I have followed Savile Row’s mischievous sprite Tommy Nutter from workshops and showrooms to Compton’s and the Kobler Clinic so do feel proprietorial having written extensively about he and his adventures on and off the Row. Tommy was the ringmaster leading the Peacock Revolution in British bespoke tailoring between the late sixties and early seventies. His influence is still being talked about with fondness today.
Now American journalist Lance Richardson has written the first extensive biography of Tommy entitled House of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor of Savile Row. The biography is a double-hander about Tommy and his brother David who were both gay when only the brave could live their lives openly. Tommy pursued the dream to be the first superstar bespoke tailor – aided by his head cutter Edward Sexton – while David found fame as a fashion photographer working under his master/nemesis Bill King in New York.
The rise of the Nutter boys is extraordinary considering their humble beginnings. In their twenties, Tommy was making suits for Elton John, Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu while David was photographing rock royalty as he followed Elton and Mick on world tours. Th0ugh geographically separated, the Nutter boys corresponded in a shorthand of camp so evocative of the era.
Th0ugh Tommy is long gone, Mr Richardson had befriended David Nutter and it is from this confessional relationship that the lion’s share of this book comes. One gets the impression that manic depressive David Nutter had become something of a recluse and Mr Richardson had opened-up a past that had been locked-away for aeons. The glory days of the Nutter boys is a rich seam of gay history and Mr Richardson delights in guiding us through the social and sexual whirl that both immersed themselves in.
Mr Richardson scores by placing Tommy Nutter on Savile Row within the first twenty-three pages of the book; eschewing the psychoanalysis that makes other biographers wallow in a subject’s childhood and upbringing. Richardson has an ear for the Nutter vernacular. When Tommy’s melodramatic grandmother Lily thought she was at death’s door, she gasped to her daughter ‘I’m goin’, Doll’; a phrase Tommy would repeat whenever leaving gay company.
Tommy’s rise was stratospheric. It was his charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent that prompted Beatles manager and erstwhile Tommy boyfriend Peter Brown to back the first new business on the Row in over a century with backing from House of Lords denizen James Vallance White, Cilla Black and her husband/manager Bobby Willis.
When I was researching my Savile Row book, I interviewed Cilla for over an hour. She saw she and Tommy as the Will & Grace of the singing sixties and peacock seventies. She also had the key to the coup in 1976 whereby Mr Sexton took control of the company and ousted Tommy. It was Peter Brown’s idea for all the shareholders to give Tommy their holdings in the business.
Cilla’s regret was that she and Bobby were masterminding her own singing and television career leaving little time and attention to Nutters of Savile Row. She told me that if Bobby had the time to manage Nutters the acrimonious split would never have happened. As it was, Tommy’s quixotic behaviour and Mr Sexton’s ambition spontaneously combusted and resulted in Tommy’s walking away from the business that bore his name.
In the absence of the late Cilla, Mr Richardson has interviewed the survivors who formed the gay social spider’s web surrounding Tommy and David. He adeptly places the rise of Tommy in the social and economic climate of London beautifully and has an ear for the camp banter that was catnip to Tommy and David. Both Edward Sexton and Peter Brown trusted him with their memoirs.
After the split with Mr Sexton, Tommy made a comeback with the august tailoring house Kilgour, French & Stanbury then reclaimed his name at No 18-19 Savile Row with Tommy Nutter. But events overtake Tommy’s bid to reclaim former glory. Mr Richardson is unflinching in his description of Tommy post-Sexton. He did indeed seem like one of the Lost Boys ultimately living in a garret on Conduit Street and contracting the HIV virus that was a death sentence in the 80s and 90s.
HIV/AIDS was devastating to the creative communities in London and New York. Mr Richardson reads out the role call including Freddie Mercury, Rock Hudson, Peter Allen, Denholm Elliot, Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, Perry Ellis, Liberace, Halston, Anthony Perkins, Rudolf Nureyev, Derek Jarman, Kenny Everett and Bill King. We lost Tommy in 1992.
House of Nutter is an important story to tell not least for the snapshot of British bespoke tailoring in arguably its most exciting era of the 20th century. As a story of two fortune-seeking gay brothers it is a success because Mr Richardson doesn’t pull any punches. The story effectively ends with Tommy’s death and rightly so because David Nutter seemed to withdraw from the mad homosexual whirl with the onset of HIV/AIDS.
It is terribly hard to put charisma into words but I think Mr Richardson has done Tommy proud in resurrecting the wry sense of humour, the astonishment that he climbed so high, the frustrations of having his best years behind him when he was not half way through his thirties and the slow decline. I would surmise that Tommy shared not a little of David’s manic depression when one looks at the rather too outlandish designs with which he wanted to make a comeback at Kilgour and under his own label.
House of Nutter is an important book for its evocation of the Peacock Revolution in London. I would rather like to see Mr Richardson tackle Mr Fish next who in many ways paved the way for Tommy Nutter. I would equally like to see a biopic of Tommy Nutter based on this excellent book.