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November 30 2019
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Thinking of the Colony Room, by Michael Lindsay-Hogg.

Standing at the bar of the Colony, Francis Bacon said, “I’d like to kiss you, Bang.”

He was holding a glass of champagne; I, a vodka-and-tonic. I was at Oxford. He was a painter.

Perhaps I should explain a bit.

The Colony Room was a drinking club at 41 Dean Street, Soho, London. In the days when pubs closed at 2:30 in the afternoon, drinking clubs were licensed to accommodate those who couldn’t last, or just wanted to go on chatting, a drink at hand, until the pubs opened again at 5:30. (They could stay open until the pubs closed, at 10:30.) A drinking club should not be mistaken for the grand, posh, men-only redoubts, like White’s, that occupied mansions in St. James’s.

There were many drinking clubs in London, usually just a room or basement. Some were for actors or devotees of the turf, but the Colony was different in that the habitués—bohemians; aristocrats; roués; a few women, some of high birth and occasionally low morals; procurers; criminals; theatricals; artists; writers; drunks (often combining with the other categories); and homosexuals—were of a more stellar quality, with a higher degree of loucheness, than in any other.

Up the stairs to the once unmarked “hepatitis green” door: the entrance to the Colony in 2008.

I’d first been brought to the Colony by my two best friends, Colin Clark and Tim Willoughby, in the autumn of 1958, before I started my first term at Oxford. I was 18 and had mainly grown up in America, but also in Ireland. Colin and Tim and I had had a long lunch at Wheeler’s, the fish restaurant in Soho—“long lunch” being a euphemism of the time (as “confirmed bachelor” used to be, in another context) for several bottles of white wine with the sole and lobster. Both of them were a bit older than I was and were rich and generous.

Drive Fast, Ski Fast, Live Fast

Colin had joined the R.A.F. as a pilot when he was 19 and was the witty second son of the art expert Sir Kenneth Clark, patron of Henry Moore. When Sir Kenneth was the director of the National Gallery, during World War II, he saved some of the greatest paintings in the world from the Blitz by having them stored in a slate mine in Wales. Tim was what I’d always wished to be—lean, intelligent, handsome, wild, well dressed in a style singular to him: short Bavarian jackets with silver buttons; checked shirts from Dale Cavana, a little shop in Kinnerton Street; and horizontally striped ties from the South of France. Tim held the courtesy title of Lord Willoughby de Eresby and was the heir to an earldom, with castles in Lincolnshire and Scotland. He liked to drive fast, ski fast, live fast.

Colin had suggested we go for a brandy at the Colony, where he and Tim were members. As we walked the short distance from Wheeler’s, a woman not in her first youth was standing in a Soho doorway. Her lips were heavily lipsticked and she was showing a lot of cleavage for four in the afternoon. “Hello, lads,” she called to us in a cheery voice. “Come upstairs and I’ll suck the three of you off for five quid.” I was still a virgin, although only for another few weeks, thank God, and had never been included in such an invitation before.

“Not today, love. Thanks, though,” Colin said. He and Tim were straight, as am I, had both been to Eton, and so had very good manners and could deal with any social situation with aplomb.

We went in the narrow 18th-century doorway of 41 Dean Street and up the firetrap staircase. Colin pushed open the unmarked door of the Colony. “Well, it’s Madame Clark and her Ladyship,” the woman sitting by the door in a tall chair greeted my friends and then, looking at me, asked, “And who’s this little miss?”

This was Muriel, this was her place, and she had many rules, one of which was that males in the Colony were referred to as females. The imperious Muriel Belcher had founded the Colony in 1948. She had black hair (a little blacker every few weeks) drawn tightly back from a high forehead, and hooded, dark, appraising eyes, which could mean danger or show amusement and sometimes tenderness. She seemed bigger than she was, but when she’d hold her brandy-and-water, you’d see how finely boned her fingers were, and when she’d stand at the end of the evening to put that night’s takings into a capacious handbag, you’d see her legs were delicate and spindly. Her favorite word, which, as she used it, had many meanings, was “cunt,” and its sometimes affectionate (but not always) diminutive, “cuntie.”

