Claridge’s London: Discreet, Distinguished and Utterly Delightful

Did Mahatma Gandhi’s goat ever stay at Claridge’s London? Rumor has it that it did, but such rumors are easy to spread and equally hard to prove. Even the photographic evidence is dubious. A picture exists, its caption asserting that Gandhi brought his goat along for the ride when he came to stay at the London hotel in 1931. That the inspirational Indian activist had a goat is not disputed – that grainy black and white photograph pictures him with two of the creatures. But the background’s hard to make out and any link to this historic Mayfair property is tenuous at best. You’ll find the odd story here and there linking the photograph to Claridge’s, but then again, there’s a Delhi hotel with the frustratingly similar name of The Claridges. Could Gandhi have taken the goat there instead? That definite article is enough to shed doubt on the integrity of such an outlandish claim.

Perhaps all hope of proving a connection is lost completely with the discovery of the photo in question illustrating a newspaper article of Gandhi disembarking from a boat in Marseilles. Certainly, Kate Hudson, whose role is archivist to Claridge’s, isn’t yet completely convinced. But that’s missing the point. The point, you see, is that a hotel like Claridge’s London could well bend the rules for someone of Gandhi’s status if indeed it has hard and fast rules at all. A hotel with such a pedigree can do whatever it wants when it comes to keeping its customers happy. If a few feathers are ruffled in the process, they’re easy to smooth when your staff is as well trained as they are at Claridge’s.

CLARIDGE’S LONDON: STATUS MEETS PRIVACY

Personalised service is something that Claridge’s London does impeccably well. The same can be said for privacy, which is why it attracts the rich, titled and famous in their droves and has done throughout its 162-year history. Only four years after it opened in 1856, Empress Eugénie of France, the wife of French President Napoleon III, opted to make Claridge’s her winter base. She invited her close friend Queen Victoria to visit and the Royal couple came calling. The Queen wrote about the trip in a letter to her uncle, Leopold, King of the Belgians:

“We went to town for the Smithfield Cattle Show yesterday, and visited (the Empress) at Claridge’s.”

Never mind that a bunch of farm animals got top billing, Claridge’s elevated status as a Royal favorite was assured. From then on, a steady stream of Europe’s Royals passed through its glittering lobby. It’s no wonder the hotel is sometimes referred to as an annex of Buckingham Palace. At the time of the present Queen’s coronation, eleven Royal families were in residence at Claridge’s London. Her Majesty and Prince Philip returned to mark the occasion of their ruby wedding anniversary in 1987 with a party.

During the tumultuous times of the 1930s and 1940s, the hotel became a safe haven for those unseated by political events. King Alfonso XIII of Spain fetched up in Mayfair in 1931 following the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic. It would trigger a bloody civil war, and the exiled King would eventually settle in Rome, but it was at Claridge’s that he caught his breath and planned his future. King Manuel II of Portugal was already there; the Kings of Greece, Norway, and Yugoslavia and the Queen of the Netherlands would spend the Second World War there. They were in no hurry to leave.

According to one source, when, in 1947, a diplomat called the hotel and asked to speak to the King, he received this reply:

“Certainly sir, but which one?”

A couple of years earlier, in 1945, Crown Prince Alexander II of Yugoslavia had been born at Claridge’s London. So the story goes, on Churchill’s say so, the Home Office ordered that Suite 212 become Yugoslav territory for a few days. Hotel staff placed a small pile of Yugoslav earth under the bed so that the baby could begin his days on home soil. The Crown Prince himself recounts the tale of this symbolic gesture and emphasizing that Claridge’s Hotel is still his home away from home, even now he’s in his seventies.

But like Gandhi and the goat, the story’s impossible to prove. Never mind that there’s no evidence for the request in The Churchill Archives. There is a letter in the National Archives from the Yugoslav Embassy to the effect that Queen Alexandra gave birth at Claridge’s London, although no mention is made of sovereignty or soil. Whatever actually happened, the baby was issued with a Royal Yugoslav passport rather than a British one, though the Eastern European country was in disarray and abolished its monarchy just a few months later. Ironically, the Crown Prince later became a British citizen and served in the British Army before leaving to work in the United States. Following the defeat of Slobodan Milosevic and the breakup of Yugoslavia, the authorities reinstated the Royal Family’s Yugoslav citizenship in 2001. Of course, there was only one place to conduct the official ceremony – and that was suite 212 of Claridge’s London.

HOLLYWOOD ROYALTY CHECK-IN

In the post-war years, Claridge’s was a magnet for Hollywood royalty, attracting a fashionable crowd that boasted Audrey Hepburn, Yul Brynner, Cary Grant and Bing Crosby among their number. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor also graced Claridge’s with their presence, though The Dorchester was their more usual choice.

Hollywood legend Spencer Tracy was once quoted as saying:

“Not that I intend to die, but when I do, I don’t want to go to heaven – I want to go to Claridge’s.”

Everybody did. Everybody does. Standards have to be upheld, however. When Katharine Hepburn rocked up in slacks, the staff refused to let her enter as the dress code insisted on skirts and dresses for women. Undaunted, she kept her trousers on and ducked in via the staff entrance. Once again, the rules were there to be broken if circumstances dictated.

