The actor Spencer Tracy once remarked: ‘Not that I intend to die, but when I do, I don’t want to go to heaven, I want to go to Claridge’s.’ William Claridge, butler to an aristocratic family, bought a small hotel in Brook Street and, in 1854, expanded his business by adding another hotel in the same street called Mivart’s. ‘Claridge’s, late Mivart’s’, as it was known for several years, had a high reputation as the London haunt of Continental aristocrats and its prestige was enhanced in 18 60 when Queen Victoria visited the French empress, Eugenie, who had taken up temporary residence there during her stay in England. During World War II the exiled king of Yugoslavia was living at Claridge’s when his wife gave birth to a son and heir. Churchill declared the suite Yugoslav territory for a day to ensure that the child would have a right to the throne – a right that the 60-year-old prince still maintains in 2006.
Although he had already retired from the Savoy following financial scandals and mental health problems, the hotel was built to the specifications of the legendary hotelier Cesar Ritz and it became what he called ‘the small house to which I am very proud to see my name attached’.
Opened in 1906, the Ritz immediately became a haunt of the rich and the famous. In the years since, the Aga Khan and John Paul Getty have had suites there, minor European royalty in exile from republican regimes have haunted its corridors and Hollywood stars have fled the attentions of their fans by retiring to its rooms. In 1921, Charlie Chaplin, returning for the first time to the city he had left as an unknown music-hall performer, nearly caused a riot outside the Ritz and forty policemen had to be employed in order to escort him in safety through adoring but demanding fans. The Ritz is now owned by the famously reclusive Barclay Brothers.
The hotel was opened by James Brown, a manservant, and his wife Sarah, who had been a maid to Lady Byron, in 1837. It was where Alexander Graham Bell made the first long-distance telephone call in England in 1876. Sitting in a room in Brown’s, he called a colleague who was in a house near Ravenscourt Park. Theodore Roosevelt was married in London and he was staying at Brown’s when he walked to his wedding to Edith Kermit Carow in St George’s, Hanover Square. Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor spent their honeymoon in the hotel. During World War II the Dutch government in exile declared war on Japan from Room 36 in Brown’s.
The Savoy was built by the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, who first staged the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and opened in 1889. Its first manager was Cesar Ritz, its first chef Auguste Escoffier. Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, at the height of the affair which eventually ruined Wilde, stayed at the Savoy frequently. In his third trial in 1895 Wilde was, amongst other counts, charged and found guilty of committing acts of gross indecency with unknown male persons in Rooms 346 and 362 of the Savoy. The short road leading to the Savoy is the only thoroughfare in England where drivers drive on the right, a custom that dates back to the time of horse-drawn hansom cabs. The hotel’s staff entrance is now in Fountain Court, where William Blake lived in the last years of his life.
Opened in 1865 with a celebratory dinner for two thousand guests, including the Prince of Wales, the Langham rapidly established itself as one of London’s finest hotels with an elite clientele. In a fraud case at the Old Bailey in the 1880s a witness expressed her faith in the bona fides of one of the defendants by saying, ‘I knew he must be a perfect gentleman – why, he had rooms at the Langham.’ The hotel was the scene of a meal which produced two of the finest short novels of the late nineteenth century. Joseph Stoddart, publisher of Lippincotfs Magazine in America, was visiting London and staying at the Langham when he entertained Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle to dinner. He commissioned ‘The Sign of Four’ from Doyle and ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ from Wilde.
Built on the site of the mansion Dorchester House, the hotel was opened in 1931. Famous guests over the years have included Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Taylor, Danny Kaye (who had performed in cabaret at the hotel in the years before his fame was such that he could afford to stay in one of its suites), Jackie Collins and General Eisenhower, who had a set of rooms in the Dorchester while he was planning the Normandy invasions. Prince Philip’s stag night was celebrated in the hotel. Foyle’s Literary Luncheons began at the Dorchester in the 1930s and still continue.
The hotel was originally known as the Coburg but German- sounding names were unlikely to improve business during World War I and it changed its name. General de Gaulle stayed in the hotel for a period when he was leader of the Free French in London during World War II. So too did the crime writer Raymond Chandler, creator of Philip Marlowe, who visited London in the 1950s, but he was asked to leave when a woman was found in his room.
8. The Cadogan
Built in 1887, the Cadogan is the hotel in which Oscar Wilde was arrested on charges of gross indecency. After the collapse of his libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry, who had accused him in a misspelled message of being a ‘somdomite’, Wilde was clearly threatened by prosecution himself and friends urged him to flee to the Continent. Apparently paralysed by indecision, Wilde remained in room 118 at the Cadogan with his lover, Queensberry’s son Lord Alfred Douglas, sipping glasses of hock and seltzer until officers arrived to arrest him.
9. The Carlton
The Carlton stood in the Haymarket and was opened in 1899 by the experienced team of hotelier Cesar Ritz and chef Auguste Escoffier who had had such success at the Savoy. Three years after opening, the Carlton was to be the scene of a lavish banquet to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII and preparations for it were underway when news came through that the king required an appendectomy. The coronation, and therefore the banquet, were to be postponed. The workaholic and perfectionist Ritz was so dismayed that he had a breakdown from which he never properly recovered, although he went on to open the hotel in Piccadilly that still bears his name. Bombed in World War II, the Carlton remained empty for years after the war until it was finally demolished in 1958. New Zealand House now stands on the site.
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