Chimes at midnight

Even journalists had stopped telling the outside world about life at the Groucho Club. Then a death was announced. Douglas Kennedy tells a six-Martini story
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Indy Lifestyle Online
We'd always arrange to meet around seven. "Best time to ride the buzz," Michael would always say. He was right, for 7pm was the hour when the bar of the Groucho Club was packed. And when the schmooze factor was at its apex.

Michael VerMeulen loved the buzz, the schmooze. As editor of GQ ("the men's magazine with an IQ" to quote his catchphrase), it was an intrinsic component of his work. And Michael also delighted in the Groucho Club - not simply because it was undoubtedly the best arena for media gossip in London, but also because it was a stage upon which he could act out his persona as an expatriate Falstaff: a corpulent, larger-than-life Chicago showman with enormous appetites and a penchant for mischief.

Of course, when he died in late August (of an accidental drug overdose), innumerable column inches were spent dissecting his "life in the fast lane", and his self-destructive underside. But, during our six years of friendship, what often fascinated me most about Michael (something that none of the postmortem editorials and think-pieces touched upon) was the way in which the Groucho had become something of a non-stop habit for him. Almost, in fact, a need.

Indeed, for Michael - and for so many other members of that small internecine village called Media London - the Groucho wasn't simply a Soho hangout; it was an outer office where the literary and tele/visual worlds converged to do business, to network, to trade rumours and scandal. Membership implied that you counted for something in the metropolitan pecking order; that you dwelled amidst the great-and-the-good of the literary and entertainment worlds. That, verily, you belonged.

After all, the Groucho is also a serious arena of commerce where deals are hammered out, professional alliances forged, ideas marketed. Walking into its main lounge was often like entering one of those importance-of-being-fabulous stories which Vanity Fair always runs, and which reads like a name-dropper's notebook. Very everybody who's anybody. Very sweet smell of success. And every time I met Michael there, usually once every eight weeks or so, I found myself thinking: the Groucho isn't merely a club; it's a form of validation.

But I also knew that, if you rode the evening out, staying on way after the early evening schmooze hour, the going could get a little weird, a little morose. Especially as midnight approached.

"Gang's all here," Michael said, as I joined him at the bar a few months back. He was balanced on a stool, sipping the first martini of the evening, staring out at the throng scattered around the main lounge. The bar was actually the best vantage point to observe the after-work action unfold. It also afforded you a perch from which to see everyone engage in a reflex action which could best be described as the "Groucho glance" - a fast, upward craning of the neck whenever a club member marched through the door, followed by an immediate downward glance if the individual wasn't notable, or wasn't someone you should be making eye-contact with.

"Quite a crowd," I said, ordering a drink.

"The usual suspects," Michael replied, returning the nod of a glitzy war correspondent who was often referred to as "I, Bosnia" behind her back.

The "acknowledging nod" was another commonplace Groucho reflex. Copywriters and commercials directors would nod towards ad agency bosses. Actors towards producers. Writers towards editors. Which meant that Michael - as someone who could commission work, help pay a few of your bills, and inch your public profile a little forward - received a considerable number of nods. Just as I, too, found myself tilting my head in the direction of editors who occasionally commissioned me. As someone memorably noted, freelancers (whether they be journalists, novelists, playwrights, film makers or folks who think up jingles) live off the slack of the metropolitan economy. And, even if you've achieved a modicum of success, you always labour under the four- in- the-morning fear that tomorrow it will all dry up. Your next five books will be rejected. No editor will ever commission a piece from you again. You will end up selling pencils in front of Harrods.

So seeing all those acknowledging nods in the Groucho bar was curiously reassuring - a reminder that beneath the gossipy hum ran a neurotic undercurrent of apprehension; a subliminal realisation that we were all expendable, all engaged in that great big dispensable industry which now goes by the name of info-tainment.

The neuroticism wasn't simply limited to the freelancers who hawked their talents, their services. The "bosses" who bought said services also lived in an ongoing state of apprehension. Magazine editors (like Michael) fretted about circulation figures. Advertising account directors knew that the defection of a major client could mean professional catastrophe. Publishers stewed over disappointing sales figures for a new novel that they'd paid too much to buy.

But the din at this hour was so loud, so confident that it drowned out all reflective doubts. At this hour, you were a player (or, at the very least, among the players). Seriously successful people were doing some serious schmoozing.

"Think I might've convinced Bono to do the title song for my next film," said a director from Dublin.

