If walls could talk…
The world’s grand hotels are playgrounds to the rich and famous, the backdrop to drama and intrigue. A new book reveals a fly on the wall view.
Grand hotels have forever flirted with the sublime and ridiculous; the momentous, the spectacular, the downright bizarre. In a new book by Adrian Mourby, 50 of the world’s best take centre stage as he chronicles a history which is as rich and decadent as clotted cream in the Palm Court of The Ritz.
“Each grand hotel has its own story,” he writes. “It might be the life of the remarkable person who built or ran it, the people who designed it or the famous folk who have stayed there.”
From the first hotel to call itself ‘grand’ in the English language – 1774 in Covent Garden – he charts how the aspirational nature of hotels accelerated through the 19th century and how, against the backdrop of natural disasters, fires, floods, bankruptcies and revolutions, they have survived.
In 2018, grand hotels are positively thriving. The starry rollcall of iconic names to make the book’s cut include the Plaza Hotel in New York, the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro, Hotel Astoria in St Petersburg, Raffles in Singapore, The Peninsula in Hong Kong and many, many more.
Each seems to provide the canvas for history to be painted and a chance for famous names to cultivate their own legacy.
From playwright George Bernard Shaw trying to learn the tango at Belmond Reid’s Palace in Madeira to India’s independence being drawn up in the ballroom of the Imperial Hotel in Delhi, Mourby draws on the eclectic and eccentric in equal measure.
The flamboyant Salvador Dali embodies the latter. The surrealist artist once requested a flock of sheep at Hotel Le Meurice in Paris, taking out a gun and firing blanks at them when the arrived.
Gstaad Palace in Switzerland has had its share of rather peculiar moments too. In 1949 it was at the centre of an international incident when former world number one tennis player Jaroslav Drobný defected from Czechslovakia. He would use the cellars of the Palace to hide from Swiss police.
In the 1950s, the Palace established itself as a noble playground for the rich and famous. The likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Marlene Dietrich were lured to perform by lucrative sums and A-list names, including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, were regular guests.
Hollywood’s golden couple left their mark closer to home too. Taylor famously read the script of Cleopatra in the bath of The Dorchester’s Harlequin Suite with a pink marble bathroom installed at her request.
“It’s been preserved exactly as it was on the day that she signed Hollywood’s first million-dollar contract,” says Mourby. “The hotel is not allowed to change the bath, making it one of the very few ‘listed baths’ in Britain.”
A Mayfair institution, The Dorchester has long been a favourite of distinguished writers and the showbiz elite from Ernest Hemingway to Diana Ross and The Beatles.
Director Alfred Hitchock regarded the hotel as the “perfect place for a murder” in light of the scope for burying bodies in Hyde Park.
Mayfair’s hotels are full of glorious nuggets in world history. In the Second World War, exiled royal families including the queen of the Netherlands and kings of Greece, Norway and Yugoslavia, decamped to Claridge’s. Meanwhile, the roof of The Langham – London’s first purpose-built grand hotel – was used to broadcast live during Luftwaffe raids.
Singer Helen Clare worked for the BBC Variety Company during the conflict and was something of a household name.
Helen, who recently celebrated her 101st birthday, was a regular performer at The Dorchester from 1936 to 1939.
She sang alongside Jack Jackson and his Orchestra to an audience that included celebrities, diplomats and members of the royal family staying at the hotel.
Her favourite perk of the job, she says, was the chef’s crêpe suzette which she would enjoy during the cabaret part of her show.
In 2016 she returned to the hotel on the eve of her 100th birthday. It was a lunch that included birthday candles and a certain French dessert.
Rooms with a View: The Secret Life of Grand Hotels, by Adrian Mourby, is out now.