Judy. May 2018.

Dear Rowley,

In a weaker moment, I happened to see some of the BBC’s Big Weekend music festival from Cardiff the other weekend. It is a sign of ageing when you disconnect from contemporary pop music which must make me a thousand and three considering Madonna is my lodestone of happening music. For our delectation we had a young Canadian cutie who I’d never heard of, Taylor Swift who I have and Paloma Faith doing a terribly bad impersonation of Amy Winehouse.

What struck me was how little stage presence the poppettes these days can muster. Perhaps it is a consequence of pop being so throwaway and available to stream at any second of the day. Besides, we aren’t seeing them live. We are listening to playback over which the artists caterwaul and whip the audience into some semblance of collective frenzy. When the audience sing louder than the performer, you know someone’s not trying very hard.

Taylor Swift has charm. She engages with the audience and does attempt at least some of the lyrics with a live mic. But you never get the impression you are in the presence of greatness or that this is a happening that we are all privileged to witness. Call me old fashioned but I consider these performers minnows compared to the raw power of the Judy Garland concerts that were captured on vinyl.

I decided to play Judy at Carnegie Hall, the 1961 comeback concert, after sitting through an hour of the Big Weekend and the audience response preserved on vinyl was one of pure adoration and excitement. Judy died of an accidental drug overdose aged forty-eight in 1969 after one hell of a thirty-year career following The Wizard of Oz in 1939. She was arguably the only child star who managed to take her talent from the golden age of movies to concert audiences worldwide.

I suppose the point is – recordings and television specials aside – the only way to see Judy Garland live was to buy a ticket and show-up. The jeopardy of a Judy Garland concert was that the audience never knew whether she would be on form or plagued by stage-fright, illness and addiction as became increasingly common towards the end of her life. There was always a collective will in the audience to help Judy get over that damned rainbow every time she walked onto a stage. Perhaps that was the similarity with Amy Winehouse and why she too was such a powerful live performer.

I believe Judy Garland had the voice of the 20th century. She was also fortunate to be born into the era of the Great American Songbook and be the first performer to sing iconic melodies written by Harold Arlen, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers & Hart and Dorothy Fields. The songs written for her - Over the Rainbow, The Man that Got Away, I Could Go On Singing - became her biography and belonged to she alone. Only the brave would even attempt to sing one of Judy’s songs.

After listening to Carnegie Hall, I re-read Gerold Frank’s masterly 1975 biography of Judy. It is the only book that all three of Judy’s children – Liza Minnelli, Lorna and Joey Luft – and all five of her husbands agreed to co-operrate on. What emerges is a nation’s sweetheart for whom life was not kind. Mismanaged all of her life, Judy spent a good twenty years singing for her supper – and her family’s supper – to pay off outstanding back taxes. This was a woman who would sing the last eight bars of Over the Rainbow on a weekly basis to President Kennedy – a woman who all other singers including Sinatra bowed down to – who was trapped in a spiral of debt.

Judy – born Francis Gumm – led a chaotic life that began when she was put on sleeping and slimming pills by MGM in preparation for Oz aged sixteen. The pills would be a constant in her life and contributed to the star being declared ‘all washed-up’ when MGM fired her aged only twenty-nine having made a string of pearls of great musicals including Meet Me in St Louis, The Harvey Girls, The Pirate, In The Good Old Summertime  and Summer Stock. The tragedy was that post-MGM, Judy only made one more great musical A Star is Born in 1954.

Judy earned her living – or paid off her debts – by singing literally thousands of concerts worldwide which became a cult amongst her followers. Gay men adored Judy for her vulnerability, her fighting spirit and the uplifting nostalgia of a fallen star who planted her feet apart, put her hand on her hip and sung, goddammit. For such a diminutive woman, Judy had stage presence that made her a titan amongst lady singers of the 20th century.

Rarely a year goes by without another biography or biopic of Judy Garland, the latest starring Rene Zellwegger as 1969 Judy performing her last concerts at London’s Talk of the Town club. Personally, I hope that the film is kind. Talents such as Judy Garland’s come once in a lifetime. It is preserved in recordings and concert appearances that leave audiences that she always sang live on stage and on vinyl without the safety net of auto-tune or playback behind which to hide.

It is little wonder that pop stars today can’t hold a candle to Judy Garland. They are too young to have allowed all that life experience to flow through a lyric and, quite frankly, the music they perform is forgettable being kind or throwaway being blunt. I don’t admire Judy Garland because she fought to the end of her relatively short life with pills and liquor. I admire her because she produced some of the most powerful, moving music of a century.

