We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Birley, Marcus Oswald Hornby Lecky [Mark] (1930–2007), club owner, was born at midnight on 29–30 May 1930 (his birth was recorded as 30 May), at the Corner House, 62 Wellington Road, St John's Wood, London, the only son of , portrait painter, and his wife, Rhoda Vava Mary (1900–1981), daughter of Robert Lecky Pike, high sheriff of co. Carlow. His only sister was Maxime de la Falaise [see below]. He was educated at Eton College, and had a year of philosophy, politics and economics at University College, Oxford, before failing his prelims. On 10 March 1954 he married Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart (b. 1934), younger daughter of Edward Charles Stewart Robert Vane-Tempest-Stewart, eighth marquess of Londonderry. They had two sons, Rupert (1955–1986, presumed drowned off the coast of west Africa) and Robin (b. 1958), and a daughter, India Jane (b. 1961). In 1964 his wife became maîtresse-en-titre of his boon companion Jimmy Goldsmith: the Birleys subsequently separated, and were divorced in 1975 after she had had two of Goldsmith's children. Although Birley was a considerable philanderer, who ranked sex before cigars, wine, and dogs as life's four chief pleasures, he was profoundly depressed when his wife left him.

During the 1950s Birley worked for J. Walter Thompson's advertising agency. Beginning as David Hicks's successor as the art department's paste-up boy, he was later art director of the Horlicks advertising campaign and redesigned Tatler. In 1959 he opened the first London shop of the luxury-goods firm Hermès in Jermyn Street. There he honed his skill in convincing customers that spending large sums on trifles showed discernment.

In 1962 Birley's friend John Aspinall opened the Clermont gambling club at 44 Berkeley Square, and leased its basement to him. He started with a piano bar of two rooms, dug out the garden, extended his premises to Hay's Mews, and opened a nightclub with dining tables and dance floor in 1963. It was named Annabel's after his wife. As the son of artists he had a good eye for pictures, and indeed for visual impact: his eclectic collection of paintings and sketches (many of them canine), together with rich textiles, created an air of Edwardian luxury. He was often said to have devised a country-house effect, but his arrangements were too flawless and contrived for country-house living. The balance between Birley's stylish, old-money clients and the parvenus, who were indispensable to the profitability of his club, was always precarious. There was an influx of property developers and ill-starred secondary bankers in the 1970s. During the 1980s Arab businessmen with their escorts were conspicuous at its dining tables. The crisis in the Lloyds insurance market had a greater impact on Annabel's than any other event: the old-money membership greatly receded in the early 1990s. After 2000 Annabel's membership lists were revived and enhanced by his daughter, India Jane, who refitted the club and made Annabel's a sexy brand for the rich young crowd working in the hedge funds and private equity companies with headquarters near Berkeley Square.

Birley opened a second club, Mark's, at 46 Charles Street in 1969. This was a luncheon and dining club, serving English fare, intended to vie with Wilton's restaurant in Jermyn Street. Men could talk business there, which was prohibited in St James's Street clubs, in a luscious atmosphere of country-house living in the Sassoon or Rothschild manner. It was a thundering success with its members. In 1975 Birley leased a former wine merchant's premises at 26 South Audley Street, where he created a restaurant, Harry's Bar. Named after Giuseppe Cipriani's famous bar in Venice, the restaurant had a Milanese menu (Alberico Penati was renowned among London chefs) and Venetian décor, in which Fortuny fabrics were juxtaposed with works by the New York cartoonist Peter Arno. Unlike Mark's Club it was intended to attract women habituées. For thin ladies who lunched, as well as American visitors and devotees of Italian cuisine, the food and ambience were sublime. Prices were exorbitant: at one time Harry's Bar was the highest grossing restaurant per square foot in the world. Birley considered it to be his apogee.

In 2001 Birley opened another dining club, George, at 87–8 Mount Street. The Bath and Racquets Club, a private men's gymnasium at 49 Brook's Mews, was another Birley operation, with his hallmarks of elegance, luxury, and exclusion. Its steam-rooms, showers, and urinals were made of green onyx. He also opened an interiors emporium in Pimlico Road in 1973 and a cigar-shop and vintners in Fulham Road in 1978.

Birley's mother had been cruelly unloving: he detested her memory. As a result he found his satisfactions in objects rather than people, in material perfectionism rather than demonstrative affection. He lacked empathy with women, preferred dogs to humans, was mistrustful and emotionally constipated, sometimes melancholic. Standing 6 feet 5 inches tall, he had daunting manners, chill formal elegance, and despotic habits. His temperament was imperious, peremptory, irritable, and impatient. Selfish about his personal convenience, and self-indulgent about his comforts, he was nevertheless Berkeley Square's Beau Brummell, who set the fashions of his set. People savoured his dry, dismissive wit: when asked at a dinner what the French excelled at, he paused for effect before replying, ‘they are very good at raking gravel’. Although he was loyal to select friends there was a lifelong rupture with Aspinall. He could be charming when in a good mood, but was intolerant of failure or imperfection. His businesses were ruled with a close scrutiny and relentless insistence on quality. He travelled widely to copy good ideas or filch staff. Employees were carefully selected, and treated with paternalistic generosity: Annabel's head doorman earned enough to put his son through Harrow and Cambridge.

