Words Kirk Truman
Illustrations Alexandria Coe
“Its like The Muppet Show with Fraggle Rock waiting in the wings. Its a place like nowhere else I know, a place of huge forgiveness…”
Behind a yellow door at 45 Dean Street, it’s easy to forget that only 30 years ago Britain was a different place when it came to recreation. In the mid-1980s, with the amendment of the wartime licensing laws, a restaurant and bar revolution was underway. At this time, private members’ clubs were archaic, men-only retreats at opposite poles of the social scale – think stuffy Pall Mall on the one hand versus rowdy Northern working men’s clubs on the other. It was during this period that a group of publishers that included Carmen Cahill, Ed Victor, Liz Calder and literary agent Michael Sissons had an idea. Imagining a place that welcomed both men and women to meet, work and socialise, they created The Groucho Club.
Tony Mackintosh, of the famous chocolate family, had opened a new sort of members’ bar in Covent Garden on the back of the success of Dingwalls Dance Hall in Camden Lock. It was called The Zanzibar, and was usually full of rock stars and rich bohemians taking advantage of its late-night licence. Approached by the aforementioned group of publishers, Mackintosh was taken with their idea. Already working with wine dealer John Armit on a restaurant in Notting Hill, he thought this new conception of a private club might allow further scope for his idea of mixing the modern and traditional. The next step was to find the right location for this new kind of club.
At the time, Soho was still the West End’s bohemian quarter, a colourful mixture of the seedy and the sophisticated. Well established as London’s red light district, it also harboured a number of gentlemen’s establishments, dancing clubs, illegal drinking dens and Italian coffee shops. Having been a restaurant since 1880, 45 Dean Street was best remembered as the home of Gennaro’s, where the Kings of Greece, Yugoslavia and Siam dined alongside Enrico Caruso and Dame Nellie Melba. The restaurant is commemorated today in the Groucho’s first floor Gennaro Room; supposedly once the scene of a fatal shooting, and, some say, haunted, it’s now famed for its beautiful vaulted roof and glass ceiling.
After the demise of Gennaro’s, the property fell into disrepair and became an Italian restaurant, with few reminders of its glamorous past to be seen. The cost of the freehold and the renovations required to transform 45 Dean Street into the comfortable modern club we know today meant that the creatives behind the initiative needed to pool their contact books. An unorthodox financial prospectus was created, complete with cartoons by Quentin Blake, and sent out to all their friends and associates to find funding for the project. Over 400 people put their hands in their pockets. The shared vision of Mackintosh and his literary associates became The Groucho Club, and was quickly adopted as Soho’s living room and the approved watering hole for the creative industries.
The Groucho opened in 1985 with bars, offices, two restaurants, private event rooms and 20 bedrooms. Mackintosh’s new members’ club was granted a both a daytime and a late-night license to sell alcohol; of course, it was soon attracting committed drinkers and post-show punters. The premise was a simple: a modern interpretation of stuffier and more traditional establishments, welcoming both men and women. Those who joined tended to be, like the club’s founders, from creative backgrounds – the arts, publishing, film, music and advertising – and many worked in the Soho area.
Despite welcoming both men and women, the early days of the club were particularly male-dominated. Writing under the pseudonym of Jan Siegel, British fantasy novelist Amanda Hemingway is often referred to by staff and club members as the First Lady of the Groucho. Joining in the club’s opening year, Amanda was an infrequent visitor until the late 1980s, when she became something of a regular. “It was a very male dominated club. It still has a lot more male than female members today, but in those days there were very few regular female members,” she recalls. “If women came in on their own, as I did, they tended to get friendly with staff, and the then manager, the great Liam Carson. Liam would always take care of you – he was lovely. He always introduced everybody in the same way. No matter how famous somebody was, he would say ‘Oh, Amanda, you know so and so don’t you?’ on the assumption that if you didn’t know each other, you ought to. I think Liam is the guy who is responsible for the success of the Groucho. Kind, friendly and unpretentious, he knew everybody in those days. He was a magic person.” The first manager and host of the Groucho, Irishman Liam Carson is widely considered to have established the club’s unique social character. He was one of London’s greatest professional hosts, a prominent figure during the Groucho’s heyday in the 1990s. He and Amanda remained close friends until his untimely death in 2005.
It was in the 1990s that the Groucho really established itself as the favoured watering hole for the famous and infamous. It became a hot topic, mentioned regularly in the media as the place for actors, comedians and artists to work, rest and play. “It’s got a very wide membership. It’s the unwritten rules at the club that people abide by,” Amanda says. “I often refer to it as fight club; the first rule of the Groucho Club is you don’t talk about the Groucho Club. What happens at the Groucho, stays at the Groucho. Living in London, its my adopted living room.”
After Liam Carson, came glamorous Mary-Lou Sturridge, who as Managing Director often acted as friend, counsellor and even landlady to the club’s members. Today’s gatekeeper and host, South London born Bernie Katz, was originally invited to work at the club by the late Dick Bradshaw, the inventor of the espresso martini, to cover a waiter’s paternity leave. When the person he was covering for failed to return, Bernie found himself in a permanent role at the club. Having spent his whole life in the hospitality business, Bernie has worked his way up through the ranks at to become the slickest, best-dressed and most charming addition to The Groucho Club and one of London’s most famous hosts. Despite describing himself as having been an awful barman and waiter, Bernie has now been working at the club for 22 years. “This is named after Bradley Adams – this is his favourite place. Luckily he’s still alive to enjoy it,” says Bernie, as he and I sit and chat about the club in Brad’s corner. “If you look at the membership, it’s quite balanced. Although it does feel male-dominated, the average woman who does come here is quite powerful – they make up more than one man! For it to remain quite light-hearted, you need likeminded people from the same fields to become members, otherwise all you’ve got is oil and water. I really don’t think that things have changed that much, people look at this place through rose-tinted glasses and have a romantic idea about it. It’s beautiful and colourful. It’s like The Muppet Show with Fraggle Rock waiting in the wings. It’s a place like nowhere else I know, a place of huge forgiveness…” Nicknamed the ‘Prince of Soho’ by Stephen Fry, Bernie is not only a prominent figure at the club but in the wider Soho neighbourhood as well. While the future may take him in a different direction, he doesn’t see himself as ever leaving the Groucho completely. Today, working alongside current managing director, Matthew Hobbs, Bernie oversees the club that changed the rules of the game and that has for 30 years been the benchmark for a new generation of members’ clubs both in London and internationally. With the club now approaching 5,000 members from across the globe, its place as the most desirable arts and media members’ club in the world remains unmatched.