Sandy Fawkes, who died on December 26 aged 75, was found as a baby in the Grand Union Canal and later narrowly escaped death at the hands of a serial killer; she seemed a fixture in the public houses of Soho, but found time to follow careers as a journalist and author.
For her last 30 years Sandy Fawkes was a familiar sight in the Coach and Horses and in the French pub in Soho, consuming simply astonishing amounts of whisky. When she was among generous company, the barman would change her glass for a more capacious one as the gills mounted up. She wore clothes that had been in the height of fashion in the 1970s, for, since she ate little, she had kept her figure. She habitually wore a fur hat that made it look as if a cat was curled up on her head.
The force of character that had once brought her success in journalism she now used in getting a stool at the bar, no mean feat in Soho pubs in the 1980s more crowded than any cocktail party. Each night a tragicomedy was played out among the regulars at these smoky bars. The conversation was often hair-raisingly rude, and the clash of characters generated extremely funny incidents, but death lay not far below the surface.
In an Arena documentary for BBC2 (1986), Jeffrey Bernard, The Spectator’s Low Life columnist, was filmed conversing in the morning with the angular landlord of the Coach and Horses, Norman Balon. “Anything much happen last night?” Balon asked him. “Nothing special,” Bernard replied, “Sandy Fawkes was pissed.”
The surprising thing was not so much that Sandy Fawkes often appeared drunk, but that she survived so long, even retaining a series of boyfriends. She never showed resentment, during the many hours she sat at the same bar as Jeffrey Bernard, at his frequent disparaging references to her in his Spectator column. She had even more awkward customers to deal with each day. “She reminds me of my mother,” one regular, a former guardsman, Bill Moore, remarked one night, “I hate her.” He kicked out towards her, but missed.
Before 1988, Soho pubs closed at 3pm, and committed drinkers adjourned to afternoon drinking clubs. Off the Charing Cross Road, where Sandy Fawkes had a flat, there was a leprous cellar, with damp forcing its way through the plaster, called the Kismet Club. Its nicknames included “The Iron Lung” and “Death in the Afternoon”. One passing visitor asked what the strange smell was there. “Failure,” came the reply.
One afternoon in the 1980s, after a lunchtime during which Graham Mason, the drunkest man in the Coach and Horses, had abused her at length for being “an ugly, horribly drunk old woman”, Sandy Fawkes found herself in the Kismet, familiar territory. Within minutes she was in violent argument with a podgy man wearing teeshirt and a gold chain. “I never did like you, you fat queen,” she began, at loud volume, “just because you’ve got money.” It was a mere point of punctuation in a long Soho day. No wonder that any time after half past five, when the pubs reopened, it generally felt like 10.30 at night.
One close friend for 30 years was Daniel Farson, the television journalist, chronicler of Soho and spectacular drunk. He would suddenly turn from an intelligent conversationalist into a growling monster. “I loathe you,” he would shout suddenly between fat, quivering cheeks. Sandy Fawkes would go to stay with him in Devon, where he enjoyed comparative calm, though barred from local pubs. Then for some years they would go without speaking. She was hurt when shortly before his death, on the morning of the Princess of Wales’s funeral, while she sat in the French pub, he stood in the Coach and Horses imitating her tears at the occasion.
Sandy Fawkes did go through periods of abstinence, in 1987 doing without drink for more than three months. She had once written a book called Health for Hooligans (with illustrations by William Rushton), and knew what drink did to people. Oddly enough she did not begin smoking till into her forties, making up for it then with constantly lit Gitanes, each with its lipstick-mark, elegantly held between nail-varnished fingers. When she kept a cigarette in her mouth, the smoke would drift between the hairs of her fur hat, dyeing them a deeper bronze.
Her life was physically and emotionally exhausting, for all her courage and tenaciousness. One night in the Coach and Horses, 20 years before she died, she found that all her teeth ached, that whisky was not stopping it, that the memories of her child who had died in infancy and her own childhood were preying on her mind. She was very drunk and after a while the only words she uttered were: “I’m scared.”
Sandy Fawkes was born on June 30 1929. She never knew her parents, but before her marriage settled on the name Sandra Boyce-Carmichelle. After her rescue from the canal she was sent to a series of foster parents. Some abused her. She was not able to write about this until the case of Maria Colwell, who died aged seven in 1973, encouraged newspapers to publish accounts of similar mistreatment of children.
