Friday, September 1, 2017

Elegance might have been the key

A table top at Annabel's. Photo: JH.
Friday, September 1, 2017.  Sunny, fair weather here in New York; in the mid-70s but feeling a little cooler, and definitely cooler at night. I have to remind myself that Summer is actually not over for another three weeks, and the weather always likes surprises.

Whatever else it was, this was the last week of the Summer Vacation in our minds. Next week when we start out the day, it’ll be back to business as usual. Of course there will be the fortunate ones who get to stay out there, up there, wherever, for a few more days or weeks until Autumn turns

In my Archive searching this week, I came upon yet another Diary that I’d forgotten about entirely. About a very interesting man who died at this time of year ten years ago. Mark Birley was his name. An Englishman, a kind of social impresario whose business was integrated with his personal life. He was one of those people whom people wanted to know ultimately because of the pleasure of his company. Hospitality was his trademark, and a kind of natural elegance was his source. 

From the Diary published on August 27, 2007 —
Mark Birley.
Elegance might have been the key. That, and snobbery marketed. In 20th century memory we got a chip of it in Fred Astaire and Cary Grant, acting, up there on the big screen. It is said there were others, down on the pavement, albeit gold-lined – like Paul Mellon, Jock Whitney, maybe the Duke of Windsor (half elegance/half droit de seigneur). There are still some among us in this increasingly chaotic society of ours; they know who they are even if we don’t.

But Mark Birley, who died on Friday in London) had it. He actually learned (or was born knowing) how to bottle its essence and sell it, even if for a few brief shining moments, to those who could afford it.

He was born into a family of artists. His mother Rhoda, Lady Birley, who was twenty years younger than her husband, was an artist, and his father Sir Oswald Birley (1880 – 1952), was one of the greatest and most prolific portraitists of the 20th century.

Sir Oswald was a favorite of the Royal Family. He painted George V, Queen Mary, George VI, Queen Elizabeth; and their daughter Queen Elizabeth II. He was knighted by George VI in 1949. Birley also painted Andrew Mellon and J. P. Morgan; as well as Winston Churchill, General Eisenhower, Marshal Montgomery, and Lord Mountbatten. Sir Oswald also gave painting lessons to Sir Winston.

Portrait of Birley by Glyn Philpot, 1920.
Marcus Oswald Hornby Lecky Birley was born May 30, 1930. The Birleys also had a daughter Maxeen, who later became known after her marriage to a French count as Maxime de la Falaise, also an artist and fashion designer (and mother of designer Lou Lou de la Falaise).

The boy’s father, who was 50 when he was born, taught him early how to use his eye in looking at art. At a young age, he drew very well. He went to Eton and then to Oxford where he soon tired of the academic. After a year he left, went down to London and got a job at the bottom of the ladder, pasting copy on boards, at J.Walter Thompson (David Hicks had had the same job before him). His abilities as an artist moved him up quickly but he soon grew restless with his progress and moved on to form his own agency.

He was a tall man – 6’5” in his youth. The young man was also an aggressive skier, an able squash and tennis player and racecar driver. The clothes and shoes were bespoke and he had a great sexual attraction to women. When he was 24, he married Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, the beautiful 20-year-old daughter of the 8th Marquess of Londonderry, and an heiress.

The young Birleys were one of the dashing young couples of their set with his variety of aristocratic and royal connections.

Lady Anabel Vane-Tempest Stewart Birley Goldsmith.
In 1959, he opened an Hermes shop in London. That was a first for Hermes and for London. He planned and executed the design of the shop, employing shopfitters led by a very young Terence Conran. It was the early dawn of what is now known as luxury brand marketing, and it was very successful.

In 1962 when London was about to become “Swinging” and discotheques (as they were then called) were exploding into fashion, Birley’s friend John Aspinall was refurbishing an ancient building in Mayfair to make a gaming club called the Clermont on 44 Berkeley Square. The building had a cellar, even more ancient – a warren of pillars and arches, old and dark and dank -- and Aspinall, knowing Birley was thinking of opening up some kind of club, asked if he wanted the space. He did.

