The prince of darkness

Tramp is where Joan Collins and Roger Moore used to hang out, the nightclub that inspired The Stud. But if, after 30 years, you think it sounds more Austin Powers than cutting edge - well, you just haven't been Johnny-ed yet
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The Independent Culture
I am in the very famous London nightclub, Tramp, with its owner, Johnny Gold. Surprisingly, we have bonded quite well. I say "surprisingly" because, on the whole, I'm not exactly a Tramp kind of chick. Indeed it used, even, to be a struggle to stay up for News At Ten, until they moved it to 6.30pm which, I quickly found, suited me rather better. Still, I've travelled here in his glorious silver Mercedes, which has whizzy windows and everything. We've parked at the hotel opposite. He held my hand when we crossed the road, and said naughtily: "What'll my wife think? Coming out of a hotel holding hands with a strange woman?" Probably, I say, that the woman does seem strange, yes. Short and moon- faced. "Oh no, you look very fit," he lies. "Do you exercise?" Constantly, I lie in reply. He has magnificent manners. He even pretends not to notice that I need something of a rest after climbing on to the kerb.

We go into Tramp. It's in a basement on Jermyn Street, just behind Piccadilly. It's 5pm, so the club is not open to members yet. Johnny points out the chandeliers. "Real crystal, from the Rothschild palace." He points out his table, which is the first one on the right as you go into the dining area. "I've sat there, in this basement, every night for nearly 30 years now. Sad, isn't it?" he says cheerfully. Johnny shows me the little wooden dancefloor. Johnny hums, while we enjoy a momentary waltz. He is 67 and quite handsome, in an absurdly tanned, Tony Bennett kind of way. He is casually yet expensively dressed. His watch, I note, is "Audemars Piguet Royal Oak", which I don't think is from the Timex range. He smells very nice, too. It's Dunhill, I think, although, unlike me, it's probably the cologne rather than the fags. Johnny says: "You're a nice Jewish girl from north London, I'm a nice Jewish boy from north London; let's have an affair."

Hang on, I protest. I'm already engaged to Keith Waterhouse, as it happens! Indeed, I even announced it in these pages not so long ago! "Oh, that's all right," says Johnny, "you can have an affair with me while still being engaged to him." I tell him he's possibly right. I tell him Keith will probably understand it's just one of those final flings you have to have before settling down. Plus, I don't think Keith drives a Mercedes, whizzy windows or otherwise. He only drives an old Olivetti manual. "There you are, then," Johnny says triumphantly.

This is the thing about Johnny Gold. He is, mostly, just such a brilliant schmooze. We meet, initially, at his other London club - Rags, in Mayfair, which is more a dining club than a nightclub, and has just been repainted a very deep burgundy. Johnny isn't too sure about it. "Looks a bit like a bordello... all it needs now is a couple of hookers." Still, he greets me with thrilling enthusiasm. It is: "How lovely to meet you, Debsy!" And: "Let me give you a kiss, mwah!" And: "Your mother must be so proud of you. I'm proud of you, Debs!" And: "38, Debbie? NO!" Eventually, I tell him that if he carries on in this preposterously flattering manner then I shall have no alternative but to prolong our encounter for as long as possible. How old did you think I was, then? "Oh, in your twenties, I'd have said, Debs." He then says he once went on one of those Dale Carnegie "How To Win Friends and Influence People" courses, and it taught him always to remember people's names and use them a lot, "because people love the sound of their own name, don't they, Debs?" I am minded to say, not if they're called "potato", Johnnsy, or "fish-head", but don't. It would just be cruel somehow.

Being charming like this is, in fact, what Johnny does. It is his profession, making people feel special. It's even what drives his business. Those who regularly attend Tramp - the Tamara Beckwiths, the Andrew Neils, the Koo Starks, the Naomi Campbells - probably want to be Johnny-ed, and even need to be Johnny-ed. And Johnny is Tramp. As such, while other clubs have come and gone, Tramp has not only remained, but has even defined generations. It opened in the last fortnight of the Sixties when, at the first night, there were "Joan and Jackie Collins... Michael [Caine] and Roger [Moore], of course... and Natalie Wood, who was utterly, utterly divine". In the Seventies, it inspired Jackie Collins' novel The Stud. In the Eighties, it was where Andrew Neil first came across a certain Pamella Bordes. And in the Nineties? "Well, Danielle whatsit came in the other night for the first time." Danielle Whatsit? "OH. You know. Writes books. Has actually written 77 books, she told me." Steele? "Yes! And she's utterly, utterly divine."

Johnny Gold is not a name-dropper, especially. Still, that said, he's just come from lunch at Langans with the tailor Doug Hayward. "A lovely man." Michael Parkinson was at the next table. "Do you know him? A lovely man." He went to the polo yesterday with Robert Sangster. "He's a very good friend of mine. A lovely man." Have I met Frankie Dettori? "He's a lovely man."

