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Secrets of The Dorchester Hotel London: Tales of War, Star-Crossed Lovers, and Hidden Drinks

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For once, Alfred Hitchcock got it wrong. The legendary movie director looked out from the terrace of The Dorchester’s exclusive Harlequin Suite. Opposite was Hyde Park, perhaps the most famous of London’s Royal Parks. Hitchcock, always on the lookout for potential locations to shoot his gripping crime thrillers, declared that the hotel would be the perfect place to commit a murder. He was referring how easy it would be to dig a grave in the soft soil and gently sloping turf just a stone’s throw away from where he was standing. What he didn’t take into account, however, was that to reach the park, any potential murderer would need to cross Park Lane. Today, it’s one of London’s busiest thoroughfares, though back then the traffic would have been considerably lighter.  Even so, there’d have been a very strong likelihood that someone would have noticed the suspicious goings-on, even after dark.

The Dorchester connection

Dorchester Hotel 1895

Traffic wouldn’t have been much of a consideration when Robert Stayner Holford built his mansion on the site on which The Dorchester would later stand. His house, styled to reflect a Renaissance palace, occupied the land on which an earlier home had stood. That building had been given the name Dorchester House when the first Earl of Dorchester took ownership in the 18th century, Joseph Damer, later dubbed arrogant and proud by Britain’s first Prime Minister Robert Walpole.

Holford was a wealthy landowner and the Member of Parliament for East Gloucestershire. He was in need of a London base sufficiently large to house an extensive collection of paintings, including originals by Rembrandt, Titian and Tintoretto. Many of them would be displayed in the Grand Saloon whose walls of red damask would set them off beautifully. The main talking point of the house, however, was the central staircase, featuring marble balustrades and overhead lighting. This grand home also had an impressive library decorated in green silk damask and a dining room with a chimney breast so ornate that it’s housed today in the Victoria and Albert Museum in nearby South Kensington. Without a doubt, it was one of the finest private houses in London.

The American ambassador moves in

When Holford died in 1892, the house passed to his son. However, unlike his father, Sir George didn’t care much for the place. For a time, Dorchester House stood largely empty save for its staff. In 1905, Sir George rented it to the then American ambassador, Whitelaw Reid. Over the next few years, the house was the venue for many a lavish party. One such affair, held to celebrate the Fourth of July in 1907, brought the area to a standstill. The New York Times reported that:

 …so many Americans attended… the crush was as great as at a White House reception.

When Ambassador Reid’s daughter Jean wed the Honourable John Hubert Ward in 1908, the King’s equerry, there could only be one venue for their reception. In attendance were the monarch, King Edward VII and his wife, Queen Alexandra. It was the social event of the year. Two years later, when the King passed away, Theodore Roosevelt came to London for the funeral and stayed at Dorchester House. But in 1912, Reid died too and Sir George Holford was without a tenant. Other than a home for his precious orchid collection, the place was pretty much ignored. Two years later, war broke out, and Sir George gave the instruction for it to become a home for wounded officers. Eighteen officers convalesced in bedrooms overlooking the park, while the dining and reception spaces became dormitories. Robert Stayner Holford’s beloved paintings were placed in storage for the duration.

New beginnings

After the end of World War One, the house wasn’t destined to remain in the family for long. Sir George died in 1926 and his heir, Edmund Parker, the 4th Earl of Morley and the impoverished grandson of Robert Stayner Holford, soon put the place up for sale. It attracted plenty of interest and caught the attention of civil engineers Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons, not as a private home, but as the site for a luxury hotel which, it was said:

 …would rank as the finest in Europe.

Demolition commenced almost immediately. Almost everything was leveled, save for a few rooms, including the octagonal oak paneled salon that’s now the Byford Room. Building work on the Dorchester Hotel took two years to complete. Together with Gordon Hotels, McAlpine hired Sir Owen Williams to draw up plans. However, there was a falling out over the building’s design and Williams resigned, to be replaced by William Curtis Green. The hotel was constructed from reinforced concrete, which allowed for giant rooms that had no need for supporting pillars. It’s said that the efficacy of the soundproofing is due in no small part to the use of compressed seaweed that’s embedded in the walls. The hotel is a little unusual in that something like a quarter of the square footage sits below ground, a statistic that required the excavation of forty thousand tons of earth during the build.

War rooms

Eisenhower Suite

During World War Two, this would make it one of the safest buildings in the capital. In 1944, General Eisenhower set up base there in what’s now known as the Eisenhower Suite and from it, planned the Normandy landings of D Day. The British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, took over eight rooms to conduct his business. The hotel was also the obvious choice for Ernest Hemingway, looking for a London base from which to work as a war correspondent. He found the bar to his liking – not only for the alcohol he could consume but for the networking opportunities such a space provided. There, he spent many an evening in the company of the RAF pilots whose stories he needed to tell. From 1938 to 1947, Harry Craddock managed the bar. The Dorchester had enticed this illustrious bartender from the Savoy. During his time at the hotel, he made three cocktails – a Martini, a Manhattan and his signature drink, a White Lady – sealed them inside a cocktail shaker and placed them inside the wall of the bar together with the recipes. This hidden treasure was discovered in the late 1970s when the hotel was refurbished. It was, they say, still eminently drinkable.