He formed a private club which he named after his wife, and invited 500 of his friends and associates to join. The letter began: This letter is only being sent to some five hundred people who we think will support and enjoy a new kind of Night Club in London. One which is international in character, and more of a club in the true sense than any other. It concludes with: Annabel’s will have no honorary members and we shall not invite membership from the public generally. After 1st June, applications must be formally proposed and seconded. So there.

The initial membership fee was 5 guineas for the first year and 12 guineas thereafter. The final membership number by the time of its opening was 700. (A little more than 40 years later, the membership number is 7250 . The joining fee is 250 pounds, the membership is 750 pounds thereafter and there is a waiting list.)
A look inside Annabel's by day.
He hired an architect named Philip Jebb to design the interior. Jebb never been inside a nightclub before, which is why he was hired. He also hired a theatrical designer named Pedro Litao to work on the lighting. But he supervised everything down to the last detail.

The end result was a combination of high Edwardian and sleek Anglo-Arab all of which spelled wonder and chic to the astonished eye: A real fire in the fireplace when you walked in out of the cold, damp London night. Sofas and armchairs that you could sink into; your drink delivered without asking by a bartender that never forgets. Flowers everywhere; on the tables, in the dark corners, on the bar, behind the counter; fresh and crisp, and over-the-top, wherever you look. Banquettes in velvet and turquoise, flickering candles reflecting off highly polished brass pillars; and paneling with perfectly hung art as evocative and eclectic as the rest of the décor. And with a dance floor that was ample enough and easy to see but designed to have a sense of the intimate and the out of eye-range.

The eye for detail went for the food as well, and like everything else that Birley did, it was always subject to change, always with an eye on perfection. All served up by a perfectly trained staff that endured his sharp eyes and edgy vigilance over that perfection. They were well paid, well-respected and well-worked.
Annabel's by night.
A Brazilian party at Annabel's. Photograph by Norman Parkinson.
Annabel’s was a sensation immediately. With the rich and the famous, and the royals of high rank and low. Sinatra and Ava Gardner, Jackie Kennedy (and then Onassis), Henry Ford, Gregory Peck. The first time they arrived, the Beatles were turned away because they weren’t wearing ties.) With them came the Greek shipowners and the tin mine tycoons and the movie stars and their ilk. Mark Birley understood luxury for those who could afford it. Amazement; and comfort, great comfort; and a tableau of luxury, ripe and inviting.

He had begun his great ride. After Annabel’s came Mark’s Club, a Victorian building with creaking sloping carpeted floors, red-flocked wallpaper in one dining room, pale grey linen, Limoges, a Milanese cuisine. It was like a gentleman’s club although the ladies came, sometimes without a gentleman to lunch and dine. Then came Harry’s Bar on South Audley Street with a bright and busy Venetian décor and a lot more of the ladies (titled, well-married, heiresses et al). Like Annabel's, Mark’s and Harry’s Bar required membership, and dues. After Harry’s came the Bath and Racquets club, a palatial all-male gym (with foot-thick onyx urinals) in the City. In 2000, on the other end of the same block as Harry’s Bar, he opened George, another eating establishment that is almost entirely decorated with David Hockney drawings and paintings.

Today, there are more than 12,000 members in all of the Mark Birley establishments combined, paying more than 7 million pounds in membership fees, which has nothing to do with what they pay for the menu. And that’s not including the Waiting Lists, and the thousands of guests who come at the invitation of the members.
"George," (with the beige awnings) the private dining club on the corner of Mount and South Audley Streets. On the far right is Harry's Bar. George, like Harry's is a creation Mark Birley (also Annabel's, and Mark's Club). Mark Birley's establishments are brilliantly executed, including always a very visually enlivened and sophisticated decorative theme. The visual inspiration of George with a leitmotif of royal blue (in the china and accessories), and floors and walls bleached white, is David Hockney whose watercolors, posters and photographic works cover the walls. The effect is bright, clean and fresh.
At its zenith, Mark Birley was arguably the greatest restaurant and nightlife entrepreneur of the 20th century in the world, the casino operators notwithstanding. He raised the profession up several notches to a brand of class-artisanship (social arbiter) and a taste for the impeccable that made him rich.

