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LONDON — Mark Birley, a true English gentleman who founded the legendary London clubs Annabel’s and Harry’s Bar, died Friday at age 77. The already-ailing Birley suffered a massive stroke and died in a London hospital, according to a spokesman.
Birley was famous for his perfectionism, impeccable style, ultrapolished clubs and sharp sense of humor. A tall, slim man with the bearing of a praying mantis, Birley’s shirts and shoes were handmade in Italy and his suits in Savile Row. He had a taste for Cohiba cigars, fine whiskey and fine food, but also liked nothing better than to entertain at his home in Knightsbridge, serving simple roast chicken in his kitchen.
But while he had numerous friends on both sides of the Atlantic, he was far from a fixture on the social scene, often preferring to dine alone at home and watch sports on television.
He opened Annabel’s, named after his first wife, Lady Annabel Goldsmith, in 1962. Although he sold the basement club in Berkeley Square earlier this year to Richard Caring, it remains a society hot spot with its slick Italian staff, slouchy velvet sofas and dance floor in the middle of the dining room.
After opening Annabel’s, Birley went on to build up an empire of private clubs in London’s Mayfair, including Harry’s Bar, Mark’s Club, the Bath and Racquets Club and, most recently, George. Most of the clubs are restaurants with fabulous food, impeccable service and the feel of dining in a private home.
Although Birley had enormous success on the business front — he sold Annabel’s and the other clubs for more than $200 million — his private life was a different story. It was colorful — but ultimately tragic, which perhaps explained his at-times lugubrious nature.
Birley and Lady Annabel married in 1954 and had three children, the eldest of whom — Rupert — drowned off the West African coast in 1986. Their other children are India Jane Birley and Robin Birley, who were involved with the Annabel’s business for a few years before the sale. As a child, Robin Birley was attacked by a tiger owned by Mark Birley’s good friend, John Aspinall.
When she was still married to Birley, Lady Annabel began an affair with one of his best friends, Sir James Goldsmith. She eventually divorced Birley, married the tycoon Goldsmith and had three children with him, Jemima, Zac and Ben Goldsmith.
Goldsmith became a father figure to India Jane and Robin, as the posh Birley was typical of a generation where parents kept their children firmly at arm’s length.
Despite the breakup of their marriage, Birley and Lady Annabel remained close friends and spoke on the phone nearly every day. He also remained friendly with Goldsmith.
Birley was born to Sir Oswald Birley, a society portrait painter and friend of the British royal family, and the Irish-born Rhoda Vava Mary Lecky Pike, a society hostess with a bohemian bent. After a year at Oxford, Birley quit school and later worked for the advertising firm J. Walter Thompson.
As London entered its postwar boom in the Sixties, Birley took over the basement under Aspinall’s gambling club in Berkeley Square, and turned it into Annabel’s. The club quickly became the ne plus ultra of London nightclubs, attracting everyone from toffs to toughs, including British royalty, American billionaires, European designers and Middle Eastern princes. Princess Diana and the Duchess of York once turned up at the club dressed as policewomen.
Its hallmark, though, was its discretion, and generally, what went on in the labyrinth of rooms that made up the club never was repeated in the outside world. Although Birley’s business expanded in London over the years, he resisted repeated requests to open versions of Annabel’s or Harry’s Bar overseas, believing it would be impossible to replicate their service.
In 2003, he handed everyday management of the club over to India Jane, an artist, and Robin, also an entrepreneur. Earlier this year, however, the family fell out spectacularly, and Birley banned Robin from the club for life, and later sold the entire group to Caring.
Birley is survived by India Jane, Robin, and India Jane’s young son Eben. Funeral arrangements were not available at press time.