London society is up in arms over a threat to civilization as they know it: the civilization embodied in Mark Birley’s exclusive clubs-Annabel’s, Harry’s Bar, Mark’s Club, George, and the Bath & Racquets-which the ailing 75-year-old perfectionist wants to hand over to his son Robin and daughter, India Jane. The menace: American shipping-and-luxury-hotel tycoon James B. Sherwood, who co-owns one of the most lucrative of the Birley establishments, Harry’s Bar, and is refusing to change the original contract so Birley’s children can inherit their father’s full share. VICKY WARD hears from both camps.
The Wellington Hospital, in St. John’s Wood, North London, is a bleak, ugly building with an interior to match. The walls are gray, and on a gloomy day in late July the coffee machine in the basement cafeteria works only sporadically, as does the elevator that supposedly serves all the floors. But, amid the charmless homogeneity, there is one little patch rather different in spirit-a tiny second-floor patient room, inhabited by 75-year-old London club owner Mark Birley. On Birley’s bedside table is a vase of blue hyacinths almost as vivid in color as their recipient’s large, luminous eyes, which shine with enthusiasm as two pretty, young assistants-one blonde, one dark-haired-bustle about. They are waiting for the three-course lunch from Birley’s private Mayfair club, Harry’s Bar, to arrive. Known by some of its members as “Tycoonville” because of the illustrious quality of its membership, Harry’s Bar is frequented by a wide range of prominent people, from Madonna to corporate raider Henry Kravis, to H.R.H. Prince Michael of Kent, to television personality Sir David Frost.
“You must have a drink,” Birley urges a reporter. One assumes he means soda or juice, until it emerges that he has had wine and cigars smuggled in along with the food: prosciutto from Tuscany, melon, risotto Milanese, and ice cream. This morning is something of a milestone in that Birley was actually persuaded to do the physiotherapy required for his hips and legs, which he has injured in various falls.
“Sometimes he just flat-out refuses,” says his close friend, next-door neighbor, and longtime P.R. consultant, David Wynne-Morgan, 74, a sandy-haired English gentleman. Like Birley, Wynne-Morgan prefers to dress smartly in well-tailored British-made suits-Birley’s are by Mayfair tailor Douglas Hayward, Wynne-Morgan’s by Huntsman. Wynne-Morgan rolls his eyes cheerfully. “That’s Mark for you,” he says.
He looks over at Birley, dressed casually for his exercises in a white Aertex shirt and pale-blue trousers. “You really wouldn’t want to try the hospital coffee, Mark,” Wynne-Morgan says with a grimace.
“No,” says Birley, who, at six feet six inches, is imposing even when he is sitting down. He speaks in a classic English drawing-room drawl, languidly enunciating every syllable with precision. “I don’t suppose I would,” he replies in a tone that makes it clear the notion has never entered his silver-haired head.
Birley’s members-only clubs and restaurants are all situated within a few minutes’ walk of one another in London’s Mayfair district. They include Annabel’s, the nightclub named after Birley’s ex-wife, Lady Annabel Goldsmith, in Berkeley Square; Mark’s Club, named after Birley, in an unmarked town house on Charles Street; Harry’s Bar, inspired by the famed Venetian restaurant; and George, named after the late, beloved head barman at Annabel’s. The last two are both on South Audley Street. There is also a nearby health club, the Bath & Racquets.
Nearly all the clubs have long been beacons for international moguls, movie stars, and royalty-as well as for the British gentry, many of whom have long been acquainted with Birley, although not all can regularly afford his prices. Harry’s Bar is said to be London’s most expensive Italian restaurant, and three glasses of champagne at Annabel’s will cost you around $80.
But at Birley’s clubs, mingling with a moneyed, aristocratic crowd is not the only draw; people return again and again because of the unparalleled personal service-members are greeted by name by the uniformed staff, who love Birley like a father. Then there are the old-fashioned idiosyncrasies, such as needlepoint cushions and quaint animal portraits, which remind you unmistakably that you are in England. Another attraction is that nothing that goes on inside gets leaked to the papers. Thus, extramarital affairs and all sorts of other high jinks are quite happily conducted in the clubs, if not actively encouraged.
