By Olivia Williams

Headline Publishing Group 2020

ISBN: 978 1 4722 6980 5

RRP: $32.95 (PB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson


The cover is certainly tempting, with its photo of Marilyn Monroe whispering in the ear of co-star Sir Laurence Olivier in a photo shoot for their movie The Prince and The Showgirl, backgrounded with snippets of London’s famous Savoy Hotel’s décor. But, while the book starts with the 1923 murder of Prince Ali Kamel Fahmy by his Parisian courtesan wife in their Savoy Hotel room, do not expect Olivia Williams’ The Secret Life of The Savoy to be filled out with scandal and salacious exposure of the many high flying guests who filled the glamorous suites of London’s most well-known hotel.

Eccentric and notorious guest behaviour at the Savoy over decades is recorded often enough in The Secret Life of The Savoy, sometimes with hilarious effect and scandal, including Oscar Wilde’s undercover rent boys, but that is not the real secret here. Williams has delved into the history of the hotel, its genesis and development, in a remarkable tale of how one man, Richard D’Oyly Carte, built an icon from an inspired dream – a luxury hotel and all its high-end services, alongside the best in wining and dining, combined with the excitement of the theatre at the core of which was the hugely successful Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. This is the story of a family that imprinted its name on music, hospitality and entertainment over a century but who remained intensely private, especially Bridget D’Oyly Carte – the last of the family to run the business.

Born in 1844 to the son of a flute player and the educated daughter of the vicar of the Chapel Royal on Whitehall, Richard D’Oyly Carte obtained the “D’Oyly” in his name from his mother’s lineage and a spelling mistake. It would add, long after, to his distinctive recognition. Nurtured in a family of music and performance, Richard D’Oyly Carte showed talent for both musical instruments and composition, as well as French. He attended the progressive new University College School in Bloomsbury but joined his father’s music business, rather than take up a place at University College London, at the age of seventeen.

Thereafter Richard D’Oyly Carte was drawn to the theatre. At first, he tried to strike out as a composer and librettist but soon realised his best option would be as a theatre agent. This, in time, saw him take on the risk of investing in his own company, his own theatre and eventually the Savoy Hotel as a glamourous source of pleasure, comfort and entertainment on a grand scale.

As with many who catch a wave for investment off the back of demographic change, D’Oyly Carte saw opportunity around what was happening with the mass entertainment of music halls in London. By the 1860s, London was a rapidly growing metropolis with international appeal. As he staged his own small productions, Richard D’Oyly Carte recognised there was a market with the growing urban middle class, a market that sat between music hall and opera. Staging that stimulated as well as entertained, popular but not low brow. He noted that William Gilbert, a former barrister who wrote lyrics, and composer Arthur Sullivan were producing light operas that offered something different that could be developed. Writes Williams:

He [D’Oyly Carte] announced his aspiration in public on the front of his programme for La Branche Casée: “It is my desire to establish in London a permanent abode for light Opera”, and he repeated his wish so often over the coming years, he almost seemed to be willing it into existence. Already, before he even had the chance to commission Gilbert and Sullivan, he was speaking publicly about having his own theatre with its own distinct and original work.

The Secret Life of The Savoy is a marvellous mix of historical record and biography, analysis of an unusual business model and the escapist enjoyment in descriptions of luxury and pleasure with a number of scandals tossed in to spice up the read. Williams handles it wonderfully.

Richard D’Oyly Carte was an unusual business entrepreneur and a clever one. He took risks and made profits even beating off rivals, especially in the US, hoping to steal his material at a time when modern copyright rules did not exist. He financed a tour of the US by aesthete Oscar Wilde who gave lectures simultaneously with performances of Patience which is a satire on the aesthetic movement. The real and the imagined working in tandem. D’Oyly Carte’s understanding of the US in time would help the Savoy Hotel attract rich American guests.

With the profits of his Gilbert and Sullivan operas H M S Pinafore and The Mikado, D’Oyly Carte built the Savoy Hotel which opened in 1889. His modus operandi continued to be to offer more rather than less. His employees were paid highly, given a host of perks to ensure their loyalty and clients/customers were treated with the indulgence given to guests of a country manor house at a weekend party. As Williams puts it, guests at the Savoy had everything from “champagne to shoeshine taken care of”. After the ravages of World War I, son Rupert D’Oyly Carte continued the practice by opening the “Laundry” – an industrial sized laundry operation to service the hotel with a “300-strong workforce [which] had free visiting doctors and dentists, self-improvement classes in singing or needlework, a subsidised canteen, two baths a week, and affordable housing on site”.

Richard D’Oyly Carte had set these high standards, even investing in the theatre’s own powerhouse on the Strand to back up electric lights at the Savoy theatre when electricity emerged as the new energy source. D’Oyly Carte had a special instinct for what the rich wanted. Reading of the luxury, Williams gives her reader a sense of being there, and enjoying it. She calls the hotel D’Oyly Carte’s “little Savoy fiefdom”. In time he acquired Claridge’s and developed there another form of hotel indulgence and rich lister pleasure.

