‘Vile Rosa’ and The Cavendish Hotel

The Cavendish, circa 1930

‘There’s Snivelling Dick … knew him before he was born. Pots of money. They gave him a gold cigarette case when his trousers fell down in Piccadilly.’
‘Lady What’s-‘er-name over there looks like a tart but she isn’t.

‘People only come to the Cavendish to bounce cheques and pee.’
Some bon mots of Rosa Lewis, as reported in The Duchess of Duke Street, by Daphne Fielding.

Rosa in her dotage.

A semi-mythical character of St James’s, from the naughty nineties to the atomic fifties, was the cook and hotelier Rosa Lewis, invariably known as ‘The Duchess of Duke Street’. Her story illustrates the way in which the British class system could be short-circuited by a resourceful individual. Rosa had risen from domestic service in aristocratic houses to become a celebrated cook to royalty, catering for Edward VII (with whom she may have had an affair) and on one occasion Kaiser Wilhelm, the first female in charge of the kitchen at White’s club (briefly), and the proprietor of The Cavendish Hotel, a Regency-era building on the corner of Jermyn St. and Duke St.. Rosa bought the Cavendish in 1899 and stayed put for the rest of her long life. The hotel reflected Rosa’s increasingly eccentric, time-warped, personality, and retained its original Victorian and Edwardian furnishings right up to the end. By virtue of her many society connections, the Cavendish became a home from home for the children of the aristocracy, and had took on aspects of a private and erratically-run club. Rosa was the model for ‘Lottie Crump’ in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. Waugh’s description of Lottie and her establishment (he calls the Cavendish ‘Shepheard’s’, after the fabled Cairo hotel) summarises her unique qualities as a hostess: ‘…one can go to Shepheard’s any day, if Lottie likes one’s face, and still draw up, cool and uncontaminated, great healing draughts from the well of Edwardian certainty.

Unfortunately, Rosa didn’t care for Waugh’s face much after that: Vile Bodies may have been too close to the bone. By then, The Cavendish had lost its lustre, its Edwardian grandeur tatty at the edges, the pictures of long-dead grandees and sons of the gentry covered in dust. After a stay there in 1932, Aldous Huxley wrote: ‘It was like staying in a run-down country house – large comfortable rooms, but everything shabby and just a bit dirty’. But Huxley wasn’t much of a drinker and the Cavendish was a draw for serious topers. An evening’s drinking at Rosa’s could be a challenging proposition: for a chosen few, drinks were available well into the small hours served in the first floor drawing room, and the drink was invariably champagne (she was said to have inherited remnants of the late Edward VII’s wine cellar). The late night crowd was a peculiar admixture of well-connected ‘bright young people’, an occasional guardsman, baffled American tourists, regulars up from the country, and cameo appearances by familiar soaks like Augustus John and Nina Hamnett. Rosa presided over the ill- assorted throng with quasi-maternal affection and a certain studied offensiveness; as a professional ‘character’ her rudeness was part of her schtick (her insults delivered in antique stage cockney), as was her policy of presenting an entire night’s drinks bill to the person she reckoned could most afford it. Anthony Powell recalls an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ quality, also noting the hotel’s ‘macabre’ and ‘tense, menacing atmosphere’. This brittle, unreal quality made it a congenial spot for the leading lights of the doomed ’20’s party set, whose parents and even grandparents had been coming to Rosa’s for decades. The likes of Elizabeth Ponsonby (‘Agatha Runcible’ in Vile Bodies), Diana Guinness, Brian Howard, Stephen Tennant, Cecil Beaton, the Jungman sisters, etc., adopted Rosa as a sort of ‘nanny’ figure; this seems entirely appropriate, as many of the ‘Brights’ were attempting to prolong their childhoods in much the same way that Rosa was still living in a world that had died in 1914.

