Michael Luke

Writer, film producer and dashing chronicler of the Gargoyle Club

Byronic in his Bohemian good looks, life style, and loves, Michael Luke was an author, film producer and screenwriter who cut a dash in his chosen milieu - one which he also chronicled with a certain effortless elegance. Although he lived to 80, he was a youthful figure who seemed permanently, perfectly moored in the world of Soho, most especially the Gargoyle Club, subject of his most successful book. This rooftop den was founded by David Tennant in 1925, high above the corner of Dean and Meard streets, and reached by a rickety lift whose dimensions were such that strangers entering it left as intimate friends at the top.

Michael Charles Deane Luke, writer and film producer: born St Albans, Hertfordshire 21 March 1925; married 1958 The Hon Clarissa Chaplin (one son, three daughters); died 24 March 2005.

Byronic in his Bohemian good looks, life style, and loves, Michael Luke was an author, film producer and screenwriter who cut a dash in his chosen milieu - one which he also chronicled with a certain effortless elegance. Although he lived to 80, he was a youthful figure who seemed permanently, perfectly moored in the world of Soho, most especially the Gargoyle Club, subject of his most successful book. This rooftop den was founded by David Tennant in 1925, high above the corner of Dean and Meard streets, and reached by a rickety lift whose dimensions were such that strangers entering it left as intimate friends at the top.

The Gargoyle Club was a theatrical arena for London society, high and low. The Moorish interior - its walls narcissistically mirrored with fragments of 18th-century glass and inspired by Henri Matisse (himself a member) - was described by Luke as "Mystery suffused with a tender eroticism". On its dance floor Augustus John, Dylan Thomas and Tallulah Bankhead conducted a rite of hedonistic alcoholic abandon while Noël Coward and Francis Bacon looked on, and Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean filled out membership applications. It was a world which embryonically produced Michael Luke; and his book David Tennant and the Gargoyle Years, published in 1991, is as much a tribute to his colourful past as it is a history of the club and its founder.

Shamefully, I must admit to having given it a lacklustre review when it appeared - then felt guilty enough to apologise in a note to Luke (to whom I had been introduced by his lifelong friend Pauline, Lady Rumbold, daughter of David Tennant and the actress Hermione Baddeley - and herself another young habituée of the club, where the painter Michael Wishart had watched her dancing alone, "in an irresistible scarlet dress, her blonde tresses flying"). Luke's reply was gently rebuking and forgiving at the same time. I felt yet more abashed because Luke had entertained me in his flat in what were the servants' quarters to 22 Eaton Square, where we drank hard liquor and talked of Stephen Tennant, David's younger and altogether more fey brother.

Michael Charles Deane Luke was born in St Albans in 1925, and could boast of Hungarian, Polish, Irish and English antecedents. His father, Sir Harry Luke, was a much-decorated career diplomat who served in Palestine, Azerbaijan and Fiji, as well as writing a series of travel books based on his postings. Michael Luke's upbringing, therefore, was restless, if romantic. Sir Harry had been posted to Sierra Leone the year before his younger son's birth; and from 1930 to 1938 was Lieutenant-Governor of Malta; the family lived in a palace on the island.

Michael's brother, Peter, was six years his elder - an almost unbridgeable gap - and would become a soldier, editor and wine merchant before joining the BBC, and achieving celebrity in 1967 with his play Hadrian the Seventh, based on Baron Corvo's 1904 novel of a man who dreams he is the pope. In his own memoir, Sisyphus and Reilly (1972), Peter Luke noted that he and his brother moved "in rather different circles", and concluded that his own "bourgeois marriage . . . aggravated some sense of insecurity" in Michael - to the point where "we could hardly meet without drawing blood". Indeed, Peter's wife, Lettice, eventually "barred him the door", having declared of her brother-in-law, "He is absolutely rotten and you know it. People like Micky ought to be sent down a coal mine." To which Peter replied, "I don't think that would help the coal industry much."

Peter's memories of his infant brother were sweeter. "He wears a net cap to keep his ears from sticking out and the nanny won't let me touch him." By that time the family were living in a dark flat in Victoria. But later, when Peter had "flown the coop", Michael became "a sort of only child"; and when their parents, who had stayed together for the sake of their children, "finally decided to give it up, he was the baby left holding the parents".

Michael Luke went up to Eton in 1938, where he claimed to have been persecuted "in reprisal for offences previously committed by me", as Peter Luke wrote. On leaving school, he auditioned for Rada (having already evinced an interest in the theatre world by conducting an affair, whilst still a teenager, with the actress and cabaret singer, Frances Day, 13 years his elder). Although Luke's stay at the academy was brief, he did appear in Pink String and Sealing Wax, a play by Roland Pertwee, produced at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1943.

