“Only an eye,” said Cézanne of Impressionist icon Claude Monet, “but my God, what an eye!” It was the line of that impeccable eye that I was trying to track as I contorted myself at the window sill in my fifth floor suite of the Savoy in London; the very same suite, I was assured, in which the French master had been thrice resident between 1899 and 1901, and in which he had so relentlessly painted the Thames and its bridges.
It was not, I admit, the only vantage point in which I chose to position myself during a stay in the venerable London hotel of Edwardian grandeur and showbiz legend. In the laneway beside the hotel, leading from The Strand down to the river, I pantomimed the contemptuous discard of a series of hastily-scrawled placards, after the manner of the ragged vagabond of the 60s, Bob Dylan. That scene, to the backing of the song “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, hailed now as a pioneering rock video, was a part of the D.A. Pennebaker film documenting his 1965 British tour, Don’t Look Back.
Holed up in the Savoy, where he was not allowed to dine in the famed Savoy Grill or other restaurants because he refused to don a necktie, Dylan became the centrepiece of an astonishing circus, drawing not just hungry media and Pennebaker’s cinema verité cameras, but the very cream of British music royalty of the day. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Donovan, Marianne Faithfull, Alan Price of the Animals, and fellow Americans Joan Baez and the poet Alan Ginsberg were all there to pay their respects and bask in his extraordinary aura. When the Beatles came to call, the kitchen prepared the revoltingly termed “porridge and pea sandwiches” for them (a step up, perhaps, from their beloved Liverpool chip butties).
Dylan’s flippant, sometimes hilarious British press conference was staged, meeting what was very much by then a London expectation, at the Savoy. The mad scramble was recently echoed in the climactic scene of the hit film, Notting Hill, with Hugh Grant winning the fair lady’s (that is, Julia Robert’s) heart at a jammed media conference in the hotel. The Ritz may have been otherwise featured in the movie but it was the Savoy where, in time-honoured tradition, the ink stained fingers of journalists were thrust into the air to command a moment’s floor-time.
Marilyn Monroe, at the Savoy with her husband, playwright Arthur Miller, subjected herself to such a mêlée when promoting The Prince and The Showgirl in 1957. Peter Stafford, an Australian who spent fifteen years at the Savoy, from 1954, first as assistant manager and then as assistant general manager, remembers slipping a curious and excited Pattie Menzies, then in residence with her husband, Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies, into the back of the room to witness the engagement with Fleet Street’s finest.
Although film lore has it that co-star and director Laurence Olivier (who, by the way, had first laid eyes on his wife-to-be Vivian Leigh at the Savoy in 1939) found it rather hard going with the often obstinate Norma Jean throughout the shoot, on that day he was truly invaluable. “It was such a performance, he was wonderful” recalls Stafford. “Olivier sat beside her and told the reporters that, as she might have difficulty with their accents, he would repeat each of their questions to her, because she had become familiar with his way of speaking. I’m sure she had no trouble at all understanding them but it did give her a few moments to think up her replies!”
Unlike Dylan, I was prepared to clamber into a coat and tie to visit the venerable Savoy Grill, otherwise known as “the second House of Lords” or “the Bosses’ Canteen”. It was here, where Roast Saddle of Lamb is never off the menu, that Cary Grant, after many years living in Hollywood, rediscovered the delights of bangers and mash. (Novelist and recently diminished political figure, Jeffrey Archer, ordered the dish so often that he insisted that the sausage be named after him). “Always a place to be seen, it is now, at lunchtime” declares its own publicity, “where city influence sits next to industrial might, where newspaper editors cluster in their ‘corner’ and Cabinet ministers vie for the best tables. In the evenings, actors, actresses, theatre and film luminaries rub shoulders with earls, dukes and princes.”
