London days and nights
The Tower Bridge of London as seen from the Tower of London. Photo: JH.

London. As you walk into Claridge’s, passing through a brief entry way, your eyes are instantly drawn to the lobby just beyond that is so reminiscent of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films of the 1930s, that you could almost believe Van Nest Polglase, their set designer at RKO created it.

Firstly, there is the glistening black and white marble floor extending across to the creamy pale yellow Edwardian atrium tearoom known as the Foyer. And then, just to the right there is a wide sweeping staircase from which, (and I know this sounds like a writer’s hyperbole, but ... ) you could easily imagine an overture swelling as Fred and Ginger descend elegantly and effortlessly, he in white tie and tails, and she in a diaphanous white chiffon pailletted gown, after which they whirl across the shimmering white and black surface. It’s a movie or the closest most of us will ever get to being in one.

The ivory walled lobby is tall and glamorous — really glamorous and busy with guests, visitors and staff coming and going. Overhead is a large chandelier. To the left, just outside the Foyer, is a fireplace with two comfortable chairs and a small table set before it. It is almost always occupied throughout the day and evening by guests either relaxing before the fire or waiting for others to join them.

The leitmotif — from the revolving door entrance to the hotel, throughout the lobby and its adjacent public rooms — two bars, a restaurant and a tearoom — is authentic Art Deco, all of which was first installed in the 1920s by Basil Ionides, a pioneering proponent of the design style.

The front exterior of Claridges built in 1898
A portrait of Mrs. Claridge in the lobby
Clockwise from top left: The lobby of Claridges ready and waiting for Fred and Ginger; Looking down towards the lobby from the 2nd landing; Looking up the grand staircase from the 1st landing.

On the opposite wall to the right and just outside the Foyer is a commanding oil portrait of Victorian lady in black, with bustle, stately, serene and serious. She is Mrs. Claridge whose husband built the first Claridge’s in 1812. Throughout the 19th century it was known as The Palace of Mayfair and very popular with visiting royalty. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert put their royal stamp of approval on it when they paid a call on the visiiting Empress Eugenie of France.
In 1894, Mrs. Claridge sold the hotel to theatrical producer and hotelier, Richard D’Oyly Carte who also owned the Savoy, the Connaught and Berkeley (then located in Berkeley Square). D’Oyly Carte was also a household name throughout the world because his productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas which were initially performed in his Savoy Theatre. After his acquisition of Claridge’s, D’Oyly Carte demolished the building and built the present hotel in its place.
Katharine Hepburn at a press reception for her new film, The African Queen, Claridges, 1951.
Throughout the lobby and its surrounding bars and restaurants are framed black and white photographs of some of the hotel’s famous visitors such as Audrey Hepburn, Winston Churchill, Jackie Onassis, Edward G. Robinson, Princess Margaret, John Huston, Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Fairbanks Jr., the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Katharine Hepburn.

Claridge’s was also the hotel of choice for Hepburn’s famous paramour, Spencer Tracy whenever he visited London. When Miss Hepburn was traveling with him, she put up at the Connaught so as to publicly obscure what was already generally well known — their longtime affair — because Tracy was also a married man.

Hepburn spent much of her stay in London visting Tracy at Claridge’s. And the hotel management (and the guests too) were very pleased to have her and Tracy in their company. However there was one small problem: Katharine Hepburn was in the habit of wearing pants (or trousers, as they were called), and “women in pants” was officially against hotel policy (as it was in many public places all over the world right up until the mid-to-late-1960s).

But ... because the breaker of the official rules was a world famous film star, the hotel management was at loss as how to tell her to STOP WEARING PANTS IN THE LOBBY. Finally they decided to ask Spencer Tracy to ask her to stop. So one day, the hotel’s general manager made an appointment to see his famous guest. Arriving at Tracy’s door, the man was already working up a bit of a sweat about the planned request of so celebrated a guest.

On the other side of the door, unbeknownst to the general manager, Mr. Tracy too was working up a bit of a sweat as to why he was being visited. He imagined it was about his relationship with Hepburn and her frequent visits. So when he shortly learned that the general manager was merely requesting him to ask Miss Hepburn NOT TO WEAR PANTS IN THE LOBBY, it came as a great relief.

The problem was immediately resolved: Katharine Hepburn was never again seen in the lobby wearing pants (or trousers), although she continued spending most of her time with Spencer Tracy in his suite. Nor did she change her mode of dress. She simply entered and left the hotel through a side entrance where no one could see her. In her pants. (Or trousers.)

