Stomping At The Savoy (Part Two)

The Savoy from the Embankment,1900; Claude Monet might or might not be standing on one of those balconies.

A few weeks ago I was going on about Savoy Palace, Savoy Chapel and Bob Dylan’s co-option of same as a location for a Modern Art statement. Of course, Dylan only chose that spot as he happened to be staying at the Savoy Hotel, so let’s wander over there now and see if they’ll give us a room …

The Savoy Hotel was built in 1889, an essay in cutting-edge Victorian hospitality: electric lighting, electric lifts, private balconies offering majestic views of the Thames (put to good use by Monet, who painted fog-shrouded Waterloo Bridge from his), Cesar Ritz as its first manager and Auguste Escoffier its first chef. An early and enthusiastic patron was Oscar Wilde, who proceeded to run up large bills entertaining the likes of Bosie Douglas and an assortment of rent boys, several of which testified against Wilde at his trial for indecency. At Oscar Wilde’s first trial, the following exchange took place between prosecution witness Charles Parker and prosecutor Charles Gill:

PARKER: Subsequently Wilde said to me. ‘This is the boy for me! Will you go to the Savoy Hotel with me?’ I consented, and Wilde drove me in a cab to the hotel. Only he and I went, leaving my brother and Taylor behind. At the Savoy we went first to Wilde’s sitting room on the second floor.

GILL: More drink was offered you there?

PARKER: Yes, we had liqueurs. Wilde then asked me to go into his bedroom with him.

Another prosecution witness was the Savoy’s own ‘professor of massage’, who testified that he saw a boy sleeping in Wilde’s bed as the dramatist was dressing, and a former chambermaid who described sinister stains on the bedlinen. Thirty years after Oscar and Bosie scandalized Victorian society by hustling rent boys in and out of the hotel, there was another Savoy scandal in 1923 when one Marguerite Fahmy killed her husband, an alleged Egyptian prince. This was a quintessentially Twenties murder case, ticking all the right boxes: mysterious royalty, money, a good-looking victim, a doe-eyed murderess, bisexuality, sodomy, dance band music, all sprinkled with a generous dose of racism. The crime fed the English public’s fascination with/suspicion of all things ‘oriental’. Marguerite was put on trial at the Old Bailey where she was defended by Edward Marshall Hall, one of the great advocates of the era. Her defence was that her husband had pestered her for ‘unnatural’ sexual relations, so she shot him. Feeding the jury’s prejudices, Marshall Hall loaded his summation with racist tropes and portrayed his client as practically a victim of the white slave trade .Marguerite was duly acquitted, and there were official complaints from Egypt regarding Marshall-Hall’s astonishingly racist closing statement. Marguerite went back to Paris where she was seen, less charitably but perhaps more accurately, as a high- class escort who’d conned and killed a gullible young man. Whatever the truth, she didn’t inherit any of the prince’s money and lingered on as an exotic Parisian recluse, finally expiring in 1971.

Mr. and Mrs. Charles Chaplin atop the Savoy.

Other 20th century guests included Fred Astaire, who danced on the hotel’s roof, Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, etc., etc. Personally, I’m most intrigued by Charlie Chaplin’s fondness for the hotel. Chaplin seems to have taken a particular satisfaction in revisiting the locations of his deprived childhood. The photo above shows Chaplin and his implausibly young wife Oona* on the roof of the Savoy at some point in the 1950s, the grand old man of cinema pointing south, presumably dilating upon the haunts of his youth. In Hollywood, Chaplin refashioned traumatic events from his deprived boyhood landscape (his early films featured detailed recreations of ghastly rooms in Kennington and Brixton, rooms he had lived with his alcoholic mother) and created cinema’s first global hero. When he returned to London as world-conquering star, Chaplin based himself at the Savoy and liked to venture, incognito, into south London, then a land of poverty and bomb-damage. But Chaplin would run for cover if recognised; he once ended up catching a boat from Embankment Pier to Greenwich to escape a pursuing crowd, only to find that they’d all got on the next boat to follow him downriver.

