How a gay fraudster charmed British royalty with fake historic tours & adult play parties

Dennis Servers speaks in his house with a TV program hostess
Dennis Servers speaks in his house with a TV program hostess Photo: YouTube screenshot

When Dennis Severs graduated from college in 1967, the last place you’d expect the blond, California surfer boy to move was dreary London, England. But once there, Severs embarked on a do-it-yourself-style exercise in eccentric living. It included elaborate (and totally fake) house tours, rubbing shoulders with society’s elite, and earning the nickname of “the most promiscuous man in London.” His former home was the site of legendary activity ranging from bizarre to downright steamy. Now it’s open to the public as the backdrop to share Severs’s own, unlikely legacy.

Severs arrived in London at a time when it was nearly impossible to lead an openly gay life. Yet that’s where he developed the courage to do so. After finding some modest success giving boisterous tours of the city in an open carriage, Severs pounced on an opportunity to purchase a dilapidated brownstone for just £18,000 ($22,887). With hardly a possession to his name — and assisted by a rotating cast of gay artists who lived with him off and on—Severs began remodeling the house and, bit by bit, he transformed it into the 18th century-inspired wonderland it remains to this day.

A view of Dennis Severs House , in the City of London
Shutterstock A view of Dennis Severs’s House in the City of London

From the moment he acquired the deed, Severs began giving highly theatrical tours of the home. Though the property boasted no architectural or historical significance, you’d never know that from one of his three-and-a-half-hour guided experiences. For the paying public willing to indulge his stories — that is, the ones who weren’t were thrown out and handed back their admission money — Severs would make up tales of the fictitious Jervis family, silk weavers who’d occupied the residence for generations. His wild and refreshingly unique presentation style attracted a following of artists and celebrities. Among them were David Hockney, Derek Jarman, Princess Margaret, and Lady Bird Johnson.

When the sun went down, the house served a drastically different purpose. Severs was a regular at London’s darkroom clubs and leather bars, where he’d pick up new acquaintances to bring back home. His adult play parties became part of local lore, like that time he hosted the entire male chorus of a famed ballet company.

Severs continued to give tours of his home until he succumbed to AIDS in 1999, and the property sat virtually untouched for the next 20 years. Shortly after lockdowns ended, the home reopened with a new tour that offers a glimpse into Severs’s creative process, kicked up several notches for a modern audience.

Writing anonymously for The Guardian, the artist commissioned to reopen the home explains how they joined forces with actors to create a piece of immersive theater set within the property’s storied halls.

“We soon discovered that not only could [the actors] embody the spirits of each of the fictional residents of the house that Severs invented, they also brought their own skills, in particular a sophisticated linguistic dexterity which allowed the performance to become a virtuoso endeavor,” the author, who goes by “The Gentle Author,” writes.

“Audiences are limited to seven and we perform at night by candlelight, following in the footsteps of Severs through the 10 rooms of the house and through 300 years. These performances have been running six times a week for over three years now, and I must confess we have not had occasion to throw anyone out yet.”

Now the group has created another immersive show called Simon’s Story, “which explores the lives of Severs and the small circle of men who lived with him and created the house as we know it. For them, it was a place of refuge, consolation and personal freedom, at a time when HIV and AIDS was inducing existential terror in a generation of gay men.”

For more information about Simon’s Story, which opened June 15 at the Severs house, head here.

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