Erstwhile Amis Amour Gully Wells Chronicles Sexual Revolution

DESPITE THE OBVIOUS BENEFITS of membership, Britain’s intellectual class could be stifling. As a result, Ms. Wells and many of her peers lit out for New York at the earliest opportunity. In 1979, Ms. Wells arrived in the city with her partner—now husband—Peter Foges, who’d been offered the chance to become the BBC bureau chief here.

“New York was an escape hatch for people who got tired of London,” said Lawrence Osborne, a British travel writer and a member of Ms. Wells’s Traveler stable. “London was struggling economically, it was dowdy, it was small and provincial.”

The BBC put the couple up in a brownstone on Bank Street—described, in Mr. Amis’s 1984 novel Money, as a “chunk of sentimental London”—which quickly became a hostel for a migratory flock of Oxbridge writers on the rise. “They were not lower middle-class drop-outs,” Mr. Osborne hastened to note. “They went to private schools and were from a very connected, privileged class. They didn’t need to come to New York except to find a wider audience and more opportunity.”

Christopher Hitchens was one of them. He spent his first six months in New York living at the Bank St. place, where he was beloved for using the bathroom only rarely, but chided for multitasking by smoking when he did. Mr. Amis also crashed in the townhouse when he came through, often dragging the gang to a University Place pinball arcade.

Sir Harold Evans, who had a reputation for recruiting young stars to The Times of London, brought along one of his brightest, Tina Brown, who was by then his wife. When he took over Condé Nast Traveler, he made Gully Wells an editor—a position well suited to her capricious interests as well as her cosmopolitan upbringing.

And there was always room, it seemed, for another London expat in magazine publishing.

Part of what made this re-colonization so alluring for this generation of Britons-of-privilege was the chance to make something of themselves—and for themselves—free from the stratification of the British class system.
“Here they give much more credence to you as a bright person rather than judge you by your accent or your friends or your school,” observed expat author Simon Winchester, another of Ms. Wells’s writers at Traveler and a friend.

Britons may seem one large, well-heeled and attractively accented coterie to New Yorkers, but among themselves, they make dozens of narrow class distinctions. “People don’t pick up on British social nuance, and why the hell should they?” asked Anthony Haden-Guest, who, had his parents been married at the time of his birth, would be known as 5th Baron Haden-Guest. “That’s baggage one leaves at home when one comes here.”

In the robust magazine culture of the ’80s, the group found an exciting new home. According to The House in France, when Ms. Wells and Mr. Foges  ran into Mr. Hitchens and Ms. Wintour at Mortimer’s one night, they declared New York “the only place to be.”

They called it the Pact of Mortimer’s. It was never intended to be binding, but no one from Ms. Wells’s expat group has left New York permanently. Their rapid rise up the city’s mastheads likely had something to do with it. Meanwhile, New York has changed. It’s become safer, more bourgeois, and more closed off—like the London of their parents they left behind 30 years ago.

Ms. Wells—who is known for her osso bucco and for having inherited her mother’s gift for assembling combustible groups of people—revived the spirit of London literary society in Brownstone Brooklyn. “It’s very homely—and I don’t mean that in the American sense,” Mr. Winchester said of Ms. Wells’s Park Slope townhouse. “When you’re inside, in the dinner parties, in the homes, it’s the same as London,” said Hylan Booker, Dee Wells’s former lover. “It’s not pretentious, but there is a patina of formality.”

“It’s like a time capsule from the past,” said Lawrence Osborne. “They’ve preserved themselves—the witty conversation, the urbane manners that you don’t often see anymore. A dinner party is like a duel, you’re expected to say provocative things. They’re very high-spirited people, which is quite unusual in New York.”

If there is no new Oxbridge crew poised to claim New York for themselves, it is in part New York’s fault. The city is no longer the universally acknowledged center of culture.

According to Mr. Osborne, a declining education system is to blame as well. “They were the last generation to get that really Victorian education,” he said. After them it began to sort of fall apart. You just don’t meet those kind of encyclopedic minds, that human type, anymore.”

Not that it bothers Ms. Wells, Park Sloper. “I was never very interested in living in the red hot center of everywhere,” Ms. Wells said. “That’s probably why I’m not Anna or Tina.”

Thanks to her extraordinary family, Ms. Wells tended to find herself there anyway, always longing for something just slightly more conventional. The reason she and Martin Amis split, the memoir reveals, was that while Mr. Amis needed to lock himself in the library in order to achieve academic and literary greatness, Ms. Wells was ready for domestic bliss. Though her mother had expressed ambivalence toward her children in letters, Ms. Wells always knew she wanted to have babies.

Comments

  1. Natalie Wood says:

    Hang on, having read Amis’s memoir, I understood (wrongly?) that his first book was about his unnamed Jewish girl friend with whom he lost touch but credits with having launched his support for Israel. No doubt someone cleverer and better read will advise ….