 

 

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House of Nutter. May 2018.

Dear Rowley,

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.

 

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Bachelor Boy. May 2018.

Dear Rowley,

It is only when you are away from home that you start to notice the bachelor-isms creeping into the daily round. I spent a delightful weekend with my parents in Derbyshire and was struck by how set in my ways I have become. The upside of living alone is that everything is free and easy, you do as you damned well pleasy. The downside is a lack of tolerance when routine is upset.

Living and working from the same place has its own challenges. You are chief cook and bottle washer, the butler, the electrician, the cleaner, the IT guy and, once a year, the accountant. Multi-tasking like this does make one incredibly self-reliant but it does take up valuable writing time. What it also does is make one reluctant to accept help when it is offered and that’s a lesson hard-learned.

So back to Derbyshire. My parents live on the Chatsworth estate which makes for truly magical walks of a morning with the doggles along the path of the Derwent river to the house and back. The present Duke has cleaned the facade of Chatsworth and gilded all the window frames making the Palace of the Peak shine in the Spring sunshine. He has also cut down some of the trees planted by Joseph Paxton to give uninterrupted views of the house from all angles: a great success.

Chatsworth is special to me because we had a pass to the house and gardens when I was growing up. I used to live in the staterooms and sketch in the grounds. I recall once telling tourists that I was the Duke’s grandson. If only!!! It always amuses me at National Trust properties when Fanny and Annie are touring gilded staterooms and they say to one another ‘I couldn’t live in a place like this’. Really? Really? Try me.

My conclusion from this trip to Derbyshire is that I try to be too self-sufficient when being a houseguest. It is almost as if I don’t want to get in the way of a well-run household apart from at meal times. This is a mistake. Presumably your hosts want to see you not have you hiding in a bedroom or bathroom when the whole point is to spend time together.

One thing the visit did confirm is that I long for dogs. I am something of a dog-whisperer. They tend to gravitate towards me presumably because my tone of voice is inviting and I am happy stroking and petting a dog more than I am most men in my life. Dogs offer unconditional love; well, conditional on lots of petting, food and walking … rather like some guests.

So what are my bachelor ways? Well, once the gin bottle has said hello I do like a couple of good hookers before lunch or dinner and enjoy wine with both meals. In this respect I believe I am similar to HM The Queen. I like to help myself as did Princess Margaret who invariably demanded the host had a bottle of Old Famous Grouse for her personal use and would always bring a case of Malvern water as a mixer.

Speaking of Princess Margaret, I am filming a documentary about the grand old dame for Like A Shot TV this afternoon. I am also featured on the doc about King Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor. In the case of Princess Margaret, I can empathise. She lived alone for most of her adult life after the disastrous marriage to Tony Armstrong-Jones. I can only imagine how she felt returning to the cavernous Apartment 1A in Kensington Palace after an official engagement with only Old Famous Grouse and servants to serve as company.

The Duke of Windsor is a more difficult character to empathise with. He was born to rule and threw it away for the love of twice-divorced American Mrs Simpson. Perhaps in the light of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the Duke was a victim of his time. Today, he could have married his mistress as did HRH Prince Charles and the country would simply have to get used to it. I have no doubt the Duchess of Cornwall will be Queen Consort if and when the time comes.

Didn’t Prince Charles demonstrate his human side at the wedding when he took such great care of the Duchess of Sussex half way up the aisle and infinite care with her mother Doria throughout the ceremony. What must Doria have been thinking when sitting alone faced with the entire senior British Royal Family? However she felt, Doria behaved with style and grace.

My highlight of the trip to Derbyshire was the Chatsworth walk with my mother and the doggies Bertie and Wooster: two scampish Cava-poos. Truth to tell, the dogs are 90% poodle and as such are frisky as the Devil but also live for heavy petting. My second highlight is being woken every morning with two big balls of black fluff leaping up on the bed and trying to steal my morning tea and biscuits.

So mission for the rest of this year is to find an apartment that is dog-friendly and go down to Battersea Dogs’ Home to find a friend with four paws. Until next time…

 

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I Do. I Do. May 2018.

Dear Rowley,

Not minutes after the erstwhile Ms Meghan Markle walked alone up the aisle of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, do we have carping about the absolutely gorgeous wedding gown Givenchy’s Claire Waight Keller designed for marrying Harry.

