An Insider Account of the London Hotel Where Princess Margaret, Prince Philip, and Marilyn Monroe All Went Wild

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The hotel’s theatrical connections meant that it hosted a whirl of opening-night parties and awards ceremonies, which by the 1960s were becoming bigger business than the debutante balls. The Savoy scored a coup in hosting the first BAFTAs in the Ballroom, which, unlike today’s marathon ceremonies, conferred only seven awards and kept the program snappy, leaving the dinner as a much larger feature than the speeches.

As the banqueting department was a powerhouse of 3,000 private events a year, the range of guests passing through was immense. As with many of the staff, for [James] Walsh, the commis chef, one of many sources of pride and excitement was the guests. As he reminisced: "the list of famous people who stayed is mind boggling." At the restaurant that Walsh was cooking for, the year-round program of entertainment was drawing in big names too. Patricia Kirkwood became the first woman to host her own BBC show, having caught attention in the cabaret. She had just enjoyed a sold-out three-month acclaimed residency at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas when the Savoy offered her the chance to replicate her success in London. Before that, as an 18-year-old, she had first found fame in wartime, for singing Cole Porter’s "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." Not only did diners want to enjoy her singing in the cabaret, no doubt many could not resist coming to see for themselves the soubrette who had inspired such fury in the late George VI. It was rumored that Prince Philip, then not long married to the Princess Elizabeth, had a fling with Kirkwood, after he was introduced in her dressing room. Rumors persisted for many years and Kirkwood complained that the Prince was not doing enough to quell them: "A lady is not normally expected to defend her honor publicly. It is the gentleman who should do that," she complained. She denied any impropriety, but did say: "He was so full of life and energy. I suspect he felt trapped and rarely got a chance to be himself. I think I got off on the right foot because I made him laugh."

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The Opera Company did sterling work in booking singers for the hotel cabaret at the height of their fame. Petula Clark was in residence for a month, having recently had a number one with "Downtown." The soigné singer Françoise Hardy had just released "Tous Les Garçons et Les Filles" when she arrived to find a white grand piano waiting in her private living room, so that she could practice in seclusion. Dionne Warwick had her hits "Do You Know The Way to San José?" and "Walk on By" when she performed there in 1965. As the management was adamant that the dress code should apply to all guests, however famous they were, Warwick had to threaten to pull the plug on the whole show to get her friends in. She had invited The Beatles to "come on over and hang out," only to find that the maître d’ would not allow them in on the grounds that they were "not properly dressed." Warwick lost her temper: "I went a little bit on the ballistic side. I said, 'Well, guess what. These are my friends. If they’re not allowed in, I’m not going on.' They got front-row seats [. . .] Everybody was looking at them a little peculiarly, but, hey, they were The Beatles, come on!"

As well as established stars, the cabaret booked the occasional newcomer. Brian Epstein, the manager whom 23-year-old Cilla Black shared with The Beatles, secured three weeks for her in 1968, the last show of which was televised. She appeared in a tiny floral minidress and an elfin haircut in Cilla at the Savoy. Harking back to the mass appeal of the Savoy Orpheans broadcasts of the 1920s, it achieved one of the largest audiences of the decade. Although Black had two number-one singles, it seemed as though Epstein’s hunch that she would be an even bigger star on television was right. After the cabaret, she was offered her own BBC series, which ran for eight years.

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Comparing guests’ outfits and poses in just a decade, the difference is striking. In the 1950s, the hotel’s pictures are of Ava Gardner and Ingrid Bergman looking composed and demure in calf-length, long-sleeved dresses, and Margot Fonteyn in her pearls and sensible ballerina bun. By 1965, Sophia Loren, in town to promote a film with Charlie Chaplin, was posing for pictures smoking and drinking in a sheer mesh top, made-up with sweeps of black eyeliner, and Bond girl Ursula Andress made an entrance in a sequined mini dress with a plunging neckline, with photographers thronging outside with their bulky flashbulb cameras. When Mae West "sailed in like a galleon, blazing with jewels, a thick bracelet shackled to her wrist" to keep this impact up for her stay her luggage included "150 dresses and 60 pairs of shoes with six-inch wedge heels."

Completely uncourted, the sexual revolution had even hit the Savoy. Paolo Contarini, the head of banqueting, complained in a company meeting that the hotel should not change for "the debauchees of the permissive society" – but they came to stay anyway. The women’s hemlines were getting shorter and shorter, and the men’s hair was getting longer and longer. Bob Dylan was pictured smoking in his sunglasses, slumped against a radiator, looking so disheveled that no one would have a hope of getting him into a dinner jacket. He immortalized an unlikely corner by filming the "Subterranean Homesick Blues" video in the alleyway by the kitchens. Despite the influx of "debauchees," the dress code for the Restaurant stayed in place. Dylan was turned away for not wearing a tie, and the Rolling Stones had the same short shrift.

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In direct contrast were the fashion shows, held a decade apart, by designers Christian Dior and Valentino in the Ballroom. A popular success in 1950 had been Dior’s British catwalk debut, when more than 4,000 fashion connoisseurs applied for the 500 tickets. The show was so well-received that the Queen Mother requested a private viewing the next morning for the rest of the Royal Family. Her daughter, Princess Margaret, became a lifelong fan. The show gave Dior the confidence to open his business up in London two years later. With him there was barely a calf, let alone a thigh on show, and the man himself turned up in a crisp suit.

In the 1960s, a young Valentino caused a similar stir with his debut at the hotel. By then the trend for tiny hemlines was clear, and Valentino posed with the de rigeur cigarette of a 1960s celebrity, luxuriant hair down to his shoulders, wearing a swirly silk scarf and a patterned velvet jacket. The two shows and how the designers themselves were dressed was a neat demonstration of how times had changed, and quite how quickly.

Adapted from The Secret Life of the Savoy: Glamour and Intrigue at the World’s Most Famous Hotel by Olivia Williams. Published by Pegasus Books. © Olivia Williams. Reprinted with permission.

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