[* Perhaps a bit off-topic, but Oona was the daughter of American playwright Eugene O’Neill, who was very unhappy about her marriage to Chaplin. Also unhappy was the young J.D. Salinger, who had once courted Oona and who referred to the 54 year old Chaplin as ‘an old prostate gland’. After Oona married Chaplin (in 1943, when Oona was just 18), Salinger conjured an image of their marital life that is so repulsive that I can’t resist quoting it: ‘I can see them at home evenings. Chaplin squatting grey and nude, atop his chiffonier, swinging his thyroid around his head by his bamboo cane, like a dead rat. Oona in an aquamarine gown, applauding madly from the bathroom.’]

The Savoy is a shrine for cocktail fanciers, its place in drinking history assured by Harry Craddock‘s 1930 masterpiece The Savoy Cocktail Book. Craddock learnt his trade as a barman in the US, returning to England at the start of Prohibition and assuming control of The American Bar at the Savoy. Craddock is credited with inventing a number of cocktails and ‘codifying’ the recipe for the classic dry martini. A later barman, Joe Gilmore, became known for creating ‘event’ cocktails in honour of visiting toffs. One Gilmore original is the ‘Missouri Mule’, consisting of bourbon + Campari + Cointreau + Applejack + lemon juice. That concoction was invented in honour of Harry S. Truman. What effect this beverage had on the Anglo-American Special Relationship is unrecorded. Rather poignantly, he also came up with a cocktail to commemorate Britain’s entry to the Common Market – which of course became the European Union – in 1973. This calls for equal measures of ingredients from all member states, so you’ve got Cherry Brandy (Denmark), Noilly Prat (France), Orange Curacao (Netherlands), Dry White Wine (Luxembourg), Coffee Liqueur (Ireland), Carpano (Italy), Schlichte (West Germany), something called Elixir d’Anu from Belgium, and Sloe gin (Britain), all shaken with ice, strained into a cocktail glass, and thrown in Dominic Cummings’s face.

Portrait of Harry Craddock from The Savoy Cocktail Book 1st edition.

A Quick Valediction

You don’t need me to tell you that there is a surfeit of news about. Your correspondent is eating tinned soup whilst ‘doomscrolling’ an assortment of feeds covering a smorgasbord of disasters: the terrorist attack in Vienna, Covid restrictions and government by headless chicken at Westminster, and – of course – the presidential election in the USA. Furthermore, domestic refurbishment has left my kitchen in pieces with no end in sight. If I seem a bit distracted today I think I may be cut some slack.

However, in a bid to offer some elegiac light relief, the clip above features the late Sean Connery as James Bond in Goldfinger, Guy Hamilton’s 1964 adaptation of Ian Fleming’s novel. This particular scene offers Bond the chance to offer some random insights into the mysteries of the distilling process, and acts as a knowing send-up of the 007 project as a whole. I offer this to mark the passing of Sir Sean and the passing of an era. I have been working on a dissection of Fleming and the Bond phenomenon but I will leave that for another time; to be honest, I’m finding it hard to concentrate at all, and I’ve just discovered that my boiler has packed up. And the latest news is that John Sessions has died of a heart attack … I will conclude this short and sad entry with this clip featuring the man in his element, telling a quick and dirty joke. RIP.

Laughing Torso Meets The Great Beast

Here comes trouble … Nina Hamnett circa 1930

You know me, m’dear; I’m in the V&A with me left tit knocked off.’

Thus spoke Nina Hamnett, artist, model, hard drinker and ‘Queen of Bohemia’. In her busy youth she studied painting in London, posed nude for Walter Sickert, and then commuted between studios in Fitzrovia and Paris, sat for and slept with Modigliani (‘Modi said I had the best tits in Europe!’), Gaudier-Brzeska (who executed the titless torso) and God knows who else. In consort with August John, whose studio was at 76 Charlotte St., she helped established Fitzrovia as a bohemian enclave in the years before and after the Great War. Walter Sickert thought very highly of her work but presciently warned her not to let her party-going interfere with her painting. Gaudier-Brzeska’s nude sculpture of Nina is not actually in the V&A, not now anyway, but it did appear on the cover of her 1932 memoir Laughing Torso: names dropped therein included Erik Satie, Picasso, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Cocteau, and the composers of Les Six.

The Student: an early portrait painting by Nina Hamnett, now in The Ferens Gallery, Humberside.

