According to Stephen Fry, Bernie Katz, who has died suddenly aged 49, was one of the few voices who really “got” Soho. Colloquially known as the Prince of Soho, Katz was the legendary doorkeeper of Dean Street’s Groucho Club, around which he prowled in a leopard jacket in his front-of-house domain. A diminutive but striking figure with his long black curls and proclamatory t-shirts, Katz — “the Groucho gorgon” — kept the secrets of the Club’s exclusive membership and turned a blind eye to their misdemeanours. They respected him for his diplomacy and loved him for the hilarious confidences he was able to reveal, particularly of his adventures with actors Jessica Lange and Daryl Hannah.
Katz had worked at the Groucho for 27 years and retired in March with a party attended by actors including Neil Morrissey and Tamzin Outhwaite, and food critic Tom Parker Bowles. He was hardly less colourful than the glitterati who thronged his club, filling it with their energy and gossip. He would occasionally shun animal skins in favour of a monogrammed Louis Vuitton bag and, with his penetrating eyes, his charismatic 5ft presence boosted by stacked heels and sparkling rings, he easily matched them for stardust.
He told one journalist: “I usually come out when the moon replaces the sun. I’m rarely out during the day.” Katz was more attracted to the surreal elements of his A-list clientele’s lives than their questionable antics. Encircled by the rich, famous, gifted or notorious, he persuaded Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst to illustrate his revelatory book, Soho Society which, when it came out with a foreward by Stephen Fry, set tongues wagging and minds speculating. Who, they whispered, were the real characters portrayed in such chapter titles as: Seduction of the Straight Man, Interview with a Rent Boy or The Harpies and No 1 Door Whore. But when his friend Sienna Miller thought she recognised herself, he laughed and said they were all a compendium of different people he had come to know over the years.
He said of his clients: “I look after them. I mean I really take care of them, whether it’s finding them a room for the night or wheeling them home — literally.” Discretion was his watchword. “I may have seen it all but they know they can trust me completely.” Occasionally gossip leaked its way into the tabloids but he used his position to defend his clients almost as an article of faith.
Katz was known as a fixer, which earned him the nickname “the little man who can.” This meant attracting “interesting, like-minded creative types like actors and writers into the Club’s vortex. “Bankers,” he insisted, “won’t make it.” Yet while he bemoaned the demise of the sleazy Soho with its romantic vibrancy and bohemian reputation, established since its days as the rustic hunting ground of Henry VIII, he was aware that fashion boutiques and the corporate world were slowly calling time on the “wonderful old ironmongers and murky drinking holes.” He hoped Soho would never become too corporate or too gentrified. “There’s a special energy, a buzz that the streets give off so people come to Soho to be what they can’t be during their nine-to- five lives.”
Brought up in Kennington, south London, he described his mother as “an archetypal Jewish mother, forever cleaning and making chicken soup.” She clearly kept the domestic peace, too, because his father, known as Brian “Little Legs” Clifford, was a notorious south London gangster. “Katz recalled him as a “colourful character, a real villain with a heavy clout around south London, more like Technicolor actually.” Due to his mother’s clannishly Jewish home rule, his childhood proved largely happy, despite the malignant presence of his father.
In fact, “Little Legs” came to a sudden, sticky end when Katz was 15. A masked gang broke into their house and shot him dead. But there was no grieving as far as his son was concerned. Katz nonchalantly entered his father’s room where he lay dead on the bed and calmly retrieved a long coveted pair of alligator-skin Pierre Cardin shoes.
With such a colourful background, it is not surprising that the world of Soho would have come calling. Katz did waiting jobs in Soho restaurants and joined the Groucho in 1994, working as a barman and receptionist before winning the role of manager. A confirmed bachelor, he remained single all his life.
He made up for his lack of height by his flamboyant dress sense. He unconsciously adapted the styles of such traditional role models as Soho hosts Muriel Belcher at the Colony Room and Norman Balon at the Coach and Horses. But in place of their brusque manners he oozed courtesy and friendship. And it paid off. He was more than popular, loved by everyone and the actor Laurence Fox encapsulated it all describing him as, “the kindest and most generous man”.
Groucho clients confessed to being devastated and heartbroken at his death. As Tim Arnold, author of Soho Heroes, remarked: Bernie’s passing is the bell that chimes after last orders.” He added:“His naughtiness was part Carry On, part Kray, part Pantomime dame and always classic raconteur.”
Katz, however, was no respecter of personal space. The writer and comedian Steve Furst described his signature greeting as being kissed on the mouth with the exclamation: “It’s my favourite bald Jew. Look at that beautiful nose!”
Bernie Katz: born August 12, 1968. Died August 31, 2017