Indeed, it was in the course of a 1964 evening at Annabel’s that the founder’s wife first earned the attentions of billionaire corporate raider Sir James Goldsmith, whom she eventually married. “The only poor behavior likely to get a member blackballed is rudeness to the staff,” Birley says. (After complaining about a barman, one member, who had been inebriated on the night in question, was told never to return.) The British club spirit is upheld at all costs; thus, blatant business transactions over dinner are frowned on and cell phones are forbidden. Ben Elliot, the co-founder and C.E.O. of Quintessentially, a concierge service, recalls having lunch some time ago with Birley at Harry’s Bar. At the next table two businessmen had contracts out. “Mark summoned a waiter,” says Elliot, “and told him, ‘Please tell those men that if a pen comes out of their pocket, that we will ask them to leave.'” The waiter went over, whispered something, and the contracts were hastily put away. “The clubs,” says the British historian Andrew Roberts, “are quite simply the cult of Mark Birley.”
On this day in July, however, Birley’s world is perceived to be under attack-and from the perspective of Birley’s family and many old friends, the attack is coming from a most unwelcome quarter. Harry’s Bar-which Lady Annabel Goldsmith, 71, and her and Birley’s daughter, India Jane Birley, 44, describe as “the jewel in the crown”-is co-owned by American James B. Sherwood’s Orient-Express Hotels Ltd. Sherwood, 72, is the president of Sea Containers Ltd., a publicly listed shipping firm, which in turn owns 25 percent of Orient-Express Hotels, a publicly listed luxury-hotel company, whose properties include the Hotel Cipriani, in Venice; the Villa San Michele, outside Florence; the Copacabana Palace, in Rio de Janeiro; the Mount Nelson, in Cape Town; ’21,’ in Manhattan; and the train that runs from London to Venice, after which the hotel company is named. Twenty-six years ago, Birley, who had by then built a reputation as a perfectionist club owner with a vast but discerning address book, wanted to open a London version of Harry’s Bar. He loved the Venice restaurant, named after Italian restaurateur Giuseppe Cipriani’s original investor, a rich American named Harry Pickering. Lacking the funds, Birley turned to Sherwood, a rotund man with a habitual giggle who, having made a fortune with his maritime business, had bought the Hotel Cipriani in 1976.
Sherwood backed Birley, investing around $575,000 through his hotel company. The two men did not, according to Birley, “ever have what I would describe as a personal relationship.” Wynne-Morgan is more explicit, saying it was troubled from the very beginning. He says he had to act as an intermediary in 1979, when Birley, to Sherwood’s fury, did not open Harry’s Bar on time because the glass shades for the chandelier were the wrong color. (Sherwood disputes this account: “There has never been an acrimonious relationship with Mark Birley; indeed, it has been quite the opposite… Mr. Birley chose the lamps and lampshades from our Orient-Express train.”)
The deal which was written down gave Orient-Express Hotels a 49 percent stake and Birley 51 percent; Orient-Express Hotels was to be a silent partner, and Birley would run Harry’s Bar, since it would be his name that was the main marketing tool. But, to protect both parties, there was a clause stating that should either of the owners cease to act individually, the other would have the right to buy out his partner’s shares. This clause did not become an issue until two or three years ago, when Birley brought his two children-India Jane, an artist, and Robin, 47, founder of the Birley’s Sandwiches chain, a great success in London’s financial district-into the business. Birley did so because he needed help revamping Annabel’s, which had ceased to attract London’s younger crowd, and because his health was not what it had been. “It just seemed the most natural thing in the world to start working there… And I’d been in the club since I was a child,” says India Jane, a willowy, dark-haired beauty, who does not live with her husband of 10 years, the historian Francis Pike, but who has just had a son, Eben. Her artwork is on display in nearly all the clubs, and she has, according to friends, played a key role in redecorating them so that they are modern yet have the same ambience as before. Robin, meanwhile, has concentrated on Annabel’s, which he has revitalized with the assistance of his half-brothers, Zac and Ben Goldsmith, 30 and 24 respectively, and his half-sister, Jemima Khan, 31.
Birley says he is “thrilled” that his offspring want to continue his legacy, and that’s why he wants to change the terms of the agreement so that his children can inherit his majority share of Harry’s Bar upon his death; this was fair, the family felt, since Robin, in particular, has given himself over to running the clubs and spends most of his evenings at them. His efforts have paid off: last year, according to Wynne-Morgan, Harry’s Bar made a profit of approximately $1.8 million.
