• Sat. Oct 23rd, 2021

As founder of Tramp Johnny Gold dies, RICHARD KAY invites you in

Oct 7, 2021

Where the scandal was pure gold: Never have so many stars been so naughty in one tiny club. Now, as legendary founder of Tramp Johnny Gold dies, RICHARD KAY invites you in

Perched at his regular table with a tumbler of Scotch in reach, Johnny Gold surveyed the comings and goings at Tramp, his famous basement nightclub, with a paternalistic pride.

When members who trotted down the dimly lit stairs into his subterranean pleasure palace caught the patron’s eye, there invariably would be an orgy of kissing and backslapping before old friends and new ones took to the tiny dance floor.

For more than half a century the club, so discreet you could walk past at street level without noticing it, has been a second home for royals, Hollywood actors and sports stars, the very beautiful and the very rich — all lured by the simple promise that the charismatic Johnny made on the opening night: ‘It’s going to be fun.’

Gold, who has died aged 89, didn’t set out to be a name-dropper but for decades Tramp was perhaps the world’s premier jet-set club and the names insisted on dropping in.

Perched at his regular table, Johnny Gold (pictured with Joan and Jackie Collins) surveyed the comings and goings at Tramp, his famous basement nightclub, with a paternalistic pride

It was where Joan Collins, who had a wedding reception amid the wood panelling and chandeliers, filmed the disco scene in her notorious 1978 film The Stud.

Rod Stewart partied till dawn and Mickey Rourke attempted to drink George Best under the table. 

Roger Moore danced with Cary Grant’s wife Dyan Cannon then helped to mop up after a flood, cajoling his friend and screen partner in The Persuaders, Tony Curtis, to get down on his knees and join him. Mick Jagger was a founding member and frequent guest.

On one occasion staff held their breath when — with his estranged wife Bianca in the ladies’ powder room — Mick appeared with Jerry Hall, the American model who had replaced Bianca in his affections, on his arm. 

Maitre d’ Guido expertly steered the Rolling Stone and his new love — none the wiser — into a darkened corner.

Such was Tramp’s pulling power that on one celebrated night three James Bonds — Roger Moore, Sean Connery and George Lazenby — were all in the club having dinner at the same time.

Gold’s strict policy of no paparazzi and no autograph-hunters meant that it was a welcome oasis, not just for movie stars and celebrities, but also for royalty.

Princess Margaret felt reassured enough to let her hair down, often — if her photographer and then husband Lord Snowdon was working — with the actor Peter Sellers in tow.

For more than half a century Tramp nightclub (pictured), so discreet you could walk past at street level without noticing it, has been a second home for royals

‘I don’t think anything went on between them,’ recalled Gold in his memoir Tramp’s Gold. ‘From my observation, they were genuinely just good friends.

‘Peter always had a crush on Princess Margaret and, to an extent, it was reciprocated. He even offered to swap wives with Tony [Snowdon] but although the delectable Britt Ekland [Sellers’ second wife] was on offer, the noble photographer declined.’ 

(Sellers and his third wife, socialite Miranda Quarry, later the Countess of Stockton, held their wedding breakfast in the club.)

The Sellers anecdote is significant. Ahead of publication of Tramp’s Gold, many a member was said to have had sleepless nights, quietly panicking about just how diplomatic Johnny, the son of a milliner-turned-bookmaker would be.

They needn’t have worried, he was the model of discretion and many of the most outrageous secrets Gold was privy to he has taken to the grave.

It was at Tramp that Prince Andrew, then a young Naval officer, met Koo Stark and where, after his marriage, he and Fergie became regulars. But sometimes the club was in the news for more controversial reasons.

Tramp is the nightclub at the heart of the allegations of sexual impropriety that have been made against the Duke of York by former masseuse Virginia Roberts.

She claims she danced there with the ‘sweaty’ prince before having sex at the Belgravia home of Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of the disgraced newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell.

Andrew denies the claim, insisting that he was not at the club on the night in question but at home after visiting a Pizza Express restaurant in Woking, Surrey, with his daughter Beatrice.

His sister Princess Anne, on the other hand, has fonder memories of her visits to Tramp. She first went there as a mini-skirted 19-year-old not long out of Benenden School. 

Tearing herself away from the dance floor, she told Gold she had to leave early because of the annual Remembrance service the following day.

He said it must be a solemn occasion. She agreed — but added that she’s always had an urge to stand on the Whitehall balcony holding a sign saying ‘Hello folks’.

