The Clubs Of Their Decades
Nearly 30 years on, everyone still wants to belong to the Groucho, home to London’s finest hellraisers
From left: Mr Alex Turner, Ms Kate Moss, Mr Noel Gallagher, Ms Jemima Khan, Mr Bryan Ferry, Ms Anna Friel and Mr Nick Grimshaw Splash News/ Corbis; Rex Features; James Curley/ Rex Features
Every member has his favourite Groucho Club anecdote, his Groucho moment, if you will. For Mr Robert Elms, a member since the Dean Street establishment first opened almost 30 years ago, it was the time he set the club record for a single-binge, drinking session for two with a pal (from lunchtime to 3am). The bar bill reveals some 78 bottles of Beck’s lager, one bottle of champagne and a sandwich. For Oasis front man Mr Liam Gallagher, it is probably a toss-up between the night that he went after celebrity football player Mr Paul Gascoigne with a fire extinguisher and the occasion on which he saw fit to reap carnage in the snooker room, leaving deep, cue ball-shaped indentations in the wall plaster.
Actor Mr Keith Allen (aka singer Lily’s dad) remembers the time he managed to orchestrate a 2am supergroup comprising various members of Coldplay, New Order and The Clash for a rowdy sing-song… with Moby banging the ivories of the club’s upright, Sir Peter Blake-decorated piano, naturally. Members of staff will also confirm that Mr Allen and various hell-raising media types rode bicycles down the club’s staircase on a spontaneous, absinthe-fuelled Tour de Soho.
The club's entrance, pictured in 1988 Nils Jorgensen/ Rex Features
For me, it was either the (fairly recent) drinking session where American Psycho author Mr Bret Easton Ellis introduced me to the nefarious delights of a new smartphone application known as Grindr, explaining, with unalloyed glee, in terms of feet and inches, just how close he was to his next carnal thrill ride, or an evening way back in the very early 1990s when I was enjoying a glass of champagne with the (then) young starlet Ms Patsy Kensit.
Still buzzing off a role in Lethal Weapon 2, alongside Mr Mel Gibson and later to star (with the aforementioned Mr Gallagher) on the front cover of the UK Vanity Fair’s “Cool Britannia” edition, Ms Kensit was wearing a super-stylish but somewhat restrictive ensemble of Azzedine Alaïa and Manolo Blahniks that night and looked as if she’d just stepped out of a Mr Robert Palmer video. But her exquisite tailoring didn’t stop Ms Kensit from delivering a haymaker of a slap to an audibly uncouth heckler at the adjacent table that would have made Mr Mike Tyson proud. With physical and liquid castigation successfully administered, Ms Kensit calmly walked back to her club chair and more champagne was ordered. It’s worth noting that the pretty waitress serving us our bubbly was a young Ms Tamara Yeardye, later to become Ms Tamara Mellon, co-founder of the £100m Jimmy Choo empire.
Described by author Mr Will Self as a place of “paradoxical snobbish egalitarianism”, the Groucho Club was the place where 1980s disco denizens, magazine hacks and indigenous PR moguls learnt and redefined the gentle art of clubbability, on the hoof and on the lash. The Groucho provided a generously upholstered alternative to Soho and Covent Garden dive boîtes and the more traditional, stuffier and largely impenetrable gentlemen’s clubs of Pall Mall and St James’s. It was a speakeasy that spawned a culture of unconditional networking where no one ever got starstruck or ratted to the press and bad behaviour was mostly forgiven the next day.
Ms Margaret Thatcher’s Britannia was still to achieve true coolness back then, but the Groucho was a hotbed of everything that 1980s London aspired to be: grown-up, sophisticated, hedonistic, self-regarding, art-loving, well read, well dressed, well fed and exotically watered. And, best of all, truly, cruelly, proudly, heroically exclusive. The formula would become a blueprint for other London clubs such as Soho House, Quo Vadis, Blacks and No. 5 Cavendish Square.
From left: Messrs Oliver Reed and Ken Russell at the Groucho Club, London, 1985 Richard Young
Hard to get into (there’s a waiting list of more than two years to join the roster of 4,000 members) but impossible to leave, the Groucho was originally the 1985 project of publishers, writers, artists and agents (including literary super-agent Mr Ed Victor, whose client list includes such belle-letterists as Ms Nigella Lawson and Mr Keith Richards). The founders raised £850,000 to buy a disused Dean Street townhouse, roped in Notting Hill restaurateur Mr Tony Mackintosh, wine merchant Mr John Armit and the architect Mr Tchaik Chassay. They named it the Groucho Club, in honour of Mr Groucho Marx’s oft-repeated telegram of resignation to the Friars Club management in Hollywood that stated, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept people like me as a member”. Membership was a prohibitive £500 a year, but right from the off, the Groucho – now comprising several floors, two restaurants, three bars, a few club rooms, a snooker room, some agreeable and reasonably priced accommodation, contemporary art on every wall (much donated by the artists themselves), big comfy chairs and bowls of complimentary Twiglets at every table – was a Rabelaisian blast of civilised delinquency.
On any given night, especially during the heady days of the 1990s, you could bump into the writer Ms Julie Burchill, the polymath Mr Stephen Fry or Mr Dustin Hoffman. A decade later it was Messrs Jude Law and Jonny Lee Miller, Mses Sienna Miller and Kate Moss. Madonna was ushered in to the club via the back door of an adjacent amusement arcade; in 2001, shortly after leaving office at the White House, President Bill Clinton strolled into the bar, shortly followed by Bono. “The Groucho, for us, became the drinking equivalent of The Face magazine,” says Spandau Ballet’s Mr Gary Kemp. “A place where you could wallow in your own success and talk about yourself. Which didn’t matter because everyone else was busy talking about themselves also.”
That said, Mr Kemp believes that the Groucho didn’t develop into a fully-fledged, bona fide creative hub until the arrival of the Young British Artists, the notorious YBAs – Ms Tracey Emin, Mr Damien Hirst et al – in the 1990s. “The artists used the Groucho as a place where they could meet the wealthy dealers and gallery owners of Mayfair. Get into trouble and get noticed. It was, to the YBAs, what the Blitz had been for the New Romantics.”
Long-standing members acknowledge that the Groucho suffered a slight dip in service and membership quality control when it was purchased by chocolate heir Mr Joel Cadbury and PR Mr Matthew Freud back in 2001, but since its £20m takeover by the fiscally buoyant investment outfit Graphite Capital back in 2006, and a subtle remodelling, the glory days are back. A new generation of Grouchoists – Mr Allen’s pop star daughter Lily, Radio 1’s Mr Nick Grimshaw, singer Ms Rita Ora and model Ms Cara Delevingne – now share sofas with older members. “I actually think that the Groucho is better than ever these days,” says Mr Elms.
So, Mr Elms’ second-best Groucho moment? A protracted drinking session with the journalist Mr Tony Parsons and the actor Mr Adam Faith. “I ended up having a punch-up that night,” he says. “But for the life of me, I can’t remember who I was fighting…”