Book Review: Members Only The Life and Times of Paul Raymond – Paul Willetts

(Serpent’s Tail) £14.99

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

members-only-cover

In 1949, whilst running a lottery machine on the pier at Clacton-on-Sea, in eastern England, the 24 year old Anthony Quinn met a man working at a nearby funfair who had once been part of a variety mind-reading double act. After paying the man £25 for a trunk full of all the prerequisites of the act, Quinn changed his name to Paul Raymond, employed a female assistant, and took the act on the road as, The Modern Man of Mystery. Though he struggled to find bookings as a mind-reader, his purchase of the act and his name change foretold the career that was to follow for Raymond, in which he demonstrated an high level of prescience in his acquisitions, in judging the zeitgeist, and in always giving, as he maintained, “the public what it wants, not what I think it should have.”

The die was further cast, when in 1951, seeking bookings for a follow up to a successful touring variety show he had produced the year before, having moved to London and moved from performer to producer, Raymond was told by the manager of the Queen’s Park Hippodrome in Manchester, that he would only book the act if  it contained a nude act. Rather than lose the booking, Raymond offered the two tap dancers he had already taken on for the show an
extra ten shillings if they agreed to pose topless.

Seven years later in London’s Soho Raymond opened the Raymond Revuebar, the strip club which, with its ‘Festival of Erotica’, was set to become internationally famous, and over the 45 years (40 of which with Raymond at the helm) it was open its famous neon sign became a London landmark. Fittingly, given Raymond’s first foray into a theatrical career, The Beatles filmed a segment of the Magical Mystery Tour at the Revuebar, and during its heyday the venue attracted a famous and infamous clientele, including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Peter Sellers, and The Krays.

The success of the Revuebar quickly afforded Raymond the opportunity to not only buy the premises but also other venues, such as theatres, along the way becoming a successful theatrical impresario, and in 1971 in buying and turning around the fortunes of the ailing top shelf magazine, Men Only, adding a highly profitable pornography publishing business to his portfolio of companies. Astutely, throughout his career, Raymond used the lion’s share of his the profits he made to invest in property. Most notably buying up the freeholds to large parts of Soho when very few other people could see the worth of the area. Though his property holdings also spread to commercial properties in Chelsea, Kensington, Notting Hill, and Hampstead. The value of which was underlined three years before his death in 2008, when Forbes magazine listed him at number 13 in their list of British billionaires.

But such a placing only tells of the glitter, and unsurprisingly for a career that a large part of which was based in pushing at the boundaries of what was legal, a career which had nightlife as its epicentre, not only is ‘all human life here’ (as the News of the World advertising slogan used to have it) in Willetts’ fascinating biography, but also quite literally a lifetime of trials and tribulations. Not only as a result of his near constant monitoring in the first few decades of his career firstly by the Clubs Office of the Metropolitan Police, and then by
Obscene Publications Squad (which would itself be the subject of a widespread corruption investigation), but also via libel cases and as the target of an extraordinary extortion campaign. His personal life was similarly riven with complexities, that lead him to be largely estranged from his extended family. Save for his daughter and protégé, Debbie, whose death at the age of only 37
in 1992, engendered him to lead an increasingly reclusive life until his own death at the age of 82.

Through his assiduous research for Members Only, Willetts interviewed friends, relatives, acquaintances, and employees of Raymond, and a number of former Metropolitan police officers, amongst this roster, even now, intriguingly there  are many who would only agree to talk if Willetts undertook to preserve their anonymity. His printed sources also include many documents only just released under the Freedom of Information Act, including witness statements, police files, and the transcripts of telephone taps. All of which he has marshalled to present a very balanced, fascinating and richly evocative insight both into Raymond’s life and the changing face of a notorious square mile of London’s West End which has mirrored the nation’s changing views towards sex and pornography over the last half century.

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Serpent’s Tail: www.serpentstail.com

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