John Osborne’s Champagne Fridge

John Osborne and Penelope Gilliatt arrive in New York as divorce writs fly.

When I was a young shaver, circa 1983, I was working on a photo shoot in one of those huge ‘wedding cake’ townhouses that characterise Belgravia. In the mid-1960s this particular house had belonged to John Osborne and his wife Penelope Gilliatt, who subjected it to an elaborate sixties makeover: a fabulous monument to mid-century luxe, the decoration supervised by none other than Hugh Casson. In his appallingly entertaining memoir Almost a Gentleman, Osborne writes waspishly of Penelope’s ‘Swedish experiments’; he was particularly vituperative about the cost of the massive copper doors on the ground floor. But the couple’s high style made an impression: their guests at their house parties included the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Lord Snowden, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, the Oliviers, assorted aristocrats and intellectuals, plus all the requisite theatrical personnel. Osborne collaborators, such as Nicol Williamson, remember this period as the apex of the playwright’s life.

Johnny has left the building … 31 Chester Square in March 2020.

Two decades on, the big house in Chester Square was a relic of a lost era. The basement and top floor were let out to tenants, but the main rooms were suspended in time, frozen since the day in June 1966 when Osborne walked out on a distraught Gilliatt, leaving her for the actress Jill Bennett. Gilliatt spent most of the rest of her life in New York, returning to London for only short occasional visits. The suite of rooms – comprising the major portion of the house – that Gilliatt retained formed a backdrop to some strange, speculative photography I was doing for a man who lived in the basement. The ground floor was taken up by a huge dining room: an elaborate exercise in formal décor, it featured not one but two genuine Roman marble statues – grave male nudes whose antiquity offered an ironic counterpoint to the layers of dust smothering the table and place settings. (We used one of these statues as a prop in a photo shoot: we hung an alto saxophone round its neck. I can’t remember why, it certainly wasn’t my idea – but people did some strange things in the eighties.) The main living room was on the first floor, an airy space with exquisite appointments: a Castiglione floor lamp, shag-pile sheepskin rugs, vintage stereo system, harpsichord, etc. There is a photograph of Osborne sitting in this room at the time of his play Luther: the playwright’s success made tangible by his surroundings – although in his memoirs he refers to this room as ‘the airport lounge’.

But by 1983 the room and its furnishings – art books forever un-opened, classical LPs permanently in their sleeves – had the poignant aspect of an abandoned theatrical set. Osborne’s diaries record physical fights as Penelope tried to prevent him from leaving, at one point trying to wrestle his suitcase off him as he was going down the staircase. She later made an abortive suicide attempt in the bathroom. The 1980s tenants told tales of Gilliatt’s erratic behaviour and Osborne’s callous attitude to his ex-wife and their daughter; these stories ratified the sense of loss in that house, a mansion haunted by the not-yet-dead. Osborne’s own bilious drama was playing elsewhere.

The unhappy couple: John Osborne and fourth wife Jill Bennett. God knows what’s going to happen when they get home. Frankie Howerd’s not hanging about.

When Osborne and Jill Bennett set up house together they installed a dedicated champagne fridge in the bedroom of their house in Chelsea. They got through so much ‘shampoo’ that they didn’t have to identify it, and the question was merely ‘Would you like some?’ Jill Bennett became Osborne’s fourth wife (there were five in all) but unfortunately, this marriage turned out to be even more volatile than his one with Penelope Gilliatt, and the two leading lights of the theatre fought like cats in a sack. They achieved a spectacular nadir one Sunday in 1973 when, during a drive to Dulwich to have lunch with friends, they had a vicious row that ended with Osborne deliberately ploughing his Mercedes into the Wandsworth roundabout. Osborne had failed to notice that there was police car behind him; he was breathalysed and lost his license for a year. Bennett suffered a fractured ankle – and lost a part in a West End play she’d been rehearsing.

Even Bette Davis is upstaged: Jill Bennett in ‘The Nanny’, directed by Seth Holt for Hammer in 1965.

Gilliatt died of cirrhosis in 1993, at the age of 61. Osborne died the following year, a victim of diabetes derived from a liver complaint, at 65. Jill Bennett died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1990. In his memoir, published a year after his ex-wife’s suicide, Osborne notoriously attacked Bennett in the most gratuitously offensive terms, e.g.: ‘She loathed men and pretended to love women, whom she hated even more. She was at ease only in the company of homosexuals, who she also despised but whose narcissism matched her own.’ Or: ‘Everything about her life had been a pernicious confection, a sham.’ Champagne anyone?

Decadents at The Crown, 43 Charing Cross Road

A London pub, circa 1893.

