Where Stars Shine Bright
Tramp has been attracting the world’s most famous faces for nearly 50 years. General manager David Fleming gives us a peak into its glittering past, and tells us why the future’s looking bright. By Jonathan Whiley
Shirley MacLaine and Warren Beatty are in my eyeline. In the corner of the room, Prince Andrew is sitting on an antique rectangular table. As I make to use the washroom, I pass Frank Sinatra cradling a tumbler of Jack Daniel’s in the lounge.
General manager David Fleming is transporting me to Tramp’s heyday and I’m inadvertently sitting in what was considered the best seat in the house. “You’re sitting in Johnny Gold’s chair,” says David in his soft Scottish burr, referencing the legendary owner who gave birth to this iconic venue in the late ‘60s.
The epicentre of London’s swinging social scene, this moody basement club in Jermyn Street was one of the world’s most famous venues.
Night after night it served up razzmatazz in plentiful portions, attracting more A-list names than an Oscars’ after-party.
The rollcall of famous faces is – and continues to be, as the Mayfair institution is soon to mark 50 years of business – quite extraordinary. “I offer no apologies,” says Gold, who opened Tramp in 1969 and handed over the reigns in 2003.
“Tramp has been peopled by the biggest media names… from Frank Sinatra to George Best to The Beatles. You’re going to hear stories about them you wouldn’t believe. But they’re true.”
If walls could talk, I suspect they would have been handed an injunction.
Such was the rich pickings here that Jackie Collins was inspired to write her racy novel, Stud. “Tramp has given me more research than I can handle and that’s really something,” she once said.
Jackie’s second husband was American impresario Oscar Lerman. “Bill Ofner found it, Oscar Lerman designed it and Johnny Gold ran it,” Collins said of Tramp’s trio.
Johnny was the ringmaster of the most delicious showbiz circus, presiding over a prized cast of actors, musicians, sportspeople, royalty and politicians. Muhammad Ali, The Rolling Stones, Omar Sharif, Grace Kelly, David Niven; the eclectic list to have visited Tramp goes on and on and on.
He was the showman with a ringside seat to social history. And what a history; what a show.
It was here that Peter Sellers would bring Princess Margaret and Antony-Armstrong-Jones, the 1st Earl of Snowdon. Johnny says that Peter Sellers always had an eye on the Queen’s younger sister.
“To an extent, it was reciprocated,” he recalls in his 2001 book recounting Tramp’s colourful history. “At one stage he even offered to swap wives with Snowdon but, although the delectable Brit Ekland was on offer, the noble photographer declined.”
There is a veritable goldmine of tales; it was here that singer Cass Elliot – “Mama Cass” – once fell asleep on a banquette and found herself locked in for the night. It was here that the three remaining Beatles sang together for the first time in public, 10 years after the murder of John Lennon. “It was chilling to hear them sing All My Loving as fresh as if it had just been written,” Johnny writes.
Infamous hellraisers of the age would not be tolerated – even friends. 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, once pulled a light fitting from the ceiling and was banned for a month. Two hours after the incident, his chauffeur arrived with £500 and Moon negotiated his ban to 48 hours.
Johnny banned George Best after one too many drunken incidents – Best apologised and the legendary footballer stayed friends, later writing to Johnny from prison – while George Michael was thrown out on one occasion after too much alcohol.
Peculiar habits were recorded too. Dodi Fayed made a point of asking the waiters to bring him a new drink every time he returned from the bathroom. He lived in fear he would be spiked.
Meanwhile, Frank Sinatra, a regular, had a problem with the lighting. He called one chandelier “a b******’ and Lerman subsequently sprayed the bulbs pink.
When the club opened in 1969, there was 300 members. Now 6,000 are on the books – 2,000 of which use the club on an active, regular basis. “Ringo Starr was the first member and Ronnie Wood was among the first members and they do come down occasionally,” says general manager David.
The original membership fee of £10.50 is still honoured for original members, while new membership costs £1,000 a year with no joining fee.
These little nods are an intrinsic part of the charm and culture that exists to this day. Times have changed and while celebrities don’t flock to clubs in the same manner, Tramp still has its fair share.
“My first night working here was a Wednesday and Quincy Jones was sitting there,” says David, gesturing to a seat. “I thought, ‘wow, this is going to be fun’. Then the second night Lionel Richie was here.”
David was deputy general manager for 12-and-half years, working as an assistant to legendary manager Guido. When Guido retired four-and-half years ago, David took over the top job.
He brings bags of experience in the hospitality industry and while is gentle nature is a far cry from Johnny’s showmanship, they both share the same passion for the job.
“I speak to Johnny on a regular basis and he has always been very supportive and a massive part of why we are still here.”
A significant amount of money has been invested in recent years to “restore to its place of glory”, but beyond the aesthetic touches there remains much of the old charm. The personal, relaxed style of service continues – two waiters have been on the books for 40 years – and there is no such thing as a VIP or VIP table.
However, big names continue to wine and dine. David says that when George Clooney visited he was “starstruck, in the fact I have never seen anybody has handsome.”
Refreshingly, David says that despite the legend of Tramp – they are in the advance stages of producing a documentary to mark the club’s half century – they are not about to become complacent.
“I think perhaps we need a bit of a reinvention to go into the next 50 years,” he sys. “Perhaps we need a new set of people. Busy nights are Fridays and Saturdays and you have to be an existing member to propose a new one, so you get the same people and the same habits. I think maybe the club needs 300 new members; different walks of life and different nationalities.”
He also wants to host more events to “give something back to the members” and is looking to develop further local partnerships.
As the 50th anniversary nears, David jokes that “27,000 people” were here on Tramp’s opening night in 1969. “Everybody comes to me and says, ‘you know I was here on the first night.”
They all want to be a footnote in the club’s unique history and even the waiters are eager to share their favourite stories.
Two seem particular favourites. The evening when four James Bond actors – Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan – were dining in the same room by coincidence. There was a moment; a flicker of recognition between them.
Then there is the less savoury anecdote when Tramp flooded. “There is a manhole underneath that carpet,” says David. “Once, when Johnny was still here, he took his shoes and socks off and rolled his trousers up and got a mop and bucket himself.
“Michael Caine and Roger Moore were here and did exactly the same… the waiters couldn’t believe it!”
Myth and legend continues to part of the raison d’être. Rumours persist of ghosts – David says sometimes the waiters play tricks by tapping guests’ feet – and then there is the secret passage where it’s said King Edward VII could be smuggled in and out.
Big plans are in place for the 50th anniversary celebrations and one can only imagine the party for the ages that is in the pipeline.
The show at Tramp, it seems, will go on and on and on. “Johnny always said to me that as soon as the doors open at Tramp, it was like showtime,” says David. “When you walk down these stairs, that is when you and my staff should make people feel like it’s the best night of their life.”
40 Jermyn Street