His precocious good looks, meanwhile, had attracted a new lover, Jennifer Heber-Percy. Born Jennifer Fry, she had married Robert Heber-Percy, the "Mad Boy" companion of the eccentric composer Lord Berners (original of Nancy Mitford's "Lord Merlin"). Having been dismissed by Heber-Percy, Jennifer arrived in London where she spurned other suitors - among them Cyril Connolly and the novelist Henry Green - for the 17-year-old Luke. She would later describe Luke as the love of her life; but he was by no means an easy partner - she was proud of having once stabbed him with her hat-pin - and Jennifer subsequently married, in 1949, the poet and editor of the London Magazine, Alan Ross.

By now Luke had been commissioned into the Rifle Brigade - his brother's regiment - and alternated driving tanks with reading Proust, until he was seconded into the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office at Bush House in the Strand. Luke's quip "It's awfully chic to be killed" would be recycled by Anthony Powell in the mouth of Peter Stringham in his A Dance to the Music of Time, but, according to his brother, Michael Luke's time in the Army was less successful. He was about to be sent abroad when he fell during training and was "medically downgraded. Thereafter . . . he led perforce a purposeless, demoralising existence, getting into one military scrape after the other", and "on - or possibly before - demobilisation . . . Michael gradually came into the periphery of the London literati".

Back in civilian life, Luke threw himself into the changing social world of the late 1940s and early 1950s, one in which he cut a dandified dash in the style of the new Edwardians - the skinny-trousered and velvet-collared aristocratic look favoured by officers, and only later taken up by Teddy Boys. His friends included the writer Francis Wyndham, the journalist Robert Kee, and Terence Kilmartin, the noted Proustian. But he was particularly at home at Luggala, the County Wicklow hunting lodge formerly owned by the La Touches, whose daughter, Rose, was the obsessive object of John Ruskin's affections.

Here Oonagh, Lady Oranmore and Browne established what Luke described, in his obituary of her for The Independent, as "the most decorative honeypot in Ireland . . . Noboby could keep away: Dublin intelligentsia, literati, painters, actors, scholars, hangers-on, toffs, punters, poets" - and among them himself, a fervent fan of Oonagh Oranmore and her relaxed society,

conducted harmoniously and concurrently on several levels. On the ground there might be the inimitable Claud Cockburn measuring his considerable length on the drawing-room carpet after an exhilarating morning of informed discussion spent not far from the brandy decanter . . . Then, a little higher, seated earnestly on the edge of, or laid back over, sofas and chairs was the jeunesse dorée, exploring each other's personalities. Upright, might be found the "grown-ups"; the writer Erskine Childers, the playwright Sean O'Casey, Soho regulars en permission, cosmopolitan lovers of the turf, politicians of different persuasions, and threading through all a beady-eyed Lucian Freud, careful to avoid Brendan Behan in lively exchange with the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.

It was a society in which Luke revelled, and found his own level - often intermingling between them all.

In Rome, in 1951, Luke moved into the world of film, dubbing the voice of the American actor Farley Granger in Luchino Visconti's Senso in 1953, and assisting on the 1956 Marlene Dietrich vehicle The Monte Carlo Story. He also moved in with Constance Smith, a Hollywood starlet. That relationship faltered, however, to be replaced, in 1958, by Luke's marriage to Clarissa Chaplin, daughter of Viscount Chaplin and Alvilde Lees-Milne (who had in 1951 married the diarist and National Trust champion James Lees-Milne). The couple lived in France, Ireland, Norway and South Africa - Luke would later be rejected by the apartheid government in 1975 after he had expressed his vehemently anti-racist views. It was a liberality that reflected on the upbringing of his four children, none of whom received formal education - beyond his personal tenets of "No Class, No Creed, No Colour".

In 1963 Luke resumed his film career in Britain, receiving the producer's credit for The World Ten Times Over - unfairly summarised by Halliwell's as "two semi-prostitutes try to improve their lot. Dreary, derivative low-life drama with flashy technique." In 1966, he produced Morning on Mount Kenya for MGM and the following year worked on the award-winning Oedipus the King for Universal, starring Orson Welles.

With the end of his marriage, Luke found a new partner, the artist Jane Macdonald, and moved from Mayfair to Moreton Terrace in Pimlico, and then to Battersea. After his book on the Gargoyle, it was 10 years before the follow-up appeared, Hansel Prince: prisoner of history (2002), a biography of a German prince interned in England as an enemy alien during the Second World War.

When he died, Luke was working a book about West de Wend-Fenton, a friend who had joined the French Foreign Legion in the 1950s - a route which may well have appealed to, but would hardly have suited, Luke himself.

Philip Hoare



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