When it comes to pedigrees, the Savoy Hotel London wipes the floor with its competitors. You see, they might have the same impeccable service, the finest fixtures, and fittings, even a prime London location. But they’re missing one thing: they didn’t begin life as a palace.
The Savoy Hotel itself has always been a hotel. But the land on which it stands was gifted by King Henry III in 1245 to his wife’s uncle, the Count of Savoy. A year later, Peter of Savoy built a palace. When he left in 1263, it was Eleanor of Castile’s turn to live there. She was the wife of Prince Edward, who would be crowned king in 1272, passing it to Edmund of Lancaster, her second son, when she died. It remained in the family for generations. One of the most influential members of that dynasty was John of Gaunt, first Duke of Lancaster and son of King Edward III. John of Gaunt lived in the Savoy Palace in the latter part of the 14th century. A former military leader, he returned from France in 1374 and, as his father was ill, pretty much ran the country. At the time, he was the richest man in England and loved to show off just how rich he was. The opulent Savoy Palace fitted that ostentatious lifestyle perfectly. But John of Gaunt’s despotic attitude and insistence on instigating crippling taxation policies made him very unpopular with the masses. In turn, that made his residence a target for their anger.
The civil unrest which would result in the destruction of the Savoy Palace actually began thirty miles to the east, in an Essex village called Fobbing. In May 1381, a Royal tax commissioner called John Bampton rode into town asking questions about those evading payment for a new charge known as the poll tax. The poll tax levied a uniform fee of fourpence on every adult, no matter how wealthy and was rightly perceived by the poor as unjust. Bampton was a former sheriff in the county and became a focus of hatred for the local menfolk. The uprisings spread and a man named Wat Tyler took on the role of leader in what would be referred to as the Peasants’ Revolt. The protesters marched on London, reaching the capital in June 1381, attacking places that symbolized wealth and power. There was no way the Savoy Palace could escape unscathed, associated as it was with the most hated man in England.
In his 1904 book “John of Gaunt”, Sydney Armitage-Smith wrote:
“The rebels… they wrecked the palace built by Boniface of Savoy and the good Duke Henry, the building which, by all contemporary account, had no equal in England for beauty and magnificence. They tore to pieces cloth of gold and silver and rich tapestries, broke up the rich furniture, crushed the Duke’s plate and ground his jewels and precious stones underfoot. All that could not be destroyed was cast into the river… the Savoy lay a smoldering ruin.”
Wat Tyler would be decapitated not long afterward. His head was mounted on a pole and paraded through the streets of London as a warning not to mess with the establishment.
The site of the ruined Savoy Palace was too valuable to be left for long. Henry VII founded a hospital there in 1505, though he died before construction commenced. His executors continued his work, which would open more than a decade later. St John’s Hospital, as it was called, was a home for the poor. Each evening at dusk, those hoping for a bed for the night would line up at its door. Those lucky enough would make their way inside to the chapel; only after they had offered prayers of thanks would they be allowed to proceed to the dormitory. The poor home became a military hospital and later a barracks.
Ironically, for what would be the site of a luxury hotel bearing the same name, the area had developed a somewhat unsavory reputation by the late 17th century. The Savoy neighborhood was characterized by petty criminals and renegade types known locally as “Savoyards”. Nevertheless, the collection of buildings that comprised the Savoy precinct would stand until the 19th century, albeit in a ruinous state. A fire broke out in 1864, and most of what survived would be demolished to make way for Waterloo Bridge. The chapel, however, remains to this day, adjacent to the hotel. Just up the road, the church of St Mary le Strand was pulled down in 1549 to make way for Somerset House. The chapel at St John’s Hospital was renamed St Mary le Savoy, though today it’s more usual to refer to it as the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy. As you might guess from the name, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II owns it, but it’s open to the public five days a week if you’re in town.
But what about the Savoy hotel we see today? Its name is ancient, but the building’s story begins in 1881 when an impresario called Richard D’Oyly Carte opened the Savoy Theatre. As well as staging popular performances, the theatre was also the first public space in the world to be lit by the new-fangled invention that was electricity. As they came in their droves to see D’Oyly Carte’s productions, it occurred to him that people needed a special place to stay and thus the idea of erecting a suitably luxurious hotel was born. The hotel took five years to construct and opened on August 6th, 1889. Its first general manager was W. Hardwicke. Though things went swimmingly for the first few months, Hardwicke wasn’t up to the job and the hotel began to hemorrhage money.
D’Oyly Carte was smart enough to realize that he needed to find the staff to match the caliber of his fixtures and fittings. There could only be one choice when it came to appointing a replacement for the hapless Hardwicke and that would be Swiss hotelier César Ritz. Though it would be almost two decades before he would utter his most famous words, they held true at the Savoy Hotel London right from the start:
“Le client n’a jamais tort.” The customer is never wrong.”
Ritz introduced a code that all staff, no matter what their position, were expected to follow. It went: “See all without looking; hear all without listening; be attentive without being servile; anticipate without being presumptuous. If a diner complains about a dish or the wine, immediately remove it and replace it, no questions asked.” The place was as swish as they came, boasting electric elevators, electric light and en-suite bathrooms. It even introduced pink tablecloths, reasoning that the soft color enhanced the skin tone and thus the beauty of female guests. Outside, it was, and remains, one of the few places in London where cars are required to drive on the right-hand side of the road. Once inside, the views over the river are to die for: good enough for famous Impressionist Claude Monet, who featured them in works such as Waterloo Bridge Misty Morning. Incidentally, art experts have concluded he probably painted in the room next to what’s known as the Monet Suite. In 1904, three years after his father had died, Rupert D’Oyly Carte commented:
There is probably no hotel in Europe with a finer outlook than that of the Savoy hotel. Ascend to the upper rooms and you may look over smoky Southwark away to the blue hills of Surrey.