However, despite several meetings and an exchange of increasingly blunt letters over the past nine months, Sherwood, described by a friend as “made of solid steel,” has agreed only to alter the terms of the agreement if Orient-Express Hotels becomes the majority shareholder, with the 51 percent stake. In a letter addressed to Mark Birley, dated March 2, 2005, Sherwood wrote that as the head of a public company he doesn’t have the same freedom that Birley enjoys.
This summer the Birleys felt cornered. “It’s like a Sword of Damocles,” echo Mark, Robin, Lady Annabel, and Wynne-Morgan to a reporter. “Legally, they don’t have a leg to stand on,” says someone close to them-which, perhaps, explains why events took a public turn in July, when Taki Theodoracopulos, a longtime friend of Birley’s, launched an offensive against Sherwood in his well-read “High Life” column in The Spectator. Taki described the American as “a man I’ve never met and, as things are going, hope never to.” While Birley was described by Taki as “the so-called Nijinsky of the catering world,” and he and his family as “not (settling) for anything second-rate,” Sherwood was referred to as “old Scrooge,” and his Hotel Cipriani written off as not “what it used to be.” Taki concluded that if Sherwood succeeded in taking over Harry’s Bar he would never go there again, and recommended that his friends follow suit.
“It was unbelievably classist in tone; it must have made James Sherwood seethe,” one British member of Harry’s Bar told Vanity Fair. But, he adds, “the Birleys are quite right.” Such are the views of many in Establishment London, who are fiercely loyal to Birley and who say they have never taken to Sherwood, whom they view as an aggressive businessman on a quest for acceptance in England’s upper social circles. “I’ve only met him once, and so I can’t comment on what he’s like at all. He’s sort of ‘luxuree’ with two e’s on the end,” says India Jane. “In fact, when people use the word ‘luxury,’ you know it’s going to be just the opposite.”
Days after Taki’s column appeared, the Birley offspring gave an interview to London’s Evening Standard in which Robin said he was “appalled,” “furious,” and “incandescent” at Sherwood’s attitude. “Nothing would change for Jim Sherwood. It would go on the same way. But the fact that India Jane and Robin are actually running the place, what difference does it make to him?” Lady Annabel asks Vanity Fair.
On July 15, Harry’s Bar member George J. Goulandris, a Greek shipping magnate, sent a letter to Sherwood, in which he stated that if the Birley family was not allowed to be majority owners and managers of the club he and other members might resign. Sherwood wrote back to Goulandris, saying that his organization had no “present intention” of exercising the option to acquire Birley’s ownership share, that Robin and his sister were doing a good job, and that as long as this was the case they wouldn’t make any management changes.
On July 21 a letter signed by Mark Birley went out to 80 Harry’s Bar members, apologizing for the publicity and summing up the problem:
I haven’t been well for some time and I’ve tried in vain for nearly a year now to persuade him (Sherwood) that Harry’s Bar can only work as a family run business and not as part of a large publicly-quoted hotel group…
As a family we can’t agree to his terms which involve short term performance targets that would trigger a buy-out by Orient-Express Limited in the event we fail to meet them. As you know I don’t run my business like that and as my children have been brought up in the clubs they understand that we take a long term view.
Robin Birley, tall, like his father, dark-haired, and immaculately dressed, has a scar on one cheek, the remnant of a near-death encounter with a tiger when he was 12. He explains: “If, for example, there are more terrorist attacks, we can’t be beholden to meet targets. That’s just not how we operate. Harry’s Bar is about spending $80,000 per annum on flowers; it’s about perfectionism. We wouldn’t start doing catering or opening on weekends or turning tables to make ends meet. That completely goes against the ethos of what we do.” Later, over lunch at Mark’s Club, as a particularly fine truffle is being grated over scrambled eggs, and a glass of Bordeaux poured, he says, “The Sherwoods think we are overly emotional about this. Well, we are. Harry’s Bar is part of our family home. We are very emotional about it.”
India Jane echoes her brother. “I went into Harry’s Bar for lunch recently, and the staff are all so upset,” she says. “They told me, You must fight-and that’s the point. Even if we lose this, then members will be alert to what has gone on-and we will have gone down fighting.”
