The double doors to a huge mansion in central London swing open and through them steps a man in his early forties, with slicked-back blond hair and piercing blue eyes. He wears an expensive two-piece William Hunt suit, diamond-encrusted Franck Muller watch and gold signet ring. When he greets me, it is with a nervous laugh that punctuates his carefully polished accent.
This is Edward Davenport, known as "Fast Eddie" because of his wheeler-dealer reputation. He is one of London's most enigmatic and eccentric characters. As a professional party-planner, he stages glamorous and exclusive events for the rich and famous in his £30m house, 33 Portland Place, outside which he, the photographer and I are now standing, a little awkwardly.
The house, situated just off Oxford Street, has been the venue for parties attended by such as luminaries as Kate Moss, Ronnie Wood, Mick Jagger, Paris Hilton, Hugh Grant, Heidi Klum, Vivienne Westwood and Keira Knightley. Over the past two years, these celebrities have all been photographed here with him, and the pictures have been uploaded to his website – the 42-year-old entrepreneur also has a reputation as one of the social circuit's most shameless self-publicists.
Davenport has also been dogged by controversy. In the 1980s, he was the brains behind Gatecrasher balls, the debauched parties for public-school teenagers. Then came an almighty hangover – a short prison sentence for VAT evasion. After jail, Davenport re-invented himself as a property magnate, but the deal on 33 Portland Place was the subject of a BBC investigation. More recently, there have been tabloid claims that the same house was used as a venue for high-class orgies.
On the surface, Davenport has the fantasy lifestyle of every lad-mag reader. "The trappings of success are important to me," he says grandly, ushering me inside. "I'm quite ambitious. I've got a lot of friends. I live quite a big lifestyle. I've got a very nice flat in Monaco, so you have to have a lot of money coming in to keep this going."
The house at 33 Portland Place is lavishly made up for parties, but in daylight it looks bare, even a little dilapidated. Designed by Robert Adam in 1775, it has 24 bedrooms, eight reception rooms, a billiard room and a ballroom, and there's a specially built Jacuzzi in the basement.
Davenport makes his way to a drawing room on the first floor and immediately begins to direct the photoshoot. He's joined by his press representative, Alex King, 32, who made headlines in 2006 for gaining entry to the West End premiere of The History Boys and shaking hands with Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. King claims the prank was the result of a £100,000 bet with his employer.
Davenport asks that a chaise longue be moved in front of an elaborate fireplace, which he deems a "more glamorous" backdrop than the one initially selected. As the photoshoot proceeds, King takes a seat nearby and flicks through a selection of digital pictures on a laptop computer. He shows off photographs of Davenport cosying up to well-known figures, including Alastair Campbell, the rapper 50 Cent and the pop-rocker Pink. "He's a good friend of yours, isn't he," says King of Campbell, his voice tinged either with sarcasm or excessive obsequiousness. The publicist then gestures to a picture of a celebrity who's well known around Soho: "He's really into his hookers."
He shows a snap of Davenport standing in front of a private jet. "There you are in front of your plane," he says again, loudly, for his boss's benefit. "Those were better days," Davenport laughs, breaking into a smile for the photographer, who captures the image of him stretching happily across the chaise longue. As King flicks through his pictures, he shows some photographs of naked girls, which he claims are from a recent photoshoot at the house for the magazine Loaded. Then there are stills from the video to Amy Winehouse's 2006 single "Rehab", filmed in the building's billiard room.
Presuming the photographer and I to be duly impressed, King offers a brief tour of the property. He skips quickly down a grand staircase to the ground-floor hallway, where a pretty young blonde perches giggling on the lap of a seated man. His presence is left unexplained. Down a narrow stairwell is the basement, where four girls are being taught pole dancing by a scantily clad instructor to the tune of Madonna's "Like a Virgin". Through a doorway, King shows off the infamous Davenport Jacuzzi, which nestles in a private lounge that can be closed off from the rest of the floor for private parties (he says Ronnie Wood's son Jamie had his stag do here in January).