Birley smoked ten cigars a day even after a threatening heart by-pass operation. In his final years he suffered long spells of hospitalization, had a publicized estrangement from his surviving son, Robin, and in June 2007 sold all his club interests for a reported £90 million to Richard Caring, who had made his first fortune in the garments trade and already owned The Ivy and Le Caprice restaurants. Birley died at Charing Cross Hospital, Fulham, London, on 24 August 2007, of a spontaneous intracranial haemorrhage. His funeral at St Paul's, Knightsbridge, on 19 September 2007 was attended by, among others, Prince and Princess Michael of Kent.

Birley's sister, Maxime de la Falaise (1922–2009), model, designer, fashion writer, food columnist, and gallante, was born Maxine Birley at the Corner House on 22 June 1922. She had a French governess, and every summer was spent in the south of France. During the Second World War she served in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force and worked briefly at Bletchley Park, but was invalided out after an episode of kleptomania and sent by her parents to America. There she worked for Vogue and met Alain Richard Le Bailly de la Falaise, Comte de la Falaise et de Courdroye (1903–1977), an aspiring publisher, whose brother Henri had been married to the American actress Gloria Swanson. Birley and de la Falaise married in London on 18 July 1946. They had a daughter, Louise (Loulou) (1947–2011), later a fashion designer and muse to Yves Saint-Laurent, and a son, Alexis (1948–2004), later a furniture designer. During this marriage, which ended in an acrimonious divorce in 1950, she had several lovers, including Duff Cooper, the British ambassador in Paris, and an Italian playboy. In the 1950s, moving between London, Paris, and Provence, and by now calling herself Maxime (rather than Maxine), she worked for Elsa Schiaparelli, and modelled for photographers including Cecil Beaton, who described her as ‘the only true hardcore chic Englishwoman of her generation’ (The Times, 9 May 2009). She also began designing clothes for Hubert de Givenchy and on her own account; she supplied designer clothes to Marshall and Snelgrove department store among other outlets. Her reputed lovers in this period included the painter Max Ernst and the film director Louis Malle. During the early 1960s she lived with the American artist Bernard Pfriem, first in Provence and then in Greenwich Village, New York. On 6 July 1967 she married John Joseph McKendry (1933–1975), the Calgary-born curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York. McKendry was numbered among the lovers of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work he and Maxime de la Falaise promoted. McKendry, who was gifted but self-destructive (responsible in 1968 for a landmark exhibition in art deco revival), was the subject of one of Mapplethorpe's most striking photographs, taken in a New York hospital a day before McKendry's death from alcoholic liver disease. While in New York de la Falaise continued her strenuous social and amorous life, wrote a food column for Vogue magazine and a book, Seven Centuries of English Cooking (1973), and appeared in several Andy Warhol films. Warhol invited her to devise the menu for his ‘Andymat’ (his version of the then ubiquitous American automat), which included shepherd's pie, fishcakes, lamb stew, and cheesecake. Following her second husband's death she was briefly linked with the multi-millionaire John Paul Getty III. In the 1980s she moved to St Rémy-de-Provence, where she lived with Sarah St George, daughter of Edward St George, the Bahamas developer and racehorse owner, and granddaughter of William Hill, the bookmaker. She died at St-Rémy-de-Provence on 30 April 2009.

Richard Davenport-Hines


The Times (27 Aug 2007) · Daily Telegraph (27 Aug 2007) · The Guardian (29 Aug 2007) · The Independent (3 Sept 2007) · M. Orth, ‘Hurley Birley’, VF (Feb 2008) · Burke, Peerage · personal knowledge (2011) · private information (2011) · b. cert. · d. cert. · New York Times (2 May 2009); (22 Aug 2010) · Daily Telegraph (4 May 2009) · The Times (9 May 2009) · The Guardian (1 May 2009) · b. cert. [Maxine Birley] · m. certs. [Maxine Birley/ Maxime de la Falaise]


photographs, 1954–2001, Photoshot, London · photographs, 1954–2006, Getty Images, London · photographs, 1961–2004, Rex Features, London · T. Jenkins, photographs, 2003, Camera Press, London · J. Becker, photograph, repro. in www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2008/02/birley200802 · obituary photographs · photographs, repro. in A. Goldsmith, No invitation required: the Pelham Cottage years (2009) · obituary photographs (Maxime de la Falaise)

Wealth at death  

£104,805,718: probate, 30 June 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales