Authors: John Cigarini
Back on the King's Road, Butch, one of the three matching thin blonde Beverly Sister men, had moved out to marry a Brazilian babe, Cristina Viera. Cristina and her sister Andrea (Rio) had taken London by storm when they arrived in the seventies. Andrea married Guy Dellal and had a daughter, Alice, who is now a big-time model and punk musician. Guy was the only son and heir to âBlack' Jack Dellal, a rich financier and property developer. Jack's most famous deal was when he âflipped' Bush House, the BBC building on Aldwich. He bought it for Â£55 million and sold it to Japanese investors for Â£135 million. He made a profit of Â£80 million without setting foot in the place. Jack also had some well-known-about-town daughters: Lorraine Dellal, who is married to Simon Kirke, drummer and owner of the band Bad Company, and Gaby, who was married to Eric Fellner, of Working Title Films.
EMI had sacked the Sex Pistols, Jimmy Carter succeeded Gerald Ford, Fleetwood Mac released
opened in cinemas. It was 1977 and I had two Brazilian girls living in my flat on the King's Road. Fifi was very pretty and very sweet; Lara was very very pretty and very sweet. Usually when I came home from work, they would be cavorting on the carpet, making out with one another. I had seen worse things in my life, and few better.
One day I got back and there was a great big bunch of flowers, addressed to me, from Ladbrokes Casino. I thought it a bit strange, as I had no interest in gambling, but I didn't think much about it. I telephoned the person on the visiting card and thanked her, and asked what it was all about. She suggested that perhaps I would like to go to the Ladbrokes Casino, but I wasn't interested, so I put the phone down and continued watching the Brazilians kiss and fondle one another. There was something iffy in the air. Before long, I had received a call from a financial journalist. It seemed that the Ladbrokes approach was highly illegal, and the Gaming Act had banned any advertising or promotions on behalf of the casinos. An article appeared in
magazine about me, and I was interviewed for a TV financial programme. Ladbrokes' madcap scheme was called Unit Six and was run by the Danish head of marketing, Andreas Christensen.
It transpired that someone had taken down car registration numbers outside the famous Clermont Casino in Berkeley Square. My car at that time was a silver 1963 Corvette Sting Ray (which looked a bit like a spaceship). It may have been parked outside the Clermont, but I had never been in the gambling club. More likely I was in Morton's, which was in the same square. It turns out that a corrupt policeman had accessed the Police National Computer in Nottingham and found out my address. I twiddled my thumbs and rubbed my chinâ¦ the Brazilians twiddled their nipples and rubbed theirâ¦ well, ya know.
Morton's was a sophisticated restaurant and bar, set up by Peter Morton after the success of the Hard Rock CafÃ©. I went there after work on most evenings for a couple of years. I once took Jerry Bruckheimer, when he was setting up a movie and wanted recommendations for British cinematographers. I knew Jerry from earlier in the decade in LA, through Joe Boyd and John Head, who were friends of Dany Holbrook. Jerry Bruckheimer is now the biggest film and television producer on earth. One of my regular drinking buddies in Morton's was Mike King. Mike had had his moment of fame as part of a singing group, The King Brothers. They had a number of English hits in the fifties and early sixties with covers, but their career peaked when they were bumped off the Ed Sullivan show for a new, unknown band called The Beatles. Mike had been married to Carol White, the sexy star of sixties films
Cathy Come Home
. They had had two sons, but by then were divorced. I told him about the incident with the flowers and the financial journalist, and this marked the beginning of my next adventureâ¦ into the world of the Playboy Bunny. Mike was a weekend regular at the UK Playboy mansion, Stocks House, and he mentioned the incident to Victor Lownes, boss of all the Playboy clubs and casinos worldwide. He was based in London and I received an invitation to Stocks Houseâ¦ it was meant to be just for the one weekend.
