Mark Birley dies, but the feud lives on

The owner of Annabel's, the aristocrat's nightclub of choice, leaves his son out in the cold and a famous family divided. Richard Osley reports
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The Independent Online

For more than four decades, club owner Mark Birley was adamant that Annabel's, the exclusive central London nightspot he named after his wife, should stay in the family. Yet when he brought in his son Robin to run the place, he found working with relatives can be no fun at all.

The pair fell out, Robin was abruptly sacked and soon afterwards Mr Birley did the unthinkable: he sold the club he had lovingly managed since founding it in 1964.

On Friday, the 77-year-old died from a stroke with the family divisions still simmering and the row apparently unresolved.

The nature of the disagreement was initially put down to Robin Birley's apparent relaxed guest list while at the Annabel's helm. Letting in Sophie Anderton and Calum Best hardly matched up to the likes of Frank Sinatra and Muhammad Ali who had graced the plush Berkeley Square basement in the past.

It later emerged that Mr Birley had a deeper grievance. He had been devastated to learn that Robin had hired a private detective to investigate his sister India-Jane's boyfriend. Worse still, the investigator proved to be a fraudster, collecting £200,000 in fees for work he had fabricated.

The father and son's row was ramped up when Robin didn't invite Mr Birley to his wedding to Lucy Ferry, the ex-wife of singer Bryan Ferry, last October. India-Jane was at the reception.

David Wynne-Morgan, who worked beside Mr Birley as the publicist for Annabel's for more than 40 years, said: "He was one of the stiff-upper-lip brigade. He didn't want to show his emotions and he didn't. I was probably his closest friend and he didn't talk about it – but the family feud must have been a stress and a strain. It wasn't nice for him."

He added: "The truth is he hadn't been very well for two years. I did see him the night before [he died] for a drink, though, and he was in good spirits. He was going away to France. I gave him a book, The Hustlers, which he featured in. I said here is some holiday reading and sent him on his way with a smile."

India-Jane Birley, an artist who ran Annabel's for a while, was thought to be at Mr Birley's hospital bedside at his death. Robin Birley is thought to have been in Mozambique when his father was admitted. Mr Birley lived in a Knightsbridge flat, alone apart from two dogs and his housekeeper.

Annabel's, once described as the world's most glamorous discotheque, was named after Lady Annabel Goldsmith, his wife. But she left him to start a relationship with billionaire tycoon Sir James Goldsmith, a friend of the couple who died nine years ago. Together they were parents to Ben and Zac Goldsmith, and Jemima Khan.

Mr Wynne-Morgan said: "There wasn't anywhere else like Annabel's. It really was the envy of the world. [Birley] was a perfectionist. You didn't change a salt cellar without asking him. His attention to detail was remarkable. People tried to imitate him and they couldn't. It is hard enough to keep a club for 43 years but to keep it at the top for that long really was amazing."

Lady Goldsmith was unavailable last week, while Zac Goldsmith said: "I will not be making any comment about this."

Zac, the poker-playing editor of The Ecologist, who will be standing for Parliament in Richmond, was rumoured to be interested in buying Annabel's last year but, in June, the club was eventually sold to Richard Caring, a fashion mogul who also owns a host of prestigious London restaurants, including The Ivy.

He had reportedly coveted the nightclub for its famed reputation. Mr Caring, who lives in a £15m mansion in Hampstead, snapped up all of Mr Birley's bars for around £100m, paying extra for the rare paintings inside Annabel's.

Mr Wynne-Morgan said that it was not true that Mr Birley had lost interest in Annabel's. "Caring would consult him about things but I think he just accepted that if you sell something then it isn't yours any more and you can't interfere with how things are done."

It is unclear how the fortune Mr Birley had amassed will be divided. Relatives are known to be keen that Annabel's isn't radically overhauled and want its sentimental nameplate to stay. Lady Goldsmith said after the sale of Annabel's: "I mind very much about it. I used to be there every night, even when I had three small children to take to school the next day. It was like a second home to me. I'm very upset about it. The new ownership worries me because it's not going to be a family business any more.

"I feel really hollow and sad about the whole thing."

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