One evening in 1954, Lucian Freud entered Esmeralda’s Barn, a club in Knightsbridge, and heard the barman asking another customer, ‘Is that on your bill, Mr Freud?’ The impostor was David Litvinoff (1928–75), the vicious, verbal hustler who accelerated the swing of Sixties London and whose furtive, flagrant life Kieron Pim traces in this superb biography.
‘It turned out he’d been me for quite a while,’ Freud recalled. The resemblance was not just physical: Litvinoff was a Jewish gambler with a violent streak and a taste for low company. Instead of attacking ‘possibly the most revolting person I had ever seen in my life’, Freud asked Litvinoff to sit for him. ‘I thought, well, I can do a self-portrait without all the bother of looking in the mirror.’
Freud titled his painting Portrait of a Jew. The art historian William Feaver called it a ‘proxy self-portrait’. So was Litvinoff’s life. Born David Levy in a Spitalfields slum, his father was a gambling tailor, his mother a refugee from pogroms in Odessa. Evacuated in 1940 to Amersham, he and