London’s Sensational, Stately Savoy
By Ruth J. Katz
I had fully expected that after two nights at the glorious, heritage-imbued Savoy in London, I would be a crack tennis payer. After all, I had slept with Steffi Graff and Andre Agassi—well, not literally, but they were looking over my shoulder each night. A lovely framed photo of them was on my night table with the notice that they had stayed in the hotel, perhaps in my very room.
Alas, when I awoke, I had the same lackluster backhand I had possessed the night before; however, I had the self-satisfied feeling of having stayed at a friend’s home—and not an impersonal hotel—as that is just how welcoming The Savoy is. A good portion of the hotel’s 267 rooms showcase framed photos of gracious-looking dignitaries and superstars , smiling from behind a 5″ x 7″ or an 8″ x 10″ piece of glass…bold-face names who have stayed in particular chambers. This is but one of many homey, welcoming touches, personalizing the hotel.
Indeed, for over a century, scores of A-listers have considered The Savoy their particular home when in London—and the roster is legion: Future King Edward VII, Sarah Bernhardt, Enrico Caruso, Lillie Langtry, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Nellie Melba (for whom Pêche Melba and Melba toast were created and named), Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson, Errol Flynn, Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, Lionel Barrymore, Harry Truman, Audrey Hepburn, Judy Garland, Josephine Baker, Cary Grant, Babe Ruth, and Noël Coward.
The hotel kept scrupulous notes about every guest’s preferences and predilections, and for Coward, it is said that they archived photos of his toiletries, just as he liked them laid out, so that when he was in residence, they could place everything comme il faut. As for me, it was as if I were sleeping not in another antiseptic hotel room, but rather, in a cozy, cosseting environment.
The hotel’s heritage dates back to 1246, when Count Peter of Savoy built the Savoy Palace on this very spot hugging the River Thames, on land presented to him by Henry III. The Savoy Palace later became the home of the Duke of Lancaster and the entire site, part of the Duchy of Lancaster.
It was the legendary theatrical impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte who was responsible for the construction of the hotel itself. In 1875, he commissioned lyricist William Schwenk Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan to write a one-act comic opera, Trial by Jury, which he staged at the Royalty Theatre. Not surprisingly the show was a huge success and it marked the maiden collaboration of the trio of Gilbert and Sullivan (the creatives), and D’Oyly Carte (the man with the cash and wherewithal to make things happen), who jointly generated and staged 13 classic operettas.
Inspired and bolstered by the continuing successes of Gilbert and Sullivan, in 1881 D’Oyly Carte decided to build his own theatrical venue, The Savoy Theatre, named for the Savoy Palace site. Thereafter, all Gilbert and Sullivan productions were staged at the Savoy, and ultimately the canon of Gilbert and Sullivan’s work became known as the Savoy Operas; those who were devotees, performers, or producers of their comic, light-hearted operas were referred to as Savoyards.
It is said that D’Oyly Carte was inspired to create a luxury property for his theater-goers, and having been greatly impressed by the five-star American hotels where he had lodged when he was across the pond, he undertook the planning and building of The Savoy. Built on land adjacent to the theater, the hotel provided a home base for those who were literally away from home. The Savoy was impressively grand: It was the first hotel illuminated by electric lights and with an electric lift. Additionally, the majestic building featured marble bathrooms, hot-and-cold-running water (available at all times!), and an artesian well.
To ensure hospitality of the finest caliber, D’Oyly installed the legendary hotelier César Ritz, who, in turn, hired his pal August Escoffier to oversee the cuisine. (Escoffier, dubbed “king of chefs and chef of kings,” and Ritz would go on to establish The Ritz in London and The Ritz in Madrid, among other outstanding, five-star destination properties.) The hotel ultimately purchased much of the surrounding land and undertook a major construction project in the area, but still maintaining the celebrated Simpson’s-in-the-Strand restaurant.
In 1953, to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, The Savoy hosted the Coronation Ball, with some 1,400 guests, including luminaries from every walk of life—royalty, Hollywood stars, nascent jet-setters, politicians, philanthropists, and socialites. The hotel was decorated as if it were a stage set, overseen by Bridget D’Oyly Carte, who leaned on friends Cecil Beaton and Ninette de Valois to assist. The cabaret was under the aegis of Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier, and John Mills.
Bridget D’Oyly Carte’s death in 1985 marked the end of the era of family management and ownership. With no children to whom she could pass proprietorship, Bridget’s holdings were put on the block and the hotel was purchased by the high-visibility Blackstone Group. Ultimately, in 2004, it was sold to Sheikh Al-Waleed bin Talal, to be managed by his affiliate, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts of Canada.
The Savoy has long been connected to the arts, not merely the theater. Both Monet and Whistler painted the Thames from the building’s riverside façade. In fact, Monet was the hotel’s inaugural artist- in-residence in 1901, something almost unheard of at that time, but a program that continues to this day.
