Peter Stringfellow, the sex-club entrepreneur who hosted celebrities, millionaires, and royalty at his London establishments, has died of cancer, aged 77, it was announced Thursday.
Stringfellow, who was brought up in a hardscrabble steel town in northern England, began his life as an impressario after he was briefly imprisoned for a scam involving fake carpets. “Scared to death of the police,” he founded the Black Cat club—held on Friday nights in a church hall in his local town of Sheffield, which he rented for about £30 a time. He famously booked the Beatles for £85, as well as the Kinks and the Rolling Stones. By his mid-twenties he had made it to London and founded the King Mojo club, where talents including Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, and Elton John all played.
But it was with the opening of the eponymous Stringfellow’s club in 1980, where men who fancied themselves as high rollers could pay hundreds of pounds to play poker with their friends while they drank with and were served by naked women, that Stringfellow truly became a very unusual national icon. As the great storm of ’80s consumer culture roared, Stringfellow was at its eye. He wore his died blond hair in a legendary mullet—short on top and long at the back—and rejoiced in telling his guests that underneath his vibrantly colored suits he wore leopard-skin print y-fronts, which he would sometimes strip down to.
“Stringy” was able to get around London’s strict laws on nudity by making the venue a private members club. Prospective members had to sign up for membership 24 hours in advance of their first visit (although this requirement no longer exists). Prostitution was banned, although the stories of hook-ups with Stringfellows girls were legion.
Stringfellow himself was an unashamed womanizer. He was said to try and chat up every woman he met—his go-to line was: “Why don’t you come and have a Jacuzzi, baby?”
He once claimed to have slept with more than 2,000 women.
When tackled on the number by an interviewer from The Guardian, he replied: “I’ve been around a long time, man. Just by the sheer weight of years you’re going to have a bunch of girls in your background.”
Guests at Stringfellows over the years included everyone from John Travolta and George Michael to Princess Diana and Sarah Ferguson. A photograph of him meeting the queen had pride of place in all his clubs.
One memorable guest was Professor Stephen Hawking.
“I asked him if he wanted to discuss the galaxy,” Stringfellow told an interviewer from The Times. “He types into his little box and out comes that synthesized voice: ‘No. I want girls.’ Ha ha ha! I WANT GIRLS!”
Stringfellow started his club at a time when Soho—a warren of ancient streets in central London—was scuzzy and drug-infested and the undisputed center of Britain’s then-tiny sex industry.
There were 59 licensed sex shops selling pornography and sex toys in the tiny district, and there were also multiple small “walk-up” brothels—the police turned a blind eye to small “owner-operator” establishments that were in fact later formally decriminalized.
But Stringfellow, following the lead of America’s Hugh Hefner, sought to brand his projects with a far more aspirational, glamorous, and celebratory image. He told The Times: “I do not like the term strip club or titty bar. It’s a gentlemen’s club. And my girls are not strippers, escorts, call girls or, even worse, hookers or prostitutes. I tell them all: You are entertainers. And, before we start on the moral arguments, let’s be clear: This is a feminist-friendly organization; the girls are safe, well paid, and no one should tell them what they can and can’t do.”
The climax of the nigh’ts entertainment at Stringfellows was the “Cabaret of Angels”—100 topless dancers performing tableside for the clientele.
He was always happy to boast about his celebrity friends: Charlie Sheen was “wild,” Jack Nicholson was “a man among men.” But Stringy was always clear whose party it was: There was a throne in the club on which he used to sit, sporting an unbuttoned shirt and gold medallion nestled among the sprouting chest hairs.
He often gave interviews accompanied by his white cat, Lord Cecil.
He leaked gossip to the tabloids incessantly and received almost universally fawning coverage from the media as a result.
Stringfellow met his wife, Bella, a 19-year-old ballerina, in 2003, when he was 60. He leaves behind four children; two from his marriage and two from previous relationships.
Stringfellow was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2008—a lifelong abstainer, he believed the disease was caused by passive smoking at the club.
After his brush with death, Stringfellow sold up most of the London operations into which he had expanded except the original Stringfellows club (which still trades amid a sea of red velvet in Covent Garden) and moved to suburbia with his wife.
Soho was gentrifying and Stringfellow mourned the passing of the old world he knew.
“You can see it now as you walk up and down,” Stringfellow told the Financial Times in 2016, “Every time something closes, a new trendy café or restaurant opens.”
It is not clear whether it was a recurrence of the same cancer that killed him. His publicist, Matt Glass, said: “It’s very sad news. He passed away in the early hours of this morning. It was kept very private, he didn’t want to tell. He wanted to keep it a secret.”