Nothing is too much trouble at Claridge’s London and pretty much any whim, desire or demand can be accommodated. A Japanese pop star insisted upon – and got – an in-room hot tub. Robert Downey Jr requested his own private gym. The late Queen Mother had a favorite table in the restaurant, which was always dressed with sweet peas. As she entered the hotel, the musicians would strike up “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” and everyone, staff, and guests would fall silent as the Queen Mother and her entourage passed. Novelist Dame Barbara Cartland, the step-grandmother to Diana, Princess of Wales, was another regular, even in old age. A prolific writer, she churned out romance novels like they were scribbled shopping lists in the back of envelopes. In 1983, she wrote 23 of them and earnt herself a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the greatest number of novels written in the space of a year. When she wasn’t dictating a story to her dedicated secretary, however, she liked to lunch at Claridge’s. Customarily, Dame Barbara dressed in either pink or turquoise, and for her Wednesday lunch visits, the hotel would double check with her secretary which outfit she was wearing, and then set her table to match. Sometimes, though, the demands are less diva and more necessity. When Madonna switched hotels in the middle of the night from sister hotel The Berkeley, it was because London’s summer humidity was unbearable with a faulty air conditioner and Claridge’s could guarantee she’d have a better night’s sleep.

WHAT IS LUXURY?

Attention to detail and an ethos centered firmly on the bespoke is a powerful tool in setting yourself apart from other five star hotels. Anyone can do luxury, but it takes a special hotel to create a feeling of intimate hospitality alongside the fancy decor. But that’s not to say the way the hotel looks isn’t important. The original hotel was torn down at the end of the 19th century and the current structure erected in its place. Richard d’Oyly Carte, who was the owner of the Savoy, bought Claridge’s London in 1893. He commissioned architect C.W. Stephens, who’d just redesigned Harrods department store after a devastating fire. Stephens came up with the elegant seven-story design which we see today and the new hotel opened for business in 1898. Over the years, Claridge’s has been tastefully refurbished to ensure that modern conveniences and contemporary furnishings don’t jar with the historic fabric of the building. Oswald Milne, who created the hotel’s spectacular lobby from what had been an awkward carriage driveway, oversaw a major overhaul in 1929. He was responsible for the liberally scattered Art Deco furnishings which still grace the lobby today.

The Fumoir is equally lavish. Basil Ionides originally designed the hotel’s opulent bar in the 1930s. When Thierry Despont refreshed The Fumoir for the current building’s centenary in 1998, he retained the beautiful Lalique crystal panel above the door which René Lalique himself had installed, echoing it with panels behind the bar, Lalique Jaffa lights and an elegant chandelier. Even the glassware is Lalique, but what else could be considered glamorous enough for Claridge’s signature juleps and sours? Served from a black marble bar to guests perched on aubergine leather and red velvet, it’s a room which perfectly sums up the decadence of that historic era. The only thing that’s missing is the smoke – once filled with the aroma of Cuban cigars, the bar, like everywhere else in the UK, is now smoke-free by law. The only hint of what used to be lies in the timeless William Klein portraits that grace the walls, in which elegant women pose seductively with cigarette holders and come hither eyes. It’s the space that hotel artist in residence David Downton prefers when he’s tasked with sketching a guest’s portrait. He’s captured the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker, Dita von Teese and Diane von Furstenberg for the hotel’s art collection. This well-respected fashion illustrator jokingly calls The Fumoir his office.

YOUR SECRETS ARE SAFE

Though such standards come at a high price, there are still plenty of wealthy clients willing to pay for the privilege of being part of such an iconic institution. Despite this glut of high profile guests, Claridge’s London somehow also manages to be discreet, no mean feat in an age where social media bombards us with celebrity gossip and filmmakers ask for unprecedented behind the scenes access. The hotel invited the BBC in for a three-part documentary series in 2012. “Inside Claridge’s” introduced the nation to some of the characters that add that all-important human dimension. Secrets were revealed, but you just know it was on Claridge’s own terms. You don’t get to be a Royal favorite if you air your dirty linen in public and share your secrets with anyone who’ll listen.

Legendary British actress and socialite Dame Joan Collins married her fifth husband Percy at the hotel. When interviewed for the BBC documentary, she explained how Claridge’s managed to avoid being servile while satisfying her requirement for a home away from home:

“If you’re going to be in a place where you’re going to be waited on hand and foot, and if you’re paying a lot of money, which one does, I think that one should be catered to. I think one should have everything given to you the way that you would really like, the way you would have it at your home.”

It takes quite some effort to make the rich feel spoiled, but that’s what Claridge’s London does. Its fusion of historic and contemporary that ensures Claridge’s retains its place on the luxury London hotel scene. It’s able to move with the times and yet preserve the past without being stuck in an old and dusty rut. Money talks, and it’s no trouble to reconfigure a floor to include bedrooms temporarily transformed into private kitchens or even storage rooms for shopping bags. Extra duvets, advance doggy check-in, in-room bars stocked with a favorite brand of champagne or none at all – nothing is too much trouble, no request too outrageous. The mantra is never to say no to a guest, and with over 80,000 of them passing through the revolving doors and across the chequerboard lobby every single year, that’s a lot of people to please. Many of them are repeat guests, like Dame Joan, so the hotel’s obviously getting it right.

David Downton summed it up.

“I expected the luxury of course and the service, but who knew about the magic? Claridge’s is Claridge’s and everywhere else is everywhere else…”

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