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  Oh Not The Ritz
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One Dark Night
Aspinall played
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OH NO, NOT THE RITZ

Lesson 4

Perhaps India gives a man that sort of attitude.  He was born in India; both sides of his family had been in India for about five generations.  As was the custom, he was sent back to England to a private school at the age of seven, and did not return to India until he was about sixteen.  The family was thrown out of India, as he puts it, with the rest of the British in’ 48, and moved to places like Worthing and Little Hampton. 

It was astonishing how quickly all these uncles settled down to life on the south coast, giving their little houses names like ‘Lucknow’, changing the maidan for half an acre of garden at the back.  All these men of substance who had served as colonel and commissioners.  His father had been a surgeon running his own clinic in Bangalore.  India was part of their life.  They were all brought up to expect that they would land up in India.  Aspinall goes back there quite often now.  He sees (as Churchill warned ) the loss of India as signaling the decline of Britain to a second or third-rate power.

            He has never had any existential doubts about his identity.  He learned as much about his ancestors as he could, not a particularly distinguished line, feeling a direct responsibility not to let them down, not to besmirch their name within poker thoughts he himself, as the pretty Victorian term has it, was a ‘Love child’ not an illegitimate child, he explains, but a child born in wedlock, not of the legal father.  He feels no inhibitions about it.  His mother was used to little smiles about it from her old friends.  Lady Osborne organized the food in the early chemmy games.  Lady O’s game pie was famous.

            A gamesome lady, indeed, she had once been smuggled out of the Eaton Place flat in a laundry basket to avoid being photographed by the press, who had somehow got wind of the gaming going on there.  If the photographers had snapped the laundry basket they would have had a scoop.  The rest of the party climbed down the fire escape at the back of the house and through someone else’s apartment, circumventing the Daily Express gossip column.  The press was a killer for chemmy parties.

            There was the famous story of Bill Shand-Kydd, which got exaggerated somewhat going the rounds.  What happened was that Billy was having a very big win and finally left after winning about £ 70,000, which in today’s terms would be closer to half a million.  Of course when he left it meant he took virtually all the money out of the game, because the poker players were punting against each other, not against the house as in regular casino games.  All the others, playing off their maximums, would probably be losers, and on top of that the cagnotte would have amounted to several thousand.

            But just as the game was petering out, Billy reappeared.  He had gone back home, had a few words, a tiff, with his wife, and decided to return to the chemmy game.  At that stage racehorse trainer Bernard van Cutsem was the big loser, £ 80,000 down.  He was a big plunger but this was the maximum he had ever lost, and it looked hopeless, certainly very unlikely he would get anything back from the other losers, at six or seven in the morning.  The game was just about to break up when Billy came back in, sat down in his chair … and Banco! He took Bernard’s bank, and suivied (followed on) for what turned out to be a 7 or 8 coup winning bank.  He lost his £ 70,000 plus another £ 60,000 on top of it.  An incredible turn of fortune for Bernard who had been buried.  Nothing came out about this, but then nine months later it got into Time magazine.

            Aspinall himself went bust in the stock market crash of 1973.  He had tried to retire from the gaming business when he sold the Clermont Club to Playboy in 1972 at the age of 45 or 46 not give up gambling as such  (even when he was living in the country he would come up to London two or three times a week to play), just the business side.  One of the most elegant town houses ever built, the Clermont was designed by Thomas Kent in 1742, in Palladian style, a treasure-box of a house, whose outstanding feature is a great curving double staircase that crosses over half way up like a figure of eight.  Even after he sold it, the Club remained home from home for the young bloods about town.  Unfortunately, Aspinall lost all the money he had made, speculating in shares.  He went broke very, very quickly.  He went zonking down in the crash, and then it took him some time to realize he had crashed that far.  His second marriage to fashion model Belinda ‘Min’ Musker ended during this period.  So to climb out, he got into the business again.
            Aspinall’s success, second time around, as throughout his career, stemmed from his having the social connections, the right touch, to attract the big-money players.  He knew them all.  They not only trusted him, they admired him:  for being a player, a gambler himself, for his patrician style.  The players were not all of them sprigs of the English upper class, of course.  There were Greeks, then Arabs, including royal names.  Americans, shipping men and oil men, race-horse owners, good-time Charles, all lapped around in this beguiling drawly aura of English upper class style.  ‘Five thou’ for Eddy, please,’ ‘Oh, better make it ten.’  ‘Ten thou’ for Eddy, just sign the old marker will you Eddy.’ ‘cinq mille a la banque!’

Aspinall’s style comes out most clearly in his attitude to parties.  He loves parties, and he has thrown  some memorable parties, just for the sake of giving good parties.  The occasions were almost unrelated to his pecuniary interest in the guests.  The parties in a mad sort of way were a form of art, he considers.  They might be the most elaborate, carefully arranged, imaginative parties but after they were over, they just disappeared.  All that’s left when the party’s over is a memory.  The ephemeral quality is part of the attraction.  He gave, for example, a Babylonian party in the house of a friend in Belgrave Square.  Oliver Messel did the designs for it, but as time went on they became more and more intricate.  Four of the invitations are now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York: they’re all that has survived.  That party was modeled on the greatest party history records, when Alexander’s successors divided the whole of the known world between them, over a dinner in Babylon.  Another was the feast of Quatermole, inspired by a banquet given by Quantrmole, nephew of Montezuma.  The setting, the decoration, was sumptuous, though the historical analogy was completely lost on most of the guests, friends and punters around 100 to 150 people would be invited to these banquets.  Aspinall admits to being a bit of a showman, but his main audience is himself.