Ms. Jean Stewart and Mrs. White at a party, Claridges, 1939
Zsa Zsa Gabor with Porfirio Rubirosa, Claridges, 1954
Jacqueline Onassis exiting the hotel, 1970
Princess Margaret arriving the hotel, 1960
Actress Merle Oberon in her suite, Claridges, 1963
Nancy Viscountess Astor, Lord Winterton, and the Countess of Lytton at a fancy dress ball, Claridges, 1910
Audrey Hepburn at a welcome home reception after filming Roman Holiday, Claridges, 1953
Princess Margaret at a dance in the Drawing Room, Claridges, 1951
Edward G. Robinson relaxing in his suite, Claridges, 1966
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor leaving Claridges, 1953
John Huston, Claridges, 1966
Yul Brynner at a press reception, Claridges, 1959
Queen Elizabeth II attending a banquet hosted by King Paul and Queen Frederika of Greece, Claridges, 1963
Sir Isaac Stern viewing photographs of himself, Claridges, 1970
After checking in to our rooms, we joined Gill Christophers, who is director of public relations for the hotel, in the Fumoir, a discreet little bar off the lobby where people can have a cigar and a cocktail, or tea.

When I stayed at the hotel several years ago, this bar did not exist. In fact there was no bar for people to congregate in the hotel. On my earlier visit, I also found the staff to be very stuffy and even snooty. However, I accepted that as British-ness. So I was surprised on meeting Mrs. Christophers to find a very welcoming and friendly personality.

Since it was the end of her workday, she ordered pink champagne for herself and me (JH had mint tea) and although it was a first time meeting, we embarked on a conversation like old friends catching up. Mrs. Christophers is fairly new at Claridge’s having come from a position as head of public relations for Harper & Queen, (recently renamed Harpers Bazaar), and before that as director of public relations for Mohamed al-Fayed at Harrods.
Left: Claridges director of public relations Gill Christophers in the Fumoir on Friday evening.

Right: Fifth floor hallway.
Above left: the Fumoir. Above right: Scenes from our suite.
Although both of her previous work experiences, incidentally, were very rewarding and interesting, naturally I wanted to know what it was like to work for the man whose son was killed along with Diana in the tragic accident in Paris, and who has long been a thorn in the side of the British Establishment.

She told us she really liked working for Mr. al-Fayed. She described a man who was demanding and driven but very kind and generous, and very charitable and very often anonymously. In short, she found him to be very sympathetic.

She told us she’d taken on this assignment because it was a new challenge and because since Blackstone’s acquiring it, and with the new owners, the hotel was being transformed from its previous stuffy (and snooty) image into a modern establishment.

Sitting there in the tiny Fumoir with its small bar, its tufted velvet banquettes and small round cocktail tables, all of which were occupied by young men and women who were clearly having a good old time, I could see they had already succeeded. The same could be said about all the public rooms — filled and lively — as well as the lobby where right after our drinks we ran into Michele and Larry Herbert who’d come over from New York to attend a dinner for the Prince’s Trust at Buckingham Palace.
Friday night was a work night for us since, as it has been throughout this trip to Europe, we were way behind schedule in going online with the Diary. Fortunately the five hour time difference between London and New York gave us some leeway.

We never finished up until almost ten o’clock Friday night, after which we went down to the Claridge’s Bar for some light supper. The place was really jumping — another surprise compared to my memories of the previous visit. The crowd was attractive very contemporary — suits and ties, jackets and no ties, sweaters; women in cocktail dresses or just casually — a mixed bag. At that hour it was reasonably rousing too. We sat at a banquette next to the bar. I had their small (rectangular) pizza (excellent) along with an arugula salad with shaved parmesan and JH had the Claridge’s version of Fish and Chips.

Saturday morning.
It was cold in London. We went to Richoux’s, a tearoom off Grosvenor Square for some breakfast and then a walk to exercise off some of this constant eating on this trip. We passed the American Embassy, surrounded as it now is with a variety of heavy barriers both metal and concrete with even the roadway in front of it cordoned off. The enormous building looked devoid of humanity save for the lone guard in a black uniform and wearing a black hood, the bottom of which covered the lower half of his face. He was standing by the entrance carrying a black machine gun.
Our walk through Grosvenor Square — On the right hand side of the embassy is a larger than lifesize bronze sculpture of Dwight D. Eisenhower (above) in his military uniform — his most common costume in the years he resided in London during the Second World War. The statue was a gift from the people of Kansas City and President George H.W. Bush’s Ambassador Charles Price and his wife Carol who dedicated it with Margaret Thatcher in 1989.
Gazing on the statue I was filled with a sense of nostalgia and sadness. I couldn’t help wondering what the great military general and president would have thought of the world today as well as the barricades in front of our embassy. JH took a photo of the statue although he regretted there was no sunshine to do it justice. Regret filled the air around it.
London Street scenes
We walked on down the several blocks back to Claridge’s where we got a taxi with the intention of visiting the Churchill museum at Clyde Steps. It was here that housed the bunker where Winston Churchill worked and often slept during the war.

