“Brits are the new blondes!” said British socialite and business entrepreneur Euan Rellie, flitting from huddle to huddle at Soho House in the meatpacking district. Mr. Rellie may have been being wishful, but his team was out in full force for Toby Young’s new one-man play, based on his memoir, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People . The book is a primer for what not to do as an Englishman in New York. Mr. Rellie was on hand to welcome his prodigal brother back into the fold.
He leaned on the bar in the private club’s “Library” room, where the trompe l’oeil books painted on the wall gave him proper cover as he ordered a beer and a white wine.
“See?” he exclaimed. “Brits do pay for their own drinks.”
Mr. Rellie was representing his people, a new breed of Englishman (and -woman) that has come to New York-and they’re staying.
Call them the Brit Pack. In London, they’re too posh or too East End; they’re indulgent aristocrats, or they’re striving aristocrats, which is distasteful to their families, or they’re trying to break out of their class altogether, which is distasteful to everyone. They come from the right school and it’s all wrong, or the wrong school and it’s even wronger. But in New York, they find money, love, power-and the adoration of an Anglophilic city.
In other words, as P.G. Wodehouse knew, New Yorkers are crazy for the Brits.
At a recent party 17 floors above Christopher Street, a young stockbroker from London named Geraint took a break from dancing in his soaking-wet T-shirt.
“The British accent used to be quite cool,” he said, “but it’s kind of lost it. But still, it will get you laid-it really will. Without a doubt. You just act posh and women are interested in you. You’re exotic.
“Every English guy I know here has absolutely no problem getting laid,” Geraint continued. “It’s because we’re the baddies in all the films, so therefore we’re the intelligent, enigmatic motherfuckers. We’re talking Hannibal Lecter; we’re talking every bad guy in American films is a Brit. And you know, the British are getting a bit knocked off about it. You can’t use the Russians anymore. But it still gets us laid, because we’re considered cold, emotionally distant and very intelligent-which, of course, we are.”
Soon after Geraint had recounted how his posh accent got him out of a speeding ticket recently, two police officers knocked on the door and said the party was over.
“When I came over, and people were so nice to me purely because of my accent-so willing to show me around and make me feel welcome-it made me embarrassed,” said Tara Hannert, director of public relations for the designer BCBG and the daughter of Irish screenwriter Shane Connaughton. “I know in England they wouldn’t reciprocate. They see Americans as Midwesterners with ugly shorts and a big camera around their necks. When I came, so many people would kind of corner me and say, ‘You have to meet my son.’ Literally, you would get a call saying: ‘I want to take you out to dinner and introduce you to all our friends.’”
Another young Brit, a banker in his 20′s named Hugo, said his accent was quite an asset.
“I think, as a Brit, you can’t do that much wrong in the city,” he said. “Everyone’s so nice to us, and we don’t necessarily deserve it. The accent gives you 10 I.Q. points you don’t deserve.”
“Sometimes it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. You find yourself more worthy than other American residents in New York, and it sometimes becomes true,” laughed British novelist Tim Geary. “People live a sort of hyper-reality here. They think they’re untouchable. They can drink, do drugs, hang onto jobs, get the cute American girl to sleep with you because you’re British. Brits come to New York and get to star in their own fantasies.”
Of course, there are still some areas where Americans and Brits don’t quite see eye-to-eye.
“People notice I bite my nails,” said a fetching 34-year-old named Deli outside Dusk on a recent Friday night. “Oh, my God-how can I go out without my nails being perfect? There’s this whole thing about pubic hair. Nobody in New York seems to have pubic hair anymore. And if you do have pubic hair, it can only be a very thin strip going down there. And it has to be ruthlessly policed. The grooming thing, I think, makes you feel more self-conscious-but slightly proud that you’ve got horny toenails or whatever and you look like a hobbit.”
The new Brit Pack is a simple enough phenomenon, in practical terms: The longer the Brit Pack stays, the larger it seems to become. But the underlying reasons are complex.
For many, the elements of American life that were so distasteful to the British elite have suddenly seemed less prevalent in New York.
