It’s where it all began. UFOs, little green men, Mulder, Scully, the whole shebang. Most likely, it was also the beginning of conspiracy theories, the wide-spread public belief in government cover-ups and the modern day malaise of never believing anything we’re told, especially by authority figures. Roswell, New Mexico, has a lot to answer for.
It was part of a rambling road trip through the south-western United States; that morning, I’d left Las Vegas (the quaint and historic New Mexico town rather than its better-known neon-and-nihilism namesake) and had stopped off in Fort Sumner to visit the grave of Billy The Kid (which, despite all the odds, was actually there that day). The next stage of the trip was on to Roswell before heading to El Paso, Texas, to spend Thanksgiving.
It was late November and the expansive canopy sky was clear and blue yet with little warmth from the sun. The nights were freezing. On the northern edge of Roswell, I passed by the site where the “reputed” crash of a UFO and the recovery of the bodies of its alien inhabitants by the US military had occurred back in 1947. The black helicopters that seemed to track my progress were mere co-incidences at this time, as well the bulky dark SUVs that occasionally appeared in my rear vision mirror.
I reached the city limits of Roswell and that’s when things really started getting weird. If there had never been an “alleged” UFO crash, there would be no tourism industry to speak of and no other reason to visit this mildly pleasant but barely rememberable spot on the map. Roswell, to its credit, has taken the ball and run with it. Far out of the stadium, showing no signs of ever wanting to stop.
UFOs and aliens are everywhere, not merely inside the damaged craniums of the tinfoil-hat brigade. The Walmart has plenty, the many fast food franchises, including Arby’s, Denny’s KFC and Chilli’s have even more. The galaxies of gift shops hold nebula of T-shirts, shot glasses, ashtrays, beer coasters and snow globes. Everything you need to fit out an intergalactic space-age bachelor pad or the rumpus room of the Millennium Falcon.
The official City of Roswell website buzzes with spaceships and alien life forms, only a few of which are elected officials. Each July, there’s a UFO Festival that includes an Alien Battle Of The Bands and an Alien Wine Festival, although it should be noted that consuming alcohol while travelling at warp speed is not recommended. Long-suppressed reports of the 1947 UFO crash state that numerous empty beer bottles along with Doritos packets were found in the spaceship.
Ground zero for tourists to Roswell is the International UFO Museum and Research Center on Main Street. Dioramas and displays carefully explain the area’s history and little green men abound. Comfortingly, many look exactly as we would expect, cute creatures with big heads and certainly not the type to burst through the chests of unsuspecting humans or inhabit the bodies of loved ones when your back is turned.
In the gift store, I uncovered another disturbing link between Roswell and world history, a slim volume written by Donald R. Burleson titled UFOs and the Murder of Marilyn Monroe (Black Mesa Press, 2003). Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, I made the purchase in cash, in small unmarked bills, and smuggled it back to the Hampton Inn and Suites.
On check-in, I’d asked the receptionist whether she’d seen anything other-worldly lately. It seemed to strike a nerve. She looked evasive, as if she knew everything she said was being recorded and beamed straight back to Area 51. Then she nodded and grimaced wearily. “Just my ex-boyfriend,” she muttered in a low voice.
I read Burleson’s book from cover to cover that night. His central theory was that John F. Kennedy had told Marilyn Monroe all about Roswell, crashed UFOs, alien autopsies and the subsequent political cover-up. She was murdered days before holding a press conference during which she intended telling the world of her discoveries.
Interestingly, Burleson had also published studies of H.P. Lovecraft which opens the possibility that Marilyn Monroe was killed not by the Mafia or the CIA but by Cthulhu itself.
I fell into a deep and undisturbed sleep while a harsh wind whipped the grassy plains outside. In the morning, I had no recollection of the previous few hours. I knew I had to get out of town. There was barely enough time for the free breakfast buffet although it was fair to say the blueberry muffins were out of this world.
The black helicopters followed me all the way to the city limits, then turned west. The spy satellites, I’m sure, are tracking me still.
You don’t need to go looking for Dylan Thomas in south-west Wales, he finds you – through exhibitions, museums, festivals, statues, cafes, pubs, street names, paintings, posters and snatches of words still hanging in the salty air.
Good Celts them all, the Welsh share the Irish bent for tale-telling and, around Swansea, so many of the best ones concern the man Hollywood legend Shelley Winters dubbed “The Horny Welshman”. In 1950, she took him home for dinner where he drank pitchers of gin martinis served up in milk bottles by flatmate Marilyn Monroe while singing Welsh songs; the sort of ditties he’d learned at The Mermaid and The Antelope, his Swansea pubs of choice when “this sea town was my world”.