            In the summer of 1986 he gave a party down at his zoo at Port Lympne which outdid in its magnificence even his own best efforts the occasion was in honor of the Torgamba Forest Sumatran rhinoceros (a rare species which Aspinall is actively seeking to protect).  Through twilit gardens, offering glimpses of wolves, Siberian tigers and snow leopards, the guests descended past cascading boxed hedges in ziggurat, to discover at the end of the long stairway, before the house, a teeming Sumatran market dwarves stirring the air with incense, exotic natives strewing the new arrivals with rose petals, rich refreshments thence to a tent, transformed, yet again, into a tropical rain forest, where dinner was served; followed by dancing through the night to a band from Palm Beach.  According to Taki, from whose account I culled these details (not myself being of this select company) all 432 people present were known personally to the Aspinalls.  (His third marriage to Lady Sarah Curzon, the widow of racing driver piers courage, was in 1973: by an extraordinary quirk of the fate the Curzon family house in London, where she was born, was now Aspinall’s club.)

            Aspinall would never ask people to his parties because they were celebrities (so unlike the ‘parties’ of the unfortunate Huge Hefner, one might say); on the other hand he doesn’t dislike the idea of fame.  It’s just that journalists in his experience always get it wrong.  Discretion is the soul of gaming, at this level.  Nearly every big gamblers in the world has some position in business or a political connection, and the last thing they want is to be in the papers.  So while the parties a celebration of the gambling milieu attracted the gossip columnists like wasps to a jam pot (they could sting, too), Aspinall has always tried to keep them at bay.

            It was the Lucan affair which brought everything out in the open.  John ‘Lucky’ Lucan, seventh Earl, descendant of the hapless Commander of the Cavalry in the Charge of the Light Brigade (Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do or die) was an inner member of the Clermont Club.  A peer, a gallant, a gambler, a man of unmistakable quality, golden standard-bearer of the Aspinall clique … a man still sought today on charges of murder.  His disappearance on that night in November, 1974, after the murder of his nanny at his Belgravia home has fascinated the media around the world.  Up till now no trace of him has ever been substantiated, despite many claims and half-claims, and personally I don’t think he ever will be found alive.  I knew Lucan, played poker with him regularly in the early days (and I must say whatever happened later that I never met a man who won or lost with better grace).  But that was all long before his crack-up.

            What happened was … well, almost everyone knows what happened, in its essentials.  It begins with his wife, Veronica Lucan, rushing out into the night, half-covered in blood, screaming for help.  It proceeds to the discovery of the family nanny, Sandara Rivet, brutally battered to death in the basement.  And it concludes with the disappearance of the noble Earl himself.  The theory which was most widely scouted in the press and in subsequent police inquiries was that the intended victim was the wife, mother of Lucan’s three young children, and that Sandra, in the half dark of her room, bore some resemblance to her.  The murder was a case of mistaken identity.

            Lucan drove, that night, to the south coast, pausing briefly en route to make a couple of garbled phone calls to his mother before bursting in, disheveled, at the house of Susan Maxwell-Scott (wife of the celebrated ‘Oh not the Ritz’ Ian ) in Uckfield.  He poured out his version of events ‘I’ve been through the most nightmarish, awful experience’ then wrote two letters, about looking after his children, and drove off at 1.30 a.m.  She was the last person to see him, before he vanished, from there to eternity.

            What made the case worldwide news, of course, was Lucan’s social position.  But the really fascinating side of it all, in terms of English life, was the way that Lucan’s friends in the Clermont closed ranks around his reputation.  He was one of their own.  The person whom they blamed, incredible as it might seem to those outside the charmed circle, was his hapless wife.  The police unable to trace him, claimed that they camp up against a blank wall.  ‘Rubbish,’ retort Lucan’s friends; they gave the investigation maximum cooperation.  Naturally, they all stood by him.  ‘Lucky’ had a spot of bad luck.  In terms of the gambling ethic, that was it.  whatever he had done, wherever he might be, they were on his side.  Certainly Aspinall admires Lucan, as a man of sterling personal qualities.  All Lucan’s friends give him a very high rating.  The general public do not know him, so their view of him, as a man who murdered his nanny by mistake, is beside the point.

            The possibility that, one day, Lucan might emerge to face the charges against him, from some hideaway in Latin America, continues to mesmerize the media.  They seek him here, they seek him there, if he ever does turn up, Aspinall and his old friends will be on hand to resurrect him.  the possibility, however, seems to me remote in the extreme.  One theory was even so far-fetched as to suggest that Lucan’s body was fed to the tigers in Aspinall’s zoo.  The most convincing explanation for his disappearance has been offered by the Daily Mail’s diarist Nigel Dempster: he suggested that Lucan consigned himself to the fate he had reserved for his wife, by disposing of his mortal remains in the waters off the south coast.

            The whole case, which had a huge fall-out in terms of gossip and publicity about the life-style of the Aspinall set, took the shine off the Clermont set, though the gambling among the inner group of friends continued as frenetically as ever.  It was in a dimension of its own, sometimes.  Charles Benson, a large, genial man and a long-standing member of the club, recalls one amazing session at backgammon, as showing the style of it.  he had just got back one sunny afternoon from a trip to the South of France, having lunched extremely well in Antibes, when his friend Philip Martyn, a keen player, suggested they go off to the club to play a spot of ‘gammon’.

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