She’s the hostess with the mostess, London’s grande dame who has partied through two world wars and slept with movie stars, politicians and royalty. Today, the Savoy Hotel in London is celebrating her 129th birthday and if her walls could talk, they would whisper about the great and the godly and the bold and the beautiful that graced her foyer. The Savoy is more than a five-star hotel, she’s a movie star in her own right. Here are 10 fun facts about the Savoy, dubbed the “Greatest Hotel in London.”
She had an operatic start
In 1881, the Victorian music impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte launched a theatre in which he could house his productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas – the Savoy Theatre. It made sense to open a hotel next door to cater for the American tourists flocking to London to watch the Savoy Operas, as they were known. He promptly hired Thomas Collcutt, who also designed the Wigmore Hall, to design Britain’s first luxury hotel. Carte would go on to build Claridge’s, Simpsons-in-the-Strand and The Berkeley Hotel.
She’s not to be scoffed at
Carte hired a César Ritz together with the great chef, August Escoffier (to whom we can attribute the word “scoff”), to run the hotel and its dining rooms. The Savoy would become the meeting-place for tout London, a place where ladies could be seen eating in public. The Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre even went so far as to light up at the table several times during a supper in 1896, the first time a woman was seen smoking in public.
Escoffier created many dishes at the Savoy including Melba Toast and Peach Melba, in honour of the opera singer Nellie Melba. It wasn’t long before Ritz and Escoffier were sent packing for embezzlement, after which they went to launch their own hotel. No second guesses for the name of that establishment.
She’s the “Greatest Hotel in London”
The Savoy was home to London’s first electric lift, a red “ascending room.” Nervous passengers would be handed a glass of brandy to assist with the hair-raising exercise of going up and down in the lacquer and gilt Red Lift. The Savoy Hotel was also the first to have electric lights, to provide most of its rooms en-suite, to have bathrooms with telephones and hot and cold running water, and my favourite, the first with 24-hour room service via a “speaking tube.”
What is it good for? If I want hot water, I call for it.” Oscar Wilde on indoor plumbing at the Savoy.
She has a sense of drama
Who can forget the final moments of Notting Hill, set in the Lancaster Room of the Savoy, and now one of the most-loved rom-coms of all time? Julia Roberts is holding her closing press conference which a lovestruck Hugh Grant gate-crashes. Twenty years earlier, an IRA hitman played by Pierce Brosnan, abducted Bob Hoskins in the final moments of The Long Good Friday. This was Brosnan’s first role in a film.
She put up a good fight
During World War II, the hotel had her own poultry farm and the smartest bomb shelter in London. Winston Churchill, Lord Mountbatten and Charles de Gaulle were regular visitors, as well as war journalists and diplomats. When the end of the blackout was announced in 1945, the Savoy was the first public building to switch on its lights.
The Tail of Kaspar the Lucky Black Cat
In the hotel lobby is a two-foot black art deco cat who has been silently purring since 1927, complete with napkin and cattitude. In 1898, guest Woolf Joel hosted a dinner party for 14 friends, but at the last minute, one diner pulled out. As 13 was considered an unlucky number, one of the guests predicted that the first diner to leave the table would be the first to die. Woolf, who was the first, was shot several weeks later in South Africa.
In 1927, the architect Basil Ionides created Kaspar to sit in as the 14th guest, in the event that a table was ever made up of 13 diners only. Winston Churchill was a Kaspar fan, as was Michael Morpugo, writer-in-residence at the Savoy for three months during 2007. The art deco kitty inspired him to write his book, Kaspar Prince of Cats.
Her views made quite an impression
Claude Monet painted several of his famous watercolours from the Savoy Hotel during his tenure here between 1899 and 1902 (he was the hotel’s first artist-in-residence). He painted Waterloo Bridge and Charing Cross from the 5th and 6th floors of the hotel, and would work on several canvases at once, waiting for the light and the fog to change across the Thames. Monet and Architecture is now closed at the National Gallery, but some of these ethereal Londonscapes were on show there.
She had some Wilde guests
Oscar Wilde had two rooms at the Savoy – one for himself and one for his lover, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, to whom he wrote a letter: “Dearest of Boys…My bill here is £49 for a week. I fear I must leave—no money, no credit, and a heart of lead.” Savoy staff were brought in as witnesses after Oscar’s arrest, describing his salacious behaviour in quite some detail.
The hotel played host to some fabulous parties including the famous “Gondola Party” when the hotel was turned into a Venetian tableau. The central courtyard was flooded and Eric Caruso sang whilst a baby elephant waddled in, bearing a five-foot birthday cake.
The future Edward VII, Sarah Bernhardt, H.G. Wells, Coco Chanel, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker and Christian Dior are just some of the celebrities who stayed in the Savoy. And going further back, Chaucer started writing his Canterbury Tales in the grounds of the Savoy when it was still the Savoy Palace.
Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier first laid eyes on each other in the Savoy, and a young Princess Elizabeth was first seen in public with her then fiancé, Prince Philip of Greece, at a wedding reception here in 1946.
The Savoy would photograph Noel Coward’s toiletries in his bathroom so they would always be displayed in the exact way he liked each morning.
She’s Gone with the Wind
This clever piece of engineering can be found on Carting Lane, outside one of the hotel’s side entrances. It may look like a pretty Victorian street lamp, but it is in fact a gas destroyer lamp – designed to suck up and disperse sewer methane and thus prevent possible explosions. It would have been powered in part thanks to the bowels of the Savoy Hotel guests, and in honour of its gassy connections, the road is now affectionately known as Farting Lane.
She’s got a Steamy Side
Staying with the smelly side of the Savoy, Penhaligon’s recently created Savoy Steam Eau de Parfum, a heady mix of rose, pink pepper, rosemary and geranium. A little birdie told me the inspiration for the name came from the scent of the laundry steam which gently diffuses out onto Carting Lane.
The Savoy Hotel is part of the Fairmont Group. For more information, you can visit the website here.