For all his ebullience, not even Gold thought Tramp would be the success it became when — with Oscar Lerman, husband of best-selling novelist Jackie Collins, and Polish-born Bill Ofner, who had been behind other London nightclubs including The Stork and The Pigalle — the venue opened at the end of the 1960s.

Gold invited 300 friends and showbusiness folk to become founder members of Tramp, the club he named after the Charlie Chaplin character, for the princely sum of 10 Guineas — £200 in today’s money.  

Nowadays, annual membership is £1,000 — and there’s a waiting list. ‘I thought we might get two or three years out of it,’ Gold once confessed.

The odds may have been against them but it became an overnight sensation. 

Gold didn’t set out to be a name-dropper but for decades Tramp was perhaps the world’s premier jet-set club and the names, including Brigitte Nielsen (pictured), kept dropping in

‘Demand for membership didn’t just soar, it spread like an uncurbed virus,’ Gold recalled. ‘I never realised I had so many friends.’

Jackie Collins noted: ‘Bill found it, Oscar designed it and Johnny ran it,’ before adding mischievously: ‘It reminds me, in the nicest possible way, of an old whore: always there, always ready for your demands and always prepared to give you a good time.’

Among those there on opening night — December 18, 1969 — were Sellers, Michael Caine, Natalie Wood and Richard Harris. Word of mouth turned it into a byword for glamour, sex, decadence and unashamed hedonism.

Once Shirley MacLaine fell asleep at a table and fellow actor Mel Brooks ran around the place barking like a dog.

Marlon Brando enjoyed the club so much that he insisted the exhausted waiting staff take breakfast with him in the early hours.

And in the footsteps of the celebrities came Gucci-clad playboys and oil-rich Arab princelings, all eager to join this irresistibly glamorous gathering.

Its heady mix of disco music, cheap but good food and fashionable people was a brilliant commercial success.

One night, Jack Nicholson French-kissed a tramp outside the club’s unassuming entrance on Jermyn Street, in the heart of St James’s, to the delight of the assembled paparazzi drawn by its celebrity membership but never permitted to pass beyond its velvet rope. 

It was also in Tramp that — ten years after the murder of John Lennon — the three then surviving members of The Beatles sang together for the first time in public. 

‘It was chilling to hear them sing All My Loving as fresh as if it had just been written,’ Gold later recalled.

No name was ever too big to break the rules and get away with it at Tramp. The wildman of rock, The Who drummer Keith Moon, was banned for a month after pulling a chandelier from the ceiling.

Two hours after the incident, his chauffeur arrived with £500 and Moon negotiated his ban down to 48 hours.

Showman Gold presided over all this mayhem like the conductor of an unruly orchestra, with a benign and gentle sense of humour.

Times were often trying. When Michael Douglas turned up with Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito, there wasn’t a seat to be had. Douglas pleaded: ‘Please find us a corner seat somewhere.’

Hollywood actors and sports stars and the very rich were all lured by the simple promise that the Johnny made on the opening night: ‘It’s going to be fun.’ Pictured: Tara Palmer Tomlinson

Gold responded by finding a stool for Turner and told DeVito and Douglas to sit on the staircase.

‘They would never have stood for that in Los Angeles,’ Gold related. ‘But they were in Tramp and they were happy.’

Under Gold, Tramp had a democratic spirit unlike Annabel’s, Tramp’s rival on nearby Berkeley Square, which had a strict dress code.

Indeed, it was said that while girls dressed up for Annabel’s, they undressed for Tramp. This may have explained why former It Girl Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was confident of entry when she turned up in nothing more than a bikini under an open fur coat for her 21st birthday party.

Gold’s path to fabled and celebrated nightclub impresario was not straightforward, however. 

After two years National Service in the Army as a young man, he worked in a garment factory and even as a film extra before joining his father in the family turf-accountant business.

But, by his early 20s, Gold was back in London and working in the fashion trade.

Just before his 23rd birthday, two friends invited him to a club called the Crazy Elephant. Among the guests sitting at the bar was Hollywood legend John Wayne, who proceeded to pick up a girl for him.

From that moment Gold was hooked on the nightlife vibe.

Married with two children, he embarked on a career which involved a working day that ended at 4.30 each morning.

Some years later Tramp was forced to defend itself when a newspaper columnist alleged it was a disreputable establishment patronised by models that never model, actresses that never act and ‘tarty little pieces’.

The club sued and won substantial damages.

Gold sold Tramp in 1998 but remained at the helm as greeter for another five years before retiring to the Bahamas where he worked on a holiday resort project.

There’s a new crowd at Tramp these days, unkindly dubbed more Euro-trash than Hollywood A-list — but thanks to Johnny Gold, its place in nightclub history is secure.

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