The King of Clubs

Mark Birley was an aesthete par excellence and a fabulous raconteur, described as a cross between James Bond and Charlie de Beistegui. He dominated London society in the second half of the 20th century, creating several of the most exclusive hotspots in town, from Annabel’s to George.

Mark Birley at home in 1974. (Photo by Sunday Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

“I am afraid that Mr. Birley cannot come to the phone because he is busy relaxing.”

It is without doubt the best excuse I have ever heard for not being able to take a call, and if one knew anything about Mark Birley it was that he was not someone to look kindly on being interrupted while he was busy relaxing. Relaxing was a sort of religious activity — or do I mean inactivity — and he would go to ends nobody else knew existed to ensure that it remained sacred.

During the 1990s he and I arranged some backgammon evenings at Thurloe Lodge, his large, exquisite house tucked away in almost rural calm just across the road from the Victoria and Albert museum in south-west London. I remember being impressed with the way things were arranged for each player, so that everything — backgammon board, drink, cigar, ashtray, notepad, and so on — could be accessed without moving the arm above the elbow. The final match was played on Mark’s board, which had been made for him by Hermès, with a tapestry playing surface. I asked him why he had chosen tapestry. In explanation he rolled a pair of dice.

“What did you hear?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Exactly,” he replied.
Not even the faintest rattle of dice would be allowed to intrude on his cashmere existence.

Published

September 2021

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