Camilla Parker Bowles’ nephew, Ben Elliot, launched his luxury concierge service, Quintessentially (to be housed in the Soho House building, incidentally), in February; his business partner, 29-year-old Reinaldo Bibolini (known as “Bibs”), already plans on staying put in New York because “there are no judgments here.
“In London, it’s such a classist society that you’re sort of pigeon-holed. Here, it doesn’t matter who your mum or dad is,” he added.
Mr. Bibolini said that in England, being an entrepreneur was looked down upon.
“Being a self-made man over there is completely different,” he said.
Mr. Elliot launched Quintessentially less than five months ago, but he’s already graced the cover of Quest magazine and has become a member of the exclusive Park Avenue Racquet Club, an old boys’ club that even old boys have to wait years to get into.
Some of the old guard have started to feel that, too. Ms. Bass, who moved to New York in 1976, said she feels “anxious” when she goes back to England these days. “I feel like I don’t belong anymore,” she said. “It’s a little sad, because my three sisters live over there, and I sometimes feel a bit left out.”
Her three older sisters have trouble understanding why she still wants to live in the city of ambition.
“They get very cross with me because I care about promoting my business,” Ms. Bass said. “They don’t much like talking about money, and they can never understand why I’m in the newspaper. And I say, ‘Well, you know, I don’t really know why myself.’ They think it’s all a bit too showy.”
“A majority go up the ladder and they dominate these worlds. They don’t just coast on their persona,” said Jeffrey Podolsky, the New York editor of the British society magazine Tatler .
“Where would magazines be without the English people?” asked Serena Bass, a nightclub owner and caterer who moved to New York in 1977 (but still hasn’t given up her British passport). “I think English people are very important in New York. They give New York an edge .”
Indeed, for some Brits, twinges of disdain for the Colonies are still detectable-even in their defense of New York. But it has more to do with the fact that the city-which, after Sept. 11, was so wholly embraced by the nation-now seems once again to be more like a membrane separating Europe from America, a thing of its own that is not quite either.
“It is really nice when you see people like Anna Wintour and Serena Bass, who have lived here for years. Their accents haven’t slipped into an awful mid-Atlantic here,” said Ms. Hannert, 29. “I think a lot of people, especially people I know from the Soho House, are here to stay.”
And then there’s the inevitable outcome of all that “getting laid” in New York.
“People are now coming here and actually having babies and starting a family,” said Harold Evans, who is seen as a kind of godfather to the Brit Pack.
“I think more of them want to stay on permanently,” agreed one young female and Soho House member, who asked not to be identified. “When I first moved to New York, they were coming and going quite quickly …. Now they’re having babies here. I think the Brits are assimilating.”
Luckily for the Brit Pack, Soho House has a baby service.
Mr. Rellie’s wife, 90′s “it girl” Lucy Sykes, is due to give birth within weeks, and the couple plans on raising a family in New York rather than returning to London to settle down.
Of course, this isn’t the first wave of people to come to New York the same way New Yorkers used to go to Hollywood-to make their fortune. Earlier waves have included Mr. Evans and his wife, Tina Brown, as well as Ms. Bass, Anthony Haden-Guest and Anna Wintour.
Mr. Haden-Guest, whom Mr. Rellie calls the Brit Pack’s patron saint, said the Brits of today have come a long way from the Brits of the 70′s, who were a cheap and riotous lot-”the generation so infamous that Bartle Bull called them the ‘British sponge fleet.’
“I bet statistically, you’ll find there may be more now,” he added.
“I think it got increasingly sticky over here in that people are starting to stay longer,” said Mr. Evans. While he and Ms. Brown did not intend to stay in New York forever when they first arrived, their successes in the media industry made it hard to go back home. Except when they needed to replenish. “The non-sticky relationship becomes more and more adhesive. You become nostalgic about England; once you become nostalgic, you know you’re not going to go back. I think we were the first footprints in the sand,” Mr. Evans said.
The Brit Pack is already feeling it.
