The Disreputables Of Mayfair
Londoners tend to think of the city’s oddest corner, Mayfair, as the home of embassies and billionaires, and leave it well alone. The only time I ever seem to cross it is when I’m a/ heading to the dentist, b/ taking a wander down Bond Street or c/ cutting through on my way to the Lebanese and Iranian restaurants of the Edgware Road. There’s Park Lane, of course, but who in their right mind ever walks beside this racetrack lined with its weird stores (spying equipment, absurd cars) and unattractively dated hotels?
We’re right to find something slightly sinister about those perfect facades and dingy alleys. Mayfair was named after the fifteen-day May Fair that took place on the site in the 17th and 18th centuries, and was banned in 1764 because of revellers’ relentless boisterousness and disorder. Most of the 18th century mansions here were destroyed, although the Saudi Arabian Embassy still inhabits one.
At the very heart of Mayfair is a square developed in 1735-46 by Edward Shepherd, Shepherd Market (there’s no ‘s’ as I’d always thought).
The narrow backstreets off the square always had a scandalous reputation. I still remember these dark roads when they were full of prostitutes. Here both Keith Moon and Mama Cass died, Jeffrey Archer met his whore and lied about it, and Bertie Wooster lived with his faithful butler. There were shifty-little basement bars tucked away, and one of the most infamous, the Embassy Club, is still there.
Here too was the home of ‘Skittles’, London’s last real courtesan (I don’t count the women who now ply a very similar trade in the Soho House). Mrs Catherine Walters really didn’t give a toss about what society thought of her. She lived at 15 South Street from 1872 to 1920, and was the mistress of the Duke of Devonshire and the Marquis of Hartington, among many others. She drove better carriages and wore finer clothes than any of her clients’ wives, and she swore like a navvie. Any good book on London will reveal dozens of juicy tales about her.
In her dotage she was pushed through Hyde Park in her wheelchair by Lord Kitchener, and although disreputable, was awarded that highest of honours, a blue plaque that can still be seen outside her house.
Mayfair’s reputation for scandal is still alive and well. Here too was the already infamous spot where Charles Saatchi was seen trying to ‘strangle’ his wife Nigella Lawson, sending both their careers into freefall.