"Ridley Scott and Alan Parker have nothing on me when it comes to visual style," barked a well-known commercials auteur.

The tang of collective importance - of being at the epicentre of things - was in the air. And look at all the famous faces! The arsehole comedian who always picks drunken fights. The millionaire novelist who spouts on about saving the planet. The playwright who writes with amusing self-pity about the horrors of being a dramatist. The actor who is flavour of the month in Tinsel Town. The television presenter with a hoover for a brain.

And then there were the not-so-famous, but equally important, faces. The advertising heavies who essentially controlled the way product was packaged and sold in this country. The television supremos who dictated small-screen policy. The magazine editors who decided what was in, who was out. The public relations bosses who bestowed interviews with their celebrity clients on journalists who didn't ask tough questions.

And, of course, your peers. Columnists who could squeeze a thousand words out of the colour of their child's poo. Celebrity profilers who had actually asked Elizabeth Hurley for her opinions on Slobodan Milosevic. Fellow writers/journalists, lamenting (as we all do) about how the pressures of Grub Street were delaying the delivery of their next manuscript... and did you hear about that bastard (a name would be mentioned) who just sold his novel to Spielberg/Ridley Scott/Sydney Pollack/ Ingmar Bergman (well, maybe not Bergman).

That was another of the pleasures of an evening at the Groucho: the gossip. After a stint at the bar, Michael and I would move to a table for more drinks, and, inevitably, assorted lounge lizards would drop by for small talk and scandalmongering. And I hugely enjoyed this flow of tacky tales about frantic couplings atop office fax machines, and et tu, Brute backstabbings at troubled newspapers, and whose marriage was in torment this week.

Gossip is usually tinged with envy, not to mention anxiety ("If I'm talking about him, he must be talking about me"). And while I savoured all this slanderous small talk, I also started to understand why I had never gotten around to joining the Groucho. Because - as I discovered whenever I came here for one of my occasional evenings with Michael - it brought out an underside of me that I didn't particularly relish: petty, hyper-sarcastic about people I considered inferior, always wondering what sort of impression I was making on the other individual.

Samuel Johnson, a literary gossiper par excellence, certainly understood that if you brought a collection of writers and spiel-merchants together under one roof, their collective bile would generate a thick cloud of toxic enmity. Johnson, after all, was a founder member, in 1764, of a precursor to the Groucho: a London literary/journalistic institution known as the Club, whose other members at the time included Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick, Edward Gibbon and James Boswell. So he knew what he was talking about when he wrote: "The reciprocal civility of authors is one of the most risible scenes in the farce of life."

Johnson, of course, was able to give up the hackwork that kept him financially afloat when he received, in 1762, a crown pension of pounds 300 a year. It also allowed him to retreat even further from the mean streets of 18th-century London. No doubt that, were he living today, the insular world of the Groucho Club would suit him perfectly.

For, like his own literary salon, the Groucho was established by "words-and-pictures" folk. Its founder members in 1984 included a literary agent (Michael Sissons), a television producer (Janet Street-Porter), a documentary film maker (Frank Cvitanovich) and a couple of publishers (Carmen Calill and Liz Calder). It was, in short, always intended to be a place that would break with the gerontocratic stuffiness of those grand institutions which line Pall Mall; a thoroughly modern English club where old school ties and received pronunciation counted for little.

But, as with all clubs, the Groucho still services an elite - a newfangled late 20th-century elite which, according to the late Christopher Lasch, an American historian, is largely made up of "those professions that produce and manipulate information". And Lasch was particularly scathing in his condemnation of this "new aristocracy of brains" which "cultivates ties with the international market in fast- moving money, glamour, fashion and popular culture", yet which eschews the communal responsibilities that the old landed elites embraced ("Wealth was understood to carry civic obligations. Libraries, museums, parks, orchestras, universities, hospitals and other civic amenities stood as so many monuments to upper-class munificence").

Had Professor Lasch been sitting in the Groucho lounge with Michael and I, he might have also pointed out that this crowd also conformed to one of his central theories of the New Elite - namely that, as they don't have any real connection to the community, they invent institutions like the Groucho in order to commingle with people like themselves. And the club gives them the sense of mutual identity - one not based on class or geographic locality, but on the shared lingua franca of cosmopolitan lifestyle: designer clothes, designer foods, designer stimulants, not to mention similar tastes in reading matter, in plays, in films.

