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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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.