The imperious Colony proprietor, Muriel Belcher. Alternately dangerous, tender, or amused, she disliked affectation and snobbery.

Tim had gone to the bar to order drinks from Ian, the pretty but take-no-nonsense barman. When I got to know Ian Board later, he told me that he’d come to London from the Midlands in his early 20s, without being sure what his nature was. One Sunday morning he’d gone to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, just for something to do. As he watched whatever crank or philosopher or religious nut was standing on a soapbox haranguing whoever’d be listening, an older man had ventured his hand onto the front of Ian’s trousers. “That was it,” he said to me. “We lived together for a short while.” Sometime after that encounter he’d gotten the job as barman at the Colony.

As Ian was pouring the drinks, Tim called over to a man standing beside Muriel. “Lucian, Pernod?”

“Yes, please,” the man said in what I think of as a mixed voice. Muriel’s voice was mixed also—East End Jewish with a dollop of something more cultured she’d picked up along the way. But this man’s voice was more exacting, of someone who’d been educated in English schools, yet with something pedantic in pronunciation, as though English had not been his first language. His first language, I would learn, had been German.

His face was lean; his hair was dark, thick, and curly. He wore a beautifully cut suit. His eyes were small, alert, watchful, always on the lookout—for what, danger or a pretty girl? And he had the odd habit of speaking to you with his head slightly lowered, looking up from under his lids, something oddly birdlike. Maybe it was to shield his eyes from the Gauloise in his mouth. Colin introduced us, then whispered to me, who knew nothing at the time, that Lucian Freud was the lover of Tim’s sister, the beautiful Lady Jane Willoughby. He was also a painter.

“Hello, Bangboy. Where Have You Been?”

In the 1959 Easter vacation of my first (and only) year at Oxford, I was staying in London at a cheap B&B. Colin and Tim were out of the country, skiing, getting the last of the snow in Switzerland and France. I was lonely and pretty broke, and my family was 3,500 miles away, in New York.

One night, I had just enough money to get a hamburger (relatively new in London) at El Cubano in Sloane Street, with a few pounds left over. Not knowing what to expect, I walked an hour up to Soho and found myself pushing open the door to the Colony.

Muriel looked at me as though I was an old friend who’d returned from foreign parts. “Hello, Bangboy. Where have you been?”

The author, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, at Oxford in 1958, when he was 18.

I ordered a drink and asked, “Bangboy?”

“You always wear your hair combed forward in bangs. Very fetching, I must say.”

I did wear my hair so in those days (think early Beatles, but five years before Beatlemania) and henceforth was always known at the Colony as Bangboy, or just Bang.

As I went on successive evenings of that holiday, I began to feel that I was welcome in this place and did, indeed, find a home there for a while. I paid my £1 membership fee (which seemed to be good for as long as I went there), and I’d pay for a drink or two, sometimes offer one, or be given one. I’d stand near Muriel most of the time because she was protective of me, by far the youngest person in the room, and an American to boot, far from home. That room became dear to me, with cigarette smoke having added a layer of brown to the walls, which seemed to have been originally painted a sort of hepatitis green, the color echoing what a hangover feels like.

I made friends with Mike McKenzie, the black pianist, who’d play my favorite song, Tommy Edwards’s “It’s All in the Game,” whenever I’d come in. The piano was in front of an old L-shaped bottle-green leather banquette, with a mottled cracked mirror on the wall above, next to a small corridor with, opposite the loo, a telephone box, the instrument for late-night calls explaining why someone couldn’t be where he said he’d be.

On the other side of the room, above an 18th-century mantelpiece, was another mirror, which would be much in use late in the evening, when there’d be a squint at the reflection to see if one was as alluring as he or she hoped or wished. Underneath was a real fireplace, hardly ever used, even in the coldest winter evenings, for fear there would be too much smoke issuing into this really quite small green room.

