Johnny Gold sat at his regular table with a glass of whiskey close at hand, watching the comings and goings of Tramp, his famous basement nightclub, with a paternalistic pride.
If members trotting down the dimly lit stairway to his subterranean pleasure palace caught the attention of the patron, there would invariably be an orgy of kisses and clapping before friends old and new took to the tiny dance floor.
For over half a century, so discreet that you could walk past it at street level without noticing it, the club has been a second home to royals, Hollywood actors and sports stars, the very beautiful and the very wealthy – all lured by the simple promise that the charismatic Johnny made on opening night: ‘It’s going to be fun.’
Gold, who passed away at age 89, wasn’t meant to be named, but Tramp was arguably the world’s premier jet set club for decades and the names insisted on coming.
At his regular table, Johnny Gold (pictured with Joan and Jackie Collins) watched with paternalistic pride the ins and outs of Tramp, his famous basement nightclub.
It was where Joan Collins, who had a wedding reception amid the wood paneling and chandeliers, filmed the disco scene in her infamous 1978 film The Stud.
Rod Stewart partied until dawn and Mickey Rourke tried to drink George Best under the table.
Roger Moore danced with Cary Grant’s wife Dyan Cannon, then helped mops after a flood. Mick Jagger was a founding member and a frequent guest.
On one occasion, the staff held their breath when Mick—with his estranged wife Bianca in the powder room—appeared with Jerry Hall, the American model who had replaced Bianca in his affections, on his arm.
Maitre d’ Guido skillfully sent the Rolling Stone and his newfound love – none the wiser – into a dark corner.
Tramp’s appeal was such that on one celebrated evening, three James Bonds – Roger Moore, Sean Connery and George Lazenby – were all dining at the club at the same time.
Gold’s strict policy of no paparazzi and no autograph hunters meant it was a welcome oasis not only for movie stars and celebrities, but royalty as well.
Princess Margaret felt comfortable letting her hair down, often – when her photographer and then husband Lord Snowdon was on the job – with actor Peter Sellers in tow.
For more than half a century, the Tramp nightclub (pictured), so discreet you could walk past it at street level without noticing, has been a second home for royals
“I don’t think anything happened between them,” Gold recalled in his memoir Tramp’s Gold. “From my observation they were really just good friends.
“Peter was always in love with Princess Margaret and to some extent it was mutual. He even offered to swap wives with Tony [Snowdon] but although the delightful Britt Ekland [Sellers’ second wife] was on offer, the noble photographer declined.’
(Sellers and his third wife, socialite Miranda Quarry, later the Countess of Stockton, had their wedding breakfast at the club.)
Sellers’ anecdote is telling. Prior to the publication of Tramp’s Gold, many a member would have had sleepless nights, quietly panicking about how diplomatic Johnny, the son of a hatter turned bookmaker, was going to be.
They needn’t have worried, he was the epitome of discretion and many of the most outrageous secrets of which Gold was known he took to the grave.
It was at Tramp that Prince Andrew, then a young naval officer, met Koo Stark and where he and Fergie became regulars after his marriage. But sometimes the club made headlines for more controversial reasons.
Tramp is the nightclub at the center of the sexual impropriety allegations leveled against the Duke of York by former masseuse Virginia Roberts.
She claims she danced with the “sweaty” prince there before having sex at the Belgravia home of Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of disgraced newspaper mogul Robert Maxwell.
Andrew denies the claim, insisting he was not at the club on the night in question, but at home after visiting a Pizza Express restaurant in Woking, Surrey, with his daughter Beatrice.
His sister Princess Anne, on the other hand, has fond memories of her visits to Vagebond. She first went there as a 19-year-old wearing a miniskirt, not long from Benenden School.
She tore herself off the dance floor and told Gold she had to leave early because of the annual memorial service the following day.
He said it must be a solemn occasion. She agreed, but added that she always tended to stand on Whitehall’s balcony with a “Hello Folks” sign in her hand.
For all his exuberance, even Gold didn’t think Tramp would be the success it was then – with Oscar Lerman, husband of bestselling author Jackie Collins, and Polish-born Bill Ofner, who’d been behind other London nightclubs, including The Stork and The Pigalle – the location opened in the late 1960s.