The Cavendish stayed open throughout the 2nd World War, but by this time proprietor and hotel were collapsing in synchronicity. The war had taken its toll on the clientele and Rosa was suffering from the kind of acute eccentricity that constitutes dementia but which in those days was never quite diagnosed as such. One of the guests in its final years was Royal Navy frogman Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb. Crabb was a decorated war hero who spent several months at the Cavendish, cheerfully squandering a legacy and leaving behind more than a few promissory notes. In 1956 he disappeared during an ill-advised attempt to inspect the hull of a Russian warship in Portsmouth Harbour during a Soviet state visit. Later reports suggest that his cover was blown by another St.James’s habitué, Kim Philby, and that Crabb was killed by a Soviet diver lying in wait.  

Buster Crabb and fans.

Rosa died in her hotel in 1952. Ten years later, the Cavendish fell victim to the tenor of the times and was demolished; but not before it had been used as a set for a B movie called The Party’s Over about ‘young people who have opted out of society’, starring the young Oliver Reed. A BBC TV series based on Rosa Lewis’s life (The Duchess of Duke Street) was a hit on British screens circa 1975. The site is now occupied by the ‘new’ Cavendish – a charmless sixties block that does absolutely nothing for either Jermyn Street or Duke Street, and late-night drinkers must look elsewhere for champagne and verbal abuse.

Spies and Queens at The Gargoyle Club

Brian Howard gazes thoughtfully at the camera. Photo taken sometime in the 1930s by noted portrait photographer Howard Coster (not at The Gargoyle: this is The 500 Club.)

‘At least, my dear, I am a has-been. That’s something you can never be.’
Brian Howard in The Gargoyle Club, circa 1940s.

The Gargoyle Club was located at 69 Meard Street, just off Wardour Street. The club was located on the top three floors of a Lutyens-adapted Georgian townhouse and was founded in 1925 by the young aristocrat David Tennant as a place where he could go dancing with his girlfriend, the actress Hermione Baddeley. (In the 1970s, her sister Angela Baddeley achieved a kind of immortality as the plain-spoken cook Mrs Bridges in the 1970s Edwardian soap Upstairs, Downstairs.) By day the club was a straight-up venue for business lunches, but it came alive in the evenings, when the livelier members of London’s intelligentsia gathered to talk, drink and occasionally dance; no-one thought the resident band was any good but no-one seemed to care. The décor was especially noteworthy, having been supervised by none other than Henri Matisse: the ballroom was panelled with fragments cut from 18th century mirrors salvaged from a French chateau, and a pair of Matisse canvases completed the look. The Gargoyle immediately established itself as a very important cultural and social venue, even if Constant Lambert described the dance floor on Saturday night as being ‘packed with the two hundred nastiest people in Chiswick.’

Matisse’s Red Studio. The club also housed his Studio, Quai St Michel – both were sold in the early days of the war to pay club debts. The former is now in MOMA, New York, the latter in the Phillips Collection, Washington DC.

The club’s members’ list is an impressive inventory of the great and the good, but this entry concerns itself with some of the sleazier regulars. The louche diplomat and traitor Guy Burgess became a member in 1943 and found the ambience particularly to his liking. At this time Burgess was working for the BBC and, covertly, the KGB, for whom he had already recruited sometime lover and occasional Gargoyle visitor, Donald MacLean. Their fellow Soviet spy in MI6, Kim Philby, was also a member of the Gargoyle but largely avoided the club during the war, possibly to keep Burgess’s conspicuous recklessness at arm’s length. Burgess was also close to another flamboyant Gargoyle fixture: Brian Howard, poet, professional failure, and one of the models for Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited. Howard was, like Burgess, an old Etonian and a member of the gilded 1920s Oxford generation, which is where he encountered Evelyn Waugh. Later, he became associated with the party set beloved of twenties’ gossip columns. Unfortunately, Howard’s precocious poetic achievements petered out early and his youthful promise remained forever unfulfilled. Howard’s war time career was ignominious: thrown out of MI5 because he couldn’t keep a secret, he ended up in the public relations department of Bomber Command, a job title worthy of a Waugh novel. (Even in that post Brian Howard remained incorrigible. According to D.J. Taylor, in his book Bright Young People, Howard’s mother once interceded with her son’s RAF squadron leader concerning a uniform Brian had left in a pub toilet.)