I came late to the Welsh bard. Before Under Milkwood and Do Not Go Gentle, at least for me, it was Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He’s there on the front cover of the 1967 Beatles album, in Peter Blake’s esoteric collage above Marlon Brando, beside Aldous Huxley, nearly clipped by cowboy Tom Mix’ hat. Blake has confirmed that John Lennon – who is said to have sometimes carried a battered volume of Thomas on his person during his Hamburg and Liverpool leather years – was insistent on the inclusion.
As I leave Swansea and wind around its bay to Mumbles and the Gower Peninsula, on the pilgrimage trail to the boathouse and writing shack at Loughnarne, there’s a copy of his Selected Poems on the car seat beside me. The back cover blurb is the right length for a traffic light stop. “Most notable for his verbal inventiveness, image-making power and almost pagan metaphysics, Dylan Thomas celebrated the glorious particulars of inner and outer landscapes in the face of weakness, mortality and decay.” Not hard to see why Lennon liked him.
I’m prepared to accept, though with not much graciousness, that not everyone who now trails this terrain has him as their filter. Mumbles, the busy seaside town beneath Mumbles Head, a popular resort since the Victorian era, which he summed up as “a rather nice village despite its name”, has a new fame. For this is where Catherine Zeta-Jones grew up and she still maintains a home there for regular returns. Chef Michael Knight, of Knights In The Mumbles restaurant in the town, makes himself available to cook privately for the actress and her family at said home. It’s a fascination, certainly, but will it last seventy years?
Mumbles is linked by a promenade to Swansea, Thomas’ “ugly lovely town”. It is to Cardiff as Glasgow is to Edinburgh – earthier, artsier, less accustomed to praise and patronage, ever obliged to try harder. It has tried particularly hard and, with considerable success, to showcase it – and Wales’ – pivotal role in the Industrial Revolution. A new National Waterfront Museum, built of Welsh slate, steel and glass and featuring 15 themed galleries and a hundred visual exhibits (three dozen of them interactive) graphically tells of a time, around 1850, when two-thirds of the families of Wales were supported by activities other than agriculture and copper smelting’n’shipping was Swansea’s distinction.
It’s a watery environment, to be sure, with masts in many lines of sight. It seems that there’s a Yacht Harbour Association and apparently they bestow an annual award upon marinas (five gold anchors no less). In 2005 Swansea’s took it out along with Singapore’s Raffles Marina and Australia’s Nelson Bay Marina. The brine also seeps indoors and in the vast Swansea Market teems local delicacies Penclawdd cockles and black laverbread, (made from edible seaweed).
Before leaving Thomas’ “blowsy town” to head “some miles [to] a very beautiful peninsula”, for which Mumbles is effectively a doorway, I’d been made aware of a certain status. Back in 1956, before such things had become commonplace, the Gower Peninsula was the first location in the U.K. to be officially designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. There’s been no small effort to keep it that way since.
Scattered across Gower are things that remind you that this is one of the world’s oldest countries. Along with Tudor manor houses, medieval fortresses and famed fly fishing sites are ancient standing stones, burial chambers, Iron Age hill forts, tools and flints. Truthfully, more than I expected. If you’ve not been before there’s a temptation to believe, as you pay your fiver and sweep across the high bridge over the River Seven, that you’re just popping in on a few counties of England Lite. I’d heard it described, or perhaps denigrated, as England’s unloved backyard – so close that it could not be given its independence but far enough to be conveniently forgotten.
The great reward of Wales is not only that it is so very Welsh – as distinctive as Ireland and Scotland – but that there is so very much of it, a torrent of villages, towns, motorways, roadways and laneways, coastline and mountain, and everywhere the handprint of human history. Somebody has gone to the trouble of counting its castles and it seems there are 641 of them – one of the world’s highest concentrations of ancient fortifications, with the oldest erected more than a thousand years ago.
Off and out of Gower (preferably after a Rhossili Bay sunset) heading west, it’s a motorway sprint and an inland spike to twist around the Towy River estuary to make it down to Laugharne on sweeping Carmarthen Bay, there to conclude the Thomas trail. Not just peering into the clutter of the work shack and then walking about the cramped boathouse residence some way beneath it but dropping into the photo-festooned Brown’s Hotel where he is said to have drawn inspiration for his characters. A starkly different sort of verse would be inspired by those who frequent the place now – more punters than poets.
Laugharne sends you to the seaward side of the A40, unquestionably the place to stay, notwithstanding that Carmarthen town, on the other side, is the legendary birthplace of Merlin The Magician and that the landscape is dotted by sites sacred to those who hold to be true the tales of Arthur and his knights – those who like to think they’re connected to the convergence of the power lines of the mind.