‘Do not think it was an ordinary saloon bar. One entered and the narrow space opened out and disclosed a bar-parlour. … My friends were of the intelligentzia; [sic] they talked learnedly about the ballet and Walter Sickert and the latest art movement in France …There were settees round the wall and we sat on them and drank hot gin and water. Certain celebrities you were quite sure of finding … These last you could expect to turn up within a few minutes of the closing of the Empire and the Alhambra. Ernest Dowson would, as likely as not, be the first to arrive. … The visit to the Crown was not a dissipation, it was the end of the day’s work, a chance of meeting and talking with congenial friends, of exchanging ideas. It was far better, if less comfortable, than the Café Royal that succeeded it, for its limited space made it necessary that much of the conversation should be general.’ Grant Richards, Memories of a Mis-spent Youth, Heinemann, 1932.

One of the many casualties of our current locked-down life is the shuttering of art galleries; one major exhibition that has been rendered unavailable is Tate Britain’s survey of Aubrey Beardsley’s career. As a total sucker for the 1890s in general and the London ‘decadents’ in particular, I had been greatly looking forward to this; sadly, I will have to settle for the Tate’s video of the show (in the link above). But this does at least give me a cue to offer a snapshot of ‘aesthetic’ pub-going, circa 1890.

Decadent‘ London is defined for us by Beardsley and Oscar Wilde: creators of ornate, precious and sinister works of art, whose respective genius was laid waste by disease, the hypocrisy of society and ill-advised liaisons at the Savoy Hotel. But the languid image of the local decadent scene is misleading, as its members were, on the whole, very determined pleasure seekers, fully characteristic men-about-town of the era. Also, there was a split in the movement between the gay or sexually ambiguous ‘green carnation’ axis – Wilde, Alfred Douglas, Robbie Ross, etc. – and the louche, energetically heterosexual tendencies of a number of heavy drinking poets and artists, notably Ernest Dowson, Charles Conder and Arthur Symons.

Ernest Dowson by Charles Conder, presumably well into an evening’s drinking. Dowson is credited with the quip ‘Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder.’

In the early 1890s, the centre of operations for the Decadent/Bohemian movement was The Crown in the Charing Cross Rd. This pub was convenient for West End theatres and within easy walking distance of the Decadents’ digs; and as it stayed open until 12.30 a.m. on weekdays, its saloon became their salon. Although not a regular at the Crown, Wilde would sometimes hold court there after performances of Lady Windermere’s Fan, which played The St. James’s Theatre in 1892. (Wilde’s more serious party-going went on elsewhere.) After The Crown closed for the night, Dowson might invite interested parties back to his digs in Fitzroy Street. These night drinkers called themselves ‘The Bingers’, and the company might include actresses or dancers they’d picked up at the Crown. If Wilde and Douglas were fond of stable boys, Dowson was fond of waitresses, prostitutes and distressed girls in general. There is a touching story concerning Dowson and his circle coming to the aid of a girl in their midst, the lover of an actor who had picked her up on a theatrical tour of Scotland. She quickly became a cherished ornament to the Crown set but ran into trouble when she got pregnant. She attempted to abort the pregnancy with a quack medicine and nearly killed herself in the process. As her boyfriend, one Lennox Pawle, was still appearing on stage, it was mostly left to Dowson and another actor friend to look after Marie and get her on a train home. When they heard that the girl had arrived safely, Dowson, Pawle and company went to celebrate at the Crown. Their celebrations are bound to have been partly motivated by the sheer relief at the thought that they would not be party to a girl’s death from a botched abortion; the collateral damage of the ‘naughty nineties’ is glimpsed in the margins of such memoirs. But it also sounds like Dowson was a bit in love with Marie, which would be fully characteristic of him.

Lennox Pawle circa 1900.

In a letter, Dowson described the rest of that weekend:

‘Yesterday Pawle went off to join his company at Derby. Goodie and I met in the evening. He had a charming man with him, a twenty-ton opium eater, who had run away with his cousin and is now about to marry her. We met at seven and consumed four absinthes apiece in the Cock till nine. We then went and ate some kidneys – after which two absinthes apiece at the Crown. After which, one absinthe apiece a Goodie’s club. Total seven absinthes. These had seriously affected us – but made little impression on the opium eater. … This morning Goodheart and I were twitching visibly. I feel rather indisposed: and in fact we decided that our grief is now sufficiently drowned, and we must spend a few days on nothing stronger than lemonade and strychnine.’

(The Cock was another Decadent hangout, located on Shaftesbury Avenue. Like The Crown, that has also gone, but it will get its own entry here in due course.)

Lennox Paule as the ‘pixilated’ Mr. Dick in David Copperfield, MGM, 1935.