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.
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.
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.
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?