Prince of porn and property

Top sex merchant Paul Raymond has cleaned London's sleaziest streets. Hilary Clarke reports

There is a page called "Soho Street" on the website of Paul Raymond's erotic publishing empire. On this virtual road, you can buy all the usual you would expect from Britain's veteran pornography king, Viagra from the pharmacy and XXX-rated films, all at the click of a button. But while the sex industry still provides healthy profits for the Liverpudlian septuagenarian, the real streets of Soho have overtaken naked women as his most lucrative physical assets.

In October, London's biggest restaurant, Sugar Reef, opens its doors in Soho for the first time, and Mr Raymond will again be guaranteed a big slice of the pie. His property company, Soho Estates, recently bought the property on the site of a former amusement arcade in Great Windmill Street for a cool pounds 12.5m and Sugar Reef is to pay it pounds 800,000 a year in rent.

Nearby, the flats above what used to be the Fashion Cafe in Coventry Street are being developed, and Allsops, the up-market estate agent, is looking for tenants willing to pay up to pounds 500 per week for a two-bedroom apartment. No prizes for guessing who the landlord is. Ditto for developments soon to come on the market in nearby Archer and Bateman streets.

According to local estimates, Mr Raymond, who made his initial fortune 30 years ago with Raymond's Revuebar, the first place in London where strippers were allowed to dance naked, owns between a third and a half of Soho's properties. But no one knows exactly how much Soho property Mr Raymond has acquired.

While he handed over the running of the Revue Bar to his former choreographer several years ago, Mr Raymond still owns the freehold on the building. He also owns the freehold for the world famous jazz club Ronnie Scott's, the up-market restaurant Soho Soho and the exclusive watering hole of London's media types, Soho House.

Not even Lawrence Kirschel, a former business partner of Mr Raymond, could say. As an estate agent and property developer, Mr Kirschel sold dozens of properties to Mr Raymond before setting up his own property company, the Consolidated Property Corporation.

The irony is that Mr Raymond, Britain's biggest porn merchant ever, has been credited with the clean-up of Soho, once a seedy warren of sex shops and brothels into one of the trendiest, most up-market areas of London.

According to Mr Kirschel, the establishment of large property empires was the only way to renovate the area. "You had to have a few owners with a proper idea," he said. In the secretive Soho property market, Mr Kirschel, who owns the premises of Terence Conran's Mezzo restaurant in Wardour Street, is one of the few other players with that sort of clout.

In a 1990 interview with the property trade magazine Estates Gazette, one of the last he has given, Mr Raymond - who learned about property from his first job, at the age of 15, with an estate agents - said he saw how Soho was improving before most other people did.

His initial venture into property was to prevent the Revuebar from being sold to someone else. It was 1958; Mr Raymond had a 40-year lease at pounds 100 per week without a rent review. "It was the time of Jack Spot, Billy Hill and other gangsters. The wrong type of people were beginning to encroach on me. The protection racket said I wouldn't last more than three weeks, so, to safeguard my interests, I bought the freehold." He says it was the best deal he ever did.

Mr Raymond confessed to owning 60 freeholds in 1990. Today that number has grown immensely. No one at Soho Estates, or the Paul Raymond Organisation - the umbrella company for Mr Raymond's erotic publishing empire, whose stable of titles includes Mayfair, Men Only and Escort - is going to tell you how many.

"We do not talk to the press and we do not make public that which we own," was the curt response from Carl Snitcher, chief executive of the Paul Raymond Organisation and Mr Raymond's long-serving right hand man to an inquiry by the Independent on Sunday.

According to the files in Company House, Mr Raymond's sales from his publishing empire in 1998 rocketed from pounds 26.4m to pounds 42m enabling him to award himself a handsome pay rise - from pounds 790,000 to pounds 3.5m.

Some estimates have put his total worth at pounds 1.5bn. In its last "Rich List", the Sunday Times estimated his assets to be around pounds 500m, making him Britain's 33rd richest man. Others, like the now defunct magazine Business Age, have claimed he is the richest.

But money can't buy happiness and in Mr Raymond's case, it appears to have been accompanied by a lot of misery. He lives as a virtual recluse in his fabulous penthouse behind the Ritz hotel in Piccadilly. According to people who know him, he spends most of the day in his dressing gown, still dyes his shoulder-length hair yellow, doesn't cut his finger nails, and professes to be a devout Catholic.

Over the past 15 years, as he built his empire, his health and happiness have been drained by a succession of family troubles. There was the drugs- related death in 1992 of his daughter Deborah, whom he is said to have doted on, and the casting into the wilderness of his son Howard, for his former addiction to cocaine.

Despite Mr Raymond's professed religious beliefs, the Catholic Church has kept him at arm's length. Howard Raymond recently said that the Church only buried his sister after their father agreed to do a deal over "a new roof."

Debbie was married twice, Howard once, with another long-term relationship. All four unions failed. Mr Raymond senior's own marriage to his children's mother, Jean, ended when he fell in love with the former porn star Fiona Richmond, who now lives comfortably in Hampshire.

Jean, now a state pensioner in Nottinghamshire, is said to have a picture of her ex-husband framed in a toilet seat on the wall. Last year, Mr Raymond issued libel writs over allegations made in a recent book, Devil's Disciple, by his former daughter-in-law, Maria Raymond.

Then there is the discovery of Mr Raymond's oldest child, an overweight ten-pin bowler called Derry McCarthy, tracked down by the Daily Mail, who claims his father has only ever agreed to meet him once.

But while there has been nothing but bitterness from his offspring, Mr Raymond's high-profile tenants have nothing but praise for their landlord, even when assured their comments would be unattributable.

No one accuses him of opportunism in his property dealings. Space is so precious in Soho that Warner Brothers, the film company, has had to move from the centre of the country's film and television industry to Clerkenwell. Yet Soho Estates has refused to sell out. It is becoming an estate similar to those of the old landed gentry who own most of the rest of London's West End,

The big issue now for Mr Raymond, as he moves, a lonely figure, into his twilight years, is what to do with his fortune. People who know him say he plans to leave everything to his grandchildren. There has also been speculation that he might set up a Paul Raymond foundation devoted to charitable works. A bigger "roof", perhaps, to ensure his own soul is saved.

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