The times being what they were, there was a lot of smoke in the room anyway. The fug of Gauloises, Players, Senior Service, Oliviers (named for the great Sir Laurence, who’d lent his name for a fee), an occasional American Lucky Strike or Chesterfield, the rare cigar were as much a factor in the conviviality of the room—offering one from a crumpled pack, receiving one if you’d run out—as what Ian was serving up from the bar. I’d smoke whatever I could afford, until, by the end of the evening, as well as being a little drunk, my eyes would be smarting. Muriel herself rarely smoked; her stocky Jamaican girlfriend, Carmel, enjoyed rum more than cigarettes, and Ian would only take a late-night drag or two from one of the customers. An old brown leather sofa—with stains from spilt drinks and burns from dropped cigarettes—sat between the two windows, which looked onto the dingy streets of 1950s Soho.

The Colony Room in 2008, the year it closed for good.

Muriel’s long-legged, high-backed chair was the only one at the bar. From it, she could survey the Colony Room, dictating who should be buying the next round of drinks, deflating arguments with a quip or an insult, and guarding the door against anyone she didn’t like the look of.

I’d place a vodka on Mike’s piano whenever I could afford it. At the end of each evening, he’d push himself off the small piano in order to get up and put his arms into metal crutches, for he was crippled, perhaps by childhood polio, which had still been a hazard for our generation. Mike made a long and successful career playing in clubs and leading his own quartet in nightspots and becoming a solo act again in luxury hotels. He was also a very sweet guy.

Dropping in from the Skylight

It was in those weeks that I first met Francis Bacon, who was definitely the leading attraction in the tatty, strangely endearing variety show that was the Colony. Close to 50 at the time, he was a very attractive human being, with wide chops, artfully tousled blondish hair, and a slightly fleshy figure, although he did not look soft. He was intelligent, with his own angle on any conversation, and funny, with an Anglo-Irish accent, which I recognized from having spent a lot of time in Dublin, where he’d been born—and lived, until the age of 16, when his father, discovering Francis in his mother’s room wearing one of her evening gowns, horsewhipped him and sent him on his way.

Francis’s favorite drink was champagne. He would offer some to anyone he liked (and none to those he didn’t), and he’d drink it with the abandon of an athlete quaffing Gatorade. He and Muriel had known each other for some years and were great friends, with an easy, mock-bitchy banter between them. He had been a charter member of the Colony, and Muriel had promised him free drinks and a small cut if he’d bring in friends and acquaintances: other artists, patrons, collectors. He did bring in artist friends—Lucian, Frank Auerbach, Michael Andrews, and others, the so-called School of London—but Francis was the sun they revolved around. He would come in for days at a time whenever he’d finish a painting or was stuck. He usually wore a leather jacket and was not shy in saying he liked rough trade, and occasionally would have a bruise or a black eye from one of his friendships.

He met his longtime boyfriend, George Dyer, when George dropped from the skylight in the middle of the night into Francis’s studio, with the idea of robbing whatever he’d find there. What George found was a studio of extraordinary mess and Francis hurling paint at a canvas from a can, which he’d sometimes do to invigorate his imagination.

Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s drawings of the friends who introduced him to the Colony Room: Colin Clark (left) and Tim Willoughby (right). In the middle is a self-portrait.

That was a surprising thing at the time: a lot of East End gangsters were bisexual or homosexual, with Ronnie Kray, the craziest of the two terrifying Kray brothers, who were given to torture, being the most notorious. For his part, George, a small-time thief until he met Francis and didn’t have to ply that trade anymore, was bulkily handsome, nicely dressed (suit and slim necktie), with a low, dark hairline and stony eyes. When we met, Francis introduced me as “Bangboy.”

“You get banged a lot, do you then, Bangboy?” George asked.

“No,” Francis said. “His hair, he wears it in bangs.”

“Oh, so you’re not a poof?”

“Not yet, anyway,” I answered.

“Give yourself time, mate.”