Though I don’t doubt any of that for a moment, within my line of sight the night that I found myself subject to the shine of its silverware, was merely a billionaire or two. I wasn’t allocated table four, where Winston Churchill dined so regularly that it was left empty, out of respect, for a full year after his passing but I wasn’t bothered because I had come hoping for an appearance of Kaspar the cat. A metre high and carved from a single piece of plane tree, he was commissioned by the hotel in 1926 to be the 14th guest at any dinner party of 13, thus relieving the first diner to depart of the curse which befell businessman Joel Wolff in 1898. Scoffing at the superstition that the first to leave would be the first to die, he left for South Africa in a rush and was shot dead in his Johannesburg office a few weeks later. Alas, the parties at my neighbouring tables barely topped a half dozen and Kaspar, with a napkin tied around his neck, was left on a high shelf in the Pinafore Room.
There are seven private rooms named after Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. The works of the oddly matched pair have enjoyed a revival of sorts since the film Topsy Turvy though the pilgrimage trail has always been well trod. Perhaps the pinnacle of devotion is that of Sir Michael Bishop, jovial multi-millionaire chairman of British Midland airlines and a devout affecionado of W.S. and Sir Arthur, who often bases himself in the hotel when working in London.
Celebrated impressario Richard D’Oyly Carte established the Savoy Theatre in 1879 – on land between the River Thames and The Strand that Count Peter of Savoy had been granted by King Henry III in 1246 for an annual rent of three barbed arrows – in order to present productions of Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. Five years later, he commenced construction of the adjoining Savoy Hotel, at vast personal expense.
Set on a curve of the River Thames, it was the first steel-framed building in London and the first to use concrete in its construction, provoking wonderment with its full electric lighting and a then-staggering 67 baths. Opened to great fanfare on 6 August 1889, with room rates of 7 shillings and sixpence for a single room and 12 shillings for a double, the first Sovereign its till received was tendered by one Harry Rosenfeld of Chicago to purchase a bottle of Moet de Chandon champagne. The coin was consigned to the hotel’s safe, where it still sits.
A glittering tone was set early – a clarion call to royalty, aristocracy, potentates and top flight businessmen. In 1905, Venice – complete with a silk-lined gondola filled with fresh carnations and 400 glass hanging lamps – was evoked in the forecourt for Wall Street hotshot and champagne millionaire George Kessler. Tenor Enrico Caruso sang arias at the dinner, competing for attention with a baby elephant.
As legend has it, it was Lillie Langtry, mistress of Edward VII and the first woman to break the bank at Monte Carlo, who had taken D’Oyly Carte aside and told him that, if he wanted to bring the beautiful people of the day into his new hotel, he would need to first win over society women and the way to do that was to hire Swiss hotelier César Ritz as manager. Ritz duly came on board and brought with him the diminutive Auguste Escoffier, from the Ritz Hotel in Paris, as his Maître Chef des Cuisines. Escoffier delighted in individual culinary creations for famous femmes, such as Sarah Bernhardt. What we now know as Peach Melba was just a little something whipped up by the celebrated chef to conclude a celebratory dinner for Dame Nellie Melba’s debut performance of Elsa in Lohengrin. The antipodean diva was plainly enchanted by the gesture. “Much as Eve tasted the first apple” she would later write, “I tasted the first pêche Melba in the world.”
Firsts came to be the Savoy’s stock in trade, even if they were not always engineered. The first fiery verbal altercation between the Lord Queensbury, of boxing rules fame, and acerbic playwright Oscar Wilde took place in Savoy space; as did George Gershwin’s first performance of “Rhapsody In Blue” outside America, the first regular radio broadcasts of dance bands, and the first combination of dinner and dancing. Elizabeth Taylor spent her honeymoon with her first husband Nicky Hilton in a Savoy suite (she returned with Hilton’s successors, notably Richard Burton; the pair celebrating the launch of the film Cleopatra in the ballroom in 1963). The Queen Mother broke royal protocol when she rose and applauded the great Maria Callas after her opening in Tosca .
From the outset, the royals treated the place like a palace extension. Before the first world war there had been a bell to herald the impending arrival of personages royal and blue blooded. Such was the frequency of their visits that it had to be dispensed with as a nuisance. When Eleanor Roosevelt was guest of honour of the Pilgrim Society in 1952, Princess Elizabeth attended with her new husband, Prince Phillip. Upon becoming Queen the following year, she had her Coronation Ball there.