Eaten up with bitterness, Howard functioned as the Gargoyle’s gargoyle, a sinister, mincing barfly who would assail people entering from the lobby with queeny insults (e.g.:‘Who do we think we are, dear, Noel Coward?’). Burgess, meanwhile, used the club as a pick-up joint, making passes at anyone who took his fancy, with mixed results. On one occasion he succeeded in luring an interior decorator back to his flat, whereupon he assailed him with coat hangers, but his approach to a young painter was less successful: ‘Would you like to come back to my flat? Would you like to be whipped? A wild thrashing? Wine thrown in?’ Howard and Burgess were occasional lovers, Howard indulging Burgess’s masochistic tendencies with enthusiastic firmness. There is also an intriguing episode in the summer of 1945, when Burgess and Howard went with their respective boyfriends to visit the ageing Lord Alfred Douglas at home in Brighton, thus squaring the circle: the louche gay spy and the Bright Young Person paying homage to Oscar’s beloved Bosie. Burgess wanted to show off his new boyfriend, who he believed was even more beautiful than Douglas had been in his fabled youth.

Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean. Burgess found MacLean sexually unappealing, ‘white and flabby’, in sharp contrast to the rough trade he preferred.

The Gargoyle celebrated its silver jubilee in 1950: later that year Donald MacLean was made a full member of the club. The troubled bisexual diplomat had recently returned from a calamitous posting to Cairo and was proposed for membership by a friend who thought it might cheer him up. Unfortunately, Maclean was deeply unstable: unhinged by drink, his confused sexuality and the pressure of his own treachery. He was by now head of the American desk at the Foreign Office but his behaviour in the club seemed designed to bring about his own unmasking. Club regulars were subjected to the unedifying spectacle of Maclean slurringly announcing that he worked for ‘Uncle Joe’ (Stalin). But they thought it was a joke. In the end, Burgess and MacLean were tipped off by Kim Philby and fled before they were exposed. They defected to Moscow in 1951, living miserable self-pitying, and booze-addled lives thereafter. As for Brian Howard, he went even more to seed, and lived a peripatetic life bouncing cheques across Europe, before dying of an overdose of sleeping pills at 52. By the time all this happened the Gargoyle was in terminal decline, and by the end of the fifties it was a strip club. It remained a club of sorts until the 1980s, and for a while was the home of The Comedy Store, that notorious bear-pit where anyone could try telling jokes in front of a baying audience and the demonic emcee, Alexei Sayle. (What does this tell us? Anything? Discuss.)


Greene and Philby in The King’s Arms

Graham does it gently.

‘Castle, ever since he had joined the firm as a young recruit more than thirty years ago, had taken his lunch in a public house behind St. James’s Street, not far from the office. If he had been asked why he lunched here he would have referred to the excellent quality of the sausages; he might have preferred a different bitter from Watneys, but the quality of the sausages outweighed that. He was always prepared to account for his actions, even the most innocent, and he was always strictly on time’.

The first paragraph of The Human Factor by Graham Greene, 1978. (Greene had a thing for sausages. In the mid-1960s he nearly went bankrupt after he was defrauded in a bogus sausage factory scam fronted by Hollywood villain George Sanders.)

Number 14 Ryder Street, off St. James’s St., was where the Secret Intelligence Service’s Section V (prototype for MI6) was based during the later stages of the 2nd World War. Another wartime SIS location was a flat at no. 5 St. James’s St., which was used to brief agents due to be sent into occupied countries. Graham Greene, who worked for SIS during the war, used a description of the flat for The Human Factor, his novel about a Soviet spy in British Intelligence. Greene’s wartime boss was none other than Kim Philby, the most damaging Soviet spy in the history of the Cold War.

Philby and Greene became good friends and they took their lunches together in The King’s Arms, located – as per the description in The Human Factor – ‘behind St. James’s Street.’ (The King’s Arms is no longer in business, and Greene left no description of it beyond the one given in the above extract. Anyone seeking a simulacrum is advised to try The Red Lion in Crown Passage, an old and atmospheric little pub which retains a pre-war flavour: a Greene-ish combo of cosy and seedy. It’s easy to imagine sausages and secrets being bandied about in there.)

