london’s savoy hotel -- 3/1/24

Today's selection -- from The Secret Life of the Savoy by Olivia Williams. In 1889, Victorian impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte opened The Savoy, Britain's first luxury hotel, which allowed the rich to live like royalty when traveling to London:

“D'Oyly catapulted himself to a new level of fame in 1889. Adjoining his Savoy Theatre, he unveiled his Savoy Hotel with great pomp and publicity. Despite having no relevant industry experience — other than as a globetrotting regular guest — he built 'the Hotel de Luxe of the World', as he liked to call it, and installed himself as the chairman and managing director, with his friends as investors and board members. After five years of escalating bills and legal wrangles, he had transformed the wasteland next to the theatre into a marvel: the place that kickstarted the modern luxury hotel scene. By August, the elegant shell was furnished and awaiting le beau monde to glide in through its revolving doors. He had spent five years promising the best hotel in the world to anyone who would listen. Now it was ready to be judged. 

“Since he had started travelling with the Opera Company, D'Oyly had been gathering ideas about how to make London more exciting. Compared to what he saw in America and Continental Europe, he lamented that his hometown was lagging behind in entertainment, restaurants and nightlife. London was a mushrooming metropolis of five and a half million people — far bigger than Paris, New York, Berlin, or any other city, for that matter. It was the hub of an empire that encompassed a quarter of the world. Buildings were going up, slums were being cleared and streets were being built. For all that, it was lacking in style, and suffered a reputation for poor hospitality. As Australian opera singer Nellie Melba, who became a Savoy regular, complained before it opened, in London: 'the cooking was execrable, the carpets were dirty, the menu was medieval, the service an insult'.


“D'Oyly would have agreed. He was disappointed by how uninspiring the places to stay were. His Savoy was so far ahead that, even in 1932, its managing director was able to mock the competition: 'there still lingers in Great Britain the stoic idea that the absence of central heating [...] sparsely furnished bedrooms and primitive bathrooms are in themselves admirable and help us retain those qualities which made the Empire' . 

The large restaurant of the Savoy, c. 1900

“In D'Oyly's day, there were two big, established London hotels, the Langham and the Westminster Palace. They were lacklustre and, of greatest frustration to D'Oyly, did not offer tempting food. In his estimation, the country had two decent restaurants, the Cafe Royal and Kettner's, both in Soho, but he was not bowled over by either. Dissatisfied that there was not one world-class restaurant, he wanted to create one at the Savoy. His inspirations were the best restaurants of the century: the Cafe Anglais in Paris, Delmonico's and the Brunswick in New York, the Belle-Vue in Philadelphia, and Pfordte's in Hamburg. He wanted his to be among them, but it had been a while since a newcomer had come close: the Cafe Anglais opened in 1802, Delmonico's in 1827, and Pfordte's in 1859. They served mostly French food in hushed, wood-panelled rooms. More unusual, D'Oyly thought, would be cosmopolitan food on offer both alfresco and indoors. He wanted an authentic French haute cuisine menu, but peppered with English, Russian, German and Indian dishes for the international guests that he had in mind. A most important addition, as D'Oyly was always thinking of American taste, would be imported terrapins and green corn. 

“What made London more plausible as a holiday destination by 1889 was the advent of faster, flashier travel. A flourishing trade in shipbuilding made boats fashionable and investment poured in. British ocean liners, chiefly Blue Ribband, held the lead on the fastest transatlantic journeys until the Edwardian era, when they were overtaken by German companies. D'Oyly would permanently post porters at Southampton to greet guests at the port and collect their luggage, and, back at the hotel, the hall porter kept a large board above his desk of Iiner arrival times so as to know when to expect an influx. Dressed in their finery, guests would be escorted from the docks to private train carriage to the horse-drawn carriage to the hotel. The new Calais-Mediterranean Express train, coupled with a ferry ride, connected London to the Riviera overnight. 