The very word Savoy swiftly became a byword for gilt-edged quality; the reason why a “hotel on The Strand” would become one of the essential acquisitions in a winning game of Monopoly. To even work in the hotel’s kitchen was deemed desirable. At the turn of the last century, a young Italian dishwasher became so enamoured of the conspicuous wealth of the hotel’s guests that he was able to glimpse between soakings that he returned to Florence and went into the business of luxury leather goods. His name was Guccio Gucci.
My dress tastes don’t necessarily run to his creations but, having fitted myself into a barely functioning necktie and jacket for the Savoy Grill, I ventured further forth the following morning, electing to take some refreshment in the Thames Foyer, where Strauss had conducted, Pavlova had danced in cabaret, Diaghilev had sashayed past in obligatory furs, Bill Haley had rocked around the clock, and Picasso and Berlin had, well at the very least, taken tea. The Marble lobby is now as brisk and businesslike as it was once overpoweringly ornate but the elegance is intact, with original domes, hanging glass lamps, mahogany paneling and Neoclassical plaster friezes deftly restored and integrated.
The scars have been well mended. During the Blitz in WWII, the Savoy suffered two hits in one night from high explosive bombs believed to have been intended for Waterloo Station (though the American war correspondents who gathered in Titch’s Bar probably preferred to believe that they were the Hun’s real target). One landmine which was dropped by parachute lodged in a tree and blew out the entire riverside facade of the hotel, damaging fifty rooms. When an explosion in The Strand skittled the leader of the hotel’s dance band, Noel Coward stepped up to the piano and kept spirits high and fears dampened by playing and singing a selection of his own songs (as he would).
The Savoy survived the six years of World War II without once closing its doors and when the blackouts ended in 1945, it was the first public building in London to reilluminate. It didn’t discover until after VE Day that it had been one of the Luftwaffe’s top ten targets. Stoic and sturdy as well as grand and glamorous, the hotel was perfectly in keeping with the mood and values of the forties and fifties. But the Profumo Scandal heralded a new Britain, with a new set of movers and shakers, a new emphasis on youth, revolutionary arts and extreme fashion.
The Savoy did not comfortably keep pace with the Swinging Sixties. When dolly bird Cathy McGowan, host of television’s Ready Steady Go, turned up at the hotel in a trouser suit, she was politely asked to leave. Shortly after, in 1967, actress Geraldine Chaplin, who had often stayed in the hotel with her famous father, found that not even a tailored suit by Pierre Cardin permitted her to dine in pants. Waif-like model Twiggy took the line of least resistance when challenged and retired to the Ladies Room to divest herself of the bottom half of a pants suit, leaving the top half to form a daring micro-mini skirt. A tipped-off photographer captured the moment and sent it around the world. By this stage, the hotel had ceased to be embarrassed by the evictions and quietly basked in the considerable global publicity. Though more readily identified with tradition than progression – in its first 100 years the hotel had only four managing directors – by 1969, the strict rules were relaxed.
The travails of the trendy notwithstanding, for the Savoy’s loyal suite dwellers there was rarely a question of staying elsewhere, even within the hotel itself. Imposing American actor Victor Mature once flew into the city two days ahead of schedule and, finding his familiar suite already under occupation, hopped a flight back to New York to await a Savoy summons to take up his familiar domain. Fellow actor Gary Cooper had simple but specific instructions for a London sojourn: “Just hire me a Rolls and make sure of my old room with a river view.”
Maurice Chevalier, according to writer Elizabeth Lambert, had liked to be similarly accommodated – to the particular pleasure of some hotel employees. Always trying to give up smoking and wracked with guilt by the second or third draw of a cigarette, he would flip the lit stick out his window, vowing again to give up the filthy habit. Below, hotel porters scrambled for what was then a scarce commodity, even in partially-consumed form. (Though it can’t quite be said that every screen star just couldn’t wait to return. Silent era film heartthrob George Galli checked out one day and was not seen again for 35 years. His mysterious disappearance was finally solved when he was located in a Belgian monastery).
