“It was a useless life” says Taki Theodoracopulous, the Greek shipping heir and last of the playboys. “But a very, very pleasant one.” For the Clermont Club — perhaps the grandest, oofiest gambling den in the history of London — this is high praise indeed. The uselessness is built in, of course. A high-end casino exists solely to move money from rich, tipsy people with inheritances to richer, more sober people with CCTV cameras and panic rooms and sympathetic smiles. It is a place of distraction and oblivion, where the game is all, and the money is simply a side-effect, a symptom, a McGuffin. There is no wider societal good; no great point or modern-day ‘purpose’. No economic trickle-down, particularly — just the constant dribble of someone else’s Krug. Useful? Who wants useful? That’s what members of the public are for. We’re just here to have a lovely time. Uselessness is the last great indulgence: lower the blinds, dear boy, the sun’s coming up.
As for pleasantness — in the case of the Clermont, pleasant is an understatement. This is pampering, engulfing, comforting, swaddling. It is silk sheets and warm milk: some bosomy, lovely nanny of the soul. Completed in 1740, 44 Berkeley Square was the final palladian townhouse ever designed by William Kent, the great Mayfair architect. A little over two centuries later, it was bought by John “Aspers” Aspinall to house a planned gambling establishment and monument to some forgotten England. (The laws on gambling in the UK had just changed, in part due to the wranglings of Aspinall himself: charged with gaming offences in the 1950s, he wriggled off the hook so successfully that the wider legislation was altered, meaning the Clermont and its ilk could bat happily on.) Aspers threw open doors in 1962 — and the first thing to strike you was the decor. Arranged around a central, sweeping double staircase, the interiors of the Clermont Club were high pomp and utter luxury: an inviting English country house, elevated by Louis XIV furniture and filigreed carpets. Osborne & Little took care of the design, of course, curving gold-leafed wallpaper around Romanesque pillars and busts from antiquity. But the finest exhibits were always the members themselves: a self-selecting cast of constant fixtures and florid old boys; captains of industry and creaking aristos; young bucks and friendly rakes.
“The feeling that one had,” says Manoli Olympitis, the former merchant banker and onetime Mayfair gambling legend, “was that you were walking into your own drawing room, and you were seeing your pals — secure in the fact that they would never let anyone in you didn’t like.” Lord ‘Lucky’ Lucan — more, much more, of whom later — was said by Aspinall to be “good furniture”: well-bred Old Etonian bait that conjured the correct ambience and encouraged the right breed of sap. He was what was known as a ‘Blue’: a house player, gambling with the Clermont’s own money in order to keep more liquid individuals at the Chemin de Fer tables (‘chemmy’ to you.) “You only had Old Etonians as Blues,” remembers Taki. “Charles Benson [the louche, jet-setting racing reporter] was a Blue, too — and another who I won’t mention because he’s currently in the House of Lords. But they played correctly. There was no cheating or anything.”
“We used to say: are you having Blinner tonight?” he laughs. “That meant dinner with a Blue.” (“The food was terrific, with the best wines,” he adds later. “All free. You never paid for anything — until you went upstairs.”) Lord Derby and Lord Devonshire sat at the top of the aristocratic pile — the final stand of genuine gentry wealth — alongside a new breed of businessmen, like Jimmy Goldsmith and Tiny Rowland, corporate raiders James Hanson and Gordon White, and rakish regulars like Lazards heir Dan Meinertzhagen and Michael Hicks Beach. Mark Birley, Mayfair’s panjandrum of taste, was a fixture, too — his nightclub Annabel’s, which slithered into the basement below the Clermont at 44 Berkeley Square, was due to be connected directly to the gambling den. But at the last minute, Birley baulked at being so closely connected to a casino, and bricked up the stairway. It didn’t matter — the membrane was porous, the atmosphere interchangeable. Annabel’s was the Clermont with a dance floor and discreet corners; the Clermont was Annabel’s with ruinous debt. (“Although Aspers didn’t want too many women around,” recalls Taki. “He said it distracted us from the gambling.”) Algy Cluff — the indomitable entrepreneur and oil man — recalls a story about Geoffrey Keating MC, the former Lieutenant Colonel and war photographer. Keating, “who was absolutely plastered, of course” said to the Clermont doorman: “get me a taxi to Annabel’s.” The doorman replied: “You’re standing on top of it, sir.” But Keating was adamant. “Get me a taxi to Annabel’s at once!” So the doorman fetched him a cab, sent it on a lap around Berkeley Square — and welcomed Keating, 60 seconds later, in the exact same spot. “A fantastic man,” laughs Cluff.
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