Vibrant biog of a Swinging 60s cat
LONDON never knew a time like the Swinging 60s. Social barriers had become porous, and no one slipped through them as easily as David Litvinoff. A man who declared he wanted to leave no proof of his existence beyond a birth certificate and a death certificate, Litvinoff is like a phantom haunting the era.
It’s not as if he’s gone undocumented. He pops up in settings so diverse that it’s hard to credit that they could be the same man. But Kieron Pim is the first author to tie all these sightings together and look closely at one of the most fascinating but uncelebrated figures of those times.
Born to parents who fled Russian pogroms for Whitechapel, Litvinoff was Jewish, gay, highly intelligent and wickedly articulate. He was a charismatic ball of energy who disliked authority and thrived on danger.
In Pim’s words, he “energised time”. In the mid-50s, the born hustler charmed his way into the bohemian Soho set and began his long association with the Krays, who had no compunction about sending one of their boys to plunge a knife through both his cheeks when he displeased them.
One night Litvinoff, who had been impersonating Lucian Freud and charging his drinks to the artist’s tab, was caught in the act by Freud himself, who thought him “possibly the most revolting person I have met in my life” but insisted on painting him – as though, Pim suggests, Freud was seeing himself “in a fairground mirror”. A few years later, Litvinoff was dangled from a balcony in an attack widely thought to have been arranged by Freud himself.
Throughout the 1960s, he lived multiple lives simultaneously, writing for the Daily Express’s William Hickey column at the same time as he collected rents for notorious landlord Peter Rachman, then befriending Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, bonding with the guitarist over their shared love of the blues.
Of all Pim’s interviewees, Clapton offers some of the most compassionate insights into Litvinoff’s anguished soul. As clever and quick-witted as he may have been, he was no artist: unlike his famous friends, he would leave nothing behind but anecdotes.
Clapton tried to reassure him that living his life as a work of art was OK too. But eventually Litvinoff’s compulsion to negate himself won out. He committed suicide in 1975.
He never completed his book on Lenny Bruce. But Litvinoff did, in fact, leave an indelible mark on culture in Donald Cammell’s film Performance. Litvinoff’s credit as “dialogue consultant and technical advisor” vastly understates his contribution. The film is infused with his DNA: his outlook, his language, his life.
Until this book came out, Performance was the closest one could get to David Litvinoff. Pim has closed that gap with a forensic examination of a complex man who was disarmingly open about his need to be accepted, but also someone capable of callous cruelty who carried a guilty burden to the grave.
It’s vibrant, colourful, revealing, often violent and one of the most absorbing biographies in a long time.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash is a colourful, revealing, often violent and always absorbing portrait of London in the 1960s