The pin-up photographer George Harrison Marks has always been associated with Soho. Besides having his studio in Gerrard Street he lived there with Pamela Green in the 1950s before moving to a flat in The Wabe in Hampstead. But what about his relationship with Fitzrovia.
At the film laboratories where he worked in the 1940s, he was introduced to an older woman called Diana Bugsgang. Legend has it Diana lived with her Polish mother in a flat above a Greek-owned strip-club in Goodge Street and that she volunteered as an air-raid warden at the tube station. Her father was Austrian and the family once had a shop in Hanway Street.
According to George, one day on his way home from work on the underground he fell ill and had to be rushed to the hospital. He was suffering from stomach ulcers. After two weeks in hospital he discharged himself, against the doctor’s advice, and at their invitation, he went to recuperate under the care of Diana and her mother. As Diana nursed George back to health they grew rather fond of each other and after he had fully recovered from his illness, they were married. George claimed that he was just 17 at the time and that Diana was 25. But I’m not sure I believe that.
After the wedding George found his Polish mother-in-law somewhat overbearing, so he went to live his aunt and uncle in Brighton, with his wife. With the war over, people were heading to the seaside again and George became a photographer along the seafront. It wasn’t long before he was a theatrical photographer. All was fine until December 1950, when Brighton was brought to a standstill by an outbreak of smallpox. The theatres, that had provided George with his winter income closed and his fortunes waned.
As the story goes he sold and pawned his possessions to try and ride it out, but he was getting deeper and deeper in debt and his creditors, were becoming increasingly threatening. Diana by this time had left him. George fled to London in 1951, penniless, homeless and desperate for work. As he describes it in his biography The Naked Truth:
“It was then I did a quick count-up of my resources, and it was a damned quick one, too! All I had were two tanners, four pennies and a halfpenny, plus, of course, my dog and a suitcase with a suit and a couple of shirts in it. I can tell you that I had never felt so low in my life. I had next to nothing. No job, nowhere to kip, no prospects and next to no money. All I could think of doing was to walk down Oxford Street to Joe Lyons Corner House in Tottenham Court Road and lash out on a cup of tea. It was at least somewhere to sit and think. So the dog and I set off and arrived in Lyons’ at about five o’clock. I spent fourpence on a cup of tea — which I shared with the dog — and sat there thinking, but far from gathering inspiration, my mind just went blank.
All I could think of was that in about two hours time London was going to come alive and I’d have to move on, but where to? Fate is a funny thing, and it was pure fate that was to save me that night. On the other side of the room, I noticed a familiar face. I couldn’t quite place it, but it belonged to a chap I had once known and, thank God, he recognised me and came across to sit at my table. Well, I was so relieved to find a friendly face, I just poured out the whole tale. When I’d said my piece this bloke suddenly threw out an offer which saved my life. “I’ve got an empty attic in my place in Charlotte Street. You can have it if you like until you get on your feet,” he said. I could have kissed him for I was so grateful. I didn’t though, but went round with him to his house and up to the top of the stairs.”
And that’s how George ended up living around the corner from his wife, who was back at her mother’s on Goodge Street.
George’s attic room was as big as a coffin and half as inviting. “There was an old dressing table and a rusty iron bed — no mattress, just the bedstead — and a rusty gas bracket hanging off the wall, and that was it. Still, it was somewhere for the dog to kip, and I was so tired and depressed I accepted with thanks. Anyway, he brought up a mattress and put it on the bed, and I crashed out on it, with the dog on the floor. I must say that after about five minutes, I began to wish I’d put the dog on the bed and slept on the floor myself, though. That mattress needed chains to keep it on the bedstead, it was so lousy, but it is a measure of how tired I must have been, that I slept on it like a babe.
I was woken up at about mid-day by the sound of the dog barking, and I sat up to find out what he was growling at. I thought there was a hell of a lot of coming and going in the house and even when I went down to the basement, where the man lived, and passed half-a-dozen men on the stairs; it didn’t dawn on me… In fact, I was living there for two days before I tumbled it — the place was a brothel!”
George started the rounds of the showbiz agents in town, touting for photographic work and set up his first London darkroom, in a washroom at the back of the basement
I’m not sure how long he stayed there before he moved to Gerrard Street but he “found out that some prostitutes really do have hearts of gold”.
“…they were marvellous types, always ready to help, inviting me in for tea and so on. I had a lot of time for them. One lent me £8 to get a camera out of pawn.”
One can see how George as a theatrical photographer in the heart of the West End, taking press pictures for cabarets and nightclubs ended up as a glamour photographer.
Diana eventually applied for a divorce and George had to appear to appeal against any claim for costs. In the courtroom, Diana accused George of adultery and the atmosphere was heated. George’s then partner, Pamela Green, was brought into it. Apparently, Diana hollered “Fetch her, ask her — she likes being beaten with wet fish!”. The judge held up his hand, “Miss Green has nothing to do with this case. You were living apart from your husband long before they met.” She then claimed that the marriage had not been consummated. After that, the judge ruled that the case was to be held in camera (private). According to George, it was an absolute riot, with claims and counterclaims. George was ordered to pay her a minimum maintenance of £2 per week.
In 1963, George Harrison Marks and Vivienne Warren got married in Caxton Hall. George invited Pamela Green along. The press mistakenly believed her to have been George’s second wife. A reporter had managed to track down Diana, George’s first wife, and he took her along with him to the wedding venue uninvited. After the ceremony, the press tried in vain to get a photo with George and all three wives. The Evening News had to settle for a shot of George and Viv with an embarrassed Diana looking on. The wedding reception was held at the plush 31 Room Club in Dover Street.
The Goodge Street flat that Diana moved back into with her mother eventually made her neighbours with Boy George. As a long-term resident, she gained the moniker “Queen of Fitzrovia”. She ended up working with vulnerable residents and was appointed the local community liaison officer for Camden Council before she died in 2010, aged 93.