Even David Litvinoff’s surname was a concoction. It was really Levy. Wanting something ‘more romantic’, he appropriated that of his mother’s first husband. So his elder half-brother, the respected writer Emanuel Litvinoff, informed Keiron Pim, adding that David was ‘an unfortunate character altogether’, prone to ‘inventing roles for himself that didn’t have any reality’.
Yet this fantasist is the elusive figure whom Pim has endeavoured to capture in an ambitious book which seeks to resurrect an era as much as an individual. David
Litvinoff was an extraordinary live wire who, by dint of a quick wit and chameleon personality, propelled himself from an immigrant background in London’s East End to cavorting with wealthy ex-public-school boys in Chelsea and gangsters in Soho. His heyday in the 1950s and 1960s coincided with the emergence of ‘Swinging London’, as class barriers broke down and new energies swirled, often fuelled by drugs and rock’n’roll.
Litvinoff initially blagged himself a place in a house owned by the artist Timothy Whidborne in Cheyne Walk, where George Melly also lived. He worked in a Soho clip-joint and found wealthy punters for John Aspinall’s semi-legal gaming clubs. He assisted another housemate, Old Etonian Andy Garnett, to start a multicultural club in Cable Street, not far from his birthplace. As a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, he publicised such happenings, and so helped fan the myth of the racy Chelsea set.
Before long he was best mates with Lucian Freud, the husband of Whidborne’s cousin, Lady Caroline Blackwood. The two men fell out over a portrait of Litvinoff which Freud had disparagingly titled ‘The Procurer’. One result, it seems (though it is not clear), was that Freud had his friend’s head brutally shaved (the artist’s reputation is not enhanced here). Litvinoff suffered rather worse — his face was slashed — when he overdid his joshing relationship with Ronnie Kray, whom he used to call ‘bootface’.
Operating at the edgy rather than hippy-dippy end of the Sixties revolution, his experiences and contacts led him to be hired as ‘dialogue consultant’ on the sinister 1970 film Performance, which captured the shifting boundaries of the time, including those of sexual identity.
As with most aspects of Litvinoff’s life, there are varying accounts of his actual involvement. Pim works hard to interpret them and delivers an excellent summary of the film. However, this was the zenith of his subject’s career. Finding little to detain him in London, Litvinoff decamped to Wales, and then to Australia. Depressed, he returned to Kent, where he stayed with the art dealer Christopher Gibbs at Davington Priory, now owned by Bob Geldof. It was there he took his own life in 1975, in a small bedroom which Pim likens to the garret pictured by Henry Wallis’s ‘The Death of Chatterton’.
Pim is clearly obsessed with this character, who died three years before he was born. As a co-religionist (through his mother), he empathises with him as a wandering, role-swapping Jew. In Litvinoff’s case (though not Pim’s), this sense of otherness was enhanced by being gay. He is described as ‘brave’ — which is true of his uncomplicated acceptance of his sexuality at a time when, for the most part, it was illegal.
Pim proves an intelligent, if occasionally over-diligent, guide to this protean world, mixing a Quest for Corvo model with Iain Sinclair’s psycho-geography. His descriptive powers are particularly good at the start, where, drawing on his own background, he explores Litvinoff’s Jewish and East End roots. Along with Emanuel Litvinoff (now dead), he interviews gangsters such as ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser who, being in their dotage, cannot tell him much. Cue for an enduring theme about memory’s frailty, be it through age, drugs or simply misremembering.
Friends of David Litvinoff, including the present Lord Harlech, Christopher Gibbs and Eric Clapton, speak fondly of him. Others are not so sure. The socialite Suna Portman noted: ‘He seemed to know all of us rather better than we knew him,’ while Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan ignored Pim’s approaches.
Dylan is an appropriately spectral presence. With his hustler’s skills, Litvinoff was thrilled to secure an advance copy of the Jewish troubadour’s Basement Tapes, and even more so the proofs of his then unpublished novel Tarantula. He suggested to a friend that they produce 100,000 bootleg copies and sell them at 40 shillings each. Until then the most he had earned was $4,000 for Performance.
Pim delights in Litvinoff’s ability to flit between identities — one moment queeny aesthete, the next street-hustling procurer. He plays with the cultural ramifications of this self-styled ‘crazy, mixed-up Yid’ being so difficult to pin down. Even his title is a tease: Litvinoff had nothing to do with the Rolling Stones song. But, like Jumpin’ Jack Flash, he was by turns fast, flickering and a trifle demonic — a performance artist indeed.