Queen of the nightclubs

An Irishman’s Diary: From bright days in Kingstown to the dark secrets of London

‘One of the regulars at  Irishwoman Kate Meyrick’s club was American actor Tallulah Bankhead (above), the Lady Gaga of her day; she smoked over 100 cigarettes a day, drank gin and bourbon like water, kept a suitcase full of drugs, had numerous affairs with men and women and used sailor-like language.’  Photograph:  General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

‘One of the regulars at Irishwoman Kate Meyrick’s club was American actor Tallulah Bankhead (above), the Lady Gaga of her day; she smoked over 100 cigarettes a day, drank gin and bourbon like water, kept a suitcase full of drugs, had numerous affairs with men and women and used sailor-like language.’ Photograph: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Wed, Nov 27, 2013, 01:00

What an incredible life history, the story of Irishwoman Kate Meyrick, brought up in a respectable middle class environment, who went on to become “queen of the nightclubs” in 1920s London. Kate Evelyn Nason had been born in 1875 at No 24 Cambridge Terrace in what was then Kingstown, now Dún Laoghaire; her father was a well-off doctor, who died a year later. Her mother remarried, this time to a clergyman from Lancashire; but she too died within seven years. The young Kate returned from England to Dublin as an orphan and lived with her grandmother who had the young girl educated by governesses. Subsequently, from the time she was 15, she attended Alexandra College, then in Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin, where the Conrad Hotel and the adjoining office complex are now located. But even then, she was showing signs of independence, claiming to have been the first woman in Dublin to ride a bicycle.

When she was 19, she married a medical man in Dublin, Ferdinand Merrick, who was a physician and specialist in nerve diseases. They soon opted for the posher sounding surname “Meyrick” and moved to England. So far, so good, with Kate a dutiful doctor’ s wife. But soon after the end of the first World War, when she was 44, her marriage collapsed. She went to London, where she soon became involved in the hectic and louche demi-monde that was emerging as a reaction to the recent war. She became the manager of Dalton’ s Club in Leicester Square, as well as a part- owner. With three sons at Harrow and three daughters at Roedean, she had substantial funds to find for her children’s education.

The club had a notorious name as a pick-up place and many disillusioned young men, who had recently returned from the battlefields, made their way there. For a pound or two, the young women who worked in Kate’s club offered sympathy and sex. Kate also gloriously ignored the official closing time of 10pm and soon she found herself in court on vice charges. In her defence, she said that the women she employed were bringing comfort to the terribly disfigured young men who had come back from the war. It was to no avail; she was fined for keeping a disorderly house and the club closed.

Not deterred, she opened her own place, the 43, on Gerrard Street in Soho, which soon became a fashionable jazz night club. It attracted as members such artists as Augustus John and writers JB Priestley and Joseph Conrad. For a time, the club was run respectably, but then Kate once more started ignoring the licensing laws. One of the regulars at her club was American actor Tallulah Bankhead, the Lady Gaga of her day; she smoked over 100 cigarettes a day, drank gin and bourbon like water, kept a suitcase full of drugs, had numerous affairs with men and women and used sailor-like language. Other patrons of the club included peers, army officers and rich young businessmen. Again, the law caught up with Kate, who went to prison for six months for selling alcohol without a licence.

Her clients, including the King of Romania and the Crown Prince of Sweden, protested against the sentence, but to no avail.

Kate owned several other nightclubs and also had an interest in a club called the Folies Bergeres in Newman Street, just off Oxford Street. She had become a celebrity in her own right and her fame and her own joy were cemented when one daughter married a baron and another an earl.

But her downfall came when her dealings with a police sergeant called George Goddard came to light. He was earning £6 a week, but lived in a large freehold house in London, had two flashy cars and a couple of safe boxes bulging with money. It turned out Kate had been paying him £100 a week not to raid her clubs. In one of the most notorious cases of police corruption during that era, Kate was sentenced to 15 months hard labour for bribery and corruption. This came at the time of the Wall Street crash in 1929; the ensuing great depression effectively ended London’s libertine nightlife that had flourished during the 1920s.

All the time that Kate spent in Holloway prison had a disastrous effect on her health and she died in 1933 at the comparatively young age of 57, from bronchopneumonia. She died a poor woman, having breezed through £500,000 during her career, paying for lawyers’ fees, money for blackmailers, payments to swindlers and other incidentals. Just before she died, she wrote her memoirs, called Secrets of the 43, but when the book came out, it was promptly banned. Kate had revealed too many dark secrets of London’ s elite.

She was buried at Kensal Green cemetery in London. For a well-educated and brought up former pupil of Alexandra, Kate Meyrick had come a long way and fallen even further, a remarkable story indeed.

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