Private View at the Savoy July 2010

Dear Rowley,

My letters are starting to resemble Wrecking Ball Weekly aren’t they? I promise after this one I’ll stop sending you pictures of building sites. But you were so desperate to have a peek into the Savoy that I couldn’t resist taking a few snaps on my last site visit. Of course London has been gossiping about what is happening to the Savoy behind all that scaffolding. As you’ll see from my snap of the reception area, the Savoy’s face lift is nearly completed and she’s looking as good as she did on opening night 1889.

Many dark rumblings have emanated from ‘friends’ ever since I agreed to curate a museum display at the Savoy almost eighteen months ago. Is the Strand as grand as it was in the late Victorian era? Could the hotel live up to its past? This reminds me of a story Barbra Streisand told at her last concert. It concerns a woman who goes to the butcher to buy a chicken. She pokes it, she prods it, she squeezes it, she holds it up to the light and finally says ‘no, I don’t want it’. ‘You’ll pardon my asking’ says the butcher ‘but, lady, could you pass a test like that?’ Which of us could?

So could the hotel live up to it’s past? Which of us can? It is foolish to try and live up to the past. In answer to ‘things ‘aint what they used to be’ one always has to reply ‘they never were’. Few can doubt that the Savoy played host to world-class icons such as Monet, Chaplin, Coward, Churchill, Dietrich, Callas and Sinatra. But when it first opened in 1889 I am sure there was more then a few dissenting voices considering the abject luxury of the ‘greatest hotel in the world’ de trop. History is invariably on the side of the victor and the Savoy has to date always been the winner.

Of course there will be critics of the refurbished Savoy; not least because the signature interior design of the great Pierre Yves Rochon prefers a gallop through many centuries of style rather than adhering strictly to one era. A case in point is the museum space just off the American Bar corridor. This is, in reality, a private bar leading on to the Savoy Grill with a few display cases sunk into the walls. Monsieur Rochon has confounded my expectations of a rather charming space for rather quaint archive pieces; opting instead for a high voltage Art Deco decadent little boite lined with black leather and punctured by mirrored glass pillars.

Sounds like a nightclub? That’s exactly what I said Rowly. And you want to know what? I love it. I never liked the idea of a ‘museum’ in the Savoy. This is, instead, an amuse bouche for guests en route to the Grill or the American Bar to look at glamorous little vignettes evoking the hotel’s glorious past. It is also subtly to say that guests today are walking in the footsteps of giants such as Lillie Langtry and the Prince of Wales, Serge Diaghilev and Coco Chanel, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh or Noel Coward and the divine Marlene Dietrich.

I’m sure I told you I am also buying artworks and libraries etc for the nine named signature suites. My favourite so far is Marlene Dietrich. Hers is a poignant and cautionary story. In the early days (her 1930s Von Sternberg film heyday), Marlene would book into what she called ‘the Monarch of London hotels’ knowing a dozen pink roses and a bottle of Dom Perignon would be waiting for her in the suite. But here’s the cautionary tale about painting the past through rose-tints. In her latter concert years in the 1970s, Dietrich’s suite was customized by her daughter Maria Riva to allow for the superstar’s innumerable ailments.

All sharp surfaces were padded to make sure Dietrich’s once luscious legs did not tear and bleed. Thick blackout curtains were taped to the wall so the star could sleep.  Carpet edges too were taped so the star did not trip. Instead of making-up and dressing at the Queen’s Theatre where she was performing, Dietrich converted her suite into a dressing room. Thus no-one but Miss Riva could see that beneath the bejewelled nude Jean Louis gowns Dietrich’s legs were bandaged and her body constricted by a rubber foundation.

Distressing though it might be that Miss Riva wrote a Mommie Dearest about the great Dietrich, the story does illustrate that a great hotel such as the Savoy kept many secrets beneath the veneer of glamour. While researching another favourite at  the Savoy, Richard Harris, I was struck by the glib stories about this heroic drinker, smoker and shagger. A charmer he doubtless was but I am sure that not a few of the night porters and bell boys would have less salubrious stories to tell about the actor’s desperate hours. But which of us doesn’t have them Rowly?

So, what do you think of the Savoy? I am rather taken with what I have christened the birdcage underneath the stained glass dome. It has the scale and theatricality demanded of the Savoy. I didn’t take a snap of the Beaufort Bar for but think Deco black and gold with booths built into grand alcoves. It is made for you and I in black tie. As for the Lancaster Ballroom, I rather adore the new gilded pale Viennese blue and white stucco. It is like an Archduchess’s imperial wedding cake and I adore it.

I have some intriguing, amusing news about a new event on Savile Row for October. It involves farm animals. I will say no more for  now. Until the next letter…