But the reader has come for the hotel, and what a hotel it is, built as if it were a theatrical production itself. D’Oyly Carte had an excellent notion of how the rich might like to spend their wealth. “His own love of the good life allowed him to dream up a slick operation in which everything from shoeshine to Champagne would be taken care of, on the romantic stage set of a palatial purpose-built hotel,” Williams writes. “From the moment a guest arrived, he wanted them to feel important, starting with a big entrance.”
D’Oyly Carte successfully convinced two European talents — César Ritz, the manager of a hotel in Monte Carlo, and the renowned French chef Auguste Escoffier — to work for him. The arrangement helped elevate the hotel to new standards of service and cuisine, although the men left in disgrace when it turned out they were taking kickbacks and siphoning money from food and drink orders. (They went on to glittering careers, obviously, though I for one will never feel quite the same way about a Ritz hotel again.)
Who has stayed at the Savoy? Who hasn’t? The Savoy is where Vivien Leigh met her future husband, Laurence Olivier. It is where Oscar Wilde disastrously canoodled with young Lord Alfred Douglas. It is where the famous Parisian courtesan Marguerite Alibert — a former lover of Edward, the Prince of Wales — quarreled with and then murdered her husband, the Egyptian aristocrat Ali Kamel Fahmy, on their honeymoon, in 1923.
Monet and Whistler painted scenes from the windows; Guglielmo Marconi made his first wireless broadcast to the United States from one of the hotel ballrooms; the French author Émile Zola lived it up at the Savoy while, hilariously, visiting London “to observe its poor.” Winston Churchill used it as a meeting place for the Other Club, a dining society whose members drank port and spent hours “re-enacting battles with the salt and pepper shakers” in a private room.
D’Oyly Carte died in 1901. His son Rupert ran the business until his own death in 1948; it then passed to Rupert’s daughter, Bridget. Divided into three parts, one for each era of ownership, the book is rich with details, both serious and frivolous, and deftly sets the story of this singular institution in the context of the greater forces of English history. It sags a bit toward the end, especially when the pressures of modernity and competition begin to assault the business. (I got the sense that, like a parent playing favorites, Williams found D’Oyly Carte more interesting than his heirs, which indeed he was.)
The book ends in 1985, with Bridget’s death, and so omits my favorite modern-era Savoy anecdote. It stars the great Irish actor Richard Harris, who spent the last years of his life as a resident of the hotel.
Harris fell ill one night in 2002, and an ambulance was summoned. It would be his final night at the Savoy, but he left with a flourish. As a stretcher carried him through the crowded front hall, Harris half-lifted himself up and theatrically addressed the crowd of guests arriving for dinner. “It was the food,” he said.