Just when you thought the 1960s had been exhausted of its charismatic, mercurial figures, David Litvinoff hoves into view. Author Keiron Pim has doneamarvellousjobof bringing to light a character so outlandish that he reads like a fictional conflation of every colourful star from that swinging decade.
Indeed, Litvinoff manages to crop up, Zelig-like, at virtually every key point from the 1930s to the 1970s. Born in London in 1928 to Jewish par- Keiron Pim: builds a brilliant myth ents with Russian origins, he was there or thereabouts as Mosley’s blackshirts roamed the East End, and as an evacuee during the Second World War — where the host family abused him.
He came alive at the dawn of London’s beatnik bohemia, flitting betweentheburgeoningunderground and criminal underworld, mixing with both the Krays and the Rolling Stones as well as Lucian Freud and Eric Clapton. He was someone “on the borders of art and villainy”, according to Stones lynchpin Keith Richards.
Sexually voracious, morally dissolute, a Faginesque procurer and surreal provocateur, capable of kindness and terrible violence, court jester and intellectual firebrand, as comforta-
Litvinoff by his friend Lucian Freud ble with the upper-class set in Chelsea as he was with reprobates in Soho, Litvinoff was all things to all people. Pim invests him with the quality of a myth, to the extent that you want to Google the facts to check that he really did exist.
He didn’t leave behind much by way of a legacy, save legions of reports bearing witness to his magnetic aura and outrageous ways. People were either appalled by his antics or fascinated by his erudition, or both. Jimi Hendrix is said to have visited Litvinoff when he moved to a tiny village in Wales in a quest to become “a rustic Jew”. Brian Jones apparently telephoned him, rambling and desperate, on the eve of the Stones guitarist’s death in 1969.
He was one of the few audacious enough to address the psychotic Ronnie Kray by anything other than his preferred moniker of “The Colonel”, opting instead for “Boot-Nose”.
His liberties with one of Kray’s boyfriends and cavalier disregard for the rules of his gambling dens resulted in Litvinoff being greeted outside Earl’s Court tube station by a man with a cut-throat razor who sliced his cheeks, with the words, “Ronnie says hello”.
But Litvinoff was equally capable of grotesque cruelty, as Pim testifies via first-hand accounts from survivors.
His greatest contribution — and sole material evidence of his deranged energyandknowledgeof thedarkunderbelly of the capital — was his assistance during the making of Performance, sometimes hailed as the greatest British movie of all time. Some question the extent of his involvement; others claim that every frame was imbued with Litvinoff’s licentious presence. He did make sure there was a copy of the Jewish Chronicle on the bed of gangster protagonist Harry Flowers in one crucial scene of the film.
As with many, the ’60s took their toll and, by the new decade, Litvinoff had succumbed to depression. He committed suicide in 1975, the ultimate act from one of the most extreme individuals of his, or any, era. Pim tells his story — piecing together the fragments to build a myth — quite brilliantly.
Paul Lester is a rock journalist