Jaunty Renegades

Those days, compared to now, might seem harum-scarum, dissolute, unpredictable, and dangerous. But when I was a teenager I wanted to be in that murky pool of the Colony, with those people, however damaged, because it was the world farthest away from childhood, and that was just fine with me.

John Deakin was a photographer and would be at the Colony whenever he could. He was a small man, usually wearing a short, moth-eaten coat with a stained sheepskin lining. His face was pockmarked, usually sweaty from drink, and he was thought by many to be a vicious, unreliable, scheming drunk. Barbara Hutton called him the “second nastiest man I ever met” and she’d met a lot of nasty men and married some of them. When the bar was crowded and you’d hear a gravelly voice saying aggressively, “If I say you’re a stupid fucking cunt, then that’s what you are—a stupid fucking cunt,” you’d know Deakin was in the room.

But I liked him, and he me, I think. His eyes would glitter, rheumy as they were, with interest and wit if you’d talk to him before it got too late, which could be quite early. He photographed me a couple of times at the Colony, but I think the photos are lost.

And what was more important, Francis liked him, commissioned portraits from him of people he’d like to paint, and helped him with money when he’d lose jobs at glossy magazines, like Vogue, from which he’d been fired twice, and others, for not showing up or for being rude to clients.

Francis saw the artist in him; to Francis, personal flaws or drunkenness didn’t matter.

Deakin, with his Rolleiflex, was the chronicler of that period in Soho and the denizens of the Colony. Without his photos, it would be hard to get a full sense of the jauntiness of those renegades, and their incipient tragedy, when some of them met sudden or premature ends. They lived too violently for their brains or livers, or were accident-prone, or could not sustain the life they’d created for themselves. (Deakin made it to 60.)

I wanted to be in that murky pool of the Colony, with those people, however damaged, because it was the world farthest away from childhood.

Another habitué, Jeffrey Bernard, wrote the “Low Life” column for The Spectator. It was so often interrupted by his bouts of drinking that the words “Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell,” which appeared in place of the column, became ingrained in the literati world to such a degree that they inspired a play of that name starring Peter O’Toole, himself a Colony regular.

Jeffrey died, unsurprisingly, of drink, after having a leg amputated. What was strange and courageous is that, toward the end of his life, in the 1990s, Jeffrey wrote about his coming demise with clarity and delivered his columns on time.

Henrietta Moraes, dark and sultry, had married Michael Law, a documentary-maker, by the time she was 20, and both were frequently at the Colony, even after their divorce. Michael was re-married to a slim, very pretty blonde, Virginia, on whom I had a big crush. (When Michael died, in 2001, the obit in The Telegraph attempted to sum him up: “He was an accomplished film-maker but, by common consent, his chief interest was women.”)

Henrietta Moraes, Colony regular and model-muse for some of the period’s leading painters, including Francis Bacon.

Henrietta was a drinker and, later, a drugger, but it took a while before it destroyed her looks and she got fat. She was a physical muse for some of the great painters of the time.

Francis did several portraits of her, usually from Deakin’s photographs. And so did Lucian, who took his pound of flesh, as he did with most of the attractive women who posed for him. When she died—sober, broke, and loved by those near her—her coffin was handmade by my friend Sir Mark Palmer. Seven years ago, one of Francis’s portraits of Henrietta sold for almost $30 million.

There was the painter Michael Andrews, who created a giant mural on one wall of the Colony, in lieu of an unpaid bar bill. He married the adorable June Keeley, who’d been a girlfriend of Tim Willoughby’s. June liked staying up late and playing a game with Tim, Colin, and me that involved shooting suction darts from a gun, and whoever lost, which depended on what rules were in place in the early a.m., would have to drink a shot of Cognac. Michael’s painting The Colony Room (1962) depicted many of the club’s regulars, including Francis, Lucian, John Deakin, and Henrietta.

Francis did several portraits of her, and so did Lucian, who took his pound of flesh, as he did with most of the attractive women who posed for him.

