He’s not just rock ‘n’ roll — there is also property and Hollywood
Douglas Villiers reflects on a colourful life — the subject of a new book
Douglas Villiers (right) at his 50th birthday bash with Peter O’Toole, David Hemmings and Karen Brown
Sitting in a Hampstead cafe stirring his cup of tea, Douglas Villiers comes across as a relatively unassuming 76-year-old. White-haired, well-spoken and genial, he betrays not a trace of his Jewish immigrant lineage or of a life spent mixing with the wealthy, glamorous, and in some cases, infamous.
Involved in too many business ventures to count, Villiers describes himself as an entrepreneur in the newly-published memoir about his rollercoaster life, It's Only Rock 'n' Roll. His colourfully diverse career includes record-breaking property deals (he sold a house on The Bishops Avenue for what was then the largest sum ever paid for a London home), introducing the discotheque to the capital and being a photographer during the Yom Kippur War.
Married three times, and a father to five, he has enjoyed the flirtations of Princess Margaret, helped bring the young Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to the London stage and befriended Oliver Stone in Hollywood. Not bad for someone whose first job as a shop boy at Fortnum & Mason involved delivering calves foot jelly to Buckingham Palace for the ailing Queen Mary. When she died, "everybody gave me snide looks, joking that I'd given her her last meal", he chuckles.
Brought up in Golders Green - where his East End Jewish father and Welsh Baptist mother set up home after marrying at the Liberal synagogue in St John's Wood - and educated at Hasmonean, Villiers was always something of a chancer. But he was barely 16 when his father committed suicide, leaving him no choice but to "dive in at the deep end" in order to provide for his mother.
I'd like to say I spotted Jagger and Richards but I didn't
So like many a Jewish boy, he went where the money was - property. "Jewish families weren't discussing the violin and philosophy, all I remember my father talking about was buying and selling and making a profit. And I liked big numbers." His first deal was a house in Notting Hill that he bought for £1,250. "It's now worth £1.5 million - unimaginable."
From property he went into entertainment, setting up a club in Earls Court, then Le Discotheque in Wardour Street - credited with introducing the word into the English vernacular - and later going into the casino business.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards played at Le Discotheque before setting up the Rolling Stones. "They were 18, 19. I'd like to say I spotted them, but I didn't. It became the most successful club in London for a time.Things were changing, rock and roll was emerging. There were lines down the street because it was the first club offering this new kind of music."
Villiers claims he was eased out by his business partner and their landlord – the notorious "slum landlord" Peter Rachman. "What he did was not correct in any way, but I remember him as a businessman. I didn't think badly of him because I wasn't really aware of how he was running his business. He was clever, a very good chess player - I never beat him. In hindsight he was bit of a sleazy character."
Back in the property market, he brokered deals in the Bahamas and Cyprus, then bought Kenstead Hall on The Bishops Avenue, where he once hosted Warren Beatty at a Bonnie and Clyde-themed party. He sold up, he says, after being pursued relentlessly by the buyer. "I said the highest figure I could think of, he put out his hand and said 'done'. My jaw dropped. But it was the worst deal I've ever done. I did make a lot of money, but in hindsight I'd have been much better keeping the house."
Once he had made his pile, he focused on art and photography, taking the last plane out of Geneva to Israel in October 1973, where he tagged along with a Swedish journalist to get close to the Yom Kippur War action. He also embarked on an unsuccessful search for Captain Kidd's treasure, filmed by a TV crew, and attempted to break into Hollywood, experiencing "lots of adventures, lots of nearlies, and spending a lot of money".
He remains most proud of a book he edited - Next Year in Jerusalem - a compilation of essays by names such as Elie Wiesel, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Isaiah Berlin. It sold 35,000 copies in hardback and is still in print. "I was always conscious of my Jewish background, but after I read about the proportions of Jewish Nobel Prize winners I was flabbergasted. I wanted to document [the Jewish contribution] in some way."
So a varied life, by any stretch. "I suppose to the outside I lived a very glamorous life," Villiers reflects, although he says he never wanted to be a Richard Branson-type businessman. He accepts he was lucky in that pretty much everything he touched turned to gold. But his advice to budding entrepreneurs is to go to university. "You need something to fall back on. I could have fallen on my face."
It is more difficult now to carve out a career in business, he believes. "It was dead easy when I started, you thought of something and did it. I wouldn't like to be starting off again. My speciality is doing something that hasn't been done before - it's much more difficult today because most things have been done."
His next project is a hotel for dogs, which he is working on setting up in the South of France, which he currently calls home. Just another step in his "unconventional life", as his autobiography is subtitled. "I wanted to have a go. I wanted to see things. I wanted to experience life that was not in the normal run of things. Most people, they get a job and stay in it for life. I was always looking for another opportunity, another experience, maybe because of what happened to my father. I didn't have a career, I hadn't studied law, I wasn't slotted into any pigeonhole. I just came up with an idea and did it. And I've had a wonderful time."
It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (Book Guild), £17.99