Clinging to the coast is slower but infinitely more rewarding for the western side of the bay is the start of the ragged, jagged, tossed and towering Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, the only coastline in Britain so designated. With 70 named bays and beaches – one of which, Whitesands, recently ranked with St. Tropez and Copacabana for a Best 20 Beaches of the World award – it is a more dramatic and less-developed Cornwall.
Pembrokeshire will never be damned by faint praise. The recognition is constant, plaques are plentiful – coveted Seaside, Green Coast European Blue Flag Awards, citations from the Sunday Times and The Independent. There were 14 in 2005 alone, all acknowledging the charm of pastel-coloured Victorian terrace houses, walled towns, castles, inlets, havens, heads, off-lying islands and all those beaches.
Tenby is the showpiece, endlessly photographed but still startling upon first sight. It has three beaches and, high above them, an old walled town with some of the wall still intact. There’s a ferry out of Tenby Harbour to Caldey Island, where the orders of monks who have been in residence since the 6th century make perfume, fudge, shortbread and chocolate in the moments left outside the regimen of seven worship services a day. Those still intrigued by codes Da Vinci or otherwise explore the Old Priory with a certain fervour but most are content to stroll about St. Illtyt’s Church to locate the Caldey Stone inscribed in Celtic and Latin.
At Bosherton, around the coast a way on the Castlemartin Peninsula, is the 6th century St. Govan’s Chapel that requires visitors to make their way down a set of sprayed steps to the base of a sea cliff and gives the appearance of having grown out of the rock. The descent is accompanied by the sound of migrating seas birds – auks, skuas and petrels. Puffins, gannets, manx shearwaters and guillemots nest nearby. Isolation encourages plentiful wildlife. Badgers and otters are elusive but they’re there. A couple of thousand dolphins a year visit, as well as porpoises and humpback, fin, orca and minke whales.
Between Tenby and Pembroke is, on different roads, Manorbier Castle – actually a medieval manor house on a hilltop above plunging cliffs – and Carew Castle with its famed Celtic Cross and the only restored Tidal Mill in Wales. Pembroke itself is a walled town near a century old with one of Britain’s finest Norman Castles. Henry VII, founder of the Tudor Dynasty, first drew breath there. The surrounding area is a gourmet’s preferred destination. The great foodhalls of London eagerly stock the region’s crabs, lobsters, cheeses, herbs, organic lamb and vegetables along with wines of the Cwm Deri vineyard.
It all gets a bit rugged and weatherbeaten beyond Pembroke Dock on the final leg through to the westernmost point of the park and of Wales. Solva is a village of great seafaring tradition that floods at high tide; the lower half nestling in a ravine at the head of a natural harbour. Then it’s just a little further along the shore of St. Bride’s bay to the city celebrating the patron saint of Wales, indeed the only Welsh saint to be canonized and culted in the Western Church.
While all around you is a town or village, St David’s is a city, though you’d be hard pressed to understand why if not armed with the information that it had been granted such status by Queen Elizabeth in 1995 because of the presence within its precincts of a magnificent cathedral that has been a dominant presence since the 12th century and a pilgrimage destination throughout the Middle Ages.
Unless you’ve a mind or the means to look in on the breeding colony of Atlantic grey seals on Ramsey Island or you’re driving a little north to Fishguard to take the ferry to Ireland (less than two hours) it’s a matter of turning around and heading off north to Snowdownia or east over the first rises of the Cambridge Mountains, past the spectacularly-sited and powerfully atmospheric Carreg Cennen Castle, into the Brecon Brecons National Park.
Now a determined dash will certainly take you from there to the addictive Hay-On-Wye near the English border – a village of some thirty bookshops. But there is a very well-stocked used book shop incorporated into the impressive Dylan Thomas Centre back in Swansea, and if you’d not spent enough time there first time around …..
“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.
For many guests at The Del, as San Diego’s historic Hotel del Coronado is often known, their stay recalls the line from The Eagle’s Hotel California – you can check-out any time you like but you can’t ever leave.
This massive pile, opened in 1888 and today one of the largest wooden structures remaining from the grand era of late nineteenth century resort building in the United States (not surprisingly, most burnt down), is a place of mystery despite the resort ambience of its Pacific Ocean-front position. Ghost stories abound and, within minutes of setting foot inside, I’m drawn to asking the question that I’m sure the staff have heard a million times before.
I’m in the gift shop, just off the main lobby. Amongst the copious Marilyn Monroe memorabilia that fills this area almost to overflowing (Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy, Some Like It Hot, ranked by the American Film Institute as the funniest US movie of all time, was filmed at the Coronado), I ask a staff member if any of hotel’s ghosts cause problems.
