My thanks to Headline and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.

This absolutely fascinating and engrossing read is the story of the Savoy (theatre and hotel) but more so (as other reviews also mention) of the D’Oyly Carte family, three generations of which ran the two for over a century, each with their individual flair and tastes, but all with a business sense that was very different from the conventional. Their focus was their guests’ (never customers) enjoyment and comfort, and their own satisfaction rather than making money.

The book starts with the story of Richard Cart, father of Richard D’Oyly Carte, a poor but talented flautist who through his work and talent joined and became partner in a musical instrument business, Rudall, Carte and Co, giving his children a good start in life. Young Richard D’Oyly Carte, always interested in performing, joined his father’s business but his heart lay in theatre and he ran a casting company alongside (from a backroom) before moving on to it full time. After a wobbly start, and ups and downs (Oscar Wilde as a 26-year-old was also a client, with a lecture series in America organized for him by D’Oyly Carte), D’Oyly Carte saw success with Gilbert and Sullivan, a partnership that he pretty much brought together (or at least kept together). Able to achieve his dream of setting up the Savoy Theatre which was different from any other, both in its ambience (plush and opulent, ensuring every comfort that a guest would desire, with no hidden costs) to its offerings (light British Opera with lavish costumes and sets, the details of which were always carefully attended to), he worked with (and sometimes had to face animosity from) Gilbert and Sullivan to make his venture a success.

D’Oyly Carte’s experiences travelling abroad with his operas and other performers highlighted to him to dearth of quality hotels in his own country, and filling that gap soon also became a dream—one which he fulfilled by giving London the Savoy Hotel. Like for the theatre company, in setting up the hotel, D’Oyly Carte spared no expense, his philosophy of doing things to his satisfaction and things which customers would appreciate and be comfortable in taking precedence over profit. If this meant stocking the wine-cellars above paying dividends, then so be it. This was the philosophy that D’Oyly Carte’s son, Rupert (younger for Rupert’s older brother Lucas who trained as a barrister, died of consumption), and later his granddaughter Bridget (her brother too died young, in an accident in which he was not at fault) followed through their lives. The family had their share of tragedy, and the hotel (which expanded eventually to four hotels including Claridge’s) and theatre businesses saw their ups and downs and faced problems (legal wrangles were a constant), but things were always done the best, with attention to detail and no expense spared.

The D’Oyly Cartes may have been unconventional, even somewhat eccentric but they and their ventures gave us much—from Gilbert and Sullivan operas to ‘fairy lights’ (the term coming from the little bulbs used in fairy costumes in Iolanthe, the first public building to be fully lit by electricity to dishes like Peaches Melba and Melba toast created in honour of the singer Nellie Melba (one for when she was on a diet and the other when not), and much more. P.G. Wodehouse’s Psmith, his only character based on a real person, was most likely inspired by Lucas (although there is some confusion whether it was Rupert or Lucas that was the inspiration), and the inspiration for ‘007’ (the number and partly the character) also came from a guest at the Savoy.

The Savoy Hotel was marked by luxury and innovation; from having baths with running hot and cold water (something unheard of when it started); its own systems for generation of electricity and drawing water; innovative menus and food intended to entice people into dining out; to successful in-house bands and performances by George Gershwin, Frank Sinatra and Noel Coward (with live and recorded broadcasts accessible to all) among others. Its Laundry (a separate facility set up by Rupert) once again was equipped with the most modern facilities at the time (with an English country garden in its courtyard), and everything from mattresses to crests was made/embroidered in-house, while crockery and cutlery were made for them (including sets with motifs from Gilbert and Sullivan). Staff were well treated through the generations, loyalty to the family remaining high throughout, and turnover was fairly low.

The hotels (not just the Savoy but also the D’Oyly Carte’s other hotels, particularly Claridge’s) had the choicest guests from royalty to Hollywood stars (Edward VII to Queen Elizabeth II; Laurel and Hardy to Marilyn Monroe), politicians (Churchill among them), artists (like Monet and Whistler) and literary giants (like F. Scott Fitzgerald), for many of whom they served as a second home. Churchill conducted many of his meetings at the Savoy even during the war, while Claridge’s became his home after he lost power. (Williams’ mention of the combination of guests and pricing systems that D’Oyly Carte worked out reminded me a little of Agatha Christie’s Bertram’s Hotel; Christie herself was a guest at and hosted parties for her plays at the Savoy, but whether it was an inspiration I don’t really know).

The Secret Life of the Savoy is a really captivating account of the family and their ventures. Packed with anecdotes—events and happenings at the hotel (from the innocuous to the scandalous—Oscar Wilde’s case to a possible murder), we are taken through the lives of the three D’Oyly Cartes who ran the hotel and theatre company, looking at both the businesses and developments in their own lives (not without their trials either).

I especially loved Williams’ vivid descriptions in the book, whether it was of the lovely houses that different members of the family built for themselves—the one on D’Oyly Carte island in the Thames (where they even had a pet crocodile, and for which if I remember correctly the artist Whistler mixed up special colours) built by Richard D’Oyly Carte or Rupert’s hideway home in Pudcombe Cove between Brixam and Dartmouth (I wouldn’t have minded living in either house), with its gorgeous gardens—or the lavish parties thrown at the Savoy, among them a Gondolier-themed birthday party with the cake pulled in by a baby elephant or a winter-themed party with silver-tissue icebergs and fake snow.

This was an excellent read which kept me completely absorbed from cover to cover. Five stars to this one!

8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Secret Life of the Savoy by Olivia Williams

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