Thursday, December 27, 2007

Savoy Sale

John Wayne playing with a Savoy pageboy, c.1951.
By Peter Evans

Nostalgia is an effective selling tool and Bonhams’ Robert Brooks wielded it with great élan and sly wit as thousands of items of beds - many of them slept in by the famous, notorious, and simply exhausted - butlers’ trays, muffin dishes, table lamps, giltwood mirrors, fauteuils, tables de nuit, chandeliers, paintings, umbrella stands, teapots, card tables and mahogany washstands, went under the hammer this week (Tuesday 18 December, Wednesday 19 December, Thursday 20 December) when the curtain came down on London’s Savoy Hotel’s first 118 years.

A rosewood serving counter at the Fitness Gallery.
The intermission is in preparation for a $250 million, eighteen-month facelift on the grandest dame of grand hotels.

The sale has understandably drawn more fanfare than any event in its long lifetime. The thousands of bidders who gathered from across the world for the three-day sale in the River Room had the keen and expectant look of people attending the reading of an old friend’s will.

Even when the come-and-get-me estimates put on many items quickly proved to be too good to be true – in the first minutes of the sale, a set of ten stained beech frame fauteuils in the Louis XV style, estimated to fetch between 500 and 700 sterling, went for 3000 sterling –the sense of respect that might attend the last earthly hours of a dying monarch was undiminished. Asked about the 3000 pound tag, a German bidder said he was neither surprised nor discouraged. ‘He who hopes to inherit a penny must sometimes spend a dollar,” he said enigmatically.   

The surroundings might have encouraged such philosophy. For even in its early state of demolition and abandonment, one was still startled by the Savoy’s haute and splendour – which is surely what its founder, the theatrical impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, wanted us to feel when he opened its doors in 1889.
Savoy Strand Entrance with staff, 1904.
Room 412.
Concierge area.
A pair of Art Deco circular birch and satinwood wall mirrors.
Although he had no previous experience of the hotel business, Mr. Carte understood the celebrity game very well and had the casting instincts of a successful producer (he had made his fortune producing comic operettas written by his friends, William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan). He hired Cesar Ritz to take over the running of the hotel (before Ritz had opened his own legendary establishment in Paris), and engaged Auguste Escoffier to run the kitchens. The best combination since bacon and eggs wowed London society, and plenty of visiting New Yorkers, from the start.

Oscar Wilde stayed there with his reckless, unmanageable and spendthrift lover Lord Alfred Douglas. Sarah Bernhardt took a regular suite, along with Dame Nellie Melba, for whom Escoffier created Melba toast for when she was on a diet, and Peach Melba, for when she was not. Claude Monet, before he was Claude Monet, painted the Thames from his room, which, following his fame, became the Monet Suite and was variously occupied by Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne, Peter Sellers, Sophia Loren and Cary Grant. Aristotle Onassis stayed in one of the hotel’s cheapest rooms, often struggling to pay his bill, when he was carving his shipping fortune in the 1930s.
Elizabeth Taylor unpacking at The Savoy, 1951.
Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier in a press conference at The Savoy prior to the beginning of filming "The Prince and the Showgirl", 1956.
Elizabeth Taylor liked it so much she spent three or four of her honeymoons there. Tallulah Bankhead, Katharine Hepburn, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson stayed there. And if you wished, you could have bid for the oak parquet dance floor (estimate: 400 to 600 pounds) from the Lancaster Ballroom, pitted with the heel marks of the famous, and on which, according to legend, Marlene Dietrich made love – five times! Don’t ask!  

The Savoy reached its peak in the 1950s and ‘60s. Humphrey Bogart and Hitchcock stayed there; Errol Flynn and John Huston, the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Richard Burton and Liza Minnelli were all regular guests. In 1956, Marilyn Monroe gave a press conference in the room in which the sale was taking place to announce that she would star with Sir Laurence Olivier in The Prince and the Showgirl.  ‘Do you think these are the same bergeres in which Monroe and Olivier sat then?’ asked an excited matron at the sale.
Two views of the Monet suite.
Fred Astaire was so little-known when he first stayed at the Savoy in the twenties, together with his sister Adele, they were appearing at the Strand theatre across the street, that his registry card has the note ‘dancer’ helpfully scribbled in the margin. This gem was not in the sale, alas. Nor is the stretcher on which a dying Richard Harris, a resident, was carried through the foyer advising guests not to eat the food!

A Grottrian-Steinmeg grand piano, one of the hotel’s many famous white pianos was, alas, not the piano Carroll Gibbons was playing when he was blown off the bandstand during the Blitz and Noel Coward emerged from the audience to play a rousing selection of his hits. But even without that pedigree, it fetched 9,500 pounds – 6,500 pounds above the estimate.

In 2005, the hotel was sold to a company associated with Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Abdulaziz and Bank of Scotland, part of the HBOS group, and is managed by Fairmont Hotels and Resorts.  

Click here for NYSD Contents