‘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.

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