Annabel's: A tale of love, snobbery, revenge... and some jolly good cocktails

Liz Hoggard on a high-society spat that's more 'Dallas' than Mayfair
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The Independent Online

You couldn't make it up. Mayfair nightclub Annabel's, once posh London's premiere watering hole, is the subject of the most unseemly tussle of love in a plot worthy of the scriptwriters of Dallas and Dynasty. It's a story that has everything: an aristocratic family at war, adultery, a love child, and an elaborate con trick.

Annabel's was founded by Mark Birley in 1963, and named after his then wife, Lady Annabel, daughter of the 8th Marquess of Londonderry (now Lady Annabel Goldsmith, the mother of Jemima Khan). Since then, the aristocratic discotheque has played host to the Queen, President Richard Nixon, Lord Lucan and Frank Sinatra. By the late Nineties, however, it was looking distinctly old-fashioned. In the words of one member, it had become the sort of place that the young avoided, in case they caught their father there with his mistress.

But three years ago when ill-health forced Mark, now 76 and confined to a wheelchair, to step down, his two children, India Jane and Robin, took over running the Berkeley Square basement club. Faced with competition from venues such as Boujis and Pangaea, they gave it a new lease on life by recruiting a new generation of wealthy young hedonists. India Jane, an artist, supervised the renovations. Suddenly, Annabel's was the in-place again for celebrities. Profits increased.

But then last month, Robin left the club dramatically. The rumour was that his father, Mark, an arch-snob, was horrified by the class of guest his son was attracting, which included C-list celebrities such as Calum Best and Sophie Anderton. Rather improbably, Annabel's was also the place that David Blunkett enjoyed a candle-lit liaison with blonde estate agent, Sally Anderson, who later sold her story to the press.

Bitterly hurt that all his hard work had been for nothing Robin - who is due to marry Brian Ferry's ex-wife, Lucy, later this month -responded by refusing to invite his father to the wedding. In a gesture of solidarity, Robin's half brothers, Zac and Ben Goldsmith, offered to buy Annabel's and put him back in charge. But Mark turned down the offer flat, claiming he "never wants the club to be run by a Goldsmith". Hardly surprising since his ex-wife Lady Annabel had run off with their father, the tycoon Sir James Goldsmith in 1964.

Last week the plot thickened: it is now being claimed that the real reason Robin had been effectively banished from Annabel's was because he had been investigating his sister, India Jane's private life - in a vain attempt to prove that the father of her love child was a bounder who lured wealthy young women into relationships, took large sums of money from them, then dumped them. But by that time India Jane had already split up with Robert Macdonald, the father of her 16-month-old son, Eben.

Eben is a rather important little boy. He is the only grandson of Mark Birley, and stands to one day inherit the bulk of his fortune. Any mud sticking to Robert Macdonald would stick to the Birley family too.

Over a period of about a year, Robin paid more than £200,000 to a private detective to uncover what he thought was evidence of Macdonald's modus operandi. When he realised his so-called detective was a con man who had, over several months, spun an elaborate web of lies, Robin revealed all to his sister. Her reaction, and that of her father, has reportedly led to a rift that has proved impossible to repair.

Robin Birley now accepts that his suspicions about Macdonald were completely unfounded, and that he was the victim of a clever scam to part him from his money.

"Of course, I regret it now," he says. "But I was worried about what Jane might be getting into. I just needed to know whether there was anything in the background that posed a threat to her, or the family." He vociferously denies that he would have "contrived this mess" to get some advantage in the business.

Now, brother and sister, father and son are at odds with each other, throwing into question the matters of succession and inheritance in a business empire worth £50m. Of course, these larger-than-life goings-on are nothing new for the Birley/Goldsmith dynasty. Not only are they fiendishly well-connected (with links to the Royal Family, Hollywood, the British rock aristocracy and the new-look Conservative Party), but they have never lived in a conventional way.

Lady Annabel may have created a stir when she bolted from her marriage to Mark, but their children have led equally unconventional lives. Her elder son, Rupert, died in mysterious circumstances in Africa in 1986. Robin was seriously disfigured at the age of 12 when he was attacked by a tiger at John Aspinall's zoo. Selected visitors were allowed into the tigers' enclosure, to meet the animals at close quarters. Robin was stroking one of the beasts, when it unexpectedly turned on him, pushed him over and closed its mouth over his head. The bones on one side of his face were so badly crushed that they never developed.