A bright, artistic child, she won a place at Camberwell School of Art. There she was encouraged by John Minton, a gifted teacher who was to kill himself at 40. It was he who introduced her to Soho, where she tasted her first alcoholic drink – gin and orange cordial – in the York Minster, Dean Street, known as the French Pub. “Perhaps I should have signed the pledge that day,” she remarked years later, “but I would have missed out on so much fun and so many friendships. Disasters too.”
On the same day, she remembered, “I caught my one and only glimpse of Dylan Thomas sitting slumped on the bench that used to run under the windows.”
When her children grew up, Sandy Fawkes missed making a home, though she delighted in grandchildren. In the end, the French Pub, even after the retirement of its stylish and cheque-cashing landlord Gaston Berlemont, was to be a second home to her. She wrote a short history of the pub, The French (1993), and in her last years its kindly bar staff would fetch prescriptions for her, and her morning copy of The Daily Telegraph.
Through John Minton, a trad jazz fan, she had met in the late 1940s Wally Fawkes, a clarinettist. In 1949 he began his celebrated cartoon strip Flook in the Daily Mail; that year too Sandy and he married. Their house in Hampstead became known for its lively parties. They had four children, three girls and a boy; the early death of a daughter caused her lasting sorrow.
From the 1960s Sandy Fawkes returned to her drawing-board, making fashion drawings for Vanity Fair and then the Daily Sketch, for which she became fashion editor, a job she briefly retained when it merged with the Daily Mail in 1971. She became a feature writer for the Daily Express and was proud of covering the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
In the United States in November 1974, after an unsuccessful trial period with the National Enquirer, she met a man in his late twenties in a bar in Atlanta, Georgia. He looked like “a cross between Robert Redford and Ryan O’Neal”, she thought. They began an affair, and she joined him on a leisurely drive down the coast to Florida. She knew him as Daryl Golden. In reality he was Paul Knowles, who killed at least 18 people. The day before Sandy Fawkes met him, Knowles had killed two people, one of them a 15-year-old girl he had raped.
The car they drove in had been stolen from a man missing for four months. Even the smart clothes Knowles wore were those of a murdered man. “He told me he was going to be killed soon, but had made some tapes which would make a world news story,” she recalled. “After a week, I just had a feeling I wanted to get away from him.”
Knowles had set off on his trail of killings only that May. It ended with his arrest within days of their parting. A month later he was shot dead by police.
She wondered ever after what it was that had prevented Knowles from murdering her too. Her escape from his company did not end her troubles, for the police took a dim view of her sexual liaison with a murderer. Could it be that she was guilty of some of the murders too, they asked? “Police in Macon, Georgia, make Rod Steiger look like a fairy,” she said.
She found it took a year to recover from the incident. But it struck deep at her insecurity. In 1974 she published her account of the incident as Killing Time. It was always going to be turned into a film, bringing her lots of money. But it never was. The book, however, was republished in 2004 as Natural Born Killer: In Love and on the Road With a Serial Killer.
Her other books included Nothing But, a ghosted memoir of Christine Keeler. “Christine was quite an odd woman,” she was to recall. “About two years after I wrote the book, she rang me and told me I’d ruined her life.” In 1990 she wrote Elena: a Life in Soho, the biography of the celebrated maitre d’ of L’Escargot (now at l’Etoile).
In 1998 Sandy Fawkes had a small part in John Maybury’s film about Francis Bacon, Love is the Devil. She figures on the credits as “Person in the Colony Room Club”. She had indeed known Bacon and drunk with him in the Colony Room Club, but she had not frequented it for some years, after a row with someone. The club was recreated on the film set, and when Derek Jacobi, as Bacon, walked on set, Sandy, with essential supplies of whisky to hand, burst into tears.
Sandy Fawkes was depicted in several episodes of the brilliant strip The Regulars, drawn by Michael Heath in Private Eye. She also figures in an atmospheric full-page colour drawing by Heath for Punch (March 13, 1984), showing Bill Mitchell playing spoof, surrounded by regulars and crooks. Sandy Fawkes in the foreground is anchored on a stool, quietly pouring whisky down her throat.
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