The Groucho Club stands rather discreetly in Dean Street, Soho, with no identifying name and behind windows half-hiding what goes on inside. Its members are media trendies, but rather respectable – even if they might have a self-image of themselves that they are not.
What they certainly are not is true bohemians. But Dean Street clubs were not always this way.
Last night, I went to the Sohemian Society in an upstairs room at the Wheatsheaf pub in what some call Fitzrovia, some North Soho and some aspirational estate agents even sometimes call Noho.
Sophie Parkin, daughter of Molly Parkin, was showing an extraordinary series of photos she had collected for her new self-published book about The Colony Room Club 1948-2008: A History of Bohemian Soho.
As I blogged a couple of days ago about self-publishing, it’s worth mentioning that Sophie has said “we are publishing it ourselves because it’s the only way to make any money from publishing. Authors’ advances have shrunk to the size of a cock in the North Pole. And having spent two years of my valuable life on this precious tome I didn’t want to be paid peanuts and then see it sink from lack of proper marketing.”
For most of its life, The Colony Room Club was run by the irreplaceable Muriel Belcher, who tended to welcome all comers to the Colony with the greeting “Hello, Cunty!”
Based in a small upstairs room in Dean Street, the Colony became famous as a drinking club for the likes of painters Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, writer Dylan Thomas and polycreative George Melly.
Opposite the Colony Club in Dean Street stood the more up-market Gargoyle Club, which was interior-designed by the artist Henri Matisse and architect Edwin Lutyens and had as its chairman the painter Augustus John. It had been opened in 1925 by aristocratic playboy and bohemian David Tennant – not to be confused with Doctor Who – and actress Hermione Baddeley.
“David Tennant was very bohemian,” explained Sophie Parkin last night, “but he was very against ‘theatricals’, as he called them. So he would not allow even Hollywood actress Tallulah Bankhead to join his club straight away. It might be because of the story that she had met some kind of high-class landed gentry type Englishman and spent some time with him – ‘got to know him’ in a Biblical fashion – and the next time she saw him was in the Café Royal and he snubbed her, so she said loudly: What’s the matter, dahling? Can’t you recognise me with my clothes on?”
Even more bizarre stories about the even more bohemian Colony Room Club abound, featuring the likes of writer William Burroughs, painter L.S.Lowry and ballet dancers Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann. With the likes of writers Keith Waterhouse, Johnny Speight and Jeffrey Barnard around and with sometime barmaid Kate Moss (the model) and barman Daniel Craig (later James Bond), the possibility of legendary stories arising is endless. In the early 1960s, even Christine Keeler and Stephen Ward were said to be frequent visitors.
There were other even more surprising luminaries – including spies Burgess & Maclean, who allegedly spent their last night in London at the Colony Room Club before they fled to the Soviet Union. And East End gangsters Ronnie and Reg Kray.
Sophie’s book includes quotes from Ronnie and Reg saying how much they enjoyed meeting artist Francis Bacon at the Colony and, last night, an audience member mentioned a rumour that the Twins had actually stolen some paintings from Bacon, then sold them back to him.
The Colony was known for its homosexual members at a time when homosexuality was, as Sophie says, “not just illegal but very illegal”
The Krays had been introduced to the club by their gay MP friend and Colony Room Club regular Tom Driberg (later reputed to be a Czech spy).
According to Sophie, Driberg “admitted to Christopher Hitchens in the Colony that he loved going into special committees in the House of Commons with semen still sticky at the corners of his mouth”.
“There’s a lovely story about Tom Driberg,” Sophie Parkin said last night, “getting annoyed with another member, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who had become a publisher. In one book, Geoffrey had included a picture of him in the company of the Krays. Tom told him: I don’t want my reputation destroyed. He was complaining about this to Muriel Belcher at the Colony and she told him: You never seemed to mind when Ronnie’s cock was in your mouth.”
Sophie also talked about David Archer, the publisher in the early 1950s of Dylan Thomas, George Barker, Louis MacNeice and others.
“You can,” said Sophie, “name all the major poets of that era and he published them all in Parton Press and let them retain copyright. He had inherited a huge amount of money and didn’t care about money – He just gave it to people who didn’t have it. And then, at the end, he ran out of money and everybody deserted him. He lived in a bedsit and died penniless. He committed suicide and, the day after, suddenly this Foundation found him. They didn’t have the internet in those days. They had been searching for him for five years and they had another great big huge amount of money to give him.”
So it goes.
The Colony Room club is now no more.
So it goes.
It has been turned into three flats.
Sophie Parkin and her husband now live in Deal, Kent.
Last night, Sophie’s husband told me they hope to open the Deal Arts Club soon.
According to Sophie: “It will have to be a membership club – Ordinary people on a day trip to the seaside might be offended by the full use of our language and the freedom of our thoughts.”
After all, Sohemia is a state of mind rather than a physical location.