Nutty but Nice: The Lord who was the life of the Party
Impresario Michael Gelardi remembers his friend and Boisdale regular, Lord Charles Spencer-Churchill
By Michael Gelardi
April 27 2019
I’ve been privileged to have known many exceptional people in my life to date. There have been great musicians, actors, pop stars, celebrities, cognoscenti, entrepreneurs, aristocrats, royalty. But of these, I can say that Lord Charles Spencer Churchill – aka ‘Nutty’, as affectionately known to close friends – was special. Charles, who died in December 2016, was the brother of the then Duke of Marlborough, and was a uniquely charismatic, insightful, humorous, and very English gentleman.
He was a good family man too, with a dedicated young wife, Sarah, and three successful sons from his first marriage to Jane (of Jane Churchill Interiors fame). As for his actual profession, many conjured with this question; but I think I could probably most aptly describe him as a lifelong ‘Professional Lord’.
I first met him in 1989 when I was running the entertainment division of Trust House Forte PLC. My boss, Rocco Forte, called me one morning to say that Lord Churchill was joining the company and would I please meet him, as he was particularly interested in music and entertainment in the company.
I arranged to meet Charles for the first time at La Fontaine, the restaurant at the Grosvenor House Hotel. His business card described him as ‘Vice-President of Guest Relations’ – an impressive title, I thought, (in addition to the Lord bit) and I asked him if it was Rocco Forte who had bestowed it. “Oh no,” he answered wryly,
“I gave it to myself! Do you like it?” That summer we had the jazz legends Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson performing in the famous Great Room of Grosvenor House. It was a week-long run, and Charles was at every performance with friends of all sorts. Through him, I made another life-long friend that week, Peter Boizot, the legendary Pizza Express founder. And I subsequently had many extraordinary, memorable experiences with my dear friend Charles, and I will try to describe just a few of these.
FIRST CLASS FRIEND
Charles was a prolific traveller, particularly to America, where he had many high society friends and acquaintances, among whom he was literally considered royalty. One of these was the president of Pan Am, which always ensured us a First Class upgrade and VIP treatment (including, somewhat awkwardly, being ferried from lounge to aircraft in the cart for invalids). However, that President rather selfishly decided to retire eventually, which meant Charles had to look elsewhere for VIP treatment at a reasonable cost.
What he found was inauspicious: a newly-inaugurated budget airline named People Express, but it appeared to have a reasonably-priced First Class. Opportunity to test it out arrived when Charles initiated a deal for us to book the cabaret for Café Carlyle, New York’s most prestigious cabaret room, and off we went. The service was excellent and the very comfortable seats, we were impressed to note, were made of real leather! After a good lunch I settled down to watch the film, but Charles, who could never sit still for too long, disappeared, I guessed to inspect the rest of the plane and see how the folk in ‘cattle class’ were doing. When the film finished there was still no sign of His Lordship, so I went looking – he was nowhere to be found in either cabin. I asked the Chief Steward if he had seen him anywhere. “Oh yes,” he replied, “His Lordship is in the cockpit with the Captain, I’ll take you to him.” Charles was at that point just exiting the cockpit, having been royally entertained. In fact, the owner of People Express had been contacted at his ranch in Texas, so that Charles could tell him how wonderful his airline was.
Inevitably, they’d made plans to meet up immediately. Thus Charles had another best friend in the airline business, and the VIP travel that came with it.
As I explained, Charles had many wealthy, powerful friends in the States. One evening we were at dinner at the famous 21 Club in New York, during which the Maitre D’ would appear from time to time to offer salutations from various diners who knew him. One of these, a Senator, sent over a bottle of champagne, a tipple Charles detested – whisky was his drink. So he returned the fizz with an instruction for a bottle of whisky if the Senator wanted to send anything. It duly arrived.
On leaving the club and reaching the top of the stairs to the sidewalk, we heard a voice at the bottom calling, “Lord Charles, Lord Charles!” Down in the dim light, we perceived a figure mounting the stairs at speed: it was Donald Trump.
Charles didn’t stop and as we were about to jump into our chauffeur car, Trump approached and said to Charles, “You didn’t tell me you were in town.”
“Oh well – ring me, Donald, ring me,” Charles responded, and with that we shot off leaving The Donald standing on the sidewalk. Charles’ lovely widow, Sarah, recently told me that he had actually predicted Trump’s rise to his current elevated position. I wonder what he would have made of it all now.