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Craddock created a cocktail especially for his new employer, naming it “The Dorchester of London”. It combined gin and Bacardi with a liqueur called Forbidden Fruit, shaken over ice and served straight. Production of the liqueur has long since been discontinued; invented in the States pre-Prohibition, the recipe was lost in the 1950s. On the Dorchester’s 80th anniversary, staff attempted to recreate the unique taste of this liqueur, a curious mix of licorice and grapefruit but with the aroma of maple syrup. It wasn’t a bad effort, and in any case, few people now will remember the original.

Troubled times

By the time Princess Elizabeth dined at The Dorchester on the eve of her 1947 wedding and her husband to be, Philip held his official stag party, the hotel was firmly on the society circuit. Yet when it opened in April 1931, it did so during troubled times. The Depression had started to bite and the newly opened hotel faced stiff competition from the well-established Savoy and Ritz hotels. In this cutthroat market, the hotel didn’t turn a profit for five years. Unsurprisingly, Gordon Hotels wanted out. McAlpine took a massive gamble and bought them out.

The gamble paid off, fortunately, and what could have been the shortest-lived luxury hotel in London still graces Park Lane with its presence today. In the intervening years, its revolving doors have welcomed a host of celebrities. Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, Tom Cruise, Meg Ryan, and Nicole Kidman have all stayed there. Walt Disney, Clint Eastwood, Charlton Heston and Judy Garland, too, have occupied its rooms and walked its corridors. In 1930, Christina Foyle persuaded her father, founder of Foyle’s bookshop, that hosting a literary luncheon would be good for business. She made such a success of it that those luncheons became a regular event, attracting big-name authors such as Laurie Lee, Frederick Forsyth and Somerset Maugham as well as actors, comedians, politicians and even royalty. It was normally a high profile event, something that had passed John Lennon by when he attended one such lunch in 1964 to promote his book “In His Own Write”. He’d had a heavy night the night before, showing up to the hotel on the arm of wife Cynthia with an almighty hangover. A crowd had gathered outside, hoping for a speech. Instead, all they got was:

Thank you very much, it’s been a pleasur”.

The comic actor Peter Sellers, best known for his roles in The Goon Show and as Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films, was another regular. The flawed genius met his third wife, the Swedish actress Britt Ekland, at The Dorchester and married her less than two weeks later. The marriage would last four years and end in divorce. Wife number four would be Lynne Frederick, but she would become Sellers’ widow. It was fitting that the place he’d loved so much during his life would be the place where he suffered a fatal heart attack while preparing for a Goons reunion.

The Liz Taylor connection

Celebrities, past and present, gather in improbable, impossible combinations in a campaign for the Dorchester Collection of upscale hotels. Shown are Elizabeth Taylor, Noël Coward, Peter Sellers, Joan Collins, Thandie Newton and Andy Warhol.

Probably the most famous guest of all was Elizabeth Taylor – The Dorchester was her second home. She loved to stay in the Harlequin Suite. It’s the largest of the hotel’s roof suites and comes with its own private butler. With gold curtains from Thailand, American walnut floors and walls clad in ivory silk, this suite is as opulent as it gets. But present-day guests get more than just lavish furnishings – they get star quality. It was in the Harlequin Suite that Elizabeth Taylor learned she had secured the million dollar role of Cleopatra in a film that when it finally hit the big screen in 1963 was the most expensive ever made.

On set, she would meet the man she couldn’t live with and couldn’t live without – Richard Burton. During their volatile yet passionate relationship, they were frequent visitors to The Dorchester, sometimes occupying adjacent suites. When they honeymooned at the hotel in 1964, they occupied Burton’s preferred Messel Suite. Theatrical designer Oliver Messel created it; eschewing his usual flamboyant style, he put together a look for a group of rooms on the 7th floor that he himself would like to live in. With sofas upholstered in dark green velvet and floral floor to ceiling curtains, it has a touch of the English country house about it. The occasional over the top feature creeps in, however, such as a lavatory seat shaped like a seashell and covered in gold leaf. Richard Burton wasn’t the only celebrity to favor this particular abode: Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich and, more recently, Sylvester Stallone have all requested the Messel Suite.

The hotel pandered to the celebrity couple’s every whim. When Taylor bought Burton a Van Gogh at Sotheby’s, she jumped in the back of a black cab and carried it up to the penthouse in the lift. Hammering a nail into the wall, she hung it above his fireplace, ready to surprise him when he returned. Nothing was too much trouble when it came to making the couple happy. Fourteen suites and countless other rooms were prepared for Burton’s family and friends when they came up from South Wales to see him perform The Taming of the Shrew in front of royalty. The Dorchester drove them from Paddington Station to Park Lane in a fleet of Rolls Royce limousines. That compressed seaweed really came into its own as the excited group partied all night long.

It’s alleged that Taylor and Burton’s initials are carved into the wall of the pink marble bathroom she requested be installed in the Harlequin Suite for a 1962 stay. As the suite’s nightly rate starts at a cool £4028 per night, the dearest of all the accommodation at The Dorchester, I’m afraid I haven’t got a wallet big enough to confirm or deny that. But what I can report is that most sources agree that the hotel’s baths are the deepest in London. If you like to luxuriate in a tub full of bubbles, this is the place to do it, though of course, you’ll need to give your butler plenty of notice to run the water.

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