They say everyone has at least one novel in them. If you’ve ever considered looking for a place to create something meaningful from the jumble of words and ideas in your head, then look no further. When it comes to London hotels, Brown’s is the pick of the literati. Write your novel here and you’re in good company: Stephen King booked a suite to knock out the first chapters of his acclaimed novel “Misery”. That same suite, a room overlooking Albemarle Street, had been where Rudyard Kipling wrote “The Jungle Book”. A framed, hand written letter is proudly displayed on the wall in what’s now the eccentrically decorated Kipling Suite in honor of the man who loved to stay there. Though the subject is wonderfully mundane, pertaining to an allotment in Sussex, it does at least demonstrate that Kipling was so ensconced in the hotel that he conducted his affairs from his room. The great writer was finally stricken with a perforated ulcer as he sat at his desk in 1936; it would be the last time he saw the place, as he died six days later in Middlesex Hospital.
The great crime writer Agatha Christie was also a regular. Readers of her novel “At Bertram’s Hotel” won’t be at all surprised to notice similarities between what’s on the page and what Brown’s Hotel is like – it’s thought the “Queen of Crime” based her fictitious hotel on this London icon. A few years back, the hotel marked its association with a special “Agatha Christie Afternoon Tea”, featuring cakes such as a Death on the Nile coffee cake, an Evil under the Sun lemon tartlet and, best of all, an At Bertram’s Hotel cupcake.
Enough writers to fill a small library
The author Joseph Conrad was a guest in 1921 as a letter on Brown’s headed paper reveals. Winnie the Pooh author AA Milne’s son Christopher Robin (he named his character after his own son) held his wedding reception at Brown’s in 1948. The following year, publishers Weidenfield and Nicholson hosted their launch party at the hotel. Among those invited were George Orwell and Somerset Maugham. JRR Tolkien stayed there with his family in 1973. JM Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker and Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known to the world as Mark Twain, are all associated with the place. But don’t believe all you read: in 1907, the latter referred to Brown’s as “a placid, subdued, homelike, old-fashioned English inn… a blessed retreat of a sort now rare in England, and becoming rarer every year”. Yet the year before, the Daily Mail had run an exposé of the scandals that were hidden behind closed doors, one involving a certain WK Vanderbilt’s shocking secret marriage that had taken place at Brown’s in 1903.
The official line from the hotel’s prospectus in 1906 painted a more genteel image, stating that Brown’s had “a unique reputation as the chief London House for the nobility and those who prefer quiet, style, and elegant comfort.”
The Byron connection
The hotel’s original owners had a literary connection too, though they themselves weren’t writers. James Brown was valet to Lord Byron, one of Britain’s greatest poets. With a cash injection from his former employer, sadly long since dead, Brown and his wife Sarah Willis, who had previously been Lady Byron’s personal maid, opened what’s believed to be London’s first hotel. The year was 1837, the same year that Queen Victoria came to the throne. The original hotel was located in a townhouse at 23 Dover Street which Brown bought to create what he termed a ‘genteel inn’. Over the next two decades, the hotel expanded into neighboring premises: number 22 in 1838, number 24 six years after that and number 21 a year later. The building itself underwent a major expansion in the late 1890s when the owners, by now the Ford family, bought St George’s Hotel. It backed onto Brown’s and fronted onto Albemarle Street. The two buildings were merged into one, an extra floor added and a new façade built for the hotel on Albemarle Street, giving the hotel its current address. In the early 1900s, three more townhouses were added, as if the owners were playing a real life version of the newly released board game, Monopoly. These days, the place spans eleven adjoining townhouses, enabling it to retain a boutique hotel ambience.
By the time the Browns sold up in 1859, the hotel was a roaring success. But fortunes in the hotel business can be fickle and without the Browns’ magic touch, things might well have changed. As luck would have it, however, their purchasers also knew a thing or two about running such an establishment. Its reputation, if anything, improved. James Ford, and his son James John Ford, had cut their hospitality teeth on a smaller establishment in Manchester Street, a mile to the north in Marylebone. The Fords owned a livery stable. Savvy businessmen, they saw an opportunity to make more money by offering their customers a bed for the night. Brown’s was a step up, but Ford knew that he needed to work hard to maintain the hotel’s status. Claridge’s had opened in 1856 and The Grosvenor burst onto the scene with a flourish in 1860. In the face of such stiff competition, an extensive program of upgrades and refurbishments was set in motion. The owners installed electricity, as well as bath tubs – then a luxury even in for those who lived in the capital’s grandest homes – and elevators.
Behind closed doors – a favorite of the rich and famous
Not surprisingly, such an opulent and enviably modern hotel drew – and continues to do so – a well-heeled crowd. The guest ledger, should you be privy to its contents in a hotel whose watchword is discretion, reads like an edition of Who’s Who. In the 19th century, visiting royalty made it their home away from home. A steady stream of foreign aristocrats cemented its status: Charles Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak in 1873, Italian Prince Pignatelli d’Aragon in 1886, German Prince Frederick Augustus of Saxony and French Prince Henri de Bourbon the same year. Queen Victoria was a frequent visitor, though with Buckingham Palace just down the road, there was no need for her to stay the night. Nothing much changed as the 19th century melted into the 20th. The King of Greece was a frequent visitor in the mid-1920s while the exiled Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia stayed at Brown’s in 1936. And let’s not forget British royalty. HM The Queen took tea in 1951 when she was still Princess Elizabeth and four decades later, you’d have caught sight of Diana, Princess of Wales on occasion.