Inside the taxi, as it pulled away from the curb, we gave the cabbie our destination. He pulled over to the side and stopped. We couldn’t go there, he said because the whole area surrounding it, from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace had been closed off by the police and everything shut down. Why? There were tens of thousands of people fill those streets and roadways, staging a massive anti-Iraq War protest. Even the museum had been closed.

The headlines in all the London papers on this day was about a new scandal — one that many believe could spell the end of Tony Blair’s government. It seems that Mr. Blair had raised 14 million pounds in “loans” from supporters who in turn were apparently rewarded with peerages. Furthermore a large chunk of the millions were unaccounted for. Suspicions led to more suspicions. One Englishman told me it was believed Blair wouldn’t last the year.

With the Churchill Museum out of bounds, and already in the taxi, we asked the cabbie where else we could visit.

“Have ya been to the Tower of London?” he asked. No.

“Is there much to see there?” I asked, with visions of the London Bridge towers in my mind’s eye.

“Oh you could spend the day there and not see it all,” he advised.

So we started off to the Tower of London. And, it turned out, we’d lucked out with this cabbie who was a repository of history of London, its buildings, and the monarchy that has presided over it since William the Conqueror moved in (and built the Tower of London) in 1066 — the perfect tour guide.

As we moved along, noting our interest in his tour, he turned one corner just so that we could see the house where Charles Dickens lived between 1837 and 1839 and wrote The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.
Our cabbie Ricgard Patten and the house where Charles Dickens lived from 1837-1839.
From there we moved along into the City, the oldest part, the original London town where our driver Richard Patten, a Cockney, was also born. We passed St. Paul’s where Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles on that fateful day of July 29, 1981. Mr. Patten referred to her simply as “Diana.” The cathedral is called “the London Miracle” because the entire area around it was destroyed by the German bombings during the War but the cathedral miraculously survived. St. Paul’s is the fourth church to occupy that site where one has existed for the past 1500 years.

We passed the Old Bailey, the now officially re-named criminal courthouse that is still referred to by the neighbors by its old one, named for the ancient street on which it sits.

We drove down along the Thames until we came to the end of one road. And there before us was a huge and massive ancient walled fortress, surrounded by what obviously had once been a wide moat. The Tower of London.
Scenes outside and inside the walls of the Tower of London.
I don’t know why but all my life until the moment we arrived at this spot, I’d thought of the Tower of London as one of those towers on the bridge over the Thames that you’ve seen in all the pictures and history books since childhood. And, furthermore, I thought it was simply an Elizabethan structure used for keeping the crown jewels and where they tortured and executed political enemies of the crown in Elizabethan times and before. That’s rank ignorance for you.

The Tower, which was very crowded with visitors of all ages on this cold very March day with the winds whipping up from the Thames and the sun intermittently shining through is what in America we would call a fort — which holds the actual Tower (built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century) as well as many other buildings, houses, and castle-like structures that have been added to it over the centuries.

For a long time in its earliest incarnation it was a royal palace. It was also at the same time a prison (for more than seven centuries — its last most famous prisoner was Rudolf Hess during World War II), an amory and a gunpowder storage.
Initially William built it, the tallest structure in all of England, to lord over the city of London, so as to send a clear message to any of its defiant citizens: “we are watching you!” They got the message. Ah, la plus ca change ...

Elizabeth I, as a twenty year old was imprisoned here by her older half-sister Mary, so as to keep her away from the coveted throne. Of course we all know that in due time Mary died, probably of cancer, and Elizabeth became queen. It was also here that Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII had her mother, Anne Boleyn, beheaded. So that he could marry another and still be a devoutly religious monarch. Vive le godliness, no? Convenient in some quarters, if you’ll pardon the pun; the ultimate abusive husband. Henry frequently found beheading very convenient when it came to wives and associates he no longer had a yen for.

Elizabeth followed suit with the rule of the axe when it suited her also. The operative phrase (never uttered aloud, I’m sure) was “I’d kill for a crown.” It went on like this for centuries, and considering it all while touring these buildings it gives one pause for considering the whole idea of monarchy and royal personages ... anywhere, anytime.
 
