House of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor of Savile Row
by Lance Richardson
Nonfiction / Biography / LGBT
This biography is titled for Tommy Nutter, the tailor, but it’s really a dual biography of Tommy and his older brother, David. Both gay, both influential in their own celebrity circles, both intimately affected by the AIDS crisis.
Lance Richardson is himself gay, and I think his personal connection brings a depth to the biography that a straight author wouldn’t have. He writes about the persecution of gay men in Britain in the 70s, and the underground gay clubs, with a kind of underlying passion that illustrates the pressure these men were under to hide the very cores of themselves while still finding a sense of community and revelry with each other. (And later, when he talks about the AIDS crisis in the 90s, you can feel the emotions and grief behind the fairly objective words.)
The story itself is gripping; Tommy the tailor and David the photographer, and the high-profile celebrities they orbited around – The Beatles, Yoko Ono, Elton John, Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson. Tommy made clothes for them all, including the suits three of the Beatles wore on the cover of Abbey Road, and the outfits worn by Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman. David took photographs of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s wedding, and was Elton John’s personal photographer, publishing a book of photos of the star in 1977.
The biography is part social history, giving an incredible view of the underground gay club scene in the 70s and 80s in London and New York, which the two brothers bounced between.
One thing I was struck by is how casually everyone used drugs at the time! Tailor’s assistants mention doing speed to get work done; everyone drunk themselves into a stupor as often as they could; David unexpectedly blacks out after combining alcohol and some kind of drug while partying one night. David ferries cocaine for a friend/employer at one point – and not a little bit of cocaine, either. A lot. It was definitely a different era for drug use!
The book is also an amazing example of how much people can influence culture and still be forgotten. I’d never heard of David or Tommy Nutter, but the celebrities they clothed and photographed almost everyone has heard of! They didn’t just clothe and photograph them, but influence them. David was a close friend of Elton John’s, cheering him up when he fell into the depths of depression. Tommy was a major pillar of support for the manager of The Beatles, and created a lot of Elton John’s off-stage wear. These two were huge in the cultural change of the 70s and 80s. How do we not know their names?
I really enjoyed this book, and it’s a great piece of gay history for Pride Month. I highly recommend it.
From the cover of House of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor of Savile Row:
From an early age, there was something different about Tommy and David Nutter. Growing up in an austere apartment above a cafe catering to truck drivers, both boys seemed destined to lead rather humble lives in post-war London – Tommy as a civil servant, David as a darkroom technician. Yet the strength of their imagination (plus a little help from their friends) transformed them instead into unlikely protagonists of a swinging cultural revolution.
In 1969, at the age of twenty-six, Tommy opened an unusual new boutique on the “golden mile” of bespoke tailoring, Savile Row. While shocking a haughty establishment resistant to change, “Nutters of Savile Row” became an immediate sensation among the young, rich, and beautiful, beguiling everyone from Bianca Jagger to the Beatles – who immortalized Tommy’s designs on the album cover of Abbey Road. Meanwhile, David’s innate talent with a camera vaulted him across the Atlantic to New York City, where he found himself in a parallel constellation of stars (Yoko Ono, Elton John), who enjoyed his dry wit almost as much as his photography.
House of Nutter tells the stunning true story of two gay men who influenced some of the most iconic styles and pop images of the twentieth century. Drawing on interviews with more than seventy people – and taking advantage of unparalleled access to never-before-seen pictures, letters, sketches, and diaries – journalist Lance Richardson presents a dual portrait of brothers improvising their way through five decades of extraordinary events, their personal struggles playing out against vivid backdrops of the Blitz, an obscenity trial, the birth of disco, and the devastation of the AIDS crisis.
A propulsive, deftly plotted narrative filled with surprising details and near-operatic twists, House of Nutter takes readers on a wild ride into the minds and times of two brilliant dreamers.