Victor, or rather Victor Aubrey Lownes III, had had an interesting life. As the story goes, his father gave him a cigar to smoke at age twelve, which he did and then requested another. Sadly, at around the same time, he had accidentally shot and killed his best friend. As a result, he was sent to the military and he went through university in Chicago. By eighteen, he was married with children â but he hated his life, and felt trapped. He abandoned everything and he moved to Chicago; there, he met Hugh Hefner with a girlfriend, who suggested Hefner dress the hostesses in the image of a tuxedoed Playboy Bunny. Hefner agreed and then Victor moved to London and grew the empire. When I met Victor, he was most certainly an anglophile and London was, for him and all of us, the most exciting place in the world. Victor loved English country pursuits like riding point-to-point, so he had bought an old girls' school in Hertfordshire, about an hour's drive outside London, in beautiful countryside. During the week it was used as a Bunny Girl and croupier training centre; at weekends, it was Victor's private home and used forâ¦ wellâ¦ parties.
Mike King was one of a very small group of male guests at Stocks House, known as Stocks regulars. He took me to meet Victor one weekend, and together, he and I discussed the Ladbrokes case. He was a nice man and we liked each other. Victor took up the complaint against Ladbrokes and weeks later I would discover, through Victor, that Cyril Stein, the boss of Ladbrokes, had warned him that if Playboy were going to fling mud, he (Stein) would fling some back. I asked Victor if he was worried about that happening and he said there was no mud to fling at Playboy. “We are whiter than white,” I remember him telling me. Unfortunately for Victor, though, coincidentally or not, four years later someone falsely claimed to have dealt cocaine at the Playboy Club and they lost their gaming licence, and Hefner sacked Victor. I felt responsible because my bunch of flowers had started it all, or rather, that place I parked!
Meanwhile, while all of this drama was continuing, the Brazilians were at mine, making out and fondling each other in the nirvana of love and leisure. Life could be so simple for some people, I remember thinking as I stood in the middle of what was basically a scandal. Was money, high society, membership of elite clubs and long expensive dinners with celebrities really all it was cracked up to be? It was hard, but whenever I doubted my movements, I thought back to my time in the hotel in Margate and the eggs I'd have to stand there and fry. Perhaps there was a sweet spot in between it all? I was also trying to be careful. I didn't want to complain about anything. After all, things could have been worse â like for the men my father photographed, in the rain, in Caporetto in 1917. It could have been worse. Like Hemingway wrote, it could have been bleak. I didn't want to complain. The Brazilian girls continued on.
Ladbrokes lost their gambling licence, due to the Unit Six operation, and it was estimated that the closure of their casinos cost the company Â£100 million. All because of my parking. Oops!
The London Playboy Club and Casino was the most profitable part of the whole Playboy group. This was in the days of the rich Arabs coming to gamble in London. Playboy made $31 million profit in 1981, the year before they lost their licence, and lost more than $51 million the following year.
In the meantime, I had become good friends with Victor and was a regular at Stocks. I still see him from time to time, for lunch and whatnot. He is still with his lovely and tremendously supportive wife Marilyn (former
model Marilyn Cole, who was the magazine's first full-frontal nude centerfold).
I went to Stocks every weekend for four years and Victor was incredibly generous to me there. It was rumoured to cost Â£500,000 a year to run the house, which was a huge amount in the 1980s. Stocks House had had an interesting history. To begin, it was inherited by the First Viscount of Falloden, Sir Edward Grey, from his grandfather, but he flogged it to Mary Augusta Ward, the novelist, who hosted gatherings and dinners for leading intellectuals â like her Fabian nephews Aldous and Julian Huxley, and even George Orwell. From Ward, it got passed to her son, a member of parliament, then the girls' school came of it, where they were taught the art of the deep curtsey as well as the philosophy of the Enlightenment. The house, though, did eventually come to Victor and by then had seen quite a few parties â nothing though, I'm sure, like what happened through the seventies and eighties.
