LAST ORDERS FOR THE SAVOY
By Michael Matthews
November 29, 2007 -- The celebration of my 21st birthday more than 40 years ago was in keeping with my eventual career. It was held in a hotel that still remains, arguably, the world's most famous.
But that ends on December 15. The hotel's portals will be locked for as long as two years while it is modernized and brought into the 21st century--or so trumpets a press release announcing a $200 million renovation.
I shudder to think of the end result. If it is in keeping with previous attempts at modernization, the end result will be ghastly. And the 120-year tradition of The Savoy of London will have gone the way of the dodo.
When The Savoy opened in 1889, people didn't go to hotels except to sleep. Rooms were usually lice-invested. The odds of being robbed in your sleep were pretty high. But, from the beginning, The Savoy was meant to be an exception.
It was the most modern hotel in the world, the first to offer hot and cold water, elevators and electric lights throughout. It had trained staff attired in tail coats to bow and scrape and attend to your every whim. There was a bar befitting a club, not a pub--and fine dining on fine china and crystal. People actually went to The Savoy to see and be seen. Even the then-heir to the throne, Edward VII, eldest son of Queen Victoria, drank, ate and entertained his mistresses under The Savoy's roof. (Or so it is claimed.)
Like all great hotels, The Savoy has had its share of history. There has been the occasional murder, including a high-society killing in 1923 when Lady Marguerite Farning shot her husband. There have been scandals galore, including Oscar Wilde's exposure as a, heaven forfend, homosexual. That led to his incarceration in Reading Jail and a subsequent book. Culinary history has been made at The Savoy, too. After a guest danced on a table, Escoffier invented the Peach Melba. He named it after a regular guest of the hotel and the dancer in question, the famed Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba.
The Savoy has its share of eccentricities. Your arrival is down the only street in Britain where one drives (or, more aptly, is driven) on the right side of the road. The Savoy's beds were all made on the premises and they are the most comfortable I've ever slept on. (Maybe that's where Westin got the idea for the so-called Heavenly Bed.) By the side of each bed is a series of call buttons. Just press for the valet, room service, porter or what you will. No need to use the telephone. The Savoy service staff still wears uniforms of 1889 design. Tail coats at reception are still de rigueur. Its theater, The Savoy, was built to house Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas. All royal parades, be they coronations or funerals, pass The Savoy by order of the Court.
The Savoy's public rooms--the American Bar, the Grill and the River Room--have hosted the global greats. The bar was a regular meeting place for Churchill and Eisenhower during World War II. Movie stars of old--Hayworth, Garland, Dietrich, Hepburn--sipped cocktails when they were in town. Alfred Hitchcock lived at The Savoy when he was in London. Hard-partying Richard Harris kept a suite at The Savoy. Peter O'Toole has been a regular for at least 50 years. The Rolling Stones, Madonna and Michael Jackson have all been refused entry.
Titans of industry and politics have made The Savoy home. The Grill has been a favored luncheon spot for prime ministers and ambassadors for at least 80 years. Lord Conrad Black and Rupert Murdoch have their own tables when they are in London. They still carve the roast beef or leg of lamb at your table--and no place has successfully duplicated the Savoy's version of Yorkshire pudding.
Like the Waldorf=Astoria in New York, The Savoy has been a primary training ground for the hotel industry's management corps. Its alumni are spread throughout the world. It was harder to get a place in The Savoy's training program than getting into Oxford or Cambridge. The hotel's human resources director for 40 years was decorated by the Queen, the only HR person to have been so ennobled.
Long before the concept of electronic databases, The Savoy kept a record of the likes and dislikes of each of their guests. Their preferences were religiously maintained on 3x5 cards; the cards were stored in drawers that one could see on a balcony above the oak reception desk. A staff of four (in tail coats) maintained the cards. Some genius in the 1980s tried to computerize the system. It didn't take long for The Savoy to go back to the index cards.
About 18 years after my birthday party, I returned to The Savoy for the first time. As I was being escorted to my room by a tail-coated assistant manager, I was politely asked if I had "enjoyed my birthday party in the River Room." The question was asked as if it had been held the day before.
But now it's time, gentlemen, please. Last orders for The Savoy of London. When it reopens in 2009, modernized and brought into the 21st century, we can visit and see how an icon has been destroyed.
Sad indeed. And I doubt that they'll still remember my birthday party.
ABOUT MICHAEL MATTHEWS Michael Matthews has managed and marketed fine hotels around the world for more than 45 years. He spent 14 years in Hong Kong building the legendary Regent International group. He has also worked with St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood hotels. Matthews is currently based in Arizona. He began writing Do Not Disturb in early 2004.
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