Entertainment People The history of the Savoy Hotel in London, host to the Queen, The Beatles and the ‘real James Bond’
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The history of the Savoy Hotel in London, host to the Queen, The Beatles and the ‘real James Bond’

Savoy Hotel
The Savoy Hotel has hosted countless influential names, among them Marilyn Monroe, pictured here in 1956. Photo: Getty
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When London’s Savoy Hotel opened its doors in 1889, no expense was spared.

Its courtyard was flooded to conjure the Grand Canal of Venice. Baby elephants pulled lavish cakes that towered more than 100 centimetres high. Its extravagance attracted so many Americans that it became known as the 49th state.

The first luxury hotel in Britain, the Savoy went on to attract the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Chaplin, Sophia Loren, Bob Dylan, and the Queen.

Inside its doors, the rich lived like royalty. It was the place to see and be seen; to wine, dine and be entertained.

And amid the opulence and glamour, there was also scandal – and even a murder.

The legacy of three generations

The Savoy has become something of an icon in London, where it stands on the River Thames. Photo: Savoy Hotel

The man who started it all was Richard D’Oyly Carte, a Victorian impresario.

He was the son of a musician who also owned an instrument manufacturing business, and he developed a love for the performing arts.

It led him to establish the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and the Savoy Theatre, which featured numerous Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

“Like the theatre, Richard D’Oyly Carte wanted to bring to London something he thought was lacking,” says Olivia Williams, who has authored a book on the Savoy Hotel and family behind it.

“He was going on tour with Gilbert and Sullivan around Europe and America in the 1870s and 1880s and he was becoming increasingly frustrated that when he came back to London he didn’t really see all the same options for eating out and for places to stay.

Richard D’Oyly Carte’s travels around the world inspired his hotel. Photo: Getty

“While he was travelling he was pulling together his idea of what the ultimate luxury hotel would be like.

“The result of that was the Savoy Hotel.”

The ‘real 007’ frequented the hotel

Over the years, the hotel has hosted countless influential names – The Beatles, Audrey Hepburn, Muhammad Ali, John Wayne, Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

Valentino and Dior also hosted fashion shows in the Savoy’s ballroom.

It has become something of an icon in London, where it stands on the River Thames.

The grand entrance of the Savoy Hotel at night. Photo: Savoy Hotel

The D’Oyly Carte family didn’t shy away from treating the hotel like a theatre stage.

“I think that’s part of its longevity and its success,” Williams tells ABC.

“The banqueting department that dealt with all these one-off events and celebrations were so theatrical and well run. That really started the momentum of having big public celebrations at the hotel.”

Williams says Dusko Popov, a Serbian triple agent codenamed Tricycle, frequented some of these events.

Duskov Popov was codenamed Tricycle. Photo: Getty

He then became a full-time resident at the hotel.

“As could be expected with the Casablanca-esque cross-section of wartime guests, there were often spies about the Savoy, but all of the known ones were friendly,” Williams writes.

“Partly thanks to his powers of seduction, he was one of the inspirations for Ian Fleming’s James Bond.

“Even Bond’s code number was based on the detail that, when Popov needed advice, he would call his uncle in Belgrade and the number he needed to remember was 26-007.”

An Oscar Wilde scandal – and a murder

Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was also among the early guests at the hotel.

Williams says D’Oyly Carte had helped launch the young poet’s career.

“He organised Oscar’s big trans-Atlantic trip that launched his career when he became famous in America,” she said.

On arrival in New York, when asked by customs officers if he had anything to declare, Wilde famously answered: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”

“He was already a family friend, so when Richard opened the Savoy Hotel it was not surprising that Oscar was one of the guests,” Williams said.

“But then he brought with him a much younger lover and they spent months and months racking up huge bills at the suite.”

Oscar Wilde and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas racked up huge bills at the Savoy, Williams says. Photo: Getty

His lover was a man named Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde later became entangled in a legal battle with the man’s father, who was against the relationship.

Wilde was later sentenced to two years imprisonment in Reading Gaol for ‘gross indecency’, as homosexuality was against the law at the time.

After serving his time Wilde moved to France, where he died three years later in a much less luxurious hotel.

Among his last quotes was: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.”

The Savoy was also the site of a murder on July 9 in 1923.

Marguerite Fahmy was a Parisian courtesan who married Ali Kamel Fahmy, a prince who was 10 years younger than her.

After an evening of fighting at the hotel, where Marguerite even threatened to smash a wine bottle over her husband’s head, the prince was found dead, with three gunshot wounds.

Despite a night porter witnessing her throw a gun to the ground, Marguerite was later acquitted of the murder.

It was quite the scandal at the time. And despite concerns that the sordid details of the court case would affect business at the hotel, it had the opposite effect.

Staff assigned to study their guests

For a century, the hotel was run by three generations of the D’Oyly Carte family.

After Richard died in 1901, the hotel was passed on to his 25-year-old son Rupert.

Like his father, he encouraged the staff to pay attention to the finest details and current affairs regarding their guests.

This included their preferred porridge temperature, mattress firmness, and how they’d like their toiletries laid out in the bathroom.

“They also made notes about people’s achievements and who the family members were, who they usually came with,” Williams says.

“So there was a seamless feeling that every time you came to stay or for dinner, the staff would be aware of how wonderful your career had been, so they knew how to ask you ingratiating questions.

“For the public rooms they also put in all these unnecessary flights of steps so that people could make an entrance when they came in, and they had strategic table planning so that you could do plenty of people watching from wherever you were.

“They put the most exciting people who were coming into the restaurant in the middle and then everyone else around the outside could watch them having dinner.”