The secret of great retail, he once told me, was down to two things: a sofa and a staff of pretty girls. After lunch
at Wilton’s, a customer would toddle in, collapse on the sofa, be flirted with by the pretty girls, and then buy
their wife a 100-guinea handbag.
Birley ran his shop like a club, so in the early 1960s it was simple enough to transition to running what, in a
letter inviting founder members, he disingenuously termed “a small American bar and comfortable sitting room” in
what he called “the vaults of 44 Berkeley Square”. As well as drinks and dinner there would be dancing to music
“reproduced by high fidelity sound equipment, probably better than any you have come across”. It was a very Mark
invitation, understated and almost throwaway in tone, reflecting none of the hard work that had gone into its
creation, not least the digging out by hand of 5,000 tons of London earth to create the space in which Philip Jebb,
the architect nephew of Hilaire Belloc, created the famous dining room with its pillars of polished brass. Located
beneath the then infamous Clermont Club, where the sort of people Mark’s father had painted were relieved of their
fortunes by casino proprietor par excellence John Aspinall, and named after his wife, Lady Annabel, the club was
more successful than anyone could have imagined. Everyone wanted to get in but not everyone could, and that was part
of the attraction. Annabel’s was an autocracy, where everything and everyone conformed to Mark’s exacting aesthetic
standards, including the club’s patrons. “We didn’t let The Beatles in one night because they were badly dressed,”
Birley once told me, notwithstanding that “Brian Epstein used to come the whole time”.
Still, the mop-topped quartet could console themselves that they were in the best of company: there is a story that
on one night three kings were denied entrance. Is it true? Even if it is not, the story has entered Birley folklore,
and that is characteristic of the Birley mythology. I was told by Mohammed, the major-domo of Thurloe Lodge and
Annabel’s, that once, while holidaying in the hills above Marbella, Mark complained about the cream and had regular
supplies flown out from London; he even asked Mohammed to see what the office in London could do about the ice cubes
in Andalusia (but presumably airlifting ice cubes to Marbella in midsummer was beyond even his staff). Hearing these
accounts at first hand, it is easy to then give credence to the other stories that make up the legend: that he once
flew a valet to the south of France to polish his shoes; that on sitting down in a restaurant and finding nothing on
the menu that appealed he rang Harry’s Bar and ordered a takeaway. Did Mark Birley really do these things? I believe
so, and many more: after all, a man who instructs his housekeeper to inform callers that he is unable to come to the
phone because he is “busy relaxing” is capable of anything.
This article originally appeared in Issue 50 of The Rake.