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.

Stomping At The Savoy (Part One)

Where Bob stood … Savoy Chapel.

Wherever there is drunkenness about
No secret can be hidden, make no doubt.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (modern English version by Nevill Coghill).

When
Again
Alley Way
Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues video, 1965.

The main frontage of the Savoy Hotel is on the Strand, a glitzy exercise in 1920s chrome, like a discarded study for the Chrysler Building. In contrast, the river-side aspect is far more muted and discreet, the business end clad in the ‘hygenic’ white glazed tiles the Victorians reserved for the filthier urban environments. The hotel takes its name from the ancient royal manor that once sprawled across the Thames foreshore. Until the 17th century, private access to the river was a prerequisite for any serious player, and the mansions here were as grand as the grandest of Venetian palazzos. Savoy Palace stood here from about 1200, occupied at one point by Eleanor of Castile, consort of Edward I. About a hundred years after that the house became the property of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster and the richest man in England at that time. Shakespeare put him in Richard II and gave him some of the best lines (‘This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle’, etc.).

Savoy Hospital, circa 1550.

By 1370 John of Gaunt had re-built and generally pimped-up Savoy Palace, to the point where it was said to be the finest house in the country, a vast royal residence sprawling along the river: a great hall, a chapel, vegetable garden, fish pond, the works. Geoffrey Chaucer benefited from John of Gaunt’s patronage and worked herepage1image3674384as a clerk, writing some of The Canterbury Tales in his free time. The opulence of Savoy Palace reflected John of Gaunt’s position as effective head of state; but he’d also become a sort of Basil Rathbone-type villain, having introduced a poll tax that no-one liked – especially not the peasants who became generally more peasanty as a result of it. Given John of Gaunt’s unpopularity with just about everyone except Chaucer, it’s unsurprising that his gaff got wrecked in the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. Wat Tyler’s men started by building a huge bonfire in the courtyard, on top of which they piled all the Duke’s gold, silver, tapestries and such like. They didn’t want to actually steal them, they were as fastidious in that respect as the Bolsheviks who stormed the Tsar’s Winter Palace – and the mob rioted so piously that one of their number who tried to make off with a silver goblet was thrown on the fire himself. It should be said that even this display of moral fervour didn’t prevent a few of them from getting quietly, subversively smashed on the Duke’s wines. Finally, a box of gunpowder, which the rioters thought contained gold, was consigned to the flames; the explosion destroyed the great hall and also caved in the ceiling of palace’s wine cellar, trapping the thirty-two drunken rioters who had been enjoying the Duke’s fine vintages. They were abandoned to their fate, their cries for help ostentatiously ignored by their zealous compatriots. (Goes with the territory.)

Anyway, that did for Savoy Palace. What was left of it was finally converted into a hospital, during the reign of Henry VII, and even that didn’t work out too well. By the end of the 16th century, the Recorder of London was complaining to Elizabeth the 1st’s enforcer Lord Burghley that Savoy Hospital was the ‘chief nursery of evil men’ because criminals claimed sanctuary here from the law. They were taking advantage of ‘The Liberty of the Savoy’, a strange anomaly whereby criminals pursued in London could claim that, because the Savoy territory belonged to the Duke of Lancaster, agents of the Crown had no power over them whilst they stayed within its bounds, a bizarre arrangement that persisted into the 19th century. By that time the whole area was in ruins, and what was left was finally cleared to make way for the approach road to Waterloo Bridge in 1816. The only part of the old Savoy complex that remains is Savoy Chapel, a solemn Tudor fragment adrift amidst the bulk of anonymous offices. I don’t know whether Oscar and Bosie ever came here to inspect ‘the grey twilight of Gothic things’, it’s more likely that they were too busy hustling rent boys into Wilde’s suite at the Savoy Hotel,* but this alley has one bona fide claim on modern culture. It was here, alongside the ancient wall of Savoy Chapel, that the 26-year old Bob Dylan – staying at the Savoy Hotel during his famous ‘electric’ 1965 UK tour – telegraphed Subterranean Homesick Blues for D.A. Pennebaker’s camera. Allen Ginsberg and legendary record producer Tom Wilson can be seen loitering in back of shot, unaware that they are witnessing the birth of a pop culture meme.

(* The ‘Gothic’ quote is from the ‘Hyacinth letter’ from Wilde to Douglas. This letter, and details of the goings on in his rooms at the Savoy, came up in court during Wilde’s legal suit against Queensberry in 1895. At Wilde’s committal, the magistrate observed:‘I know nothing about the Savoy, but I must say that in my view chicken and salad for two at sixteen shillings is very high. I am afraid I will never supper there myself.’ In an early draft of The Importance of Being Earnest, a solicitor arrives to remove Algernon to Holloway Prison for non-payment of restaurant bills at the Savoy, whereupon Algie retorts: ‘I am not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End. It is ridiculous.’ With irony that he must have appreciated but can hardly have enjoyed, Wilde was held on remand at Holloway whilst awaiting his first trial.)

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.