June 15, 2021

It is a bank holiday in London, the late summer of 2017. The streets around Kentish Town, north London, are unusually quiet, even for a holiday weekend. On this balmy evening, in a small converted flat, Bernie Katz, the diminutive and charismatic front of house manager of the Groucho Club, is found dead by his landlord. He had hanged himself.

According to his friend, film producer Damon Bryant, one of the first on the scene, the flat was pristine: “He put flowers in every vase. He was as sober as a judge. There were no drugs. He knew exactly what he was doing.”

His funeral about a month later was spectacular, even by Soho’s flamboyant standards. A horse-drawn cortege inched its way around the tight grid of streets. Thousands of mourners followed; among them Sienna Miller, Sadie Frost, Alfie Allen, Noel Fielding, Robert Elms and Jaime Winstone. All of them knew the little man who was lying there, silent, and alone.

Bernie Katz was the man they called the Prince of Soho. For 27 years, he had worked as front-of-house manager of the Groucho Club, the long-established and exclusive private members’ club in Soho where, in the 90s, Princess Diana went to lunch and Bill Clinton once played saxophone: a dizzily decadent playground for the rich, the famous and the not-so-famous.

The term “Prince of Soho” was marked out in flowers on the horse-drawn hearse; his title was coined by the actor and writer Stephen Fry, who was closer to Bernie than most.

Bernie’s funeral made the BBC News at 6pm; he would have been thrilled, everyone said. As TV and radio presenter Robert Elms put it: “He was the essence of this place. He was preposterous, he was gorgeous, he was five foot nothing and had a heart bigger than this square… Bernie knew everybody. If you were touched by Bernie — and it probably meant he touched your bottom — you stayed touched.” Noel Fielding described him as “always in a leopard-skin jacket, whirling around like a windmill. He was a character. I don’t think those people exist anymore.”

Yes, he was a character — but what kind of character? As a member of the Groucho, I knew him a bit, but not well. One person told me that Bernie was the sort of person who was your friend for 60 seconds — and would then disappear. The circumstances of his death — and the strange events that led to his demise, from the moment he left the Groucho in unexplained circumstances a few months before — are explored in my podcast series, Bernie: Who Killed the Prince of Soho?.

Bernie’s death was a shock to many. But it was also a motif — an acknowledgment of another death; that of old Soho itself.

Nowadays, Soho’s spirit has been sold to the highest bidder; the developers have got their way. Independent restaurants are few and far between — on Broadwick Street, there is now a branch of the Ivy, unthinkable 20 years ago. Berwick Street market, for years an impeccable source of all manner of questionable items has been gentrified. The fruit vendors have made way for stalls selling flat whites and falafels.

These streets were once Bernie’s manor: he had worked in the West End pretty much from the moment he left school. Born in 1967 to a Jewish family in south London, as a teenager he witnessed the murder of his father, a gangster called Brian “Little Legs” Clifford. Bernie would later write of his “gangster father” whose life ended with a bullet in the head: “So used was I to a life of drive-by shootings, I thought nothing of the sound of that gunshot, except that it intruded upon my viewing of the Price Is Right.”

That murder has never been solved. And neither was Bernie’s own demise. Indeed, the latter, as I discovered, was never properly investigated.

Bernie had joined the Groucho as barman in 1990, just before Cool Britannia when the club was at its drug-fuelled zenith: even though the management had — and still has — a strict zero-tolerance policy of drugs.

The Groucho is the kind of place that is guaranteed to divide opinion; there are those, like me, who are long-standing members, and won’t have a word said against it. Others are less enamoured, dismissing it as pretentious and elitist. (To which members reply: isn’t that the point of a club?)

Founded in 1985, the Groucho began as a club for the media and publishing worlds. By the 90s, it had become an infamous celebrity haunt. Inevitably, some members did drugs; the upstairs snooker room was occasionally known as the “Peruvian Procurement Department”. In 1996, the room was the scene of a furious showdown between actress Patsy Kensit and her then-boyfriend, Liam Gallagher. Glasses and snooker balls were thrown, and Gallagher ended up trashing not just the table but the room itself.

Other moments, too, became Groucho legend: Melvyn Bragg chatting to U2; Friends star Matt LeBlanc propping up the bar alone one Saturday night; Dancer Wayne Sleep once took Princess Diana there for lunch — and handed her the bill. On one memorable night in 1995, Damien Hirst put his £20,000 Turner Prize money behind the downstairs bar.

And throughout it all, Bernie was there. He would sashay from table to table, clad in leopard skin and Cuban heels, soothing the pampered members, dealing with their tantrums, dropping in a witty or caustic remark. The Bernie stories, like the man himself, were outrageous, lurid and always true. He proved his chutzpah by once ejecting Madonna for being rude.

Stephen Fry, a founder member of the Groucho, was closer to Bernie than most. “My first impressions were of a huge, vibrant and outgoing personality,” he told me. “All hugs, grins, extravagant language and wild attire.” But, he went on: “There probably was something sad about Bernie …  It may seem glamorous… but in fact there was a lot of work, very little money and too many temptations into addiction and late nights.”

I talked to dozens of Bernie’s friends, family members and Groucho regulars: all spoke warmly of him, though some were curiously reluctant to go into detail about the last weeks of his life. Others were deeply puzzled. Actress Alison Steadman told me: “Bernie was fun and kind. When he walked in, the room lit up. I have never been able to establish exactly what happened and why… but whatever it was, it was so wrong.”

So what did happen to Bernie? Bernie’s tragedy, his surviving family and friends told me, was that after he left the Groucho, with no regular job, he had begun to succumb to the addictions that had dogged him through his life.

The precise reasons for his departure were never properly explained, though many believe his self-indulgent figure ran counter to Soho’s sanitised new world. Whatever the truth, without that job he lost his own sense of worth. He soon found himself short of money, and ended up taking small loans from friends.

And then, his close friends told me, things quickly escalated. Put bluntly, he got on the wrong side of the wrong type of people — specifically, it was whispered, Albanian gangsters and their constant demands for repayment over drug debts. As one friend said: “He had a lot of debt, and that debt was related to buying cocaine, which there were rumours it was an Eastern European gang. That was being spoken about a lot… thirty grand to the Albanians, or whatever it was.”

The drug trade in Soho, for most of Bernie’s life, was dominated by Italians and Maltese gangsters. But sometime in the last decade, the Albanians squeezed them out. They were frighteningly ruthless, violent and brooked no dissent. Bernard Clifford Katz — camp, easy-going and sweet-natured — would not have stood a chance.

Certainly by the time of his death, the Albanians had cemented their control in London. Even now, four years after Bernie’s death, they are still at the forefront of the cocaine trade in this country which is worth billions.

Perhaps if the Albanians had stayed out of Soho, just at the time Bernie was working there, he might never have fallen out with gangsters. If he hadn’t been such a gregarious soul, he might have kept his job. And if he’d have kept his nose clean — in every sense of the phrase — he might still be welcoming guests into reception and charging across the room in his Cuban heels.

But that wasn’t to be. For Bernie, Soho was a timeless neighbourhood of decadence and debauchery. Until it wasn’t.

After his death, the Groucho renamed its downstairs restaurant “Bernie’s” in his honour. On one wall sits a beautiful portrait of him; he looks strangely relaxed and at peace — a memory to a golden era of Soho that has since decayed.

 

Bernie: Who Killed the Prince of Soho is available at now.