The Savoy hotel’s history of celebrity extravagance, from Winston Churchill to Marilyn Monroe, has been paused by coronavirus

It was the first luxury hotel in Britain, and 131 years on “The Savoy” remains the definition of luxury accommodation. Just have a read of the listing for the Royal Suite on the website.

This is “an open-plan procession of rooms” with chandeliers, their own private bar, a Jacuzzi, a steam shower, a dressing room with cedar-lined wardrobes and a butler on call 24 hours a day. It has only one bed, but it’s a four-poster king – and the suite is nearly six times the size of the average UK one-bedroom home, at 265sqm.

Spanning “the entire riverside of the fifth floor”, it offers a panoramic view of the Thames. “As the day draws to a close the views become even more dramatic as the silver curve of the river threads its way beneath a city that twinkles through the night.” But you can’t stay there. Nor can I, nor can anyone right now – even if they can afford prices starting at £15,875. Because the Royal Suite, like the rest of the Savoy, is closed.

Through the 20th century the Savoy resolutely stayed open. World wars, the Great Depression and industrial strife did not close the doors that first opened in 1889. The hotel on the Strand, just down the road from Trafalgar Square, met its match with Covid-19. It was closed in 2007 for three years for a £220m restoration project on its facilities and 267 rooms – but this year has seen the first unplanned closure in its history. Without a re-opening date in place, for now the towering Victorian building has the spooky appearance of an empty stage set.

The living room of the Savoy hotel’s Royal Suite (Photo: Savoy/Wonderhatch)

An unrivalled history

Pre-lockdown, the hotel had always maintained the same discreet charm since it was a favourite of Alfred Hitchcock, F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Christian Dior, Sophia Loren, Judy Garland, Groucho Marx, Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich. Its A-list appeal started with Edward VII, whose mistress Lillie Langtry moved in permanently and started her mornings there with an 11am flute of champagne.

Between the wars it became a magnet for American tycoons and was nicknamed “the 49th state”. A rudimentary ticker-tape was installed to keep the Vanderbilts, Astors, Carnegies and Guggenheims in touch with stock prices on Wall Street.

In the 60s, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan stayed alongside Hollywood royalty such as Marlon Brando, Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jane Fonda, and long-standing patrons Agatha Christie, Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin.

Sophia Loren at the Savoy Hotel in 1965 (Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

Historically, come rain or shine, the hotel never closed and bullishly kept standards up, however financially risky that seemed. In 1974, when its bowler-hatted vice-chairman Antony Hornby took the shareholders’ meeting, he listed the headaches of the time: Americans travelling less, a go-slow on the railways, inflation, a miners’ strike, the Opec oil embargo, the Arab–Israeli War and a shortage of lavatory paper in London that proved “a disaster” for the hotel. He concluded by saying: “I can’t pretend we’re optimistic but we have seen this sort of thing before. We shall not stop spending, which would be a short-sighted policy.”

Hornby’s approach was typical of the Savoy while it was run by its founding family, the D’Oyly Cartes. After all, in luxury hotels opulence is the name of the game – and the family and their inner circle had an unwavering belief in spending their way through a crisis. To understand that attitude, and to consider whether it can sustain the Savoy and other luxury venues around the world through a pandemic, it’s worth recalling how it all started.

Extravagant from the start

Richard D’Oyly Carte, who built the “Hotel de Luxe of the World”, as he liked to call it, heralded the Savoy’s arrival with a whirl of breathless publicity and three “housewarming” parties. He understood what the newly minted Victorian wealthy wanted because he was one of them.

He had recently made money as the business brains behind Gilbert and Sullivan and he enjoyed dressing the part of a Victorian Simon Cowell in flashy clothes with his cigars, spats and top hat.

The hotel and its adjoining Savoy theatre was run by Richard until 1901, then by his son, followed by his granddaughter until her death in the 80s.

Richard D’Oyly Carte (Photo: History & Art Collection/Alamy Image)

The luxury hotel scene started in Britain thanks to Richard wanting to replicate places that he admired on his travels. He had been touring since the 1870s with his D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which performed Gilbert and Sullivan operettas year-in year-out, and split its profits with the lyricist and composer.

Richard took hotel inspiration from Monte Carlo and the Riviera, where he liked to spend holidays with his best friend and colleague Arthur Sullivan. He was disappointed that his hometown had no comparable places to stay or eat out. So he decided to create his own.

The Savoy was eventually joined by the Ritz and the Dorchester in London – decades after Richard had started the ball rolling. He offered comfort that was unheard of: 24-hour valet and room service, al fresco dining by the Thames, dinner dances, a new-fangled cocktail bar, soundproofed bedrooms, and Britain’s first electric lifts, quaintly known as “ascending rooms”.