Wind the clock back seven years, and the outlook for the hotel was turbulent, to say the least. Ritz, together with his maître d’ Louis Echenard, was embroiled in a very private scandal that the Savoy Hotel kept under wraps for many decades. The two men were implicated in the disappearance of over £3,400 worth of wines and spirits. The head chef, Auguste Escoffier, was also disgraced, as it emerged that he’d been accepting kickbacks and gifts from some of the Savoy’s suppliers. The men were dismissed, but, according to some sources, Ritz was considered too volatile to publicly shame. It’s said he’d been facilitating illicit meetings between the Prince of Wales, a known philanderer, and American socialite Lillie Langtry, who’d been causing a stir on the London society scene. The pair, both married, had an affair for three years; it ended in 1880 when she fell pregnant with another man’s child. It was felt that keeping the two scandals quiet would be best for all concerned. Ritz didn’t care. A year later, he opened The Ritz hotel in Paris.
But despite the change of management, the Savoy Hotel was still hard to beat when it came to being seen in all the right places. Lillie Langtry was just one of a long line of celebrity guests who fell in love with D’Oyly Carte’s hotel. In an interview with the London Standard in 1904, Rupert D’Oyly Carte said:
Mrs. Langtry has lately been staying at the Savoy. She happened to meet my colleague, Mr. Hwfa Williams, at Newmarket, and told him that: “the Savoy was the best managed and the most comfortable hotel she had ever stayed in.” No small tribute from a lady who is much traveled and so perfect a judge of what a first-class hotel should be. It was a private conversation, but I have asked Mrs. Langtry’s permission to mention it, for it illustrates the secret of success – please your guests.
Over the years, that guest list has contained more stars than a Dark Sky Reserve. Dame Nellie Melba, Australian operatic soprano and prima donna, had Escoffier eating out of the palm of her hand. When she was on a diet, he served her Melba toast; when she wasn’t, he brought out Peach Melba. Oscar Wilde and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas were once regulars. Coco Chanel, Josephine Baker, Al Jonson, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra have all graced the hotel with their presence. In 1925, George Gershwin staged Rhapsody in Blue’s English premiere at the hotel. Actress Vivien Leigh met Laurence Olivier, who would later become her husband, at the hotel’s Grill Room a decade later. Elizabeth Taylor spent part of her honeymoon with first husband Nicky Hilton at the Savoy Hotel London.
Hollywood legends like Errol Flynn and Katharine Hepburn came, as did Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, and Sophia Loren. As if that wasn’t enough glamour, Marilyn Monroe wore a dress with a shocking (for the 1950s) transparent midriff to a press conference at the hotel. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall enjoyed a drink at the American Bar; their photo can be seen at the Savoy’s tiny cocktail museum. Also on display are Noel Coward’s lighter and cigarette case and proof of Marlene Dietrich’s request that twelve pink roses and a bottle of Dom Pérignon should be left in her room for when she arrived. (Guests staying in her suite today will receive a daily delivery of the same flowers.) The card for Irish actor Richard Harris – Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films – stipulated the preferred temperature for his porridge. A long-term resident, when he was finally wheeled out on a stretcher, he cried out “It was the food!”
One of the most lavish parties was thrown for someone who was richer than he was famous. American millionaire George A. Kessler had made his fortune trading wine and was nicknamed the Champagne King. In 1905, he hosted a Venetian themed event in honor of King Edward VII. The hotel’s central courtyard was flooded; fish and swans swam in the 3ft deep water. An oversized gondola strewed with 12,000 flowers seated two dozen guests for a floating dinner. Waiters dressed as gondoliers crossed a bridge to serve the twelve-course banquet, which culminated in a five-foot birthday cake being delivered on the back of a baby elephant borrowed from London Zoo. Enrico Caruso rounded off the proceedings with a rendition of O Sole Mio. Total cost: £3000 – which equates to over £350,000 in today’s money. Kessler would go on to survive the Lusitania sinking in 1915 and, after a lifetime of excess, die five years later of an enlarged liver.
The most famous guest of all, however, isn’t human, it’s feline. In 1898, a South African guest, Woolf Joel, hosted a dinner at the Savoy for 14 people. At the last moment, one dropped out, leaving an unlucky thirteen around the table. One of the guests declared that the first person to leave the table would die. Joel ridiculed the idea and got up from his chair. He was fatally shot just weeks later, enough to spook even the least superstitious. Afterward, a member of staff would sit at the table to even up the numbers. From the late 1920s, an Art Deco sculpture of a black cat named Kaspar has occupied that seat.
In December 2007, the Savoy Hotel closed for almost three years for an extensive refurbishment. Emphasis was placed on restoring the grandeur of bygone days, retaining a strong sense of the old rather than replacing with new. The renovations cost an estimated £220 million to complete. In that 1904 London Standard interview, Rupert D’Oyly Carte predicted:
So long as the Savoy in the future is run on the same careful and enterprising lines as the past, it needs not fear competition.
I think he’d be rather pleased with how things have turned out, don’t you?