Like other high-end investors, D’Oyly Carte came through good and not so good times. Along the way he was swindled by his prize chef Auguste Escoffier and manager colleague Cesar Ritz who were summarily dismissed. He faced off financial risks and theatrical hitches. He contended with tensions between his partners Sullivan and Gilbert – and their contrasting but difficult habits. His opening night at the Savoy Theatre was advertised as being a staging under the brightness of the new electricity. It continued to be delayed, however, as he worked on the technology – risking the shame of promising and failing to deliver. When opening night finally arrived, the audience entered to old style lighting only to have their ringmaster disappear behind the curtain and for the auditorium to light up in new bulbs he called “the light of the future”. A gamble but in the end a win. The story of Richard D’Oyly Carte.

Williams sums up the D’Oyly Carte effect of his work driven vision:

… by the time of his death [April 1901], D’Oyly had much to be proud of … In twenty years of frenetic activity, he had established a new kind of cosmopolitan glamour in London. His escapist experiences – whether a dinner-dance at the Savoy, cocktails at Claridge’s, or a recreation of early modern Japan in The Mikado – became magnets for fashionable Londoners and international visitors. He dreamed up places and experiences that barely existed in the imaginations of others when he started.

Williams has tackled the D’Oyly Carte dynasty in three parts under sections devoted to Richard, his son Rupert and Rupert’s daughter Bridget. Each administer the D’Oyly Carte enterprises in their own way. Rupert, who had to manage through the years of two world wars and a depression, improvises and endures taking the hotel and its capture of the rich and famous into the world of Hollywood entertainment, backing up his hotel comforts with such offerings as “late-night candle-lit performances by the Ballet Russes, and Fred and Adele Astaire”. Helped by his father’s second wife and widow, Helen D’Oyly Carte, who had begun as a company secretary and after marriage to Richard became his business partner, Rupert came through. By the time of the London blitz and World War II, the Savoy was a home away from home for some of the biggest names on the global stage. Winston Churchill called the Savoy the “essence de civilisation”. As Williams captures it:

Churchill was back and forth from Westminster all the time. Not only was he attending the Other Club fortnightly in Pinafore [Room at the Savoy] while parliament was in session, he often commandeered a room with a river view to nap in after taking his cabinet out for lunch. He happened to be dining at the hotel when, in 1940, he had received the phone call summoning him to form a new government.

It would be left to Rupert’s daughter Bridget – who unexpectedly inherited the CEO role after her brother Michael’s tragic death in a car accident in 1932 – to continue the D’Oyly Carte traditions when her father died suddenly in 1948. Never expected to join the male workforce but to marry well and raise a family, Bridget instead took to her role with aplomb, only assuming the role of president and vice-chairman and leaving managing director Hugh Wontner to become chairman of the hotels. As one of the world’s most fortunate heiresses for the time, Bridget lived a relatively modest lifestyle with none of the heady pursuits of the male D’Oyly Cartes. Her assiduous dedication to the family empire was her strength. Writes Williams:

At work she pushed herself and expected high standards from the staff, with plenty of structure, formality and tradition. She stuck rigidly to surnames, shied away from any emotional conversation topics, and appreciated plain speaking. Not that she would have wanted to hear it, but the staff felt sorry for her, perceiving her as anxious and lonely. Behind her occasional imperiousness and sharp tongue, they recognised that there was a warm heart and plenty of thoughtfulness.

Williams’ portrait of Bridget is piercing but sympathetic. She captures an exceptional woman brought to riches but not caught by them, a woman who took the reins in a man’s world and made very adroit use of them. Bridget knew her strengths and weaknesses, she did not seek to shine and in fact shunned fame or the spotlight. But she made canny moves and kept her father and grandfather’s unique company in the black, adapting and surviving the times as the company had from the outset.

Many circled the Savoy enterprises hoping to take over the business. The most determined was Charles Forte. Bridget and Wortner saw him off. Williams’ account pits the self-made Italian newcomer Forte against the powerful odds of the old money D’Oyly Carte establishment. Forte could not understand their indulgent Savoy ways, their system of A and B shares where those locked out of the elite shareholder B core of the business could never be bought out. He found their extravagance “beyond eccentric”. In the end, of course, Forte lost.

Today the name D’Oyly Carte immediately suggests the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas – known world over for their satire and music. In The Secret Life of The Savoy Olivia Williams reveals a vaster triumph in the creation of the D’Oyly Carte business model that defied decades of upheaval and change to become a London icon to the delight of so many. For Williams, it was a little world of its own:

The battles with Forte revealed the extent to which the Savoy saw itself outside the normal rules. Bridget and her cabal felt it was their individuality versus any would-be owner’s deadening standardisation. … Staying in power, as though in some embattled citadel, they kept its timeless quality, deliberately separating it from modern life, which was always pressing it polished floors.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.