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.