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.

Verlaine and Rimbaud Fall Out Over A Fish

Paul and Arthur, observed by a suspicious constable; sketch by their friend Felix Regamey.

In September 1872, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud arrived in London. The 28-year old Verlaine had just eloped with the 17-year old boy genius, deserting both his young family and polite (Parisian, literary) society in the process. The myth of their coupling is a sort of prototype for the Oscar Wilde/Bosie double act of twenty years later; except that the two Frenchmen were equally talented, as well as equally desperate. Rimbaud had sent some poems to Verlaine, an established poet, who was duly impressed and invited the promising newcomer to visit him in Paris; Verlaine was not expecting to meet a provincial, teenage thug. Young Arthur’s behaviour in the City of Light sounds like something from a scatological farce, whether he was assaulting a noted portrait photographer with a sword-stick or merely wanking into his landlord’s cup of milk. For his part, Verlaine fell in love. After an abortive trip to Belgium, where Verlaine dodged his wife and his mother-in-law who were pursuing him with entreaties, the poets ran away to London: exiles in a city ‘as black as a crow and as noisy as a duck’.

At this time, London had distinct advantages for Frenchmen who had become undesirables at home. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Paris commune the previous year, London – and Soho in particular – was a haven for those of a revolutionary turn of mind and there was a vigorous ‘communard’ presence amongst the expatriate French population. After Verlaine renewed his acquaintance with other refugees from Paris, the pair took a room recently vacated by a radical French journalist, sentenced to death in absentia, at 34 Howland Street, W1, in the neighbourhood that became known as Fitzrovia. (The street still exists but only as a 20th and 21st century entity.) At first, they had issues with London’s food, its suspicious policemen, its booze (warm beer, gin like ‘concentrated sewage water’) and even its barmaids. But it seems that they grew to like the city; they grew accustomed to strange beverages such as porter and pale ale, they found congenial pubs (including the Duke of York off the Gray’s Inn Road) and both found ‘Laun’deun’ to be a great source of material. Rimbaud wrote some of his visionary Illuminations in London, including the great prose-poem Metropolitan, its title irresistibly suggestive of that impossibly futuristic transport facility, the Metropolitan line. Rimbaud was especially fascinated by the city’s docks, by the exoticism of the sailors and their merchandise, their languages, and the two men traipsed all over town, including excursions to distant suburbs such as Kew and Woolwich. They loved the theatres (especially the almost mythical Alhambra in Leicester Square, touchstone for a later generation of bohemians) and popular entertainments, as well as the Reading Room of the British Museum. In some ways their pride in their ‘outsider’ status in the great city anticipates another doomed gay couple: Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, who lived, worked and died together in a small room in Islington in the 1960s.

‘Aspect de Cannon Street at 10 o’clock of morning’; the poets get their boots blacked. Drawing by Verlaine.

But it was not to last. They were both heavy drinkers and prone to febrile bursts of temper; in one poem Rimbaud characterized Verlaine as a ‘satanic doctor’ whilst the older man was, inevitably, tormented by scorched earth of his past life, the wreck of his reputation and the abandonment of his wife and infant son. Also, whether they knew it or not, anonymous reports on their activities as possible seditionaries made their way back to the Prefecture de police in Paris. One summer afternoon Verlaine returned to their new digs on College Street, Camden, and proudly showed the young prodigy the fish he’d bought for their lunch. Rimbaud was lolling on a sunlit window sill and languidly commented ‘You’ve no idea what a cunt you look with that fish’. (Or words to that effect; it probably sounded more resonant in French.) Things went downhill after that. Verlaine promptly packed his bags and took a ferry from Dover, ignoring his young lover waving frantically from the quayside. Letters and recriminations followed, Rimbaud traveled to Brussels, where Verlaine and his mother were staying , and a drunken argument between the great men of literature ended up with Rimbaud hit in the wrist by a shot from Verlaine’s pistol. Verlaine was sentenced to two years’ hard labour. Paul and Arthur called it a day after that. (At least they ended it before they ended up dead, Orton/Halliwell style.)

Rimbaud was back in London for a brief spell a year or so later, but shortly afterwards he left Europe for a shadowy existence smuggling guns and – just possibly – slaves in Africa. He had long since abandoned poetry. Verlaine left it another twenty years before he returned to the city, this time as the guest of Arthur Symons, who had just published The Decadent Movement in Literature, which included Verlaine in its roll call of essential practitioners, to give a lecture at Barnard’s Inn, Holborn. The trip was a success; Verlaine renewed his acquaintance with the likes of Oscar Wilde, met his young British admirers at The Crown, the Decadents’ hangout of choice on the Charing Cross Road, and made a nostalgic visit to the Alhambra, muttering to Symons that all of his misfortunes dated to a meeting with a woman he’d met coming out of there twenty years before. (All his misfortunes?)

Paul Verlaine, absinthe at hand, wondering where it all went wrong.

As for no. 34, Howland Street, it was flattened by the General Post Office in the 1930s. The entire street was subsumed by 20th century development and, in 1961, the tallest building in London for nearly 300 years (it was taller than St Paul’s), The Post Office Tower, was built on the corner of Howland Street and Cleveland Street: the very spot where Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud had lived. Intended as a communications hub in the event of a nuclear attack, advances in communication technology and the end of the Cold War have left the Tower as no more than a quaint relic, a symbol of futuristic thinking in a nation determined to look backwards. But perhaps it might best be seen as a fittingly phallic monument for the two gay pioneers whose elopement it inadvertently memorializes; it’s just a shame they’ve closed the bar at the top.