Another connection to art is the iconic Kaspar the Cat, a chrome-and-resin sculpture over three feet tall, who is known as the Fourteenth Guest. Kaspar’s life began in superstition: In 1898, a hotel guest, a hot-shot tycoon, was having a dinner party at the hotel for 14 guests, but one invitee canceled. With the odd and unlucky number of diners left at the table, someone proffered that whoever left the table first would die first. As duplicitous luck would have it, indeed, the first guest to excuse himself from the repast was gunned down in Johannesburg a few weeks later. Since that time, the hotel has always offered a staff member as the 14th guest to any party of 13; in 1926, sculptor Basil Ionides created Kaspar, who is now the designated 14th guest and when fulfilling his duty, is given a full place setting. Whether fiction or truth, rumor has it that Winston Churchill liked Kaspar so much he often insisted that the feline join all his dinner parties.
Worth noting, Kaspar’s Seafood Bar & Grill obviously takes its name from the friendly feline with its particularly flavorful fare. And beloved Simpspon’s -in-The-Strand still serves classic British dishes: Roast saddle of lamb, steak and kidney pie, Scottish beef carved tableside, and the Great British Breakfast, featuring “Ten Deadly Sins” for those with hardy and hearty appetites.
If the walls could talk, they would have plenty of stories to share, about the countless fetes at the hotel: George Gershwin premiered his fabled Rhapsody in Blue in 1925, which was simultaneously broadcast by the BBC. Lena Horne made her British debut here and Sinatra performed here many times over the years. Bob Dylan stayed in the hotel in 1965 and powwowed with the Beatles here; Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh met at the hotel; and Richard Harris lived in the hotel for the last decade of his life. Again, whether apocrypha or verity, Harris is said to have declared, “It was the food,” when he was taken out on a stretcher to an ambulance. Other guests in recent decades include Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Louis Armstrong, Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Maria Callas, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Sophia Loren, Julie Andrews, Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, U2, Led Zeppelin, The Who, George Clooney, and Whoopi Goldberg.
On December 15th, 2007, The Savoy’s then- general manager, Kiaran Macdonald, rang a bell at midday in the front hall and declared that The Savoy was officially was closed, for the first time in its 118-year history. The hotel was to undergo a renovation that was slated to last 15 months, and budgeted for £100 million. Needless to say, as all renovations mushroom in dimension and cost, so, too, did this one: 15 months morphed into nearly three years and £100 blossomed to £220 million, but, on November 2, 2010, HRH Prince Charles declared The Savoy officially re-opened and the hotel’s own Rolls-Royce Phantom brought the first guest—actor/writer Stephen Fry—to the front door. In 2014, as the hotel celebrated her 125th anniversary, the staff archivist offered tours through the property, an exhibition was staged in the Savoy Museum, and special cocktails were created in the iconic American Bar and the chic Beaufort Bar.
With the reopening, the hotel has undergone a transformation of its eateries, but one remains untouched in it mission, which is near mythical. The American Bar, whose appellation refers to a menu of American-style cocktails, is one of the first places in London to introduce Brits to the American cocktail. Its first bartender, whose reputation eclipsed the bar itself, was a woman named Ada “Coley” Coleman, who created a cocktail called the “Hanky Panky,” which is still a classic at the bar today. Harry Craddock succeeded her, and under his adroit martini shaker, the menu increased to the point where the management launched the distinguished Savoy Cocktail Book (with 750 recipes), considered the barman’s bible today, and which has been reprinted (and expanded) a half-dozen times. The bar has garnered countless awards, including the prestigious Best Bar in the Virtuoso “Best of the Best” Awards. My favorite petite haunt is the Beaufort Champagne Bar (created in 2010), where I lingered, savoring a glass of hard-to-find Egly-Ouriet rosé. Another two spots that are magnets for me, with their treacherously delicious goodies are Melba’s (with a street entry) for sensational take-out and patisserie fare and the Savoy Tea, a bijou of a tea shoppe, with such overwhelmingly gorgeous (and toothsome and tasty) sweets, I could live in it! In addition to the sugary confections, there are special blends of Savoy teas, bespoke accessories, handmade jams, jellies, biscuits, and novelties.
One last note about the extraordinary Savoy: Savoy Court, the short roadway off The Strand that leads to the hotel’s cul-de-sac, is the only named street in the United Kingdom in which vehicles are required to drive on the right, not the left! This practice has its origins in an era when cabbies would reach out of their window to open the back door of the taxi for their riders, allowing passengers to alight from the proper side of the car to enter the hotel—hence they drive on the right.
No matter from which side of the road you arrive, you will always be on the right (and pampered) side of life, if you are staying at The Savoy.
Visit The Savoy, Strand, London
The author of five books, Ruth J. Katz was the style/travel editor of Promenade magazine for eight years. She has written extensively for both The New York Times and New York magazine and has served as an editor or contributing editor at numerous magazines, including Redbook, Classic Home, Golf Connoisseur, and The Modern Estate. She has visited over 80 countries (and counting).