‘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.

Julian and Dylan at The Wheatsheaf

The saloon bar of the Wheatsheaf was not large but cheerful, warm in winter and always brightly lit, good blackout boards fitting tightly over the windows of armorial glass and the floor spread with scarlet linoleum. It had mock-Tudor panelling and inset round the walls, squares of tartan belonging to various tartan clans. (‘Memoirs of the Forties’, Julian Maclaren-Ross).

London never did café culture, that was Paris’s forte; but what we used to have was the writers’ pub. During the 1930s and 40s London’s own left bank was Fitzrovia, that archipelago of pubs and restaurants between Fitzroy Square and the bottom of Rathbone Place, where it slams up against Oxford St.. The queen of Fitzrovia’s literary pubs was the mock-Tudor Wheatsheaf on Rathbone Place. The stories associated with the Wheatsheaf are the stuff of literary cliché. If you walked in here one lunchtime during the 2nd World War, you would almost certainly encounter the twin popes of The Wheatsheaf bar, Dylan Thomas and the novelist Julian Maclaren-Ross, each with his own set of acolytes.

‘What will you have to drink Mr. Thomas?’ ‘Anything that goes down my throat.’

Whilst Dylan was versifying by the stained glass windows in the public bar, MacLaren Ross occupied the saloon end of the counter, from where he would broadcast his opinions on films or modern novels. You might see George Orwell on lunch break from the BBC, perhaps waiting to meet the glamorous Sonia Brownell who lived just around the corner. Sonia’s employer, Cyril Connolly, the pudgy aesthete and editor of Horizon review, might be there too, talking an incongruously beautiful woman into investing money in his magazine. Perhaps you’d notice a young woman who, on closer inspection, turns out to be Quentin Crisp in austerity drag. Or you might wonder about the demure ‘Sister Anne’, a prostitute whose quiet demeanour gave no indication as to her trade. And you’d also see the bar limpets of an older Fitzrovia: an ancient lady in Edwardian dress drinking Guinness over newspaper crosswords; or the venerable Nina Hamnett, a once feted artist and model, muse to Modigliani, Sickert and Gaudier-Breszka, but now well into her alcoholic decline. You get the idea. The Wheatsheaf was the real thing: the place where dreams, greatness and failure met.

John Banting’s cover illustration for Maclaren-Ross’s 1946 collection of short stories.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, Julian Maclaren-Ross was a ‘promising’ writer, his stories exploring the seedy, London-to-Brighton idiom pioneered by Patrick Hamilton (who used aspects of The Wheatsheaf in his monument to inter-war drinking 20,000 Streets Under The Sky) and the young Graham Greene. Like those illustrious practitioners, Maclaren-Ross described the furtive world of the travelling salesman, the cheap hotel, and the saloon bar – but Maclaren-Ross was living the material of his own stories to an alarming extent. He pursued his own ideal of how a modern man of letters should live, an experiment carried out in the teeth of aggrieved landladies, vengeful girlfriends, and exasperated publishers. He had a career-trashing habit of selling the same rights to the same unwritten novels to multiple publishers in return for a few quid to pay the next week’s rent. His occasional commissions were marked by a celebratory splurge of immoderate spending, the lavish dinners, benders and extra-long cigarettes somehow failing to mitigate the mounting bills and imminent (and occasionally actual) homelessness. One way of supplementing his shaky literary income was to lure the gullible into playing his ridiculous matchstick game ‘Spoof’ for real money, the bar of the Wheatsheaf offering him the ideal venue to fleece the unwary. And when the pub closed at 10.30, Julian would lead the hard-core drinkers a few steps up Rathbone Place to the Marquis of Granby, which – being in the borough of Marylebone – was subject to different licensing laws and didn’t ring time until 11. After that, it was back to wherever he was kipping that night; a Turkish baths, say, or the waiting room of Euston station, or – if his luck was in – a girlfriend’s flat in some distant suburb.

Meanwhile …

‘Somebody’s boring me. I think it’s me.’

Dylan Thomas, drunk again, the quote taken from a live radio broadcast for the BBC. Everyone knows Dylan Thomas; but in life, his burgeoning fame as poet and public figure offered no respite from the lure of the London pub. Although he was the prototype professional Welshman it was in London that Thomas cemented his reputation as a raconteur, mimic, and purveyor of his own patent brand of Welsh sentimentality. There’s a strangely touching story about him taking Henry Miller on a pub crawl around Soho and Fitzrovia and then on to a little dairy that sold sandwiches just opposite The Wheatsheaf. Miller was rather more far-gone than Dylan Thomas, as well as being very short sighted, and was convinced that he was in some kind of brothel, and Dylan was trying to stop him propositioning the startled waitresses. This is an unusual story as it casts Thomas in the unaccustomed role of (relatively) responsible adult, as opposed to the incorrigible man-child drunk that forms the bulk of his legend. It’s a more endearing image of Thomas than, say, that of him shacking up with Caitlin Macnamara, teenage mistress of the ageing Augustus John, a few hours after their first meeting in The Wheatsheaf.

The Wheatsheaf’s front door, July 2020; note (i) the blue plaques for Orwell and Dylan Thomas; (ii) safety tape on the pavement – to facilitate drinking in the time of Covid.