Robin endured years of plastic surgery to have his face remoulded. Lady Annabel never forgave herself.

Her daughter India Jane has had a colourful life. The artist, who has collection of erotica dating back to the 17th century, had a baby at the age of 43, even though she was living in a separate country from her husband, the historian Francis Pike. India Jane's friends referred to her pregnancy as the "immaculate conception". When her marriage failed, her friendship with Macdonald developed into a love affair, which led to the birth of Eben.

Meanwhile, Lady Annabel's children from her love affair with Jimmy Goldsmith (he maintained relationships with two other women even after their marriage) have led eventful lives. After separating from her husband, Imran Khan, several years ago, Jemima, a fashion designer turned Oriental scholar, has found solace in the arms of actor Hugh Grant. Zac, a close friend of David Cameron, initially looked more stable: he is married with three children and has a day job editing the green magazine The Ecologist. But earlier this month, news broke of his alleged affair with 22-year-old Alice Rothschild, scion of another billionaire family, who is his brother Ben Goldsmith's sister-in-law.

Clearly the revelations of the past week have their roots in dramas that have been building up over the past 40 years. One can only imagine the Dynasty-style tensions and rivalries that have been suppressed. Lady Annabel Goldmith has had to watch powerless as her family implodes around her.

No one knows what will happen to Annabel's, or indeed, Mark Birley's other venues including George in London and Mark's Club. But one thing's for sure, like the very best soap opera, this one will run and run.

Peter York's guide to Annabel's

The first Annabel's barmy break-up breakdown story this week was about Calum Best and Sophie Anderton and their alleged unsuitability as club guests. I loved it even better than the more complex reality that emerged later. Unsuitable! So unsuitable that Mark Birley, Annabel's founder, had apparently "fired" his son Robin for bringing that type of person in to London's most consistently successful smart nightclub.

So let's focus for one sparkling moment on this luckless couple, singled out for their below-the-salt qualities. Both are always described as models and both are almost famous by association - Best for his late father, George, and Anderton for her rich partners - rather than directly.

Both have been in ITV's Celebrity Love Island and in modest celebrity magazines (ie, not Tatler). Do we know them? Not really.

And the Birley/Goldsmith family axis, which exists on another social planet, won't have known them either.

I loved the story because it sounded positively pre-war. People Like Us moving quietly to expel the foreign body. Except, of course, it wasn't quiet because Annabel's, in becoming hot again over the past few years has, embarrassingly, unintentionally become part of celebrity culture.

Actually, Annabel's has always specialised in foreign bodies. Introducing New Money to Old and, in the famous joke, the Middle-Aged to the Middle-East. The plutocrats and autocrats at Annabel's mixed with English aristocrats ... and Eurotrash wanted in. They were serious money when millionaires - let alone billionaires - rare and special. When there weren't at least 75 billionaires in London and 30 different tribes of the seriously rich who all marched to disconcertingly different drums, Annabel's worked to a glorious, ancient conceit; that a highly social upper-class Englishman, working in a surreal cross between a stage English country house and an Arab disco, could mix anyone with anyone, provided they were: a) vouched for by someone one knew; b) seriously rich; c) knew The Form or wanted to learn it; d) would follow a sort of Chatham House Rules about what went on at the club; e) "fun'. A sort of Us Against The World.

It all depended on having the right instincts - Mark Birley was always legendarily fastidious - underwritten by the right networks. But now London is a heaving un-English stew of unidentifiable money and the old business of an orderly transfer is for the birds. There is global New Money, rapper Russians in particular whose aspirations, role models and personal style would be jaw-droppingly vulgar and unclubbable by Birley standards.

Although Robin Birley made Annabel's hot again, bringing in 20 and 30-something Eurotrash inheritor boys working in the City and luxury goods and lots of improbably tall girls with PHDs, Annabel's, instead of being the obvious top of an obvious hierarchy, is just one rather fascinating retro sliver of a great big new diverse clubland now.