One name she might have avoided mentioning was poet, mountaineer, secret agent, and occultist Aleister Crowley. When he was a young man, in the late Victorian and Edwardian era, Crowley was a sort of outlier to the Decadent movement, and his early verses – published by Oscar Wilde’s publisher Leonard Smithers – showed some talent in a sub-Swinburne style that was out of fashion by the time Crowley was trying it on. Later, his poetry because subservient to his efforts in the occult and his literary style went into freefall. One poem, a self-consciously filthy ode to his girlfriend and partner in Magick (always spelt with a K), contains this memorable couplet:

Splutter foul words
Through your supper of turds!

Beastly, moi? The mature Crowley …

Around 1900, when he was 25, Crowley rented a mansion flat in a block on Chancery Lane and used it as a venue for occult practices, using his own personal white and black magic temples to summon forth entities from beyond the veil. (What the building’s other tenants made of this is not recorded.) Crowley’s reputation as a mage led to him appearing as a villain in various fictional guises: as Mocata in Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out, and, most notably, as the sinister Karswell in M.R. James’s celebrated ghost story Casting The Runes (1911). In this unnerving tale of an academic stalked by the author of a book on witchcraft, he is portrayed as a lurking presence in the Reading Room of the British Library, poised to slip a runic curse to the reviewer who had given him a bad notice. Magick aside, this portrait of a man who never forgot a slight seems to have been true to life. Crowley knew Nina from the bohemian milieu of pre-WW1 London, and they were familiar enough for him to have once served her his signature cocktail (see below). But in her autobiography, Nina included stories about rituals conducted by Crowley at The Abbey of Thelema, his ratty ‘temple’ at Cefalu, Sicily. Nina’s source was her friend Betty May, the widow of a Crowley acolyte who had died in mysterious circumstances at Cefalu. (Betty was also famous as the Fitzroy Tavern’s ‘Tiger Woman’, whose speciality was lapping brandy from a saucer like a cat.) Betty’s tales of the unsavoury rituals conducted by Crowley, involving bestiality, animal sacrifice and a sprinkling of other perversions, were referenced in Nina’s book. Crowley was incensed and sued for libel – which turned out to be a miscalculation on his part. Betty testified on Nina’s behalf against Crowley, but her testimony was largely irrelevant as Crowley made such a fool of himself in the witness box that the jury decided that he was impossible to libel. Crowley was dubbed the ‘wickedest man in the world’ by the popular press, which seems very silly at this distance. Later in his life, nearing the end of his wandering years, Crowley would occasionally appear on the London scene, an essay in looming darkness offset by natty sartorial touches and even an occasional kilt. He certainly had presence: he was said to have terrified Dylan Thomas in the French House, and once claimed to have put a spell on Julian Maclaren Ross that caused Ross’s overcoat to catch fire. (If it was his famously threadbare camel-hair number, Crowley might have been doing him a favour.)

Nina won her suit against Crowley but her ultimate tragedy was to succumb to a very local disease: Soho-itis (definition: to abandon one’s artistic calling in favour of the pub). By 1950 she was sixty, impoverished, and a full-time cadging drunk, although she was still just about capable of picking up sailors to take back to her vermin-infested bedsit on Howland Street. Her landlady had tried to evict her on the grounds that she pissed in the sink but Nina contested the eviction and the judge ruled in her favour, convinced that no woman could possibly perform such a feat. Shortly afterwards, she managed to set fire to the flat and ended up an exile in distant Paddington, where she died, falling from her flat onto railings below, in 1956. A possible suicide; some even thought that Crowley had put some kind of Karswell-type curse on her, even though he had already been dead for nine years (old, broke, and addicted to heroin, he expired in a boarding house in Hastings). But just two weeks before her death the BBC had broadcast a radio play about Fitzrovia in the 1930s in which she appeared as a fictionalized character. The effect this drama had on Nina’s morale can only be imagined; the play was called It’s Long Past The Time.

As mentioned above (and adduced in last week’s entry), Aleister Crowley has left us a unique contribution to the cocktail repertoire: here is the recipe for his Kubla Khan Number 2:

One part gin;
One part vermouth;

One part laudanum.

Disclaimer: I hold no religious or superstitious views; but I know what happened to the academics in Casting The Runes, so I hope that that this post does not read like a bad review for Mr. Crowley. Altogether now: Clickity-click, 666!