As well as royalty, the hotel attracted distinguished politicians. In 1865, the 4th Earl of Carnarvon, a leading light in the Conservative party, stayed. His son funded Howard Carter’s 1922 expedition to Egypt, during which the archaeologist discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb. In exile not long before he died, the French Emperor Napoleon III was a guest at the hotel in 1871 with his wife Eugenie. Later, the hotel would host, among others, the Consul General of the United States, General E A Merritt, the Viceroy of India, and Ismail Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt. Theodore Roosevelt chose the hotel for his base when he married his second wife, Edith Kermit Carow. She and her sisters had made their home in London to try to economize on the cost of living. The wedding license is on display, listing Roosevelt’s occupation as “ranchman”. The newlyweds didn’t remain at the hotel for their honeymoon, however, as they spent that in Italy. His fifth cousin Franklin and new wife Eleanor Roosevelt rectified that in 1905 spending their own honeymoon at Brown’s.
How one actor didn’t qualify for the star treatment
Of course, Hollywood A-listers and theatre luvvies have also long frequented the establishment. The inaugural meeting of BAFTA was held at Brown’s in 1947. Laurence Olivier, Michael Powell, Carol Reed, David Lean and others were there for the historic occasion. In 1960, Orson Welles made it his base while interviewing would-be cast members for a Shakespeare tour. If you’d have been hanging around in the 1970s, you’d have seen Robert Redford holed up having a drink with Mia Farrow. But perhaps the most interesting story involving a well known actor is that of the Oscar-nominated Ralph Fiennes. While he was doing the press junkets for The Grand Budapest Hotel it emerged that Fiennes had worked briefly as a hotel porter at Browns. In the Wes Anderson movie, Fiennes of course had scored a promotion, playing Monsieur Gustave, the hotel’s characterful concierge and a stickler for doing things correctly.
It was 1983 and Fiennes had just finished an art foundation course and was waiting to take up a place at RADA. For the six months in between, he did a stint at London’s oldest hotel. Fiennes said that while he was polishing a glass chandelier, he caught sight of Jeremy Irons. Irons was a big name at the time due largely to the popularity of the television series Brideshead Revisited which had been broadcast to great acclaim in 1981. The meeting between the two couldn’t have been more ordinary. Irons asked what glass cleaner Fiennes was using, and the young wannabe followed his reply with a cheeky request for Irons’ autograph. To his delight, Irons agreed to leave it at reception. Later, Fiennes asked the Brown’s concierge if something had been left for him. It had, and it read:
“Dear Ralph, Keep polishing. Jeremy Irons.”
Monsieur Gustave would not have approved of such behavior.
The first phone call in London
The hotel’s connection to the rich and famous extends beyond mere guests, however, for this is the place generally held to be that chosen by Alexander Graham Bell as the location for his first telephone call on British soil. Visiting in 1877, so the story goes, Bell was keen to test out his invention before seeking funding. To do so, he needed access to a telegraph wire but fewer than two thousand of the things existed in London at the time. As luck would have it, the Fords had a wire, running from their hotel to their home in Ravenscourt Park, a little over four miles to the west. Though Bell’s first attempt failed due to interference from messages transmitted on neighboring wires, he tried again in the early hours of the morning to make what would be the capital’s first telephone call. Technically, there’s no hard evidence of this happening, but nevertheless the hotel celebrate this historic event as theirs. To be fair, there’s no proof it happened anywhere else, so why not?
Aviator Charles Lindbergh stayed here shortly before the outbreak of World War Two with his wife. The reality of such ominous times was hard to ignore; she allegedly watched from the hotel window as gas masks were distributed. But post-1945, things soon returned to normal. Perhaps the most famous figure to be associated with Brown’s is the great British leader Winston Churchill. He said of the hotel:
“When in London I do not stay at a hotel. I stay at Brown’s.”
How much would you pay for a cocktail?
The hotel’s home away from home ethos made it a firm favorite with the wartime leader, but it was the Donovan Bar that Churchill loved the most. He’d drink his signature martini. Recently the bar has been relaunched, recruiting the legendary Salvatore Calabrese to head things up. Known as the Maestro, the man’s the genius of the drinks world. With over forty years of experience under his belt, what he doesn’t know about mixing cocktails isn’t worth knowing. Pull up a stool at the Donovan Bar and if you’ve a wallet big enough, you can splash the cash on some of the most expensive vintage cocktails in the world. Try the Vesper, blending a measure of the hard to get 1949 Kina Lilet with 1950 Gordon’s Gin and 1950 Smirnoff Vodka. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Ian Fleming showcased it in his Bond books.
Calabrese’s personal collection of vintage spirits is put to even better use in the Salvatore’s Legacy. It’s the world’s most expensive cocktail, combining 1788 Clos de Griffier Vieux Cognac, 1770 Kummel liqueur, 1860 Dubb Orange liqueur and Angostura bitters from the 1930s. The price? A cool £5500.