To understand why emotions run so high, you have to go back to the founding of Mark Birley’s empire. Birley, then just out of his 20s, was an exceptionally good-looking, larger-than-life, not very affluent Old Etonian whose “set” included Harry, Viscount Hambleden; the late Lord Ashcombe; the late gaming entrepreneur John Aspinall (or Aspers, as he was known to his friends); and Simon and Annabel Elliot, the sister of the Duchess of Cornwall. While still a copywriter for the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, Birley had married Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, the daughter of the Marquess of Londonderry. It was a match her father was initially against. “His father was a bounder and his mother a whore,” the late marquess said of Birley’s parents, according to Lady Annabel’s 2004 memoir, Annabel: An Unconventional Life. Lady Annabel saw it differently. “This assessment was both monstrously untrue and unfair,” she wrote. “(Sir) Oswald Birley had been one of the most respected society portrait painters of the century and Rhoda was a well-known if somewhat Bohemian hostess.”
On their wedding night, in Paris, Lady Annabel learned that her husband could have a temper, when she attempted to call him to bed while he was gambling at Le Circle. “I learned you never interrupt a man who is running a winning bank,” she wrote. All Birley’s friends attest to his temper. In his introduction to a recent limited-edition coffee-table book, Harry’s Bar, London, the writer Frederick Forsyth stated, “Those who have experienced the exquisitely chosen words of his displeasure have not forgotten in a hurry. But his staff rarely leave him.”
In 1956, Birley quit J. Walter Thompson and went on to start his own agency and launch London’s first Hermes store. Then, in 1963, Aspinall opened the Clermont Club, at 44 Berkeley Square. He offered Birley the basement for a nightclub. “The premise was that it would be good for business, since you weren’t allowed to have music or pretty girls otherwise in the casinos,” explains Wynne-Morgan. Birley rented the space for a paltry sum and at a cost of $336,000 ([GBP ]120,000) converted it painstakingly into a club that looked like an English country drawing room. The walls of the main area were covered with paintings-portraits, mostly-while the private dining room’s walls were adorned with row after row of wine bottles.
There were 700 “Founder Members” of Annabel’s, each of whom paid five guineas ($14). (Of these, 159 are still on the rolls, and still pay only five guineas.) They included (according to Lady Annabel) “Nolly Zervudachy, Philip Jebb, Michael Brand, Douglas Wilson, Anthony Berry, George Galitzine, also known as Prince Galitzine, David Metcalfe, Peter Blond, Daniel Prean, Peter Munster, Jeremy Tree, Tony Lambton, David Somerset, Azamat Guirey, also known as Prince Guirey, Mickey Suffolk (the Earl of Suffolk), John Beckwith Smith, Henry J. Heinz III, Houston Shaw-Stewart, William de Gelsey, James Hanson (Lord Hanson), David d’Ambrumenil, Lord Hambleden, and Norman Parkinson.” A portrait of this group, painted by Birley’s great friend John Ward, still hangs in the club.
To most London dwellers it seems as though Annabel’s has always been the place where smart young people meet after dinner to dance and drink, settling down until the small hours in the cushion-festooned Buddha room, considered by one member as “pole position”-or best spot. Birley says such popularity was not always the case. “It didn’t quite turn out as we expected,” he says. He is referring to the fact that it took five years’ hard work to attract enough people to make Annabel’s the whirling attraction it became in the 60s and 70s, when, as Wynne-Morgan recalls, “there wasn’t a weeknight when you didn’t finish an evening at Annabel’s.” The Beatles visited then, while upstairs, in the Clermont Club, Lord Derby (the father of the current Earl) lost a fortune, as did one Henry Viner, then in his 20s, who had just been handed his father’s Yorkshire estate to avoid family death duties and is said to have squandered it in one night of gambling.
Even then Birley’s reputation as an arbiter of taste was quickly growing. Wynne-Morgan recalls how Birley refused to have the brass pillars in Annabel’s lacquered, even though it would have saved thousands of dollars. “Mark insisted no-that unless they were (unlacquered) brass the reflection of the light would be too harsh, so at some expense we had a man known as Mr. Brass polish the pillars every day for years.”
Meanwhile, the staff, many of whom, Birley says, came with him from leading establishments in London that he had frequented over the years, and all of whom refer to him as “Mr. Birley,” discovered that working for him meant that they earned the full 15 percent service charge, not the much lower percentage most restaurants normally pass on. The result was a staff formed in its founder’s image. When a reporter visited Annabel’s recently and asked for the bill, the waiter replied, “Only if your host, ‘Mr. X,’ permits you to pay.” (He did.)
