The Champagne King, the playwright and the Savoy Hotel

Lusitania survivior George Kessler.

Savoy HotelIn 1889, the Savoy Hotel was the most modern hotel London had ever seen. Built by Richard D’Oyly Carte, it had over 200 bedrooms, 67 marble bathrooms, a 24 hour room service, en-suite rooms and “speaking tubes to summon staff.  It even had the first electric lifts (known as ascending rooms.)

George Kessler, who survived the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, is famous at the Savoy Hotel, even today. He hosted one of the most spectacular parties the hotel has ever seen, held in honour of King Edward VII, in July 1905.

This was the famous Gondola Party, held in the old courtyard of the hotel (built over in 1910, it became the site of the ballroom, known as the Lancaster Room). The doorways around the courtyard were sealed with putty, and the courtyard was flooded to a depth of three feet. Painted Scenery round the sides of the courtyard represented buildings in Venice, and a huge (stationary) silk lined boat, strewn with 12,000 carnations, built by the hotel’s workmen in the centre of the courtyard held the table and chairs for 24 guests.

170px-GondolaPartyatSavoyA bridge linked the boat to the hotel and enabled a twelve course banquet to be served by waiters, dressed as gondoliers. 400 hand-made paper lamps were illuminated, in the air; above them 100 white doves flew. Fish were added to the water, and swans swam around this artificial pond. One final touch was to add washing blue to the water to colour it. Unfortunately it turned out that washing blue was poisonous for both fish and birds, and the dead and dying creatures had to be quickly scooped out of the water and disposed of. However the dinner itself went off without a hitch, and culminated in a 5ft high cake, brought over the bridge to the boat on the back of a baby elephant borrowed for the occasion from London Zoo. An additional touch was three impressive lions carved out of ice bearing trays of peaches and glace fruits while a bevy of Gaiety Girls drank to the health of the monarch with Moet et Chandon champagne.

At the climax of the evening the famous tenor Caruso appeared and gave a performance crooning “O Sole Mio”. The entire evening was organised by the hotel’s General Manager, Henri Pruger and the total bill, paid for by Kessler came to £3,000.

In addition another “Savoy client” was Charles Frohman and when in London ate every day at the Savoy Grill and was within easy walking distance of the Theatres he ran in London. Frohman did not stay in the main Savoy hotel but at no. 81 Savoy court. This was a serviced apartment block built by the Savoy as part of the development of the Strand side of the hotel in 1904.  These were the first serviced apartments in Britain with access to the hotel’s facilities. No.81 comprised a sitting room, bathroom and bedroom on the sixth floor of the court. After Frohman’s death a wreath was placed on the chair of his regular table in the Savoy Grill in 1922 on the anniversary of his death. The card read “to the memory of Charles Frohman, placed here in his seat by a few British and American friends. Why fear death? Death is only a beautiful adventure”.

Lusitania George Kessler 1918a

 Charles Frohman

George Keser
Courtesy of Mike Poirier

Charles Frohman

The card bore the date 7 May, 1922. There was a tradition in the Grill of leaving a regular client’s table empty on the day that his death was announced, but evidently Frohman’s fans ensure that on the day of his death that his table was kept empty for many years after. On a nearby pillar in the Grill was a small brass plaque, it was inscribed: “This table was regularly used by Charles Frohman for many years up to 1915.”

After the First World War, most of these apartments were let as suites – they continued to be part of the hotel until sold off to developers in the 1970’s. Some of the most famous residents included Sir Thomas Dewar and the actress Sarah Bernhardt.

In October 2010 the Savoy Hotel underwent a multi-million pound refurbishment, little now remains of the hotel that was once frequented by Frohman and Kessler.