His specification of en suite private bathrooms was such a novelty that the builder asked if Richard’s expected guests were amphibious. These marble bathrooms would be the first in London to proffer hot and cold running water. Rather than a bath being a portable, manually filled can, the whole experience was elevated into a separate ceremony in a separate room. Richard took bath time extremely seriously and hopped fully clothed into tubs around Mayfair’s showrooms in search of the most luxurious.

The Royal Suite bedroom (Photo: Savoy/Wonderhatch)

The Savoy set the template for much of what we still picture a luxury hotel to be. Staff rules included no running under any circumstances in front of guests, and absolute silence in picking up and putting down crockery, glassware and cutlery. Among the niche jobs on offer were a waiter to spend hours in the subterranean ice cavern in a fur coat, chipping away at the walls to supply the American Bar cocktails; a maid to clear away the beads from the dresses in-between dances; and a page boy to tactfully put out footstools for tired ladies to rest their feet.

Every morning the hotel returned to perfection. A carpet spotter patrolled the halls with eyes cast down, looking for loose threads and stains, and a painter went around with a tray of little pots and fine brushes, looking for nicks and scratches on the doors, chairs and skirting boards, making them disappear.

A few years after the Savoy, Richard D’Oyly Carte was ready to present its small sister hotel, Claridge’s. He had bought an old boarding house on the site in Mayfair and had it knocked down and rebuilt by the architect of his favourite shop, Harrods.

The entrance to the hotel (Photo: Savoy/Wonderhatch)

Café Parisien days return?

Although Claridge’s welcomed NHS staff to stay in its suites during lockdown, it has only recently invited paying visitors back, starting at its eponymous bar. From early September, guests can stay over again, but what are the longer-term prospects of these grand dame hotels? Operating in a world of boutique hotels, Airbnb and curbs on flights is going to put extra pressure on them to hold their own.

Recent troubles could be a chance to tack back into their roots as somewhere for more locals to visit, rather than relying so much on overseas tourists who, as things now turn out, may not be able to get there. Coaxing in more locals would make them less vulnerable to travel restrictions – and improve the atmosphere at the same time. After all, many travellers like to feel as though they are connected to the surroundings. Wall-to-wall international super-rich customers who could be at any other luxury hotel in any other city do not make a place feel special.

Perhaps this is unrealistic, however, as the hotel now has an international owner – Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia – and is managed by Fairmont Hotels and Resorts of Canada.

Richard D’Oyly Carte started the Savoy by promising it would not be “unduly expensive” and it offered a clubby, friendly atmosphere. His idea was that Londoners should use the place to host celebrations that they would usually have at home out in public instead.

The Savoy then also had an informal “Café Parisien”, with theatregoers and performers from the Savoy theatre in mind as patrons, with a prix fixe option. Luxury hotels could do with more Café Parisien-style restaurants to bring in regular customers who want to eat out with a sense of occasion but without a nightmarish bill at the end.

Guests need to be won back

High levels of service can also really help create an inviting atmosphere, however. If guests are spending on hotels they want to feel generously looked after and allowing staff the discretion to offer a few treats, whether it’s something as inexpensive as a free coffee or Wi-F or bar snacks or a drink on the house, creates the right impression.

The policy works well at Pret A Manger, where baristas can hand out free hot drinks or food, up to a certain value, as they see fit. However rich customers are, they are still flattered by personal attention and freebies.

As the Savoy’s vice-chairman argued in 1974, holding back on spending would be “short-sighted” and conspicuously warm hospitality would be welcome at the moment. Alongside the food and interiors, uplifting service is really, after all, one of the big selling points of a luxury hotel.

The case of Chateau Marmont, formerly the Hollywood place to stay, does not bode well for others. This summer it announced that, after earlier job cuts, it would become a private members’ club. Other luxury hotels will, hopefully, retain their appeal – they have survived all sorts of fashions and privations before. Even so, with enforced closures and global travel all but stopping, Covid-19 represents the greatest existential challenge they have faced.

To me, the Savoy retains an unfair advantage over any flashier newcomers in Dubai, Thailand, the Maldives and elsewhere, because they’re still blank canvases. They have no sense of history, no infamous episodes of famous lives to be told in years to come.

I liked walking around the hotel again after starting my research for my book, The Secret Life of the Savoy, thinking about the milestones that guests had reached there: the ballroom dance floor worn thin by weddings, the private dining room where treaties for a Europe after World War Two were signed, the people who had argued, joked around and fallen in love there in the diaries and articles I had read.

I thought about the family who built it still living in one of the suites until 1985 and wondered what it must have been like to feel responsible for it all. A new hotel cannot replicate memories and personal connections and they’re what give a place its character.

The Savoy, whenever it opens, cannot become a museum of memories of fun and glamour past. It needs to win over local regulars and come back with more confidence, goodwill and energy than ever before.

Olivia Williams is the author of The Secret Life of the Savoy and the D’Oyly Carte Family, released on Thursday (Headline, £20)

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