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Bernie Katz

Bernie Katz


Words Kirk Truman

Portraits Edu Torres


“…Soho is a place of many emotions, a place of ghosts. A place you shouldn’t stay for too long… get in and get out.”

Bernie Katz lights a cigarette handed to him by Madness’s own Chas Smash as we chat in the smoking area of the Groucho Club where Katz has reigned as gatekeeper and host for almost a quarter of a century. Connected, intellectual and brilliantly eccentric, he’s inarguably one of Soho’s most familiar faces and one of London’s most famous hosts. There’s a story that, some years ago, an elderly lady arrived at the Groucho believing she was at Soho House. After Bernie had taken the trouble to walk her, at a steady pace, to her intended destination, he ran into a friend, actor Stephen Fry, who immediately dubbed him “the Prince of Soho”. The name stuck.

He looks the part too: the slickest, best-dressed and most charming fixture of the Groucho, clad head-to-toe in custom-made clothing by friend and tailor Chandni Odedra, a wardrobe that runs the gamut from leopard print to sequins.

It wasn’t always like this. Bernie was born and raised in South London, where his father was one of the area’s most notorious gangsters. The young Bernie saw drive-by shootings and extreme violence from an early age. One day, when he was just 15, a man burst into his family home in Kennington and shot his father dead right in front of him. The gangland upbringing his father’s way of life had exposed him to was now at an end, and Bernie moved on to another life. He worked for a period in a haberdashery store in Tooting, before getting a job at the long-gone Tiddy Dols restaurant (famed for its 18th-century Welsh Rarebit and gingerbread) in Shepherd Market. Thus began a career in hospitality that saw him move on to The Savoy and a restaurant in Italy.

At a time when private members’ clubs were archaic, men-only retreats, a group of publishers that included Carmen Cahill, Ed Victor, Liz Calder and literary agent Michael Sissons had an idea. They imagined a place that welcomed both men and women to meet, work and socialise – and so the Groucho Club was born. Almost a quarter of a century ago, Bernie was invited to work at the club by the late Dick Bradshaw, inventor of the espresso martini, to cover a waiter’s paternity leave. Despite describing himself as having been an awful barman and waiter, Bernie found himself with a permanent role at the club when the new father failed to return.

“There was once an amazing woman called Teresa Cornelys, a singer who became a lover of Casanova,” Bernie tells me. “She landed here in Soho in her late thirties, where in 1760 she invented the first private members’ club at Carlisle House, Soho Square, hosting a range of fashionable gatherings. Teresa and Soho is how members clubs came to be born.” It’s a tradition that Bernie takes pride in continuing. “The Groucho is like a family. Everybody looks after each other. Members, members’ children and members’ children’s children – it’s like an extended family for all. No matter who somebody is, if they come to see me, I’ll see that they land on their feet,” he says. “After being here for over 20 years, you get to know all sorts of different people. I’ve been captivated by the arts world, which has led me to work on numerous art auctions featuring everyone from Peter Blake to Damien Hirst. In addition to this, my sister has an autistic son, thus I’ve been able to organise auctions to benefit the National Autistic Society. I’ve dabbled a lot in the art world – hence I’ve got a great art collection. Let’s call that my pension!” he laughs.

In his time at the Groucho, Bernie has made the club his own, and in turn it has shaped him. “Without meaning to, without changing myself and remaining who I am, I have always kept my feet on the ground. I’ve never gotten too carried away… you’ve gotta remain as solid and as real as you can,” he says. “You do as you say, and say as you do. If you say you’re gonna do something, you’ve gotta do it and stick to your word. I think that’s what, for the want of a better word, has been the secret of my success as a host. I’ve always said I can do something or I can’t, and I’ve always delivered on what I say I can do. That’s been the recipe for my reign.” As well as having been shaped by the club, Bernie believes that Soho too has influenced him in many ways. He explains that while he loves working here, he likes to live at a “safe distance” from the area, finding comfort in his home in Kentish Town. “There’s so much you can say about Soho, and so little you can say that hasn’t been said before. Soho is like a Shangri-La: it’s music, art and fun” he says. “I can be anywhere in Soho and I feel at home, looked after. It’s a place of friendly faces.”

Bernie has noted how Soho has been changing in recent years, though for him this is part of its identity too and doesn’t affect the essential qualities of an area that will always remain close to his heart. “Soho is very fast-paced. It’s always changed and adapted to the times. It’s a place where you can be openly gay, black or white, whoever you wanna be: it’s a place for all. I’ve always thought of it as an animated film – it’s like a shop that changes every five minutes; though to my eyes, it hasn’t really changed all that much in hundreds of years. I think Soho will always remain vibrant and colourful,” he says. “Soho goes back as far as Henry VIII, hence the hunting cry ‘Soho!’ It began to modernise during the reign of King Charles II. Century after century, decade after decade, the characters haven’t really changed. It’s the most beautiful, magical, mystical and tragic place that there is.”

The many secrets and stories of Bernie’s life at the Groucho and beyond were revealed in the 2008 book Soho Society, in which he delves into the lust, envy and decadence of Soho’s party scene, and the lives of those who have joined him for the journey. Bernie’s future at the Groucho Club is uncertain; although he can’t imagine leaving the club any time soon, he explains that his long reign will eventually have to come to an end. His passion for the art world is something he’d potentially like to pursue further, launching his own ‘Prince of Soho’ exhibition, showcasing various artists’ work. For now, you’ll find him racing around the corridors of the club, or on his new regular show on Soho Radio. Whatever the future holds, the Prince of Soho’s reign is not yet done. As he says, he and Soho are “both colouring books that haven’t been coloured in properly yet… Soho is a place of many emotions, a place of ghosts. A place you shouldn’t stay for too long. Get in and get out.”

The Groucho Club

The Groucho Club


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.