Part of his marketing genius was to keep the press out of his operations. Like Garbo, a meeting could only be wished for. There was never paparazzi outside his doors. They were not allowed. There was never a scene in his establishments – they were not tolerated. Many a man might come with his mistress instead of his wife – it was never revealed to the columnists.

Then there was The Life. It was big, and rich, and grand, and at times sad, very sad. During the early years of their marriage, the Birleys had three children, Rupert, Robin and India Jane. Perhaps it was because Annabel’s required so much of his time (every night six nights a week) but in 1964, Lady Annabel had become involved with Sir James Goldsmith, the European banking and takeover tycoon, and a friend of Mark Birley’s. Eventually, and before she divorced Birley, she had three children – Ben, Zac and Jemima (now married but separated from Imran Khan) by Goldsmith.

Harry's Bar on South Audley Street.
In 1974 Lady Annabel married Goldsmith. Birley was heartsick over her departure although he wore it in stiff upper lip fashion.

Already tragedy had come to call. In 1969, one day when the son Robin was 12, his mother took him to John Aspinall’s private zoo where there were wild animals who were allowed to roam. As the boy was stroking a lion, the animal suddenly turned and took the child’s head in his mouth crushing the bones on one side of his face. Although they were able to free the child, the damage was profound and required more than a dozen operations, cosmetic and otherwise and the young bones never grew properly. Robin was scarred for life.

The boy and the family recovered in time and when he grew up Robin Birley opened a chain of sandwich shops in England that became a huge hit. A chip off the old block, as we Americans say. Then in 1986, the older son Rupert, who had gone to West Africa (Togo) for his work, disappeared. The handsome 21-year-old, was in the habit of going down to the ocean for a swim at the end of each workday. He was an excellent swimmer. But on this occasion, he did not come out of the water. His driver reported him missing but the details were sketchy. Had he drowned? Was he attacked by a shark? No one had an answer. He had simply vanished. His desperate father flew immediately to the scene no solace came of it. A friend of his believed there was always a sadness about the man after that.

I met Mark Birley here in New York one day in the late 90s at a lunch arranged by Eleanor Lambert the doyenne of fashion publicists. He was in town publicizing a package of fragrance products he was launching in his name with Frederic Malle, the son of his old friend Jean-Francois Malle (brother of director Louis Malle). I had heard lots about him well in advance. Nan Kempner was a very good friend of his and often stayed with him at his famously charming house in South Kensington where he lived alone with his two dogs and a housekeeper.

He was rather unprepossessing in presence, compared to all the praise and raving that preceded him. He was then a man in his late sixties, friendly but not effusive. Reasonable, sensible in conversation, and enthusiastic about this new venture and the partnership with an old friend. Although I had heard that he was a stickler for details and had a famous edge as an employer if there were anything even a salt cellar that wasn’t working properly, he had a very friendly and mild-manner. He was neither movie star handsome nor perfectly toned for a man who opened a top-of-the-line gym, although he carried his tall frame well. His bespoke suit and his shoes were his; he did not belong to them. At this point his businesses were long established and all very prosperous. And where these establishments also offered a sense of “snobbery” in their ambiance, their owner/creator, however, had none of it. He was a man who was very unimpressed with himself; really just a worker, always working. And enjoying the best.

