There was a place, nestled discreetly in the basement of a grand old house, in London’s most prestigious square, that changed nightlife. Emerging into the world as Annabel’s Club, this gloriously designed venue introduced the notion of an elegant and comfortable member’s nightclub.
Founded and conceived by Mark Birley, the popular son of a renowned society painter (and named after his then wife, Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart), this new club immediately enthralled the imagination of London’s society who were starved of a place to enjoy the music of the Swinging Sixties in style.
Membership was by invitation only (at launch there were just 500 founding member letters sent to close friends) and limited to those that could truly understand and appreciate the beauty of its concept. This place was not to be for the gauche or loud, this was a haven to discreetly enjoy each other’s company and to do so in the way of the most comfortable country house imaginable – complete with stunning art works, cozy interiors, roaring fires, robust wine collections and perfectly mixed cocktails.
Upon launch the pace was an immediate hit, attracting all the right types to its doors. As society denizen Lucia van der Post recalls; “Princes, minor royals, cabinet ministers, young bucks, exiled dictators, trust fund babes, movers & shakers around town soon began to find their way to what has to be the smartest basement in the world.”
Word was out and the waiting list for membership grew to the thousands. At the time, member’s fees were just five guineas (the 100 or so founding members that are still alive still paid this until the club relocated 2 doors down three years ago under new ownership) but no expense was spared when inside. Members were treated like old friends (which in most instances was the case) and preferences were explicitly noted by the sterling team of servers and bar staff who eagerly doted on them.
Among other things, Annabel’s became the standard by which all good venues were measured – a tradition which continues to this day, over 50 years later. In its half of century of existence ‘Bel’s (as the debutants began to call it) has maintained its impeccable sheen of elegance and prestige; a feat once thought impossible by any nightclub in the world.
The Club is loaded with anecdotes of the grand and good – moments that shaped history and founded legends. DDW explores some of the very best:
Gin Martini’s – No Lemon
Annabel’s remains the only nightclub the world’s longest serving monarch has ever visited. In 1967 Queen Elizabeth II popped in for cocktails (15 years after being elevated to the throne – she was just 40 years old at the time). Although discretion was paramount, reports eventually emerged that the legendary former head barman at Annabel’s, Mohamed Ghannam, served her majesty gin martinis (naturally) – stirred, cold and without a lemon wedge.
No Shoes, No Entry
Stories of stars being refused entry at Annabel’s are a few too many. Part of the magic of the Club was that celebrity simply did not matter – it was a place for friends, and the dress code had to be abided, no exceptions. The ever charming doormen in green coats turned away many icons including The Beatles at the height of their 60’s fame (for not wearing shoes), Eric Clapton & Mick Jagger (for not wearing a tie – although Mick eventually succumbed and borrowed the doorman’s) and Michael Jackson for wearing leather trousers.
Freeze – You’re Under Arrest
Imagine a time when Princess Diana and Sarah Ferguson- soon to be Duchess of York – could dress as policewomen and crash the Duke of York’s stag party the night before his wedding. Although it now seems implausible this memorable moment happened at Annabel’s. When recognised at the bar, a fellow member offered them a drink to which Diana replied with a smile “we do not drink on duty”.
Among the regulars were all the usual suspects of Dukes and Earl but the glamour came from abroad – with visitors ranging from Diana Ross, Joan Collins, Jackie Kennedy, George Hamilton, Elizabeth Taylor, Aristotle Onassis, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Ike and Tina Turner (all four of the latter also played there) and any and all society names from America and far off lands alike. A reportedly drunken John Wayne tumbled into the men’s toilets telling a member – “you can tell your buddies you hung out with John Wayne”.
Controversy Was Never Too Far Away
Even before opening, the venue kept its owners on their toes. John Aspinall had originally intended to open a nightclub in the bottom cellars of his new Clermont Club casino at 44 Berkeley Square but a fraudster walked off with £150000 of his money (a huge sum back then) so instead – he recruited his longtime Etonian friend Mark to run a club there.
A year later at the opening party Robin Douglas-Home, nephew of Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home and famous lover of Princess Margaret, played piano whilst his uncle dealt with the onset of the famous Profumo Affair which eventually ousted him from office.
A Bitter End
On his death bed Mark Birley disinherited his son Robin who had spent a lifetime being groomed to take over his father’s legacy. The bitter blow was the result of a long time feud between the two men and left the club (and the trademark to the name ‘Birley’) to be purchased for £90 million pounds by clothes magnate and restauranteur Richard Caring. Caring has since shut the original location down and transported it to a behemoth 6 floor venue two doors down from the original (reportedly costing him over £200M).
An Enduring Legacy
Although the original club at 44 Berkeley Square is no more and has instead been replaced by its current and grander version at 46 Berkeley Square, its history and heritage run deep into its foundations. To commemorate the incredible moments that cemented the Club’s place into the very fabric of London – Oscar-winner Ridley Scott has directed Annabel’s: A String Of Naked Lightbulbs – a nostalgic 60 minute recollection of the place by Birley’s friends and colleagues.
An essential film to watch for anyone who has ever gone to a private member’s nightclub, late night restaurant or drinking boîte – there is nothing like the original.