In case we still haven't got the message, King boasts that Davenport hosts Eyes Wide Shut-style orgiastic parties in the building, and moves off to show us a storage room close to the Jacuzzi. It is stacked high with old mattresses. Next door, Davenport has built a gym, where he practises kickboxing and other martial arts.
The tour completed, King phones Davenport to locate him in the vast mansion. By this point, the businessman has decided to move the photoshoot into his personal apartment at the mansion's summit. As we climb several flights of stairs through the poorly lit building, the 18th-century Adam masterpiece segues into a modern, carpeted living area, with leather sofas in front of a widescreen television and a large oak dining-table.
Davenport shares the three-floor apartment with Laurence Edney, 37. At the end of the dining table, Edney – who, he tells me, is on the books of agency Models One – sits wearing a white bathrobe. Flashing his final smiles for the camera, Davenport eventually sinks into a high-backed leather chair and begins to discuss his life.
Edward Ormus Sharington Davenport was born on 11 July 1966 in London, the son of a wealthy Chelsea restaurateur. He was educated at Frensham Heights, an independent school in Surrey (alumni include Jon Pertwee and the Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason), and the exclusive Cambridge crammer college Mander Portman Woodward (MPW).
He says he started organising parties on an amateur basis when at MPW. He soon decided to turn his talent for socialising into a business and, in 1987, he set up his first company, the events firm Gatecrasher, which held its parties at plush country houses, such as Longleat in Wiltshire and Weston Park in Shropshire. Up to 10,000 revellers would pitch up. At about this time, Davenport says, he began gaining publicity in teen magazines such as Just 17 and acquired his "Fast Eddie" nickname.
Pictures of Davenport from this time (freely available on his Facebook profile; he has some 1,500 "friends" on the social networking site) show someone who looks younger than his age, almost weedy, with spiky gelled hair. At the peak of his firm's success, it made £250,000 a year, in spite of the negative headlines: "Unbridled lust among upper-class Lolitas and public school Lotharios," hissed The Sunday Telegraph.
In the end, it was not the parties' reputation that killed them, but Davenport's prison sentence of nine months for VAT evasion in November 1990. After serving two weeks, his penalty was reduced on appeal to a suspended sentence. "Prison was so long ago," he now says. "I learnt nothing from my experience in there. Anything you do, you have to make sure is within the law. You can do things within the law and make money. Now we are very careful to make sure that we are playing by the rules."
According to the BBC investigation, by 1996 Davenport was taking out leases on pubs and nightclubs in central London and renting them out at a profit. Tenants paid their rent to a temporary company set up by Davenport, which then paid money to the building's actual owner. The BBC accused Davenport of hiking up the rents on the properties with as little as two weeks' notice. Tenants failing to agree to these terms would be evicted. Today, he denies these accusations outright. "It was a very far-fetched piece," he says of the BBC's investigation. "It was really, really irrelevant programming."
The BBC also claimed that, in the late 1990s, 33 Portland Place was the Sierra Leone government's High Commission and was in disrepair. Davenport agreed to lease the building, pay for its refurbishment and then return it to Sierra Leone once the work was done. However, on hearing (through press reports) that Davenport intended to move there permanently, the government of Sierra Leone began legal action. The BBC reported that Davenport had settled out of court for a substantial sum. But he was allowed to keep the building, and acquired the freehold in 2005.
Since beginning his second career as a property tycoon, Davenport has accumulated 25 buildings in the West End, worth an estimated £100m. He discusses his investments in a style of business-speak that gives little away. "I got into property, I think, just because it was an opportunity that was around," he says. "The West End is an area I'm familiar with and I know. I've always found this kind of business interesting."
Now, he says, he splits his time between 33 Portland Place and Monaco, where he lives as a tax exile in a two-bedroom flat in an apartment block. Here, he holds meetings for his various businesses. Overseen by the parent company The Davenport Trust, he controls firms such as the luxury shoe brand Patrick Cox, which he bought this summer and plans to relaunch with new designers. He says he is involved in a lingerie business with the Swedish underwear model Victoria Silvstedt.