Greene and his whiskies in his rooms at the Albany.

When Philby’s fellow spies Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean defected in 1951, suspicion fell upon Philby. Summoned to a series of meetings at MI5’s HQ in Curzon St., Philby was subject to increasingly sharp interrogations. But Philby refused to confess and his friends in MI6 stood by their man, even though MI5 remained suspicious. Philby resigned instead. The frustration of unimpressed MI5 investigators may be judged by the fact that they kept Philby under surveillance after his resignation from MI6. It is worth noting that MI6 was made up of well-connected, ‘clubbable’ old boys and toffs; whereas the ranks of MI5 were largely drawn from the armed forces and the police.

Philby’s victory lap: the ‘exonerated’ spy lies through his teeth to the press.

In 1955, Philby was named in the House of Commons as a possible traitor once rumours of a ‘third man’ began to circulate: but he faced down these accusations with extraordinary chutzpah, calling a press conference in his mother’s South Kensington flat after his ‘exoneration’ by an internal MI6 inquiry, and received an apology from the Labour MP who had made the allegations. Amazingly, he was later re-recruited into MI6 and worked as a journalist, agent and double agent in Beirut until 1963, when MI6 finally realised his treachery, courtesy of a Soviet defector. Philby fled before he could be arrested; although some believe he was allowed to run, as a public trial of a traitor who’d spent years at the heart of the British establishment would have been even more embarrassing than having one turn up in Moscow. It was eventually revealed that there were actually five Soviet spies at the heart of British intelligence: Anthony Blunt was outed in 1979 and John Cairncross in 1990. Neither was prosecuted.

It’s fascinating to consider what Greene and Philby talked about during their lunches in The King’s Arms. The bond between them seemed strong, forged over a mutual love of booze and a natural flair for subordination, albeit one that ran a lot deeper on Philby’s part. Greene even contributed a foreword to Philby’s memoir, written in Moscow, My Secret War. In his biography of Greene, Norman Sherry was sharp with his subject on this point: Greene had a horror of personal betrayal and Philby betrayed everyone, so why make a moral exception in his case? But after Greene’s death Sherry received a letter disclosing that Greene was feeding information about his later correspondence with Philby back to MI6, suggesting that Greene might have remained a British agent well into his seventies – and that his public indulgence of Philby was an elaborate front.

Paperback edition of ‘The Human Factor’ with very silly cover photo.

The Human Factor is an interesting foray into Le Carre territory, although its depiction of late 1970s English life seems anachronistic. It was made into a dull film by Greene’s friend Otto Preminger. They ran out of money during shooting and Preminger had to sell a Matisse and a spare house to finish it. The film is notable for Nicol Williamson’s performance as Greene’s conflicted spy, but its cramped budget makes it looks a bit like late 1970s TV: a dud episode of The Sweeney, perhaps, one without any car chases. It is also hampered by a wooden performance by supermodel Iman as Williamson’s screen wife. (An amazing piece of trivia about this film is that Preminger reportedly considered author, Tory peer and former jailbird Jeffrey Archer for the lead – but this was dropped when they realised that Archer was about a foot shorter than Iman.)

Nicol Williamson and Iman in ‘The Human Factor’.

Philby, like Guy Burgess, was an old Etonian; and, whilst they might have been traitors for Stalin, they never abandoned the privileges of their own class. That nameless, numberless people might be tortured and killed as a result of their actions was to them an abstraction; the same mechanism that allowed 18th century old boys to squander colossal fortunes in the gaming rooms of White’s, Brooks’s, et al. It is a very specific kind of entitlement; one only has to look at the Britain of our own time to see that high-stakes gambling regardless of consequences is still pursued with zeal by old Etonians at the highest levels of government. Europe was lost in the debating chambers of Eton.

Philby in Moscow, 1980s.