Channel 9 fashion pundit Alison Langdon saw similarities between the Givenchy gown and one designed by Uffe Frack for Princess Mary of Denmark in 2004. There’s only on thing wrong with that sentence: everything. What precisely is Channel 9, who pulled Ms Langdon’s chain, has anyone but his mother heard of Uffe Frack and were over a billion people glued to the wedding of Princess Mary of Denmark in 2004?

True the dresses bore a similarity with the three-quarter sleeves and the bateau neckline. Both ladies wore a tiara and a long veil. But that’s like comparing a donkey cart and a Lamborghini because they both have wheels. Actually, Princess Mary’s ivory duchess satin wedding dress was a beauty. Like the rest of us, I’m only sorry I missed it.

I have only one thing to say to Ms Langdon: orf with her head. The dress Waight Keller made for Ms Markle – now the Duchess of Sussex – was a pure white symphony of double-bonded silk with an underskirt of triple silk organza. The veil was five metres long and embroidered with the symbols of all the fifty-three countries of the Commonwealth which should have pleased HM The Queen immensely.

I was not aware of the existence of Queen Mary’s Bandeau tiara which confirms suspicions that HM’s personal jewel collection appears to be a bottomless well. The piece in question comprises a brooch given to The Queen’s grandmother on her wedding day in 1893 re-set as the focal point in a filigree tiara set in 1932. I have not seen a picture of HM wearing Queen Mary’s Bandeau but it was a smart choice for the Duchess.

Cartier had a good day with the Duchess of Sussex wearing a bracelet and earrings set by the royal family’s favourite Parisian jewel house. Ms Landon also had a pop at the Duchess of Cambridge’s cream Alexander McQueen suit if you please saying she’d seen it twice before and why did she not splash out on a new outfit for her brother-in-law’s wedding.

The answer is, of course, that the Duchess of Cambridge has class. She was drawing attention away from herself and allowing the Duchess of Sussex to shine. That’s the mark of a royal duchess. Speaking of royal duchesses, the Duchess of Cornwall is looking increasingly Romanov with that coat-dress and Philip Treacy cartwheel hat silhouette she has now perfected.

Wasn’t it a touch sad that the Duchess of York arrived at St George’s Chapel alone and sat with a companion at a distance from her husband and daughters. Then again, the Duchess of York looked infinitely younger and more perky than the two poor ugly sisters the Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie.

If there was ever a mission for new Vogue editor Edward Enninful it would be to take Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie in hand and save them from themselves style wise. Beatrice looked like the Singing Nun with a wimple effect flat hat and Eugenie’s pillbox was more Jackie Oh No She Better Don’t (salve RuPaul).

I wish we had seen more of the minor royals for fashion commentary of the day. I always like to see Lady Sarah Chatto dressed in her best 1947 Dior couture silhouette perfected by Jasper Conran with a flying saucer hat. She and the Countess of Wessex always win the style stakes for me.

All-in-all I thoroughly enjoyed the formal day dress on show at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. The men in their morning coats looked particularly splendid which begs the question why George Clooney wore a lounge suit while his wife Amal stole the show in Coleman’s Mustard yellow Stella McCartney with a mother-of-the-bride hat. And Victoria Beckham stood out never cracking a smile for the entire service silly old cow.

We’d all love to know who from the 600 has been invited to the 200-capacity reception dinner and ball at Frogmore House hosted by Prince Charles. I presume all the Royal Family bar the Duchess of York poor dear. She’s increasingly like her doppelgänger in The Windsors.

So here’s to the new Duchess of Sussex. I think she executed her duties today beautifully and modestly. Thanks to her for showing us yet another dazzling tiara in HM’s private collection and for choosing such a modest, pure line designed by the first female creative director of Givenchy. Waight Keller has big shoes to fill in John Galliano and Alexander McQueen who preceded her.

I did call it incorrectly when I said Prince Harry would wear morning tails but didn’t he and Prince William look handsome in the frock coat uniforms of the Blues & Royals tailored by Dege & Skinner on Savile Row?

All-in-all, if the marriage is as much of a success as the wedding then Meghan and Harry will do the country proud. God bless them and all who sail with them. Until next time…

 

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Ma’am Darling. May 2018.

Dear Rowley,

While researching the Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, for an upcoming documentary that seeks to re-present the princess in a sympathetic light I read Craig Brown’s 2018 tome Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret. 