In this "aristocracy of brains", your status isn't determined by merit (you never heard anyone at the Groucho referred to as a "great writer/actor/ director"). Rather, it is pegged to your economic worth - the size of the advertising account you just managed to score, the development deal you've just signed with Warner Brothers. And even if you publicly pooh- pooh the huge fees that others receive for their work ("Money isn't the reason I write fiction," I heard myself grandly saying over the second martini, to which Michael tartly replied, "Yeah, right"), you can't help but play the Groucho game and partially judge your own standing within this community by the heft of your last advance.

By 9pm, the early evening schmooze crowd was thinning down, so Michael and I retreated to the dining room - emerging two-and-a-half hours later, gorged and in a deepening state of alcoholic glee. By this time, only a dozen or so souls were still lounging in the bar. A film producer with his hand deep within the skirt of some blonde bimbette and his spare pinky up his nose. A well-known media couple having a terse, whispered domestic at a prominent table. The arsehole comedian rambling loudly (and scatalogically) to a fellow drunk about some alleged professional slight. A couple of seedy, nicotine-cured hacks seemingly engaged in a "coughing up phlegm" competition at the bar. A woman, sitting alone in a corner, sobbing quietly into her drink.

The buzz was dead. The Groucho now looked like the set for a play entitled: Long Day's Journey into Shite.

"Michael!" The voice belonged to a freelancer in her mid-thirties, dressed in a tight black dress, her make-up a little askew, two cigarettes burning at once in the ashtray, working her way through a second bottle of wine with another woman journalist. She, too, was stylishly decked out (a gun-metal grey suit now dappled with ash), and also exuding that same, late night air of advanced weltschmerz.

"Well, that's me sorted out for the night," Michael whispered to me under his breath as we approached the table. After the usual pleasantries, we were asked to sit down and Michael fell immediately into deep tipsy conversation with the freelancer. Which left me to make chat with her friend. Let's call her Pam (not, of course, her real name). She edited a page for a newpaper. She was, she admitted, something of a Groucho habitue.

"Usually come here three, four nights a week," she said, splashing a little more wine into her glass.

"Atmosphere's a little different at this hour."

"Different?" she laughed. "It's a fucking freak show. The last resort. Great time of night to get hit on, if you want that sort of thing."

She paused, looked at me with boozy eyes. "You're not going to hit on me, are you?"

"I'm not."

"Good... I think."

We both laughed.

"You married?" she asked.

I nodded. "Kids?" I nodded again.

"You're lucky. Was living with a guy. Ended. His decision. The Big C got him."

"Cancer?" I asked.

"Commitment. Scared the shit out of him... so he took a walk, the bastard."

"You'll meet someone else... if you want to."

"Not here I won't."

The woman in the corner was now sobbing loudly.

"You know what's going on?" I asked Pam.

"Must be one of three things: a guy, her job, or the fact that she's still here at this time of night."

The arsehole comedian was now berating his friend, using anatomical terminology to detail the shortcomings of his personality. The film producer fell asleep on the lap of the woman he was fondling. Michael and the freelancer looked like a definite item for the night. And Pam started talking about how she hated the paper she worked for, but feared redundancy (there was talk of job cuts) and a return to the days when she peddled features about soft furnishings of the rich and famous.

And, as Michael let out a drunken belch, and Pam started referring to herself as "nothing but a hack", I found myself thinking: but at seven, we were all so ebullient; all flying so low and fast on the intoxicating buzz of the early evening crowd.

The buzz. At heart, it was nothing more than metropolitan white noise - a lot of loud, trivial static. But it was also sustaining. It provided a sense of community, of importance. Without it, you found yourself facing up to questions. Big, nagging wee-small-hours-of-the-morning questions which confront everyone who works in the words and images game: Does what I do have any value? Or is this all one big bonfire of superfluity? And why do I need a place like the Groucho to bolster me up? Especially as the buzz is now hurting my ears.

I looked at my watch. It was approaching one. I stood up and said I had to be off.

"You tired?" Pam asked.

"Wrecked," I said.

"Not as tired as me," she said. "No one can be as tired as me."

I waved goodbye to Michael. He raised his glass. Though we didn't know it at the time, this was to be the last of our Groucho nights. A few weeks later, he would go to bed and not wake up again - a massive intake of cocaine finally forcing his overtaxed heart to call it quits after just 38 years.

"We'll do it again soon," he shouted.

'When my liver recovers," I said.

"You ever going to join this place?"

"One of these days."

"You should," he said. "Home away from home."