The secret of this appeal to the shimmering stars of the day had much to do with the individual attention extended them. Eccentricities were well accommodated, with the hotel proclaiming that “every whim of the most exacting guests can be gratified at four in the morning as satisfactorily as at four in the afternoon.” Not only could early cowboy film star Tom Mix ride into the ballroom on his horse Tony, and Billy Butlin, of holiday camp fame, bring his pet leopard to a cocktail party, but accommodation was arranged without a blink for opera star Luisa Tetrazzini’s crocodile. For imposing actor Lionel Barrymore, given to smoking in bed, the hotel commissioned the first fireproof eiderdown. Unfortunately, no such prophylactic was suited to Elton John who, many years later, gave the Savoy its first celebrity flood by overfilling his bath. And, on the subject of baths, Russian bass singer Feodor Shaliapin, who checked in with his pet monkey Boris, warbled so loudly in his tub that he had to be ever so gently persuaded to move to a top floor suite.
A move was always an adventure in itself, as no two of the hotel’s 152 guest rooms and 48 suites are the same. Indeed the matching of celebrity and room has always been as much an art form as a skill; although not without its occasional stumbles. American playwright Moss Hart arrived late one night for a two month stay related to the opening of My Fair Lady in the West End and, with the suite Peter Stafford had intended for his pleasure still occupied by other guests, was shown to another riverside room. The next morning Stafford received a crisp call: “Peter, I don’t want to be a bother but I’m afraid the style of this apartment is ‘early telephone booth’. Really.” It took but a few moments to despatch the porters and make Hart happy, because keeping them happy is what it was, and is, all about. “Them” being entirely different to you and I (except in our dreams).
Marconi, ever the audio experimenter, kept hotel staff busy providing baffles – layers of felt under the room carpet and thick screens mounted in the hallway – to soundproof his suite when he used the Savoy to make history with his first wireless broadcast to the United States. Page boys obliged boxer Jack Dempsey as sparring partners on the roof but quite possibly politely declined to “go fetch” when golfer Walter Hagen wedged a tee near the ledge to drive balls toward a coal barge on the river.
Stafford also relates the occasion when actress-turned-Pepsi executive wife Joan Crawford “had arranged drinks for a Saturday afternoon, in one of our function rooms, and had invited 60 or so guests. On the Friday evening before, I had just been in a chemist shop in the hotel courtyard when I was called to the telephone. A very distressed voice cried: ‘Peter, I have been bitten by a bug and my eye is all puffed up. I can’t possibly greet my guests like this, I shall have to cancel!’ I remembered seeing, in the chemist, some quite beautiful, classical theatrical eye patches so I told her I had just the answer. I said, rather firmly, ‘Miss Crawford, I will bring it up myself and you are to wear it’. Of course she had her party and she was the most wonderful lady pirate you’ve ever seen!”
And…some of them just come for the beds, which enjoy their own fame. Just as the surprisingly self-contained Savoy has a private artesian well for the supply of soft water; its own electricity source, The Strand Power Company; and even its own road regulations (Savoy Court, along which one approaches the Art Déco steel and glass marquee, is the only street in Britain along which one legally drives on the right); The Savoy Bedworks makes mattresses, all with a minimum of 836 springs wrapped in cotton, padded with white curled horsehair, cushioned with lambswool, encased in cotton felting and enveloped in ticking of linen and cotton. Tossing and turning is most definitely frowned upon.
I didn’t really get around to counting or testing my springs, busy as I was for much of my stay over by the window, gazing at passing water traffic, taking in that which so inspired Monet and which Charlie Chaplin thought to be “the most stirring view of a city in the world.” Indeed, the comic genius near fell over himself: “I have admired the romantic elegance of the Place de la Concorde in Paris, have felt the mystic message from a thousand glittering windows at sunset in New York, but to me the view of the London Thames from our hotel window transcends them all for utilitarian grandeur.”
While a boy from Sydney with memories of a Manly Ferry crossing at dawn might be tempted toward debate, let it be known that he can also be swayed by a Savoy sunset.
Text copyright Glenn A. Baker 2014.