I am indebted to Charles Nichol’s biography of Rimbaud Somebody Else, and also to Antony Clayton’s excellent overview Decadent London.

Dirk and Dennis at The Salisbury

Dirk Bogarde (as ‘Melville Farr’) in St. Martin’s Court, outside The Salisbury, in ‘Victim’.

Halfway up St. Martin’s Lane is The Salisbury: a crystal and mahogany Victorian confection, a gleaming temple to the conviviality of drinking. The Salisbury was one of Ian Nairn’s favourite pubs and gets lovingly referenced in Nairn’s London: ‘as much sparkle as a brandy and soda’. (Sadly, one imagines that The Salisbury might have glimpsed the great architectural critic’s alcoholic decline, a process managed with a sea of pub Guinness.) It was once a well-known gay pub, extensively referenced as such in the 1961 Dirk Bogarde film Victim – a dated but enjoyable thriller wherein Dirk, coiffed and clenched in Savile Row threads, tackles insolent, Vespa-riding, leather-clad blackmailer Derren Nesbitt. (Whatever happened to him? Did his fleshy lips wither and go out of fashion?)

Victim is a landmark in British cinema, as it was the first film to tackle male homosexuality in a sympathetic manner in a contemporary setting. Attitudes were changing: the previous year, saw the release of not one but two British films about the fall of Oscar Wilde (one starred Robert Morley, but Peter Finch’s Oscar is the clear winner). In Victim, Bogarde’s smooth, successful but uptight barrister stumbles across an extortion racket targeting gay men; in the process he has to face awkward truths about his own closeted sexuality, and the tragic consequences of his rejection of romantic rough trade Peter McEnery. On its own terms it remains very entertaining and was seen as highly daring at a time when homosexual acts between males was against the law, a law that wasn’t repealed until 1967. Bogarde took a big risk with his matinee idol image to make this film. A gay man adored by straight women, Victim suggested that he would be prepared to come out when the time was right; but for some reason he never did.

Dirk assisting some implausibly sympathetic policemen.

Some moments in the film retain real power, especially an excellent scene when Bogarde admits the truth about himself to his wife; but it betrays its age at the end, when it’s clear that Dirk and the lovely Sylvia Sims are going to stick it out together. By this point, Dirk has succeeded in exposing the blackmail ring, which operated out of a bookshop in nearby Cecil Court. (Incidentally, a Cecil Court bookshop is also used for furtive purposes in The Human Factor, wherein a spy uses a book-based system to communicate with his Soviet handler.) It’s hugely enjoyable on many levels: as social history, for its London locations, and – for this viewer – those moments where the film-makers’ good intentions collide with bathetic camp: I particularly like the bluff, burly detective who seems to want to ask Dirk out on a date. But it is sobering to reflect that it was protesting against the same law that sent Oscar Wilde to prison.

Not Oscar Wilde … Dennis Nilsen has his day in court.

The Salisbury also features in a dark episode in the life of gay London: as a cruising spot for the serial killer Dennis Nilsen. An authentic urban bogeyman, Nilsen’s grim story is well know and has been much picked over by writers (notably Brian Masters in Killing for Company) seeking to examine the nature of evil and the way London, like any big city, swallows the vulnerable. The police hadn’t been looking for a serial killer until Dennis’s neighbours in Muswell Hill called in Dyno-Rod to investigate a blocked drain – and found human remains. He’d been killing pick-ups in his attic flat but had had trouble getting rid of the bodies; so he tried boiling body parts on his stove and flushing the residue down the toilet. The official body count was twelve, all men, mostly runaways and vagrants that he encountered in the West End, four of whom remain unidentified. Nielsen is currency in a good many bar-room stories. Nilsen’s work colleagues at the job centre in Denmark Street – he was popular – mention helping him move house between Cricklewood and Muswell Hill (‘What have you got in here, Dennis? Bodies!’ ‘Yeah’). A man living adjacent to Nilsen’s Cricklewood house who was plagued by ghoulish treasure hunters. The woman who went to look at an ‘amazingly cheap’ flat in Muswell Hill and was about to make an offer when a work colleague asked if it was a top floor flat in Cranley Gardens? The flat finally sold to a foreign couple who moved out when they discovered its history … I have met people who have given me these accounts – although they didn’t actually happen to them, but someone they knew. Nilsen has become as much a part of London folklore as Sweeney Todd – except that we know that the latter never existed as anything other than a Penny Dreadful ballad. Nilsen was the real thing: Death as a friendly chap propping the bar, buying a stranger a drink and offering him a bed for the night.

Postscript: I feel obliged to note here that in 1963 a woman who worked in an antique shop at 23 Cecil Court was stabbed in a botched robbery. Her killer was caught after his Identikit profile was circulated, the first time the technique is credited with catching a criminal of any kind.

a further postscript: the estimable Miles Richardson has pointed out (see his comment below) that the pub was a favourite with Sir John Gielgud, who might well have availed himself of all its facilities. (In Victim one of the blackmailed is a noted theatrical star, played by Dennis Price.) Here is a nice photo, taken by the great portrait photographer Arnold Newman, of Gielgud in the Salisbury; he is talking, I think, to Kenneth Tynan. Also in the comments, Dale Rapley’s poignant anecdote about working with Dirk Bogarde in the twilight of Dirk’s career is worth a moment of anyone’s time.