Commander Shaw was a married ex–navy officer. He was tall and bulky in his blue double-breasted jacket with crested buttons, and he liked to talk about the importance of discipline on a ship and the old days of whippings and lashings. Late at night you’d always find him in whispered conversation with whatever good-looking man was left in the room.

Charles da Silva was a charming con man from what was then still Ceylon, café au lait complexion, neatly, if somewhat chubbily, handsome, with a small mustache, good clothes, and fine shoes on dainty feet. If he wasn’t at the Colony, making witty and engaging conversation, he’d usually be in jail, detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, for smaller or larger schemes that hadn’t worked out the way he’d wanted. When he was found dead at the Cadogan Hotel a few years later, no one was sure if it was really suicide, or if it was the result of a queasy-making financial relationship he’d entered into with Charles Mitchell, an ally of the Krays in mayhem, and a man to stay away from.

Lucian Freud in the 1950s.

One evening, I went to the Colony for a nightcap with Colin, who would later write the wonderfully funny memoir that the movie My Week with Marilyn was made from, about having an affair—or not—with Marilyn Monroe. Francis and Lucian were there, engaged in conversation. We had a few drinks together until Muriel called, “All right, ladies, time,” which was the way publicans announced last orders. The four of us moved on to the Stork Club, a seedy nightclub in Swallow Street, where Colin and I liked to spend time with the girls who spent time there.

We were at a back table around two a.m., drinking Cognac from coffee cups (in case the place was raided) and finishing our scrambled eggs. Lucian and Francis had been discussing an art problem and had been sketching together on a paper napkin, which then lay on the table as we went on to other subjects. Colin, no fool he, casually slithered his hand toward this little item, drawn on one side by Lucian Freud and the other by Francis Bacon. But then a lean hand with paint under the fingernails approached the napkin. “No, Col,” said Lucian.

At that moment, a weary, bone-thin Indian waiter arrived at the table, picked up the plates, nonchalantly crumpled all the napkins onto them, and disappeared into the kitchen. After a brief moment, Francis laughed, as did Lucian, and then I, and then finally Colin, ruefully.

Grand Tweeded Neighbors

Ian, the barman, told me this story: A rather grand lady, in her eyes anyway, was interested in buying one of Francis’s paintings, which were then starting to go up in value, and said she’d complete the purchase if Francis came for the weekend to her house in the country and mingled with some of her equally grand tweeded neighbors.

Francis was not a natural mingler and had a sense he’d be exhibited as a curio from the world of Bohemia. But he’d recently lost a lot of money at roulette and could do with the sale. (Both he and Lucian were extravagant gamblers.) He said he’d come if he could bring Muriel, knowing that her dislike of affectation and snobbery might provide some amusement—for him, anyway.

“And what does she do, this Miss Belcher?” inquired the Hostess.

“Oh,” said Francis airily, “Miss Belcher has a successful fortified-liquids business.”

The Colony’s founder, Muriel Belcher, as portrayed by the author.

At dinner on Saturday, Francis and Muriel did their best to make acceptable conversation with the local squires and squiresses, and to stay sober, which was easier than they’d wished, with only white wine being served instead of the two or three bottles of champagne that would normally keep Francis topped up, or the brandies-and-water that were Muriel’s tipple.

After a restless night’s sleep in the graveyard silence of the countryside, Muriel and Francis were both looking forward to Bloody Marys before Sunday lunch; but that was not to be, as they found themselves standing in a tight little knot with the Hostess and other guests, as the butler came round with small glasses of sherry on a silver tray. Muriel looked at Francis, then, with a gimlet eye at the little thimbles of amontillado on offer, said to the Hostess, “Not very generous with the drinks are we, cuntie?”

What Francis Said

“I’d like to kiss you, Bang” is what Francis had said as we stood at the bar of the Colony.