Spurred by Annabel’s success (the nightclub now almost breaks even just on subscriptions from its 9,000 members, according to Wynne-Morgan), Birley, in 1975, came up with the idea of Mark’s Club, a kind of home away from home. Just steps from Annabel’s, Mark’s Club, Birley says, probably reveals more of his personality than do any of his other places. And, indeed, it bears a striking resemblance to his South Kensington home, especially in the dark colors and the abundance of animal paintings. Mark’s Club is, unsurprisingly, beloved by the English country set, of whom Birley is very fond-even if, according to Wynne-Morgan, “he doesn’t like going to the country much. He loves being a host, but he can be an uncomfortable guest.
“Besides,” points out Wynne-Morgan, opening up the gates outside Birley’s house, “who needs the country when you have a garden like this in London?” Birley’s private sanctuary is mesmerizing both for its mix of colors and for its almost shocking tranquillity, given that it is in the heart of the British capital. The drawing room of the adjoining town house is littered with personal effects, and the books on the coffee table range from one on Picasso to The Art of Cricket. In a corner is a grand piano, on top of which are scattered family photographs. One is of a dark-haired, Byronic-looking youth: the late Rupert Birley. It is a reminder of one of the few tragedies to have befallen Mark Birley.
The brilliant, popular elder sibling to Robin and India Jane, Rupert disappeared in 1986 while swimming off the coast of Togo, West Africa. Various theories have been bandied about as to what happened to him. One has it that he was a spy (he spoke Russian) and was spirited away on a Russian ship that was glimpsed off the coast that morning. Another claims that, following an accident which crushed his leg, he was depressed and committed suicide. “All the Birleys suffer from depression at one moment or another,” says a close family friend. But in her memoir, his mother writes, “On the day he disappeared the red flag was up, forbidding swimmers to enter the sea. Rupert was attracted by danger… That morning he had followed his daily routine of leaving his clothes together with his watch in a pile on the beach.” Robin reportedly keeps a photograph of his late brother in the breast pocket of his jacket, and Lady Annabel says that in some ways she has never gotten over the loss.
On the whole, however, Mark Birley’s has been an enviable life. Wynne-Morgan says he once told Birley, “‘You had better get married again or you will die a lonely old man.’ (But) he made it clear he liked his life the way it was.” There have been many girlfriends, apparently, over the years-one, according to Wynne-Morgan, a very rich, beautiful woman. “I said to him, ‘Mark, why don’t you marry her?’ He grimaced. ‘Ugh! All that dark hair all over the pillow every morning.'”
Not surprisingly, Birley turned out to be a terrible business partner. “Mark doesn’t really do things anyone else’s way,” says Wynne-Morgan, not without sympathy for James Sherwood, who he imagines found that trying to deal with Birley over the years was difficult. But since Harry’s Bar is now estimated to be worth as much as $18 million, Sherwood, perhaps wisely, kept his counsel.
One story making the rounds in London, however, has Sherwood reportedly saying at a private dinner party, “I own Harry’s Bar, too. Why does everyone always go on about Mark Birley?” Sherwood denies the incident and responds, “I do not own any part of Harry’s Bar. Orient-Express Hotels believes that Mark Birley should take credit for the success of the club.” Robin feels that Sherwood is so immovable on the matter of his shareholding because “this is personal for him. They’ve never got on. Pup (the children’s nickname for their father) has a loftiness about him that probably got under his skin.”
Sherwood and Mark Birley met in London in the late 70s, when Sherwood was purchasing the Orient-Express’s carriages with a view to refurbishing them. Sherwood, the son of a patent attorney, grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, Berkeley, California, and Bronxville, New York, and graduated from Yale University in 1955. After a four-year stint in the navy he spent five years working for United States Lines, where he learned about sea containers. In 1965, with the help of a Yale classmate, a Hong Kong tea merchant, and an investment of $100,000, he started a business that now has a market capitalization of $570 million. Diversification into hotels-not an obvious fit-happened because Sherwood was “concerned we had too many eggs in one basket.”
In 2000, when Sea Containers Ltd. went public, the London Times reported that “there are shades of a private fiefdom in the way Orient-Express has assembled its portfolio. Which UK-listed (sic) company could get away with operating a luxury riverboat in Burma (a dictatorship)? They’d have the protesters hammering down the door.” When asked about this, Sherwood, in a statement issued to Vanity Fair, says, “Orient-Express Hotels owns a river cruise ship in Myanmar. This is one of 49 leisure investments of Orient-Express Hotels Ltd. and Mr James Sherwood has no personal involvement in the venture.”