And no, he doesn't mind if I smoke. He used to smoke himself, once. One night he was out with John Wayne and just as he lit up, Wayne snatched the cigarette, tore off the filter, then said: "Now, smoke like a fucking man!"

Terry O'Neill? "A very dear friend of mine." Heavens, is there anyone you don't know or haven't known, Johnnsy? "Good question!" he exclaims. What about Keith Waterhouse? "Actually, no." Well, I say, I've heard he can get quite nasty. Indeed, if he hears you are trying to entice me away, he might even come at you with his Olivetti. We will have to be quite discreet, I think. But what if your wife, Jan, finds out? He says she probably won't leave him. She'll just go mad on his credit card. She knows, he says, that the one way to hurt a Jewish man "is through his wallet".

He was born in Stanmore. His father, Sam, was a milliner who specialised in ladies' hats until the outbreak of the Second World War, when ladies stopped buying hats, at which point he moved to Brighton and set up a bookmaking business.

"He was a lovely man, always laughing, and a great sportsman. Loved his sport. He took me to see Spurs and Brighton." Did he take you to synagogue? "Every Saturday, until after my barmitzvah at 13. Then he said, `Right, I've done my bit, you're on your own now'." His mother, Sarah, was very much a Jewish mother, yes.

"Her latkes were the best."

"Gefilte fish?"

"Never liked it."

"Me neither. Tastes of wet, compressed sweater. But did she wash up paper straws, then hang them up to dry, as my mother does?"

"Ha. No! But she did spoil me. Food always on the table, shirts washed and ironed..."

"Did she mind you marrying out?"

"She came round eventually. Did you marry out?"

"No. I just slept out. With a Welshman. We now have a son who is known, with great affection, as The Taffy Yid... And your father?"

"He always used to say: `Son, I don't care who you marry, so long as you are happy.' "

He was never especially scholastic, and left school at 16. He is still not especially scholastic. Do you ever read, Johnny? "Only on holiday. I like John

Grisham. And Freddie Forsyth. And Jackie Collins, of course." (When he opened Tramp it was in partnership with the American impresario Oscar Lerman, who went on to marry Jackie.)

Do you enjoy shopping? "No. Hate it. Although I quite like food shopping. I took my wife to the new Sainsbury's on Finchley Road on Sunday but, sadly, it was closed." What bores you? Doesn't sitting around at Tramp until 4am almost nightly bore you? "No." What does, then? "Boules, probably."

I do think he is an immensely satisfied man. And rich? "Well, it depends what you mean by rich. If you mean someone who is fit and well, and owns their own house, and has a happy family, then yes."

His wife, Jan (mother of their two children, Nick and Claire), with whom he lives in what is said to be a magnificent house in St John's Wood, is a former model, and a Catholic, whom he married in 1971. He met her in a pub, The Cock, which, he says, still stands at the corner of Margaret Street and Great Portland Street.

"She came with a girlfriend of hers, whom I'd previously had a fling with. That girl came because she was about to marry, and wanted to be sure she was over me. I immediately went for Jan. I told her she couldn't go back to Greenford. It was too foggy. She was so beautiful, and still is."

His father had died by the time he married. His mother refused to attend the wedding. Upsetting? "Um, yes." He isn't especially effusive when you try to wriggle beneath the charm. I think he loves Jan very dearly, actually. He might like to flirt, but that's part of his job. It's just him at work, really.

Anyway, it's off to Tramp, in his Mercedes, then the quick tour. He is still immensely proud of Tramp. Recent renovations have even revealed some stunning 17th-century carvings. Then there is the strange alcove in the dining area which, he explains, goes back a century or so, when the place was a club for gentlemen of the household cavalry. The alcove, apparently, led to a secret tunnel under Jermyn Street, then came out in what is now the Copthorne Hotel, but was then a famous brothel.

"So," he says, "If you want to molest me, do it in the alcove!" I decline his kind offer, but ask if I can come back later tonight, to see Tramp in full flow. He says: "No." Why? "I never allow journalists in while I'm working." What about Andrew Neil? "He's a member." Oh, go on. "No." Pleasy weasy Japanesey? "No." Sadly, and as is apparent, I have never been on a How to Win Friends And Influence People course. Behind the schmooze, he is probably quite tough. Still, he can see I'm disappointed. "

Come with me, I'll give you something," he says. We go to an office. He unlocks a drawer. I'm quite excited. He then gives me a promotional baseball cap - in beige, with "Tramp" stitched across the front - and a promotional pen, with "Tramp" inscribed down one side and "made in China" down the other. Obviously he has spotted me for the cheap date I am. Still, I think Keith and I might be bringing forward our wedding day.

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