In the past two or three years, now in his early seventies, his health had begun to fail. He eventually turned his business over to his two surviving children, Robin, now in his forties, and India Jane who for awhile ran Annabel’s. This move turned out to be fatal to the family relationships. In a series of complicated situations, the father and son fell out.
India Jane Birley.
Robin Birley.
There was the matter of disagreement over whom the son would admit into Annabel's, such as Colum Best – not the founder’s kind of customer. The times were changing; the son recognized this. Then there was another convoluted matter where Robin had hired a private detective to gather material about a man India Jane was having an affair with (and finally had a child by). When it all came to the light, it turned out that the private investigator was really a con (bilking 200,000 pounds from Robin Birley and providing entirely false information).

The repercussions of the father-son disagreement was further exacerbated by the son’s actions regarding his sister. Then when Robin married Lucy Ferry, although he invited India Jane (who attended), he did not invite his father. How that affected the man may never be known.

David Wynne-Morgan, the publicist who worked for Annabel’s for more than 40 years, told the Independent (London): “He was one of the stiff-upper-lip brigade. He didn’t want to show his emotions and he didn’t .... And he didn’t talk about it but the family feud must have been a stress and strain.

“The truth is,” Wynne-Morgan continued, he hadn’t been well for two years.”

Last June, Mark Birley sold his businesses to a London businessman-restaurateur, Richard Caring, for a reported 100 million pounds ($200 million American).

Mr. Mark Birley (by Mark Boxer): "Warrant-holder for the upper crust."
He never lost contact with his wife. Sir James Goldsmith died in 1994 of pancreatic cancer and it is said that Lady Annabel and Birley saw a great deal of each other. The London papers reported that his daughter was at his bedside at the time of his death (he had had a massive stroke) although his son was in Mozambique.

Yesterday, I asked Caroline Graham who had a long relationship with him if she would share some of her memories of him.

She wrote back:

I have many memories of Mark. I met him when I was 17 through my father. He gave me my first job at Hermes Paris. He was always wonderful to me throughout my life, full of wit and teasing, of course.

Once in Portofino at Les Serunese where we’d gone together for a week,. he bought all the grappa in the region to carry home. Another time in Switzerland when he found a great recipe for chocolate ice cream. And the Lyford Cay Club where he loved the Yellow Bird drinks and served them at Annabel’s later. I especially remember the time we went to see the Baltimore Colts, years ago on a winter day, and he had crab cakes. We always had crab cakes after that and he introduced them to Annabel’s and to London.

His search for excellent food and recipes brought food from all over the world to his restaurants.

The other passion he had more recently was for David Hockney drawings and posters. George has 200 of them. I took David Hockney to lunch there to meet Mark and he could not believe what he saw. Mark was so proud that Hockney and Gregory Evans (Hockney’s partner) had lunch with us that day.

No one ever took better care of his staff better than Mark, and brought to the members of his clubs more original ideas. He knew how to entertain, he created a Society in London from 1962 on, and they worshipped what Mark Birley did.

He did have sadness but he also had much joy in what he created daily. He was a unique character – a great businessman ... and an artist.

Mark Birley’s Corned Beef Hash

1 medium baking potato, about 200g
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for frying
340g can corned beef
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon English mustard
Sea salt and freshly ground white pepper.

Steam the potato for about 20 minutes until just tender. When cool, peel and cut into 5mm dice. Tip into a big bowl.

Saute the onion gently in 1 tablespoon oil for about 5 minutes until softened. Add this to the diced potato.

Cut the corned beef into 5mm dice. Mix into the potatoes with the parsley, Worcestershire sauce, mustard and seasoning to taste.

Heat a thin film of oil in a large frying pan. Cook the hash for 3-5 minutes, stirring once or twice, until lightly browned and crispy in parts.

Serve immediately. Serves 2.

NOTE: This is often served shaped into a patty or burger, and topped with a poached egg. Mark Birley preferred it served loose, and unadorned.

Photos courtesy of Annabel's (Harley Publishing Ltd.) ©Mark Birley.

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