I had not that long ago lost my virginity and knew that even in my wildest sexual fantasies men played no part. And the only male kiss I could remember was from my father, Edward Lindsay-Hogg, on the cheek, after we hadn’t seen each other for five years. But with Francis I did not say, like Bartleby the Scrivener, “I would prefer not to.”

I liked Francis and admired the courage with which men who liked men navigated a world that wished them harm. Until the late 1960s, homosexuality in England was against the law, the penalties harsh, often prison, with disgrace attending. The moral custodians were vicious and unrelenting. But in the Colony, the straight and the gay, although not fearful on the premises, had a sense of being in a subversive bunker together, and that’s how friendships are made. For me, the sense of illicitness in the air at the Colony was contagious, and the feeling of being involved in a kind of espionage, even on the sidelines, was heady. And so I just stood there, but with a soupçon of unease in my teenage mind. I was also a little drunk.

Francis leaned toward me and put his lips on mine—gentle, a sign, I thought, of affection rather than aggression. There was a sweetness to it, a consideration. He pulled back and looked at me for a second. There had been something almost female about the kiss, if things can be broken down that way. Which they probably can’t.

And then we went back to our conversation and our drinks.

Chatting, Drinking, Growing Up

I spent the best part of two years at the Colony—chatting, drinking, growing up. I dropped out of Oxford and took a job in Dublin, working in television, and would return to the Colony whenever I came back to London for a few days. Then, when I was in my mid-20s, through ambition and luck, I found myself directing a rock ’n’ roll TV show in London and doing videos for the Beatles and Rolling Stones. I would stop in at the Colony occasionally, but it was different. I had found a new life and new friends.

The Colony would keep going on without me. Muriel Belcher died in 1979 at the age of 71. Ian the barman ran the place until his own death in 1994, at 64, his early good looks turned neon by drink. My friend Colin died in 2002, and my friend Tim drowned at sea at the age of 28. (Such a sad day.) In the 90s, the Colony became home to a new generation of British artists—Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and their ilk—before closing its doors for good in 2008. The ground floor of 41 Dean Street is now a restaurant called Ducksoup. I don’t know what the room upstairs is or if the walls are still hepatitis green with the patina of old cigarette smoke. But I’m sure there are ghosts there, with the echo of clinking glasses and throaty laughter.

A “long lunch” at Wheeler’s restaurant, the haunt that led the author to the Colony. From left: Timothy Behrens, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, and Michael Andrews.

My two worlds, the old one and the new one, did connect once.

On a late summer’s day in 1968, I’d gone to visit two of my dearest friends, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, at their office in Soho. They managed the Who, and I’d recently done a video with them. Standing in the office was a tall young man wearing leather, even though it was hot outside, with long dark hair and small, close-set eyes. Kit introduced me to Jim Morrison. We talked for a while, and then Kit asked him if there was anything they could do for him while he was in London.

“No, I’m O.K., thanks,” Jim said. “Well, maybe one thing. I’d really love to meet Francis Bacon. I love his paintings. I don’t suppose you know him?”

Kit and Chris didn’t, but I said if we were lucky, I thought I could find him.

Jim and I walked toward Dean Street, talking about Paris, where he would go next. He was excited to see the city after what had almost been a revolution there in May.

Up the old familiar stairs, push open the door. Muriel, looking a bit older now, says, “Haven’t seen you for a while, cuntie.” Jim laughs. I introduce them. And there is Francis at the bar. “Hello, Bang, my dear. How are you?”

“Francis, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine from Los Angeles who’s off to Paris soon.”

I had a drink with Jim and Francis and then, having other things to do, left them in each other’s company. “Thanks, man,” Jim said.

A few nights later, I was in Soho for dinner and dropped into the Colony for a few minutes. Francis was there, celebrating, champagne glass in hand. He’d just finished a large painting.

“I liked your leather friend,” he told me. “Said he was a poet. Not my type, though. Too gentle. And quite shy.”

Michael Lindsay-Hogg is a director of film, television, and theater, and the author of a memoir. A show of his paintings and drawings runs through December 21 at the Galerie Pixi, in Paris

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