The majority of his time in London is spent dealing with his tenants' queries, Davenport says. He dines out at The Dorchester, and flits between clubs such as Studio Valbonne, Movida and 50 St James's. For transport, he uses any one of his private jet, Ferrari 360 Spider, Aston Martin Virage Volante, Rolls-Royce Phantom or Lamborghini.
It was this lifestyle that won him his second nickname, "Lord Davenport", which was coined in the mid-1990s by the former Daily Mail gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, in a reference to the entrepreneur's social aspirations. While Davenport is not officially a peer, he styles himself Lord Davenport on his website. He claims to have won the right to use a title from a property he once owned in Shropshire.
Now, he says, it's his parties that chiefly concern him. "I've got big ambitions to finish doing up Portland Place. And something like this building is hugely expensive to refurbish. I have to generate money to do that." Events held at his London home include Boy George's 40th birthday party in 2001, and an after-party for an Agent Provocateur photoshoot featuring Kate Moss in 2005. A gathering the same year, organised by the Rothschild family, was attended by Princes William and Harry.
The most notorious of the events held at the mansion is Club Fever. According to an exposé by the Sunday Mirror, anyone was allowed to apply for tickets to the 2006 launch, although 200 people weren't accepted after being vetoed for not being attractive enough. Allegedly, guests who were allowed to attend paid £150 per couple, a tariff that included free drinks and breakfast. The Sunday Mirror claimed that buckets of condoms were strewn around specially constructed beds. "Biggest ever filthy rich orgy," screamed its headline.
Davenport does not confirm whether such events are still taking place. "If we had these parties here, it would be legal," he says. "We have had wild times here, in the Jacuzzi. We have 24 bedrooms as well, [and] giant beds we have built for all sorts of fancy, decadent styles of event. The Fever party had very exclusive lists of people. Everyone who is invited is sworn not to talk about it. That was part of its cachet."
On the subject of his own personal life, Davenport becomes defensive. He gripes about a profile piece in the current edition of Tatler that describes him as "social Marmite"; in response, he pretends not to remember the name of the Tatler editor Geordie Greig, something unthinkable for such a prolific social networker. He appears to take particular issue with a part of the article that described his social climbing and cast doubt over the validity of a coat of arms that appears on his website; the magazine suggests it was only recently designed. "I've never done anything which I particularly really need to hide. It's bitchiness, isn't it?"
By this time, the sun has gone down outside and Edney has disappeared into another part of the apartment. Suddenly, without no-one on hand, Davenport appears vulnerable. He slumps slightly in his chair.
He says that being well known has always been important to him. "Privacy has certain advantages, as does publicity," he says. "But because I've always been well known, I'm kind of stuck with it, so that's something I'm happy to go along with. Obviously I'm involved with business ventures that are reasonably high profile, such as buying a fashion label, and so I've got on with it. It has its advantages and disadvantages. Publicity's great when everything's going well, when everything's perfect, everyone likes you and it's great. But if you do something that doesn't work, then you get the opposite effect."
The photographs of him glad-handing celebrities on his website – something also ridiculed by Tatler – are a marketing tool to promote 33 Portland Place as a party venue. "That's business. We take pictures of people who've had parties here. We put some of those pictures up more for the girls," he grins. "It's like a social page, like a Facebook page. If people don't like it, it's no big deal. I mean, all the pictures were taken at the house, which is my property."
Numerous photos of Davenport with beautiful women can't hurt his reputation as a playboy; he's rumoured to have several live-in girlfriends, although there's no sign of the lucky ladies on the day I visit. "I am fortunate that I am single so I have nothing to hide," he purrs. "We have a Jacuzzi here, celebrities. If you are intending to throw parties, you are going to expect to be surrounded by good-looking girls. Some of the girls I have around me I don't sleep with, for whatever reason, and some I do sleep with. They fall into those two categories." Fast Eddie, he adds, perhaps unnecessarily, has no plans to settle down.