Clockwise from top left: Traitor's Gate where prisoners were transported to the Tower from the river, including the future Queen Elizabeth I; Sentry Guardsman; A view of Waterloo Block, home of the Crown Jewels; St. Thomas' Tower above Traitor's Gate.
The White Tower built by William the Conquerer and a weather vane atop the White Tower
In another of the many buildings is a collection of the crown jewels. Although I’m no gemologist, it’s hard to believe that what we were looking at were the actual crown jewels. Nevertheless what passed for them was more than satisfactory to the eye and had the crowd staring in wonder and probably thinking how useful those diamonds and rubies and emeralds and sapphires (not to mention the gold) would be in paying off the mortgage. Or the plastic. Alas, the thoughts of the common man.

We spent three hours touring the Tower and its other buildings and walking along the wide cobbled roads and narrow cobbled lanes and trudging up the copious narrow stone steps within the thick ancient stone walls. We could have spent another three hours had time allowed because there is so much to see and so much to ponder.

In the end, one is left at the wonder of the Tower’s continuing existence — a thousand years later — bestowing solid evidence of the political natures of man and woman, and of the heritage of Britain and the British subjects and their descendants who now cover the globe. It also renders today’s monarchy nothing more than a picture postcard to decorate our fancies of the high life. At least they don’t have to worry about the executioner’s axe.
Clockwise from top left: A child studies his history; Sir Walter Raleigh's study in the prison of the Tower of London; Scaffold Site where Anne Boleyn was beheaded; A crowd getting a tour.
Sentrys along Mint Street
The building Where Rudolf Hess was imprisoned in World War II until his transfer to Spandau (left) and Beauchamp Tower (right)
Left to right: Waterloo Block, Martin Tower, and Fusiliers' Museum
Inside the White Tower
The armoury
King's bedchamber in the Medieval Palace under restoration
Looking towards the Tower Bridge
Late 20th Century London architecture outside the Tower; Taxis waiting for their fares.
Returning from the Tower of London in late afternoon — I don’t know about you, but we ... or at least I ... was ready for a snooze. About an hour later we were up and at ‘em again, and this time to meet Andrew Saffir and Daniel Benedict for drinks before dinner.

It turned out that they were staying right across the hallway from us at Claridge’s. RIGHT across the hall (although we never saw them in the hall). Andrew realized it first when he was following our travels on the NYSD and sent us an email.
Intrepid travelers face reality in the suite at Claridges
They invited us to Soho House in ... Soho of course ... for a glass of champagne (or two). They had come to London just for the weekend, like many other Americans to dine at a Prince’s Trust fund-raising dinner at Buckingham Palace. Prince Charles, taking a page from the Americans’ book of charity benefit hosts these dinners where the guests pay a nominal sum (in this case I think it was $1500 a ticket) to attend a reception and a dinner at the Palace in the company of the prince and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, Her Royal Highness, of course.

Although no doubt many of his American guests were unaware, this past weekend was one for at least some celebration for the prince. He scored a minor legal victory the day before with a judge’s ruling in a lawsuit he filed against the Daily Mail for printing excerpts from some of his private journals — journals in which he expressed very undiplomatic opinions about, among other things, foreign leaders (namely Chinese) and, among other things, their less than attractive physical presence (in his presence). The prince maintains that although these journals had been distributed as he wished amongst a number of individuals, (confirming that every writer likes an audience, in one form or another), the journals were not meant for publication per se. And whatwith he being The Prince, certainly not. Not.
The Mail has argued that as the Heir to the Throne the prince’s private musings were no longer private once they were printed up and sent around to be read by whomever.

The matter is, alas, just another chapter in the beleagured life of the prince who no doubt considers himself always under siege by the nosy old press who just don’t seem to show any respect for an individual member of the monarchy. At least not the way they did when the Tower of London was the hub of monarchical activity, ahem.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch: Soho House very much resembles the one we have in New York in the meatpacking district although the decor in New York is occasionally more post-modern interior design kitschiness with its tufted leather elevators (lifts, they call them here in England), etc. Observing the membership present in the London club, one could have been in New York, for they looked very much the same crowd. In fact, if you counted us, it was the same crowd.
Andrew and Daniel in the taxi on the way to Soho House and the scene at Soho House
After a couple of drinks and our exchanging tales of our excellent adventures, we parted ways — Andrew and Daniel off down some narrow lane to a very trendy London boite, and we to meet an old friend, Dominique Kirby who now resides in London, at an excellent (and excellently priced) Italian restaurant called Teca — just around the corner and down the lane from Claridge’s.
DPC with his longtime friend Dominique Kirby
Our walk back to the hotel through Lancashire Court
Back at Claridges with Dominik Walli, supervisor of the Reading Room



March 20, 2006, Volume VI, Number 47
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch/NYSD.com

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© 2006 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/NewYorkSocialDiary.com