Not surprisingly, there were very few male guests. The regulars were my friend Mike King, whose job it was to project the film after dinner on Saturday nights, singer and comedian Kenny Lynch, comedian Peter Cook, Viktor Melik (the famous French crooner Claude Franck) and Stash de Rola, son of Balthus, the painter. John Cleese also became a regular, as did Allan McKeown and Ian La Frenais.
There were also many visitors who were not regulars. Due to his riding activities (Playboy sponsored the local point-to-point meetings), Victor often had members of the local gentry to dine. Visiting Hollywood celebs would appear if they were filming in London, like Tony Curtis, who stayed for weeks, but kept mainly to his room with a very buxom girlfriend indeed. She offered to come to London to “tit-whip” me. The mind boggles! It never happenedâ¦ sadly. Tony did, however, get out of the house to come to my party in London. He was wearing a Stetson hat on that night â a class act all the way.
There were a lot of girls at Stocks. The dining room had a huge table. One weekend at dinner, I counted twenty-five girls and six men. Fantastic! Victor would have formal dinners every evening, served by waitresses. Dress was informal-smart, but woe betide anyone if they were late; they would get Victor's wrath and I saw it occasionally â more terrifying than Johnny Bindon! Many of the girls were regulars, too â friends, ex-Playboy employees and sometimes former girlfriends of Victor's. Many had worked as Bunnies, but there were very few girls who were currently Bunnies. I don't think Victor encouraged that, but the girls were all young and attractive. I wanted them all! Not all the girls had Playboy connections, though. One such and a very nice regular was Tessa Dahl, daughter of Roald Dahl, and the American film actress Patricia Neal. Tessa was always there with her young daughter Sophie, who must have been about ten or eleven. Sophie's father was Julian Holloway, son of actor Stanley Holloway, but she took the name Dahl and would later become the world-famous model, Sophie Dahl.
Victor had a pet monkey that used to jump out at the end of dinner. It didn't seem to like women and would bite at them from time to time. Maybe it just sensed their fears, but the girls tended to sit away from him at dinner. “It's because they sense your fear,” I'd tell them, “â¦ trust me, I've slept with African baboons!”
It wasn't one giant orgy at Stocks and most of the pairing-off was done quite discreetly, but due to the imbalance in numbers, it was not uncommon to have âinteresting' combinations. I sometimes took two women to bed and the facilities, let us just say, âlent themselves' to trysts between the guests. There was a huge tropical jacuzzi room, with accommodation for about twenty. There was a disco and a games room with all the pinball machines. Outdoors in the summer, there was a large pool with underwater music, a tennis court where Peter Cook, Mike King, Kenny Lynch and I played each weekend, and there was a squash court and riding stables. Every activity was covered. There was even a clay pigeon shoot, but I was useless â so bad in fact that Victor made some plastic badges just for me that read âSave the Clays!'.
As I said, Victor Lownes was a tremendously kind and generous man. When I had heart surgery, he visited me in the Princess Grace Hospital and when he heard I was worried about going home alone, he invited me to stay for a couple of weeks at Stocks. I accepted his kind invite and the staff all looked after me like I was family.
The end of Stocks was dramatic. Victor had fallen off his horse on an icy road and had fractured his skull. I visited him in the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. Whether coincidentally or deliberately, the whole business of the irregularities at the Playboy Club came out too â just as Victor was out of action. The licence was at risk, and Hugh Hefner panicked and relieved Victor of his duties. He sent over two executives from the Playboy organisation in the US, both of whom had Italian names. It was the worst thing Hefner could have done. The British Gaming Board knew and trusted Victor, but they were paranoid about mafia infiltration into the British gaming industry, and had already refused the Hollywood actor George Raft a licence due to alleged mafia connections. Eventually, Playboy wised up and appointed a British establishment figurehead, Sir John Treasure, an ex-Admiral of the Fleet but it was too late and Playboy lost its licence.
I was at Stocks House the weekend Victor lost his job. The whole Stocks dream was over. Victor wouldn't leave his room. There was even talk of him having a gun in there.