For the first time that day, Davenport's phone isn't ringing. He shows me back downstairs and says goodbye with a winning smile and the warm handshake so many revellers have enjoyed. Looking back at his shadowed silhouette, his beaming grin is the only thing visible in the gloom of the grand doorway. "See you next time," he says. "At the next party!"
Talk of the town: high society’s most colourful characters
The former Polish academic allegedly spent more than £5m to smooth his way into the champagne-swilling, genteel British polo establishment; his purchases were said to include a £2.6m estancia in Argentina and 40 prize ponies. Such was Dochnal's passion for the regal game that he set up his own team, named after his Larchmont investment group, and enlisted some of the best-known players – among them model Jodie Kidd's mallet-swinging brother, Jack. Although his abilities on the field and his commitment to the sport were above reproach, Dochnal was arrested in September 2004 (while aboard a private jet, natch) on charges of bribing a member of Poland's coalition government, the resulting prison sentence cutting short his trek around the British social circuit.
Famed for his extravagant Chinese New Year parties, which attract socialites from around the world, by trade Wong is loosely described as a financier. Along with his wife, Patti (pictured with Andy, above), the granddaughter of the founder of the Bank of East Asia and now head of private client services at Sotheby's, he is one of London's most flamboyant hosts. Ivana Trump and Prince Andrew are on his guest list; but so too, whisper some commentators, are less desirables such as Rebecca Loos. Asked why he might be considered a rarity alongside other Chinese nationals, he replied: "Years of Communism have meant that the idea of having lots of money and splurging it around is considered distasteful."
Son of the Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev, the entrepreneur Evgeny Lebedev is another man with an eye for an investment that might secure a spot at society's top table. With an actress girlfriend (currently Joely Richardson; past amours are rumoured to include Geri Halliwell) and a share in the pricey Japanese restaurant Sake No Hana in London, the pouting, tanned and stubbled Russian is a constant fixture in the society pages. He attended Sir Elton John's White Tie and Tiara Ball in June; he donated $500,000 to the Council of Fashion Designers of America, set up by the Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour; he has a share in the menswear label Wintle; and he is said to be involved in the launch of a Russian edition of the style magazine Dazed & Confused. Lebedev Jnr's fashion credentials are almost as impressive as his bank balance. Well, almost.
A painter and decorator's son from Bexhill, Michael Hammond (the double-barrelled name was a later addition) ingratiated himself into the highest echelons of the social elite as, variously, a millionaire businessman, a producer or film consultant and a close friend of Prince Charles. His best-known stunt was gaining access to the grounds of Windsor Castle in 2004 while impersonating a police officer. After his arrest, Hammond (pictured with Sarah Whitefoot, then his girlfriend, in 2001) proclaimed: "If this episode results in our monarchy being protected as it should be protected, I've performed a service, not a crime. I will call figures from the world of television and royal circles who will speak in my defence." Those calls were sadly left unanswered.
Foster once called himself "the human headline". He is notorious for the "Cheriegate" affair of 2002, when he was alleged to have helped the prime minister's wife buy two flats in Bristol at discounted prices. At 15, Foster claimed to be making more money than his teachers at school – by charging friends to play on leased pinball machines. After Cheriegate, Australian-born Foster made a name for himself in the South Pacific, where his escapades haven't abated; in December 2007, he pleaded guilty to defrauding the Bank of the Federated States of Micronesia.
Gatecrashing a fancy cocktail-party to make idle chat with Mick Jagger and Hugh Grant over free caviar and fine wine is an art, and helpful Nicholas Allan has written a guide to mastering it. His first experience came when he was mistakenly given a glass of champagne at a function at the Royal Festival Hall. Inspired, he set about working his way round any society event he could come by, from corporate events to book launches. Before he discovered the joys of the canapé circuit, Allan was a successful author of children's books; he wrote his first murder mystery at the age of 14. After publishing The Complete Guide to Gatecrashing, the serial uninvited guest remarked: "Saul Bellow said the great problem of a writer is what to do in the afternoon: mine is what to do in the evening."