The fact that Sherwood owns only 500,000 shares of Orient-Express’s 39.3 million shares has led people to ask why his stepson Simon Sherwood, 45, is the company’s president. (In addition, Sea Containers owns 25 percent of Orient-Express.) Sherwood responds, “Simon Sherwood is a graduate of Cambridge, Harvard Business School, and worked for the Boston Consulting Group for a number of years before being recruited to run Orient-Express Hotels. Share ownership is not a criterion for executive appointment.”
Simon is the son of Shirley Cross, a respected biochemist, who was a widow when Sherwood married her in 1978, when they were both in their 40s. The couple spends a vast amount of time traveling, but owns two homes in England-one in London and one in Oxfordshire. Some of James Sherwood’s peers on Wall Street consider him one of the toughest businessmen in their midst. “He doesn’t like to let you know what he’s doing unless he has to, and he’s very fiscally oriented,” says someone who has dealt with Sherwood. This person recalls how Sherwood recently survived a near-death experience when a wave washed him off a beach: “That he survived is typical Sherwood. The current was strong enough to have killed most people.”
Sherwood has faced off against the Europeans many times before. In his 1996 memoir, Harry’s Bar, Arrigo Cipriani, who sold Sherwood the Hotel Cipriani in 1967, criticized Sherwood’s commercially successful renovations of it. “The dining room was judged too banal, so a new one was designed in imitation of the Basilica of San Marco. The bar took on a Caribbean air. And the poolside apartments were decorated after the fashion of the cabins on Saudi businessman Adnan Khashoggi’s yacht-with television sets that rose magically at the foot of the bed, and mirrors, mirrors everywhere. There were mirrors in which New Jersey druggists could proudly display their tanned faces and bodies and admire the reflection of their heavy gold necklaces and medals.”
However, Victoria Mather, Vanity Fair’s travel editor, says, “Sherwood has kept old-style glamour in his hotels. There is absolutely nothing more glamorous than staying in the Cogaressa Suite at the Cipriani in the palazzo, which is rented from the Duchess of Manchester. You walk in and it is as though the drawing room is floating over the water.” She adds, “Sherwood has great staff and fabulous hotel managers. I’d say there would still be that man coming toward you as you entered Harry’s Bar, a huge smile on his face greeting you” if Sherwood took over.
And many social New Yorkers find the current incarnation of ’21’ to be spiffy and congenial. “I love the family atmosphere of ’21,'” says Toni Goodale, a prominent New York fund-raising consultant. “I’m always made to feel like I’m a guest in someone’s home.”
The Birleys feel Sherwood’s pragmatic ethos is entirely antithetical to theirs. “My father would make sure to replace everything with the very best, and Jim Sherwood just wouldn’t,” says India Jane. “For example, when someone was sick all over the wallpaper at Annabel’s, Pup replaced it with the very best. At Harry’s Bar he has a huge number of waiters for each table. He gets the best table linen in from Switzerland-it costs a fortune. He buys the most expensive glasses. But that’s why people go to Harry’s Bar.” (“We have never asked Mark Birley to restrain his expenditure on Harry’s Bar,” points out Sherwood.)
“I think Harry’s Bar is the most beautiful room of all the clubs,” says India Jane-and, upon entering, you are inclined to believe she’s right. The red-and-cream patterned Fortuny wallpaper hung from top to bottom with New Yorker covers from the 1930s by Peter Arno is startlingly unlike any of the minimalist club spaces so often found in New York; at Harry’s, you feel as though you were in a time warp-but one of unrivaled opulence. At the back of the L-shaped room is an area known as “Siberia,” where people go for private dinners, though it is possible to hire the entire place out for cocktails, as James Archer, the son of the writer and disgraced politician Jeffrey Archer, did recently to celebrate his engagement to Tara Bernard, the daughter of a British real-estate magnate. “At that party every single detail was right,” says Ben Elliot.
Elliot, 30, worked in the kitchens here as a teenager and knows a little about how much work goes into creating such perfection under head chef Alberico Penati. “You learn, for example, when making a Bloody Mary, exactly how to squeeze the lemon over a muslin cloth, and then let it freeze to the perfect temperature,” says Elliot.
Robin Birley says that he does not go around glad-handing guests, as his father used to, although he will say hello at the bar. “I don’t think people like to be interrupted when they are eating,” he says. The younger Birley is quite different from his father. “He is better with figures than his father,” says an old friend.