Charles actually convinced Trump that my brother Geoffrey, a hotelier, should open his Trump Tower hotel in Atlantic City. The only problem was that Charles hadn’t actually put this to my brother. One day Charles dashed into my office to put Trump on the phone with me to discuss this – which was slightly awkward since my bro had worked in Atlantic City and I knew there was no way he was ever going back.
I have a feeling, though, that even Donald understood that Charles’ could sometimes get over-zealous in his enthusiasm! Instead of Trump Tower, Geoffrey returned to the UK to open the Lanesborough – he ran it for 28 years.
LONG ARM OF THE LORD
Nevertheless, Charles was an uncannily `good judge of character. He would often warn me against certain people if he didn’t trust them, and was also unafraid to let them know what he thought of them. He was invariably right. There was one particular character, whom I will not name, who took a number of us to a rather sorry financial end while suitably enriching himself. Charles, though never having had dealings with him, had also never trusted him; I should have listened.
Some time after, we were invited to a party in Mayfair during London fashion week. It was quite the exclusive event, with a raised entrance enabling you to survey those in the room on entering. The said villain happened also to be a guest, and when I arrived was getting busy, no doubt seeking out candidates for his next venture. Charles arrived a short time later, and on surveying the room his eyes set upon our culprit. His nostrils flared as he stood to his full six foot and five inches, and bellowed the man’s name across supermodels and fashionistas.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he screamed, “You should be in jail!”
He then walked calmly down to greet me amid a now dumbstruck crowd; the villain, stunned, had no option but to quietly slope out of the door.
ROLL WITH IT
Charles always thought it useful to let his powerful friends know how they could improve their companies’ services. One such was the always-affable Lord John King, chairman of British Airways during the 1980s – a friendship that afforded him the opportunity to fly on Concord from time to time. After one such flight, he wrapped up a stale bun he’d been served in a serviette and, on arrival in London, sent it to Lord King with a note.
Surprisingly, it came back, also with a note: “Dear Charles, thank you for your note and the roll. However, I suggest that you send it on to your boss Rocco Forte, as your company does our catering.”
There are many anecdotes about Charles and restaurants which, along with entertainment, were his great passion. At the Café Royal, where his office was, the General Manager once recounted to me how, on one of Charles’ frequent inspections of the lunch service in the Grill Room, he decided that a customer’s dish had not been properly cooked or presented. And so, to the astonishment of the customer, he promptly and without a word confiscated his plate, berated the Maitre D’ and took it back to the kitchen to have it properly prepared.
On one occasion, at a restaurant in Belgravia, we were invited to a special culinary evening. It was quite a plush affair but the service, because of fine delicacies being specially prepared for us, was rather too slow for Charles, who was getting hungry. “I know,” he said, and disappeared. A film producer friend who with us, slightly confused, asked where did he go? The answer was soon evident, as Charles reappeared some 10 minutes later with a selection of Chinese dishes from the local takeaway, announcing “this should keep us going in the meantime chaps!” The restaurant manager, obviously unimpressed, had the sense not to make a fuss as we ticked into Singapore Noodles and spare ribs until the chef’s works of art arrived.
The last restaurant experience of so many that I had with Charles was lunch around the corner from his apartment in Knightsbridge at one of the best Italian restaurants in London. It was busy and the service was slow. Charles by this time was very weak from cancer, and on crutches, but his feisty spirit andpersonality remained intact. Fed up with waiting to order, he grabbed the arm of
the passing Maitre D’ and snorted, “Now look, you’re a waiter and I’m a Lord and we want service please!” The manager, who had known Charles many years kindly smiled and replied, “Yes M’Lord of course, right away if not sooner.”
And of course, it was Charles who introduced me to Boisdale – a life changing moment. This was down to the fact that Charles made it his business to seek out good music – it was after dinner with Jools Holland one night that he suggested to me we try this place in Belgravia of which I’d never actually heard. The band was playing when we visited that first time, and the bar was packed, but Charles pushed his way to the front in his usual aristocratic way. He ordered a particular whisky which the barman didn’t have, and loudly demanded to see the owner.
In fact, Boisdale chief Ranald Macdonald was listening to all this at the end of the bar. He snuck behind Charles, tapped him firmly on the shoulder, and asked how he could help – and of course, great bonhomie ensued. We’ve never looked back since.
There will be as many great anecdotes about Charles as there were people who knew him. For my part, I can say that he made a big difference to my life for the better – and most of all, we had a lot of fun. God bless you dear Charles. You made a difference