“It’s a disadvantage to have a posh accent on television,” said tall, lanky Nick Denton, wearing a Dolce & Gabbana leather jacket and sandals. He sat on a couch drinking a cranberry juice at Soho House on a recent afternoon. A former reporter for The Financial Times , Mr. Denton is the president of Gawker media, which includes the media-celebrity Web site gawker.com and an upcoming porn site.
“The New Labor establishment generally has little time for the aristocracy. It’s not as though they’re resented; they’re just not relevant any more,” he said. “I wonder whether some of the posh Brits find the audience more appreciative in the U.S. They’re rather like the Russian émigrés of interwar Paris.”
And like those émigrés, Brits find they have an adoring audience among Americans. That historic Anglophile strain that has always suckered Americans-we can’t resist the accent, damn it!-has passed on to a new generation.
“Nothing impresses … more than hosting a young, entertaining Brit in your Fifth Avenue home,” said Mr. Podolsky, the Tatler editor. “Why go wild over Jeremy Northam as an Edwardian sophisticate on TV when you can entertain an English dandy in your own Robert Kime’d fabric living room, or rather drawing room, adorned with inlaid David Linley cigar boxes that cost thousands?”
Mr. Evans remembers a time when his accent charmed Americans. “When we first arrived, we were still able to get away with anyone who heard your accent thinking you’re a superior being. But people have gotten used to the fact that if you speak with an English accent, it doesn’t mean you are a Rhodes Scholar or you rubbed shoulders with Prince Edward,” Mr. Evans said. “I get my hand shaken more because my Prime Minister is Tony Blair than for anything else. After Iraq, Tony Blair is more popular here than he is in England.”
The Earl of Albemarle hews to that rather more serious notion of Anglo-American accord. He’s spearheading an effort to plant a British memorial garden in Hanover Square in honor of the British nationals who died in the World Trade Center attack and while serving alongside Americans in World War I and World War II.
“We don’t want to be seen as a group of British people living off the backs of Americans. We’re not. We’re very seriously imbedded,” said the Earl of Albemarle. “The New York Brit Pack is mainly a heel pack-it’s about who can get the highest heels. Soho House is the closest I am to hanging out with a lot of Brits.”
But even at Soho House, there was nothing uniquely British about it at all, aside from copies of The Financial Times and the general manager, a short man nicknamed “Podge,” whom members call “tremendously efficient” and an “institution.”
On a recent afternoon, Podge was fussing and waddling about from room to room, a cell phone pressed to his ear. He said he couldn’t talk without first getting “clearance” from his superiors as well as from PMK/HBH, the public-relations company. In the fifth-floor lounge, there were more staff than members. Smokers were shooting pool and playing pinball in an enclosed area, and Candace Bushnell was being interviewed about her new novel, Trading Up .
Mr. Denton, the former Financial Times reporter and current Gawker president, was sitting nearby with his cranberry juice. An Oxford graduate, Mr. Denton has been a member of Soho House from the beginning and said it was the third time he’d been there that week. “The good thing is, you can live in New York and have as much of your home country as you want. A lot of Brits come to New York to get away from Brits, so … the last thing they want is to be in a club surrounded by other Brits.”
Mr. Denton had got into some trouble after his Gawker editor in chief, Elizabeth Spiers, wrote a bunch of items about the club. She’d brought up “sightings” of Becks and Posh, Nicole and Jude-but that was O.K. What upset Soho House-and resulted in a letter being sent to Mr. Denton-was a reference to some “soggy carpets”.
“It’s not like everyone meets up in that room over there and plots the takeover of American media,” he said. “But I think anyone who comes here from the U.K. will know 20 people, 40 people from back home. And the chances are that you won’t run into them all that often. So one of the things I’ve liked about Soho House is simply that you do just run into people again and again and again.”
Another Soho House member put it more scientifically: Soho House, she said, “made English people sit up and realize they were a dominant gene in New York.”
“It’s a place to go on Wednesday nights,” Mr. Denton said. “That gives me as much of London as I need, and probably as much as I can stomach.”