India Jane told the Evening Standard that Robin is not social by nature. That almost certainly has to do with the terrible accident that befell him when he was 12, when his mother took him, Rupert, and India Jane to Howletts, John Aspinall’s zoo, in Kent, where he was mauled by a tiger to the point that his mother thought he was dead. “I could see that his jaw was being held on by a thread and there was just a hole where one side of his face had been,” Lady Annabel wrote. “It was a pregnant tiger,” Robin says. “It had its paws on my shoulders. Aspers prized its jaws open with his hands to get my head out. Min (his wife) grabbed its tail to keep the hind legs from clawing my stomach out.” It took nine hours of surgery to save him. The incident caused huge friction between Mark and Lady Annabel-she had not told him she was taking the children to the zoo, because he had had a temporary falling-out with Aspinall. (Today, the former husband and wife are great friends and see each other regularly.)
Robin has had many reconstructive surgeries on his face over the years. The disfigurement, now very minor, was significant enough to provoke much teasing from his peers while he was a schoolboy at Eton, where he was known as “Tiger Birley,” and some of his friends believe it caused him to recede into a protective shell. “Robin is very shy and guarded,” a friend says about him, although during an interview Robin was confident, even intense. He once ran for a seat in Parliament as the candidate of the anti-European Union Referendum Party, founded by his late stepfather, Sir James Goldsmith. “He is very right-wing,” says one of his close friends. He is also an obsessive dog-lover, who has been known to hire a masseuse for his whippets, Chester and Arnie. He has never married, but is currently dating Lucy Helmore, the ex-wife of rocker Bryan Ferry.
The younger Birley made a name for himself in Britain with the introduction of his upmarket sandwich chain in London’s financial district. When asked if he considers his son’s product to be the first “English upper-class sandwich,” Mark Birley smiles a little. “No,” he answers. “I’d say it was England’s first edible sandwich.”
James Sherwood can’t understand all the fuss over Harry’s Bar, apparently. Someone who spent the last weekend of July with him told Vanity Fair that he was entirely affable, if diffident, on the subject. “I see no reason to change things,” he told this person. It was exactly what he’d told George Goulandris and the other Harry’s Bar members who had written to him to complain. “The point is that by not changing things, he is,” says Robin.
The English businessman Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, a friend of both the Birleys’ and the Sherwoods’, tried to talk to Sherwood about Harry’s Bar, according to a source, but said he got nowhere, because Sherwood cut him off. (Sherwood acknowledges the discussion, but disputes he curtailed it.) Simon Sherwood told a mutual friend that the family could not fathom the Birleys’ emotional reaction.
“Legally, he (Sherwood) is completely in the right,” says David Tang, the Hong Kong real-estate magnate, who spends much time in London (and who designed that city’s new Cipriani restaurant). “I don’t think you can appeal to him on business grounds. I think you have to appeal to him in the spirit of largesse.”
Many of the club members seemed confused by the dispute. One read Mark Birley’s letter to members apologizing for the hullabaloo and scratched his head. “It looks like it was written in the bath,” he says. “I don’t really understand it.”
Americans, perhaps predictably, tend to take Sherwood’s side. An American billionaire shrugged: “Contracts are contracts; only the English upper classes seem to have difficulty understanding that.”
But the British, for the most part, stand firm with the Birleys: “What will Harry’s Bar be without the Birleys?” is the rhetorical question asked universally in London. One prominent friend of both Sherwood’s and Birley’s says that Sherwood’s argument about needing to placate his shareholders is absurd.
As of this writing, according to a confidant, Sherwood will not move from the terms of the agreement. If he doesn’t, then Robin, according to friends, will start a new club, taking the Birley-loyalist members with him. “He desperately does not want to do this, but he will,” says a friend. (As a director of Harry’s Bar, Robin would not comment.)
Both Birley children-and family friends-say the pressure of the dispute weighs heavily on their father. “I’d go so far as to say it’s killing him,” says a friend of Robin’s.
Many people say, with great sadness, that Mark Birley is despondent about the situation, but on the day a reporter visited him in the hospital, he was downplaying his ill health, British-style. Lucid, and with his trademark humor razor-sharp, he has many visitors each day to keep him laughing. There is no danger he will die, as Wynne-Morgan had feared, a lonely old man.
When asked how often James Sherwood eats at Harry’s Bar, Birley replied, “He doesn’t, really. He’s always on a diet, you see. The sandwich-at-the-desk type.”
At that moment, his risotto, hot from the stove at Harry’s Bar, was delivered.