Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
If Lucius Beebe did not exist, someone would have had to invent him. Dandy, bon viveur, wit, writer and aficionado of all things decadent, the American bon viveur lived his life in a high style that's almost unimaginable today.
In his rooms at university, he kept not only a roulette wheel but a saloon-class bar, concealed behind a revolving book case, and often arrived at class wearing a monocle and brandishing a gold-tipped cane. He once hired a plane to bombard the banker J.P. Morgan's yacht with loo roll.
Standing 6'4" tall, Beebe cut an imposing figure even before you factor in his epic wardrobe. He owned at least two mink-lined overcoats, one with a sable collar, diamonds, sapphires and a platinum watch, and favoured Lobb's boots and bespoke suits. His luggage for a 10-day stay in Hollywood filled nine suitcases.
Bravely for his era, Beebe was open about his gay relationships. He shared his life first with the photographer Jerome Zerbe, then with Charles Clegg, a writer, photographer and railway historian who worked with him on some of his books.
Something of a drama queen, Beebe created quite the stir in his first career as a reporter - he once arrived to cover a housefire clad in a morning coat and top hat. Later, as a chronicler of the café society he inhabited, his columns on goings-on at The Stork Club, El Morocco, 21 and others reached millions of readers.
A great believer in doing, well, exactly what he wilt, Beebe owned no fewer than two customized railway cars, the private jets of their day, both complete with enviable wine cellars. He bought and published a newspaper, largely because he felt like it.
Beebe's Stork Club Bar Book devotes an entire section to morning cocktails, and he was a fan of the "noontime Martini" (a three ounce serve). But Beebe also adored cigars and fine wines - Romanée-Conti, Dom Perignon and Bollinger were favourites - and could happily spend the equivalent of $5,000 on lunch or dinner.
Lucius' circle of friends included Noel Coward and Cecil Beaton, while he mingled with celebrities from Hemingway, Monroe, Sinatra and Cary Grant through to the Kennedys and Cecil B. De Mille. (It was DeMille who, on arriving at Beebe's railway carriage for the first time, supposedly said, "Tell the Madame I'll have a drink, but I'm too old to go upstairs.")
Beebe knew many of the great bartenders whose work he profiles in The Stork Club Bar Book, wrote for Trader Vic, chatted cocktails with Frank Meier and had a column in Gourmet. That said, he quite happily drank bathtub gin in speakeasies when the parental wallet dried up, and once horrified an interviewer by pouring premixed Martinis.
Beebe's rococo, orotund prose is sometimes a bit much to stomach - take this, on the ageing process: "High blood pressure, cheeriness at breakfast, a mellowing political philosophy and an inability to drink more than half a bottle of proof spirits at cocktail time without falling over the fire irons all suggest dark wings hovering overhead and the impending midnight crank of the raven."
Yet his passion for research, whether on railways, booze or food, makes his work some of the most collectible there is, and a window into a sadly bygone age when folk did decadence in style.