Because actress Lana Clarkson and her sadistic killer Phil Spector met in an LA hostess club, the producer’s conviction for murder earlier this week turned my attention once more to 1960s London variants on the ‘lonely men pay pretty girls for conversation’ clip joint racket. Murray’s Cabaret Club where Profumo Affair sex scandal girls Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies worked is the most famous London hostess joint. Being glitzy, Murray’s presented itself as a cabaret but the real draw was the more fatal combination of drink and hostesses. But Murray’s wasn’t the only such club in London in the sixties, other examples include Churchill’s and Winston’s. The staff often circulated between these places; for example, my mother Julia Callan-Thompson worked at Murray’s in the early sixties and then moved on to Churchill’s for a few years.
Gangsters like Frankie Fraser and the Kray Twins were inevitably familiar with many London clubs and their owners, and among those mentioned in Fraser’s various books are Billy Hill’s former wife Aggie Hill who ran The Modernaires in Old Compton Street and The Cabinet Club in Gerrard Street, Tommy McCarthy’s Log Cabin in Wardour Street, Al Burnett’s Stork Club and The Astor; Bertie Green acquired the latter establishment after Burnett let it go. The clubs operated by Aggie Hill were aimed at the criminal fraternity, whereas others were successful precisely because of the frisson created when high society mixed with the more successful members of the so called ‘dangerous classes’.
Those hostess and related clubs that weren’t fronts for organized crime generally paid protection money to gangsters. Frankie Fraser writes about Billy Howard receiving a ‘pension’ from Bruce Brace for ‘protecting’ Winston’s. Howard’s son Michael Connor in his book The Soho Don suggests his father and Brace were actually partners in the club. Connor says criminal convictions prevented Howard from openly owning premises licensed to serve liquor, and therefore his name didn’t appear on legal papers. Howard’s interest in Winston’s is affirmed by Jimmy Evans in his autobiography. In the late-sixties Joseph Wilkins took over the establishment with help from Evans. Brace insisted later he was terrorised into giving the club away; a claim that might be substantiated from the fact that no money changed hands during the course of this transaction. According to Evans, Howard would have come out on top in a fair fight, but he put the frighteners on the old-timer by threatening him with a gun. Howard’s son Connor tells a more complex story about his father’s pragmatic decision to walk away from Winston’s, but the end results still chime with what Evans has to say. With Howard neutralized, Brace had no choice but to sign the club over to Wilkins.
After he took over Winston’s, Wilkins was also running various escort agencies in partnership with Wally Birch. These included La Femme, Glamour International, Playboy Escort and Eve International. Regular catalogues of girls available for hire were produced and rather unsurprisingly in 1976 Wilkins was jailed for living off the immoral earnings of the prostitutes he controlled. Prior to this Wilkins had been jailed for the way he obtained club licenses, and later on in the eighties he did time for drug smuggling. Writing well after the event in 1992, James Morton was able to give Joe Wilkins and Wally Birch’s misdemeanors detailed coverage in his book Gangland: London’s Underworld.
Club links to organized crime meant that the hostesses who made their living from these joints didn’t always have the most pleasant of working conditions. To give an example, a minder called Big Alf Melvin who worked at The Bus Stop was treated very badly by his boss Tony Mella. One night Mella pushed this minion too far and was shot by him. Mella managed to stagger into the street where he died with his head in the lap of one of his hostesses. Meanwhile, Melvin turned the gun on himself and blew his own brains out. Melvin and Mella are covered by Morton in Gangland.
Club hostess Lisa Prescott had a very bad time in December 1966 after being picked up by gangsters at either Churchill’s or Winston’s – depending on who’s account you believe. One commentator, John Pearson, even has it both ways, saying Winston’s in his book The Profession of Violence and correcting it to Churchill’s in the follow-up The Cult of Violence. Regardless, Prescott was taken to a flat in Barking where Frank Mitchell was hiding out after being sprung from Dartmoor by associates of the Kray twins. Mitchell and Prescott engaged in a series of sexual acts over a number of days. Then on Christmas Eve, Mitchell was taken to a van outside the flat and shot because the Krays found him hard to control and figured that the easiest way to save face was to kill him. Prescott who’d been paid about £100 to have sex with Mitchell was taken to a party and told to forget she’d ever met him. A terrified Prescott saw in the New Year working as a hostess; she also found herself having occasional unpaid sex with Albert Donoghue, who she believed had murdered Mitchell and suspected was planning to kill her. Many commentators view Donoghue as a red-herring, and believe the murder was actually committed by Freddie Foreman.
The confusion of Winston’s and Churchill’s probably becomes more understandable if you know that Churchill’s was originally set up by Bruce Brace and Harry Meadows, with the active involvement of Billy Howard. Meadows eventually gained sole control of the venture, with Brace and Howard setting up across the street as Winston’s. They’d lost a lot of money when Meadows eased them out of the first club, so they gave their next venture a similar name to wind him up.
Moving on, like Lana Clarkson, many women who worked in London hostess clubs in the sixties swung between showbiz proper and hostessing. Again, my mother Julia Callan-Thompson is a good example. She did a bit of modelling and film-extra work alongside hostessing at Murray’s and Churchill’s. She wasn’t as successful as Clarkson in films, but that was partly because her main interest was inner exploration. At the end of the day, beatnik concerns were closer to my mother’s heart than showbiz. Obviously, unless they are looking for a rich husband, the women who work as hostesses aren’t really interested in the men who pay them for conversation. In the case of my own mother, she much preferred the real hip scene to the sham of bourgeois marriage.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!