Literary drinking in Fitzrovia is a big subject and I will return to these characters in future instalments. But, for now, I will leave the last word to the Wheatsheaf’s most extravagantly dressed monument to squandered talent. Julian Maclaren-Ross’s conspicuous outfit (teddy-bear overcoat, green aviator shades, a carnation in his button hole, an extra-long cigarette in his cigarette holder and a silver-topped malacca cane in his hand) made him an occasional target for abuse. Towards the end of his stint as barnacle in chief of the Wheatsheaf bar, he was approached by a clutch of menacing youths who demanded that he ‘Say something witty!’ Maclaren-Ross peered at them and declaimed:

‘Noel Coward!’

(For those interested in Maclaren-Ross, I recommend the excellent biography by Paul Willetts, Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia.)

John Osborne’s Champagne Fridge

John Osborne and Penelope Gilliatt arrive in New York as divorce writs fly.

When I was a young shaver, circa 1983, I was working on a photo shoot in one of those huge ‘wedding cake’ townhouses that characterise Belgravia. In the mid-1960s this particular house had belonged to John Osborne and his wife Penelope Gilliatt, who subjected it to an elaborate sixties makeover: a fabulous monument to mid-century luxe, the decoration supervised by none other than Hugh Casson. In his appallingly entertaining memoir Almost a Gentleman, Osborne writes waspishly of Penelope’s ‘Swedish experiments’; he was particularly vituperative about the cost of the massive copper doors on the ground floor. But the couple’s high style made an impression: their guests at their house parties included the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Lord Snowden, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, the Oliviers, assorted aristocrats and intellectuals, plus all the requisite theatrical personnel. Osborne collaborators, such as Nicol Williamson, remember this period as the apex of the playwright’s life.

Johnny has left the building … 31 Chester Square in March 2020.

Two decades on, the big house in Chester Square was a relic of a lost era. The basement and top floor were let out to tenants, but the main rooms were suspended in time, frozen since the day in June 1966 when Osborne walked out on a distraught Gilliatt, leaving her for the actress Jill Bennett. Gilliatt spent most of the rest of her life in New York, returning to London for only short occasional visits. The suite of rooms – comprising the major portion of the house – that Gilliatt retained formed a backdrop to some strange, speculative photography I was doing for a man who lived in the basement. The ground floor was taken up by a huge dining room: an elaborate exercise in formal décor, it featured not one but two genuine Roman marble statues – grave male nudes whose antiquity offered an ironic counterpoint to the layers of dust smothering the table and place settings. (We used one of these statues as a prop in a photo shoot: we hung an alto saxophone round its neck. I can’t remember why, it certainly wasn’t my idea – but people did some strange things in the eighties.) The main living room was on the first floor, an airy space with exquisite appointments: a Castiglione floor lamp, shag-pile sheepskin rugs, vintage stereo system, harpsichord, etc. There is a photograph of Osborne sitting in this room at the time of his play Luther: the playwright’s success made tangible by his surroundings – although in his memoirs he refers to this room as ‘the airport lounge’.

But by 1983 the room and its furnishings – art books forever un-opened, classical LPs permanently in their sleeves – had the poignant aspect of an abandoned theatrical set. Osborne’s diaries record physical fights as Penelope tried to prevent him from leaving, at one point trying to wrestle his suitcase off him as he was going down the staircase. She later made an abortive suicide attempt in the bathroom. The 1980s tenants told tales of Gilliatt’s erratic behaviour and Osborne’s callous attitude to his ex-wife and their daughter; these stories ratified the sense of loss in that house, a mansion haunted by the not-yet-dead. Osborne’s own bilious drama was playing elsewhere.

The unhappy couple: John Osborne and fourth wife Jill Bennett. God knows what’s going to happen when they get home. Frankie Howerd’s not hanging about.

When Osborne and Jill Bennett set up house together they installed a dedicated champagne fridge in the bedroom of their house in Chelsea. They got through so much ‘shampoo’ that they didn’t have to identify it, and the question was merely ‘Would you like some?’ Jill Bennett became Osborne’s fourth wife (there were five in all) but unfortunately, this marriage turned out to be even more volatile than his one with Penelope Gilliatt, and the two leading lights of the theatre fought like cats in a sack. They achieved a spectacular nadir one Sunday in 1973 when, during a drive to Dulwich to have lunch with friends, they had a vicious row that ended with Osborne deliberately ploughing his Mercedes into the Wandsworth roundabout. Osborne had failed to notice that there was police car behind him; he was breathalysed and lost his license for a year. Bennett suffered a fractured ankle – and lost a part in a West End play she’d been rehearsing.

Even Bette Davis is upstaged: Jill Bennett in ‘The Nanny’, directed by Seth Holt for Hammer in 1965.

Gilliatt died of cirrhosis in 1993, at the age of 61. Osborne died the following year, a victim of diabetes derived from a liver complaint, at 65. Jill Bennett died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1990. In his memoir, published a year after his ex-wife’s suicide, Osborne notoriously attacked Bennett in the most gratuitously offensive terms, e.g.: ‘She loathed men and pretended to love women, whom she hated even more. She was at ease only in the company of homosexuals, who she also despised but whose narcissism matched her own.’ Or: ‘Everything about her life had been a pernicious confection, a sham.’ Champagne anyone?