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The man behind The Savoy was theatrical impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, a showman through and through. In making the leap from theatre producer to planning and building the first purpose-built deluxe hotel in London, he truly understood the importance of putting on a show, and getting an audience through the doors. The celebrities of the 19th century were either royalty or entertainers, primarily the leading actresses and opera stars of the time; and D’Oyly Carte wanted all of them sparkling at The Savoy. What a show it turned out to be.
Sarah Bernhardt and Dame Nellie Melba
From the moment the hotel opened its doors in 1889, the most glamorous, famous and fashionable people of the day poured through its doors. One of the first and most notable regular guests was the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt, accompanied by her Irish red setter, Tosco. Bernhardt was thrilled to be reunited with her childhood friend, now The Savoy’s maitre-chef, Auguste Escoffier. Other notable divas included opera singers Adelina Patti and Dame Nellie Melba. For Melba, Escoffier created Peach Melba and Melba toast for her to enjoy at The Savoy. The beautiful actress Lillie Langtry was a close friend of the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), also a regular visitor to the Savoy. In later years, Lillie Langtry kept a permanent apartment at The Savoy.
From Marlene to Marilyn
The Savoy was the ultimate place to see and be seen. Notorious musical stars the Dolly Sisters lived at the hotel in the 1920s, while an almost unknown blonde German actress, Marlene Dietrich was having her first taste of English luxury. It was a taste easily acquired, and she returned regularly for most of her life. Other blonde bombshells in residence included the glamorous French musical stars Alice Delysia and Mistinguett, the latter having insured her legs for 500,000 francs. With the rise in popularity of cinema, a new type of star shone brightly at The Savoy: Mary Pickford, Al Jolson, Cary Grant along with Virginia, the first of several wives, Tallulah Bankhead, John Wayne, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra (both these two before, during, and after marriage to each other), Vivien Leigh, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Bob Hope, and eventually, inevitably, the ultimate blonde, Marilyn Monroe. And these were only the tip of the iceberg.
Italian glamour meets rock’n’roll
More old-school glamour was provided when London hosted an Italian film festival, and the Savoy filled up with Italian actresses including legends Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida, showing off their ballgowns for the highlight of the festival, a film screening in Leicester Square, to be attended by HM the Queen. And with the rise of Rock and Roll in the 1950s came the first of the modern-day pop stars. Following in the footsteps of the classical music stars, who had always stayed at The Savoy, from Giacomo Puccini to George Gershwin, and William Walton to Maria Callas, came Bill Haley with his Comets, who had made the first internationally successful rock’n’roll hit. A decade later, Bob Dylan in residence with girlfriend Joan Baez would host a visit from the Beatles.
I spy with my little eye…
Do stars like this still come to The Savoy today? The Savoy couldn’t say, since today’s celebrities want privacy, where the stars of yesteryear wanted publicity. But Rihanna name-checked the Savoy suite where she worked on her 2011 album Talk That Talk; Duran Duran made an entire video for Girl Panic (2010) on location at The Savoy; and Taylor Swift did a photo shoot for Vanity Fair in the Beaufort Bar, and then featured The Savoy in the video for End Game (2017). So while there are no guarantees, our guests and visitors are quite likely to spot someone they recognise today, sprinkling a little stardust through The Savoy.