Savoy spills few secrets after £220m makeover
Sean Davoren, the head butler at the newly refurbished Savoy hotel in London, looks and sounds as if he could be Graham Norton's father, although he is rather more circumspect -- not to mention considerably better-dressed -- than the flamboyant television presenter.
"You'd have to cut my head off before I told you anything indiscreet about any of our guests," the Limerick-born man says in a soft brogue.
Such Jeevesian levels of discretion are a shame because, if these walls could speak, they would have a thousand secrets to spill.
Since the Savoy was built on the Strand in 1890 -- the first British hotel to have electric lights, lifts, 24-hour service and a near-modern ratio of bedrooms to bathrooms -- it has hosted everyone from Edward VII to Marlene Dietrich, Charlie Chaplin to John Wayne and the Beatles to Audrey Hepburn.
Love, actually, has been quite a theme of the Savoy. The Queen was first seen in public with Prince Philip at a reception here. It was also the backdrop for a clandestine affair between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. The Savoy Grill, a favourite of Churchill and his Cabinet during the War, provided the setting for Laurence Olivier's first encounter with Vivien Leigh. And when Clark Gable turned up in the service uniform of a major in the US Army Air Corps, other diners could barely hear their conversations over the sound of lovelorn waitresses dropping plates.
A small slice of this fascinating history has been preserved in a collection of index cards, organised by name and year of stay, and each detailing the address, occupation, whims and peccadilloes of the Savoy's guests.
Thousands of these lie in storage in Surrey, while a few are displayed in glass cabinets at the hotel, which reopened last weekend after a three-year refurbishment that cost £220m (€251m).
Some of the cards served as useful reminders for Davoren's predecessors. On Serge Lifar's someone has scribbled in brackets: "famous dancer". Dietrich's specifies that she required, on arrival (which is underlined), 12 pink roses and a bottle of Dom Perignon. While the card for Richard Harris, who spent the last few years of his life living here, stipulates the exact temperature of his porridge.
Today, of course, index cards have been replaced by a computer database, although one gets the sense that Davoren carries around much of the important information in his head.
"It is like a love affair," he says. "I'm always listening, always looking, even if the guests don't notice. We build up a detailed profile, such as what side of the bed they prefer to sleep on. And thank God for digital cameras, which allow us to recreate a room exactly as they'd want it."
The revamped hotel looks undeniably sumptuous: a crystal art-deco fountain draws you in from the only street in Britain where you drive on the right; inside, the Thames Foyer boasts a grand piano in a gigantic metal gazebo beneath a glass dome. The Royal Suite, with its specially ventilated shoe closet, is yours for a mere £10,000 per night; or perhaps you'd prefer one of the nine "personality suites", named after, and inspired by, their most prolific patrons, including Claude Monet, Katharine Hepburn, and Maria Callas.
The only downside of such a weight of nostalgia is that you cannot help but wonder whether today's stars deserve all this opulence. Davoren, inevitably, refuses to be drawn on the relative merits of contemporary celebrity. What he needs to know to do his job is in his head, or on the computer -- and staying there.
But when you read about Stephen Fry, the hotel's first new guest last Sunday, tweeting, "Was clapped in by staff like new heir to Downton Abbey, blush," you do not have to strain your ears too hard to hear the ghosts of Sinatra, Churchill and Coward, gently sobbing for what used to be.