On 14 September 1940, 40 demonstrators turned up at the Savoy, demanding tea, bread and butter. They had marched in during an air raid, giving the management the awkward choice of either ejecting them during the bombing or accommodating them to the disapproval of its patrons.
The bootmakers and dockers seeking shelter protested that those bedding down in the Savoy's basement with its "snore warden" and nurses enjoyed superior protection from the Luftwaffe. The East End working class, meanwhile, had no access to any kind of deep shelter. War was a leveller, but during the raids some stayed more level than others.
Matthew Sweet's entertainingly informative The West End Front fields a democratic cast: from crowned heads such as King Zog, paying his bills at the Ritz with gold bullion, to communists like nonagenarian Max Levitas, still resident in Stepney. If, as Sweet suggests, most Home Front histories celebrate a plucky pulling together, using the words 'We" or "Our" in their titles, he has chosen to talk about "Them".
And he's hit on a winner. During the war the Ritz, the Savoy, Claridge's, the Dorchester and other less glittering West End hotels got a new lease of life. Their suites became refuges for exiled European royalty. Statesmen and generals discussed policy in their smoking rooms and sometimes - like Lord Halifax sharing a mistress with Mussolini's London representative - indulged in loose pillow talk. MI5 recruited spies while tapping phones and spying on customers and staff. In the lounges, con men such as Sir Curtis Lampson sold fake commissions. Film stars rubbed shoulders with the "Mayfair Playboys", upper-class criminals supporting themselves as jewel thieves and gun-runners.
It had looked very different when war was declared. Around 20,000 hotel workers lost their jobs and – more shocking – the Ritz's MD swapped top hat and frock coat for bowler and lounge suit. But once the hotels began to trade on the sturdiness of their buildings, things changed. As well as glitz and glamour, the Dorchester's concete roots became a major selling point, as did the Ritz's steel skeleton. The restaurant was now a shelter too, while its Lower Bar offered a thrumming pick-up spot for men who liked a man in uniform. And many did, including the disgraced Tory MP Sir Paul Latham with his artificial leg and taste for gunners.
So, as their staff exchanged livery for uniforms, the rich exchanged home for hotels where oysters and caviar weren't subject to rationing. One way of defying Hitler was to live it up – "The Ritzkrieg" - by carrying on as they had always done. But it caused resentment.
Packing in the anecdotes, Sweet dots his pages with colourful walk-ons ("Artful Charlie", "Baba Blackshirt") and tantalising vignettes (Dylan Thomas licking gravy from an MI5 girl's legs). His impressive list of interviewees feature Victor Legg, employed for 50 years at the Ritz, Joe Gilmore, Savoy barman who mixed cocktails for Sinatra and stashed whisky for Churchill, and Crown Prince Alexander, born to exiled parents in Claridge's Suite 212, transformed for the occasion into Yugoslav territory.
Sweet puts himself in the narrative while warily interviewing self-styled King Leka in Tirana or enjoying lunch with mischievous George Hayim, veteran cruiser. But even he doesn't know what to make of some subjects - particularly Stella Lonsdale. Promiscuous and avaricious, this possible Nazi agent wore out MI5's most hardened interrogator with her lying and shocked one informer with "indescribably filthy" conversation.
Interned foreign staff, a botched abortion, King Peter of Yugoslavia facing a hopeless future - the book has sobering stories. But there's something cheerfully life-affirming in the way the grand hotels weathered the storm. With the deferent and the defiant, they dazzled and dug in, kept calm and carried on.
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