“At the time, the international super rich were on an annual circuit of picturesque Continental towns and cities: Paris, Monaco, Cannes, Baden-Baden, Biarritz. Getting London on to this circuit was going to be tricky. London had uninspiring restaurants, mediocre weather, and no spring waters or dramatic landscape. The draw would have to be culture and history — and service and food, with a bit of work. D'Oyly hoped that the Savoy would pique travellers' interest enough to cross the Channel. As with D'Oyly's Opera Company, trains and liners made his grand ideas and schemes possible on an international scale. For his theatre, trains meant a renewable audience beyond locals, and taking productions on tour was much easier now than it had been during his early forays with Mario. His little Savoy fiefdom was even on the same street as Charing Cross Station. It brought audiences from around Britain to his theatre, and now, hopefully, overseas visitors from Southampton to his hotel. 

“Developments in the city at the time tended to be functional: transport, infrastructure and housing. D'Oyly was ahead of fin de siecle frivolity in turning his attention to flightier improvements. He was primed for the decade in which the phrase 'conspicuous consumption' was coined, by economist Thorstein Veblen. In Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class, he described the characteristics of the nouveau riche at balls, where guests were invited to 'witness the consumption of that excess of good things' owned by the host. 'It is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. [It] must be put in evidence', Veblen observed.  D'Oyly envisaged the modern luxury hotel as a backdrop against which people could admire each other and be admired in turn, as Veblen described. Starting with his mother's refined ideas about culture and his father's growing wealth during his childhood, D'Oyly had cultivated an intimate understanding of how rich Victorians might want to spend it. His own love of the good life allowed him to dream up a slick operation in which everything from shoeshine to champagne would be taken care of, on the romantic stage set of a palatial purpose-built hotel. As Winston Churchill, whose parents were regulars from the beginning, would nickname it, the Savoy was the 'essence de civilisation'. It was an apt summation of D'Oyly's guiding principle in all that he did. 

“At the time of opening, the hotel mimicked the homes 'of the guests it sought to attract. With the mahogany, gold leaf, mirrors, stucco work and liveried staff, the setting was reminiscent of the English country house, but transplanted to the West End and given an exterior of iridescent white from its matt-glazed tiles, which kept it sparkling in the sooty London air. D'Oyly hoped to coax the rich in through the doors to do something new in Britain: eat, drink, dance, smoke and socialise in public, rather than at each other’s houses. 

“The Savoy offered upmarket guests a form of stylish collective living that was novel in London. His Continental vision was carried through to trying our riverside drinking on a terrace that would be 'warmed in cold weather but open in warm weather', where his guests could drink coffee and smoke al fresco. As well as a courtyard filled with plants and flowers, D'Oyly promised 'the finest and only open air restaurant' in London'. It would offer breakfast, dinner and 'dejeuner forchette'. For the uninitiated, he helpfully put in brackets in the advertisement, 'lunch'. D'Oyly wore his ambition on his sleeve, claiming that his 'cuisine and cellars' would 'rival the most famous Continental and American Restaurants'. He made a direct pitch at getting Londoners to relocate their entertaining to his palace for hire, telling them that it was 'specially adapted for private parties and "At Homes”’.

“D'Oyly drew inspiration from the theatre to create an immersive experience. From the moment a guest arrived, he wanted them to feel important, starting with a big entrance. Smartly dressed doormen would welcome them in, before they would walk through the expansive marble foyer to find themselves playing a cameo role in the life of the hotel. The Hotel Bar and Restaurant had an unnecessary flight of steps, to create drama on entering, and full evening dress had to be worn. Once guests had finished their preprandial drinks, waiters, dressed for dinner service in red jackets with gold buttons, silk stockings and velvet breeches, escorted them through the glass-and-gilt doors to the Restaurant. D'Oyly set up a printing department to make artistic daily menus. They were lavish productions, featuring sketches and embossing, worthy of keeping as mementos, as though they were one of his theatre programmes.”



Olivia Williams


The Secret Life of the Savoy: Glamour and Intrigue at the World's Most Famous Hotel


Pegasus Books


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