s daughter was at the next table sitting with someone I knew. We were introduced, and she was thrilled to hear my teenage memories about her charming father.
At Columbia, I took photographs down to Fleet Street in the hope of convincing picture editors to use them – but Richard Harris in a helmet in Cromwell wasn’t enticing enough when what they wanted was Joan Collins in a bikini! What those trips to Fleet Street did however was set in motion my interest in writing. Not just press releases – I wanted to be a journalist.
As Christmas approached, it was, I reasoned, a moment to reflect and see where the past two years of undeniably fascinating jobs had actually taken me on my career path. It also felt like the right time for me to give up the nightclub life.
There was a harder ‘edge’ to working at the Revolution by late 1969. Something difficult to define, but definitely linked to the hopes and dreams of those who worked the ‘night shift’ and then – just like Gladys Knight’s Midnight Train to Georgia realise they aren’t going to make it – and working until the small hours of the morning is all they have left. I myself could have used my earnings from my two jobs to pay for drama school. Instead I chose to live in Chelsea and told myself it could ‘happen later’. There was also the issue that it didn’t feel quite as safe. Something indeterminate but vaguely threatening permeated the atmosphere as the business of entertainment changed hands – got bigger, stronger and increasingly destructive to many of the personalities involved who didn’t have the stamina to cope. I lost some people I cared for from drugs – which seemed to be everywhere in those days – and I felt increasingly uncomfortable about it.
One Saturday night I left work at around 1.30 a.m. and was stopped in Berkeley Square by an unmarked police car. The Vice Squad were on the prowl and a young girl out that late ‘looking for a taxi’ was a soft target. Having escorted me back to the club where my credentials were verified I was given a lift home. The young officer and I stayed in touch and dated for a while. He was charming – an ex-public school boy with a Degree who, in an unlikely career move had chosen the police and ended up working on Vice. He and I went to some pretty dubious watering holes over the next months in what he laughingly called ‘the course of duty’. He had been part of the team who had undertaken surveillance on the Colony Club Casino in Berkeley Square (owned by American mobster Meyer Lansky but run on his behalf by ex-actor George Raft) contributing to a report that led Home Secretary Roy Jenkins to expel Mr Raft from England in 1967 as an ‘undesirable alien’. I learned who was ‘who’ in the underworld in London at that time and that all the gambling in the growing casino club culture – even the very jolly Apron Strings on the Fulham Road where I myself used to enjoy a game of Black Jack – were ‘suspect’ in one way or the other. We went to out-of-hours drinking dens, dined at the Walthamstow Greyhound racing track where our suave host (rumoured to have gone to Eton) worked for London’s famed gangster Billy Hill in some amorphous capacity. He certainly had the beautiful manners – and arrogance – of old-Etonians, but also unforgettably cold, cruel eyes. It was un-nerving being in his company. There was a tacit understanding that my boyfriend – while if not exactly as corrupt as some of his colleagues, ‘knew the score’ and was happy to take a few of them in notes in a brown envelope. He certainly never seemed to pay a bar bill. My own father had himself been briefly in the Vice Squad after the war and had left abruptly – later telling me ‘they were all on the take’. Nothing much it seems had changed. My relationship with my policeman boyfriend fizzled out, as did my job at the club. I left for good late in November ’69 and in the New Year of 1970 got my first break into journalism.
Those reading this can see my fascination – and affection – with ‘night club’ life. All my personal experiences have in some way or another contributed to the back-story of my books and now it’s the turn of the club world. For several years now I’ve been working on the story of Kate ‘Ma’ Meyrick – whose tarnished reputation as London’s notorious owner of illegal nightclubs still lingers in the silvery echoes of the shimmying 1920’s. Utterly implacable in her defiance of the post-war decade’s absurd licensing laws, Mrs Meyrick’s clubs were subsequently demonised by the authorities as being at the very epicentre of feverish decadence, drug abuse and prostitution. They determined to stop her. In the 13 years she operated (1919-1932) Kate ran the iconic ‘43’ in Soho’s Gerrard Street which, along with other clubs in her ‘empire’ earned her a massive amount of money. It also earned her five prison sentences in the dank confines of Holloway jail. In many ways Kate – a separated mother of eight children who she privately educated on her earnings – was a victim of post-war pressures and prejudices against women. Her story, which I’ve titled Midnight Mother, has been on my radar for years – and now, after a long ‘stop and re-start’ period (about which more in my ‘Books’ section) the work is back on my desk ready to be completed. Happily for me, my treatment of this story has been optioned by BBC Studios (Wales) who currently have it in development. So, hopefully Kate’s story will be told – and seen – before too long.
In my quest to learn about features writing I joined a lively Trade Publishing Group called the Cornmarket Press run by Clive Labovitch. Their offices in Conduit Street were an absolute hub for writers and art directors with printers ink running through their veins. I’d hoped to find a job on Clive Irving’s stunning in flight magazine for BOAC called Welcome Aboard – instead I was assigned to a careers newspaper called After School – the irony of me writing about exam results and degree courses when I had left school myself at 16 wasn’t lost on me!
The company had originally been a partnership between Mr Labovitch and his Oxford friend Michael Heseltine. Back in 1959 they bought an ailing title called Man About Town and, over the next few years turned it into a cutting-edge vision of 1960’s hip style, re-titled Town.
By now, the publishing duo had separated with Michael Heseltine forming Haymarket Press and taking Town Magazine with him. But the aura of style in menswear wasn’t lost at Cornmarket and I was dispatched to interview people who worked in the ‘fashion business’ about how they got their break. I tracked down Colin Woodhead – the Fashion Buyer and Advertising Director for CUE shops at Austin Reed which was one of the buzzing chains of the day and, given he had joined CUE from his role as Fashion Editor at Town, it was a perfect fit. It was a long time ago now and I can’t remember too much about the interview but it was an entertaining meeting. I don’t even have a copy of the editorial in my archives. I sometimes smile at the serendipity of the fact that he might have turned the interview down – preferring Men In Vogue – because we may never have met. I’m glad we did as in 2020 we will be celebrating our golden wedding anniversary!
I saw a lot of Colin in the next few months and on my birthday in March 1970 – when I was 20 – we were being spoiled with a delicious dinner hosted by a much older and dear ‘mentoring’ friend of Colin’s, who got his diary out and said ‘October’s a good time for a wedding, I’m not travelling then’. Colin looked rather startled – he did propose but I said ‘no’ – I thought he had been a bit flip! He then asked again and this time I accepted.
The careers newspaper bit the dust a few weeks later and in the time honoured tradition of ‘last in, first out’ I was made redundant. I spent the next few months doing freelance PR projects and travelling back and forth to my Nottinghamshire home village to plan the wedding.
Never in great health, my mother was by now very frail. She couldn’t even make it to London for any of my Wedding dress fittings, but I did take her a swatch of the beautiful lily-print chiffon from the ravishing dress. In a glorious turn of the wheel of fortune, my outfit (dress and white crepe wrap-around underskirt) was made for me by Colin’s friends Alice Pollack and Ossie Clark at Quorum.
My mother sadly died just three weeks before our wedding. We went ahead. My father, my fiancé and myself knew it is what she would have wanted. She did adore a party!
Outside the Church, left to right – my friend Diana Burgess was one of my bridesmaids. Old friend and ex-flatmate Malcolm Bullough was Colin’s Best Man. My sister Nikki was a bridesmaid. Their cream crepe dresses came from Quorum.