The Magazine

Suite Charity

Where the Bright Young Things escaped from World War II.

Oct 29, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 07 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Now, wherever we turn, the cry has become incessant: The rich are not doing enough. 

Frances Day celebrates New Year’s 1942 with an RAF officer at the Ritz.

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Many, no doubt, find this puzzling: There are, after all, many of us who are friendly with the rich. Indeed, we might be rich ourselves. Still, whether it is we or our friends who have the resplendent homes, flunkies, trust funds, glorious old cars, massive private libraries, cellars pullulating with the best vintages imaginable, closets bursting with bespoke glad rags, and (not incidentally) thriving businesses, the fact remains that the rich seem to be going about their exorbitant lives as usual. 

What are they not doing that they ought to be doing? My advice to anyone wrestling with this vexing question would be to go out and get a copy of this volume, which takes up the tale
of how London’s grand hotels—the Ritz, the Savoy, the Dorchester, Claridge’s, the Berkeley—and their flush clientele fared during World War II. Afterwards, the perplexed will see that, compared with the rich of yesteryear, our own rich are clearly not doing enough. They are not being frivolous enough, reckless enough, or extravagant enough.  

Examples abound here, although one will suffice. Apropos César Ritz, one of the founders of the famous hotel whose name is synonomous with the sort of luxury that the world does not seem to be able to buy anymore, the author remarks:    

A certain kind of behavior went with that word. You could have observed it on the June night in 1905 when the American financier George Kessler arranged to flood the courtyard of the Savoy, fill it with swans, surround it with twelve thousand fresh carnations, four thousand lamps and a canvas simulacrum of Venice—and dine with his guests on a large silk-lined gondola moored at its centre. (The blue dye in the water killed the swans, but there was compensation in the form of a performance by Caruso, a phalanx of Gaiety Girls bearing bottles of Moët & Chandon and the appearance of a baby elephant with a five-foot birthday cake strapped on its back.)

Now that is partying worthy of a plutocracy. And if we compare it with what our own rich get up to when they celebrate, we can see how those whom President Obama and his man David Axelrod call the “1 percent” utterly fall down. They have let once unassailable standards lapse. 

Nevertheless, The West End Front is not just interested in helping readers see how negligent the rich have become in the arduous business of being rich. Author Matthew Sweet deplores how Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Home Office rounded up and detained many hapless Italians and Germans in the hotel trade, suspected as they were, often quite groundlessly, of being spies and saboteurs—though many might concur with Churchill’s better-safe-than-sorry policy, despite its ruthlessness.

In another chapter, the author relates how Brian Howard, the prototype of Evelyn Waugh’s Ambrose Silk and Anthony Blanche, an aging Bright Young Thing and habitué of the homosexual “Lower Bar” beneath the Ritz Hotel, was recruited into MI5, presumably because of his easy access to the wealthy traitors who were such staples of London’s grand hotels. Besides this access, though, there was not much to recommend him. As Sweet puts it, “By 1940 he had squandered everything but his money and his talent to offend.” After talking too freely in his cups he was eventually thrown out of MI5—no easy feat in such a forgiving institution.

Sweet also describes how rife the Dorchester was with anti-Semitic toffs (including Cyril Connolly’s chum Lady Cunard) who were convinced that Hitler and his army would rid England of its Jewish problem just as efficiently as they were ridding Germany of its own. Of course, this is not a new story, but Sweet tells it well.   

If you had settled yourself in the lobby on a night in 1940, you might have spotted Margaret Greville—the red-haired illegitimate daughter of a millionaire Scottish brewer, unrestrained in her enthusiasm for Hitler or anyone else who took a dim view of Jews—trundling across the marble in her wheelchair. Conversely, you might equally have encountered Chaim Weizmann, the president of the British Zionist Federation, who turned Suite 210 into a Yeshiva where his supporters discussed how to persuade the National Government to establish an official Jewish Fighting Force in Palestine. Jew baiters and Zionist radicals—these people would have encountered each other in the public spaces of the hotel on a daily basis.  

Then there is a chapter on Phil Piratin, a zealous Communist who led an embassy of bombed-out East Enders to the lobby of the Savoy, where he made a simple but compelling speech: “These men, women, and children, many of them homeless, have come from Stepney to seek shelter—the newspapers have widely advertised the comfortable shelter facilities that exist in the West End hotels.”  

The Savoy manager heard Piratin out, took his point, and admitted him and his associates to the hotel’s well-appointed basement shelter, where, after wrangling with the waiters, they were served tea (in silver pots) with bread and butter. One week later, the War Office transformed the Aldwych tube station near the Savoy into a public shelter, boarding over the tracks and installing toilets. As Sweet puts it, “Three hundred and twenty yards of Piccadilly Line tunnel were transformed into a refuge for 2,500 people.” The Stepney Communists had made their point, and soon many underground tunnels were opened for shelter.  

That Phil Piratin won a parliamentary constituency for the Communists in the 1945 election leads Sweet to wonder what might have happened if “Britain’s shift to the left had gone further than Attlee and Morrison and the National Health”—not a scenario that most people in postwar England, least of all Evelyn Waugh, would have found attractive. For Sweet, Piratin’s victory could have constituted “the first step on the road to Soviet England,” and this would have been followed by the country’s banknotes featuring “a rosy image of that night beneath the Savoy” with “East End children in scuffed shoes and utility knitwear; Brylcreemed waiters abandoning the rules of the house”—and Piratin and his fellows “negotiating tea and bread and butter for all.” Which gives away the extent of the author’s left-wing sympathies. 

Nonetheless, there is an excellent chapter on how displaced European royals found homes-away-from-home in many of these grand hotels, especially Claridge’s in Brook Street, which became known as the “royal hostelry.” (In 1942, the dapper film star Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was at a reception there and, needing a refill, called out for “his old lifesaver of a headwaiter, King”—only to find that he had summoned King George of Greece.) After fleeing embattled or confiscated homes, not all royals had time to make their way to London. When the Romanians threw in their lot with Hitler and the Axis, their king did all he could to save the family arms, among other prized possessions. 

Carol II of Romania and his mistress, Magda Lupescu, fled Bucharest in September 1940, escaping with nothing but five railway carriages packed with Titians, Rembrandts, and Rubenses, the armorial contents of the palaces of Pelisor and Peles, the world’s most valuable stamp collection, and six of their favorite dogs. Romania’s indigenous Fascisti, the Iron Guard, sprayed the royal carriages with bullets, but Carol and Magda took cover in the bathtub, fled south via Spain to the Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio de Janeiro, and spent the rest of their lives drinking tequila and ignoring the contempt of the nation they had abandoned.

Edward Short is the author of Newman and His Contemporaries.