Hurly Birley: Posh UK Club Coming to Union Square

by Michael Gross Photographed by Jonathan Becker/Getty Images
Monday, November 20, 2017

Robin Birley at 5 Hertford Street

Robin Birley, proprietor of 5 Hertford Street, London’s most coveted private membership club (where he was photographed, above, by Jonathan Becker in 2012), is coming to Manhattan, AVENUE can exclusively reveal.  After a two year search for a suitable home for his first U.S, outpost, multiple sources report that Birley is about to finalize a deal for a new club in the vicinity of Union Square.  

“It’s a clubhouse along the lines of 5 Hertford Street in London, with some rooms for members above the club, which 5 Hertford does not have,” someone with knowledge of Birley’s plans confirms. “It’s not going to be an outpost of the London club but is going to be distinctly New York, new membership and etc., though it’s worth noting that there are hundreds of prominent New Yorkers who are members of 5 Hertford. If it all goes through, Robin is going to be spending at least a week a month of his time in Manhattan, if not more….” The real estate deal is expected to close soon.

Birley is a son of Mark Birley, the London clubland legend himself, the son of the society portraitist Sir Oswald Birley and his wife, the Irish artist Rhoda Pike.  Birley père opened his first establishment in the basement of the Clermont Club, a legal casino owned by John Aspinall on Berkeley Square in Mayfair, in 1963.

The legendary, luxurious Annabel’s, named for Birley’s then-wife, Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, daughter of the Marquis of Londonderry, who later became Lady Annabel Goldsmith, boasted dining, dancing, drinking and exclusivity most of all. 

Its membership, limited to the wealthy, included the unlucky Lord “Lucky” Lucan, Norman Parkinson, Lucien Freud, dukes and duchesses and lesser aristos and ranged from the Prince of Wales and Princess Anne to Richard Nixon, Aristotle Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra.  It’s reportedly the only nightclub Queen Elizabeth has ever visited, and entertainers from Ray Charles to Lady Gaga have played there.  Diana, the Princess of Wales, once attended a party there for her sister in law, Sarah, the Duchess of York, dressed as a policeman. 

Mark Birley later founded more clubs, including Harry’s Bar, Mark’s Club, and George’s.

Robin’s life wasn’t all elegance and ease.  At age 12, he was left with a badly scarred face after he was attacked by a tiger in Aspinall’s private zoo.  His older brother disappeared off the coast of Africa in 1986. There were family squabbles, too, one of which resulted in Robin’s dismissal from the family firm, disinheritance, and finally, the sale of all the Birley clubs to British garment tycoon Richard Caring, for a reported $199 million, shortly before Mark Birley’s death in 2007.

Caring would soon sue Robin Birley–and demean him as a twit–after suing to stop him from opening a club of his own named Birley’s. An out-of-court settlement reportedly hinged on the trademarks Caring had bought from Mark Birley; The Birley Group, like Caring’s Caprice Holdings (a restaurant collection named for one established and similarly acquired from former owners), is one of the jewels in Caring’s crown.

Robin Birley persevered, however, and got a stiff measure of revenge.  He rechristened his new club 5 Hertford Street after the address of its premises, and opened it in 2012 in an 18th Century townhouse in Mayfair’s Sheperd’s Market. The luxe establishment, with its two restaurants, three bars, private movie theater and nightclub, Loulou’s, decorated by the London-based former fashion designer, Rifat Ozbek, and even an antique Thomas Crapper-branded guest toilet salvaged from the HMS Venerable, flourished. Many employees and members of his father’s clubs promptly switched (or rather, kept) their allegiance to the Birley family and by 2015,  the $50 million club had a long waiting list for membership, and its owner began seeking a branch in New York.  That summer, Ozbek was said to be scouting properties in the Flatiron district.

Later rumors had Birley eyeing properties further downtown and in the East Sixties.  But in fact, Birley hadn’t strayed that far afield.  While the new club hasn’t yet been named, the latest British invasion is almost certain to “yank” Union Square back to the red-hot center of New York social life, just like it was in the Gilded Age.  




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