Tales from the hidden celeb Soho
Groucho Club manager Bernie Katz is an expert on London’s hard-drinking glitterati. Now he’s turned his experiences into fiction
To London’s glitterati he is known as the “Prince of Soho”, friend and confidante of celebrities and media types. But to London’s underworld fraternity he is known as something rather different: the boy who witnessed his father being gunned down in a gangland shooting.
Bernie Katz has been manager of Soho’s Groucho Club, the archetypal celeb hangout, for the past 15 years. He has overseen the antics of artists, writers and film stars — even helping one or two of them home on occasion. “One of my jobs years ago was to wheel Jeffrey Bernard [the late writer and Soho legend] all the way home to Berners Street,” says Katz, who lives in the less glitzy envrions of Blackheath, in south London.
“He used to hit people with his walking stick as a joke. Every day, however, he would ask me to take him home. I really adored him.”
Now Katz has written Soho Society, a collection of fictional stories about the people — the celebrated and the seedy — who frequent London’s most bohemian district.
“When I’m writing, I’m inviting the reader into a dingy area in the back where they get to see what goes on once these people have left your sight,” he explains. But no one should confuse the characters with real-life personalities; Katz insists that the book is entirely a work of his imagination.
“Soho, which I love, has become such a massive part of me, but it’s a work of fiction,” says the 40-year-old, who worked his way up the ranks after working as a barman and waiter at the Savoy. “There are experiences that do come through based on my 20 years in Soho, but the only true character in it is Soho.”
That has not stopped some well-known figures from trying to spot themselves in stories with titles like Seduction of The Straight Man, Interview With A Rent Boy and Pissed Soho Women of a Certain Age.
Actress Sienna Miller, who has read the book, reportedly sees herself in one of the tales. But she is not saying which.
“I always have lots of ideas going round in my head,” says Katz. “After 20 years I knew exactly what I wanted to write about. It’s a little bit saucy but there’s nothing explicit. It’s all suggested. I wasn’t worried about my family reading it.”
In the book’s prologue he writes that when his father, a gangster called Brian Clifford, was shot dead in front of him when he was 15, his reaction was to remove the crocodile-skin shoes from his feet. When it is suggested that this appears rather flippant, he explains that he was seeking to portray the numbing shock that he felt at the time.
He adds: “I never saw any of [my father’s] wheelings and dealings. I knew that things were not quite legal. We just accepted it. We grew up thinking it was normal. My mother was devastated for a long, long time but she got on with it. She was a wonderful mother who looked after her four children.”
Katz enlisted his artist friends - including Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Sam Taylor-Wood - to illustrate his book. So the chapter about a ballerina is accompanied by a striking photograph by Taylor-Wood of a lean man in spandex, hanging upside down from a ladder. Tracey Emin has contributed a pencil drawing of female nudes and Peter Blake designed the front cover. “I wasn’t sure how much longer I would be staying in Soho,” he says of his decision to write the book. “I wanted to write it down as I saw it. I want to leave something beautiful behind. I wanted art in it. To get the artists to contribute was really easy. I wrote down a list of artists who I knew really well. Everyone wanted to come on board. I’d given them the story and they reproduced art that suited it.”
Also making a contribution, by writing the foreword, is Stephen Fry, the man who gave Katz his nickname.
“I left the club for a while and then went back again after three months,” says Katz.
“Stephen Fry saw me doing a lot of work behind the desk. He put my hand under his chin and he said: “After 10 years here, you really are the Prince of Soho.”
Soho Society is published by Quartet Books at £25