“Heavens, yes,” she replies readily enough, although not without a touch of nervousness. “It constantly rearranges the shelves.” The saleslady seems exasperated by the extra work. It’s bad enough when the earthly visitors leave the place a mess, let along long-dead guests adding to the workload.
“It doesn’t like anything to do with Marilyn,” gazing back at the lunchboxes, fridge magnets and books to check they are still in a general sort of order.
The Coronado’s flesh-and-blood guests have long reported strange occurrences, from sudden plunges in temperature and ghostly footsteps to televisions and ceiling fans that turn on and off without warning.
The usual culprit is claimed to be Kate Morgan, a young woman who checked into the hotel in November 1892 and spent five days awaiting a lover who never arrived. She was found dead on an outside staircase with a bullet wound to the head. The San Diego Coroner ruled the death as suicide.
Kate is said to be still seen wandering the halls while guests in her room (Room 3327) report all manner of unexplained disturbances.
Thankfully, the Coronado is not exactly the Overlook Hotel. It’s a benign and most amazing building, designed in the Queen Anne revival style by Canadian architect James W. Reid, and dominated by a massive red turret.
Construction of what was envisaged as the grandest resort hotel in the United States began in March 1887. At its peak, some 2,000 workers toiled on this sandy wasteland but, when it opened the following year, it was an immediate success.
It has somewhere around 675 guestrooms and dominates the southern end of Coronado, a peninsula that is linked by a 16 kilometre-long isthmus known as the Silver Strand to the San Diego mainland. At Coronado’s northern end is the sprawling Naval Air Station North Island, comprising some 35,000 personnel and 23 aviation squadrons.
From the early days of manned flight, North Island was an important aeronautic location. Before being commissioned as a Naval Air Station in 1917, it was the site of an aviation school that attracted trainee pilots from around the world. One such aviator was Sadayoshi Yamada, who rose through the ranks of the Japanese armed forces to become Vice Admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II.
Over the years, the Hotel del Coronado has welcomed royalty, American presidents and movie stars. One of its most famous turns in the spotlight was during the filming of Some Like It Hot, which used the beachfront and hotel exteriors to great effect (the interiors were recreated in the Culver City, Los Angeles, studios of MGM).
Another famous guest was Frank L. Baum, author of the Wizard of Oz series of books. Although from the East Coast, he was drawn to California’s more welcoming climate. He spent months at a time at the Coronado between 1904 and 1910, after which he built a home in Hollywood that he named Ozcot.
The Coronado also inspired novelist Richard Mathieson (whose 1954 novel, I Am Legend, has been filmed four times, the last with Will Smith in 2007) to create Bid Time Return (1975), that deftly interweaves a love story with time travel. When it was filmed as Somewhere In Time (1980), with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, the setting was changed to the equally-elegant Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan.
However, one of the most interesting connections with the Hotel del Coronado is actually one that could have happened but didn’t. When Bessie Wallis Warfield married Earl Winfield Spenser Jr. – an aviator and lieutenant in the United States Navy – in 1916, no-one could have foretold the effect it would have on the world.
Win, as he was known, was posted to San Diego in 1917 to oversee the establishment of the nation’s first naval air base. Wallis, as she was known, was the dutiful but ultimately unhappy military wife of a dissatisfied and alcoholic officer, a woman who loved to entertain and be entertained.
On 7 April 1920, the Hotel del Coronado hosted a ball in honour of Edward, Prince of Wales, who had arrived aboard the British warship HMS Renown en route to a royal tour of Australia. In later years, Win himself recalled he was on hand that evening with his wife who was introduced to the Prince.
Such is the cachè of such a momentous meeting that it has passed, unchecked, into popular legend. Even the Coronado’s website states that many have speculated that “they may have first met at The Del”. However, as Anne Sebba reveals in That Woman: The Life Of Wallis Simpson, Duchess Of Windsor (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2011), the reality is more like the golden opportunity that never occurred.
Several days before the ball, Wallis left San Diego for San Francisco to visit a socialite friend and didn’t return until the week following. This is confirmed by newspaper social columns of both cities.
It would be another 11 years before Wallis finally met the Prince. In the interim, Wallis divorced Spenser in 1927, moved to England and married Ernest Simpson in 1928. She met the Prince at a country house party in 1931 and they became involved sometime around 1934. He ascended the throne as King Edward VIII in January 1936, Wallis and Simpson divorced in October 1936, and Edward abdicated in December of that year. In June 1937, Edward and Wallis married.
And the rest, as they say, even in the character-saturated hallways of the Hotel del Coronado, is history.