Gold invited 300 friends and show business people to become founder members of Tramp, the club he named after the character Charlie Chaplin, for the princely sum of 10 Guineas – £200 in today’s money.
Today the annual membership is £1,000 – and there is a waiting list. “I thought we’d get two or three years out of it,” Gold once confessed.
The odds may have been against them, but it became an overnight sensation.
Gold wasn’t meant to trickle name, but Tramp was arguably the world’s premier jet set club for decades and the names, including Brigitte Nielsen (pictured), kept pouring in
“Demand for membership didn’t just soar, it spread like a rampant virus,” Gold recalls. “I never realized I had so many friends.”
Jackie Collins commented: ‘Bill found it, Oscar designed it and Johnny ran it’, before adding mischievously: ‘It reminds me of an old whore in the nicest way: always there, always ready for your demands and always willing to give you a good time.’
Those in attendance at opening night—December 18, 1969—were Sellers, Michael Caine, Natalie Wood and Richard Harris. Word of mouth made it synonymous with glamour, sex, decadence and unabashed hedonism.
Once, Shirley MacLaine fell asleep at a table and fellow actor Mel Brooks ran around the place barking like a dog.
Marlon Brando enjoyed the club so much that he insisted that the exhausted wait staff have breakfast with him in the early hours.
And in the footsteps of the celebrities came Gucci-clad playboys and oil-rich Arab princes, all eager to take part in this irresistibly glamorous gathering.
The heady mix of disco music, cheap but good food and fashionable people was a brilliant commercial success.
One evening, Jack Nicholson French kissed a bum outside the club’s modest entrance on Jermyn Street, in the heart of St James’s, to the delight of the assembled paparazzi who were drawn to his famed membership but were never allowed to get past the velvet rope. .
It was also in Tramp that — ten years after John Lennon’s murder — the three surviving members of The Beatles sang together in public for the first time.
“It was chilling to hear them sing All My Loving, as fresh as if it had just been written,” Gold later recalled.
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, was banned for a month after he pulled a chandelier from the ceiling.
Two hours after the incident, his driver arrived with £500 and Moon negotiated his ban for up to 48 hours.
Showman Gold led all this chaos as the conductor of an unruly orchestra, with a good-natured and gentle sense of humor.
Times were often difficult. When Michael Douglas showed up with Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito, there was no room left. Douglas begged, “Please find us a corner sofa somewhere.”
Hollywood actors and sports stars and the very wealthy were all lured by the simple promise the Johnny made on opening night: “It’s going to be fun.” Pictured: Tara Palmer Tomlinson
Gold responded by finding Turner a stool and told DeVito and Douglas to sit on the stairs.
“They would never have stood for that in Los Angeles,” Gold said. “But they were in Tramp and they were happy.”
Under Gold, Tramp had a democratic spirit, unlike Annabel’s, Tramp’s rival in nearby Berkeley Square, which had a strict dress code.
Indeed, it was said that while girls were dressing up for Annabel’s, they were undressing for Tramp. This may have explained why former It Girl Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was sure to take part when she showed up in nothing more than a bikini under an open fur coat for her 21st birthday party.
Gold’s path to the legendary and celebrated nightclub impresario was not an easy one, however.
After two years of military service as a young man, he worked in a clothing factory and even as a film extra before joining his father’s family business of turf accountants.
But in his early twenties, Gold was back in London working in the fashion trade.
Just before his 23rd birthday, two friends invited him to a club called the Crazy Elephant. Among the guests sitting at the bar was Hollywood legend John Wayne, who went on to pick up a girl for him.
From that moment on, Gold was addicted to the nightlife.
Married with two children, he embarked on a career that included a workday that ended at 4:30 a.m. every morning.
Several years later, Tramp was forced to defend himself when a newspaper columnist claimed it was a notorious establishment frequented by models who never model, actresses who never act, and “cakes.”
The club filed a lawsuit and won substantial damages.
Gold sold Tramp in 1998 but remained at the helm as a greeter for five years before retiring to the Bahamas, where he worked on a vacation resort project.
Tramp has a new crowd these days, unkindly called more Euro-trash than Hollywood A-list — but thanks to Johnny Gold, his place in nightclub history is secure.