Brown is a renown satirist and columnist whose stock-in-trade is imaginary conversations between the good, the bad and the ugly in the public eye and much of the Margaret book is written as a ‘what if?’ that uses Princess Margaret as sport for the acid drops in his pen.

Brown imagines how it might have been had Margaret Rose been born before Queen Elizabeth II which seems rather a pointless exercise as are much of the fantasy sequences in the book. Suffice to say, most of the glimpses of Princess Margaret are detrimental to her character: portraying a spoilt, entitled woman of whom her father King George VI said, ‘Lilibet is my pride and Margaret my joy’.

As Princess Margaret ages and moves further down the line of succession, Brown’s princess becomes embittered, louche and eclipsed as the Windsor glamour puss by the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Having just finished Ma’am Darling, I rather warmed to the lady who was born third in line to the throne and whose mischievous side was positively encouraged by doting parents, grandparents and talkative nanny Marion ‘Crawfie’ Crawford.

We learn Princess Margaret believed in the divine right of kings and queens. She was a religious woman whose veneration for monarchy was often misconstrued as arrogance. Brown is gracious enough to say that Princess Margaret’s friends were fiercely loyal to her. I met one of Princess Margaret’s ladies-in-waiting who said they had been instructed from the late Queen Mother down to never complain or explain no matter how much maligned their princess was by gossip and innuendo.

The facts as they stand are simple to me. Princess Margaret’s romance with her father’s equerry Peter Townsend was the love of a father figure; King George VI having died when the princess was a teenager. Townsend was twice Princess Margaret’s age and a divorcee. Any idea of marriage was crushed by the Palace.

I found it unbearably cruel of the Crown to separate the two for two years and expect their love to endure until Princess Margaret’s 25th birthday when she no longer needed HM The Queen’s permission to marry. For me, the villain of the piece is Anthony Armstrong-Jones who Princess Margaret married on the rebound. Townsend had broken his promise to remain single and married another woman half his age.

As Ma’am Darling tells it, the Snowdon marriage was a disaster. If it had a pulse, Tony slept with it be that a man or a woman. He used to leave notes in books Princess Margaret was reading simply saying ‘I hate you’ or – most damaging – saying she looked like a Jewish manicurist. So we find a princess who smokes and drinks rather too much on account of a bum deal at the altar making the best of things.

There are countless tales of Princess Margaret insisting on protocol while at the same time indulging in the haute Bohemia of Swinging 60s London. Her role cutting ribbons and planting trees evidently bored Princess Margaret whose only pleasure lay in the ballet, cigarettes and Old Famous Grouse.

I recall Princess Margaret morphing from a regal sister to the monarch into a rather blowsy character running around with pretty young boys such as Roddy Llewellyn making Ma’am Darling a prototype cougar. Who could blame her when Tony Snowdon’s party piece was to flick lighted matches at his wife?

A bad romance the ended in divorce was more than Princess Margaret’s character could bear, I suspect, hence the toy boys and the vacations on Mustique. The public – and Private Eye – depicted Princess Margaret as a Tennesee Williams frowsy old trout drinking and smoking to pass the time surrounded by sycophants. This was not true as Princess Margaret’s many friends would have said had they permission to be interviewed by Brown to give a more balanced picture.

At the end of Ma’am Darling I felt desperately sorry for Princess Margaret. Even the fun must have been a whole lot less amusing than it looked. Imagine the bitterness of a woman denied the right to marry the man she loved due to divorce who then lives to see two nephews and a niece divorce.

Interesting, isn’t it, that there’s little mention that Princess Margaret’s children forged happy, stable marriages compared to the omnishambles of HM The Queens offspring. Princess Margaret obviously made a rather marvellous mother. But Brown chooses not to point this out.

My question at the end of the book was what precisely Brown and his ilk would have liked Princess Margaret to do? She was born into the age of deference that passed before her eyes. Princess Margaret did swing with the 60s and who could begrudge her some pleasures on the island of Musitque in an otherwise untenable position trapped in the gilded cage?

Ma’am Darling was beloved by her friends, a very good mother, a doting grandmother and a very loyal sister to HM The Queen. Yes, she stood on ceremony but can you blame her for withdrawing into herself after hideously burning her feet in an incident on Mustique? Princess Margaret’s end was undignified and bitterly sad. Would it not be kind to remember her glamorous years – as depicted in The Crown by Vanessa Kirby – and draw a veil over the sad old lady Princess Margaret became?

 

 

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