Spring–Summer 2016

Inventory / The Savoy Files

How the famous hotel indexed its guests

Christopher Turner

“Inventory” is a column that examines or presents a list, catalogue, or register.

In the famously elegant Savoy Hotel on the Strand in London, there used to be a secret room in the lobby, situated on a mezzanine above the revolving doors. It was made almost invisible by mirrors that reflected the columns and Grecian frieze of the spacious entrance hall. Only the staff would have known the room was there. Inside, in a library filing cabinet, thousands of yellow four-by-six-inch index cards were stored, dating back to 1918—there are a few blue and red cards from even earlier—with carefully collected data on each of the guests that passed through the portals below.

The lobby has since been restored, and the card index room removed (it was replaced in 1982 by computerized records), but its contents have been preserved in the Savoy’s basement archive. Susan Scott, who has administered this collection for the past two decades, showed me several boxes of these alphabetically arranged, yellowing records: they include well-thumbed cards, sometimes with newspaper clippings attached, on earls and counts, prime ministers and businessmen, conductors and army captains, maharajahs and movie stars.

As well as recording names and addresses, the arrival date and length of stay, and the amount charged for each suite, the cards have a section to document the number of V(isitors), C(hildren) and S(ervants). When the luxury hotel opened in 1890, built by the theatrical producer Richard D’Oyly Carte with profits from his Gilbert and Sullivan operas, it was the first British institution to boast elevators, electric lights, en suite bathrooms, and twenty-four-hour service; its seventh floor was earmarked for guests’ maids and valets. (The hotel took its name from the Savoy Palace that used to occupy the site but was burned down in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.) The cards sometimes also have a box in which the number of pieces of a visitor’s luggage is marked. In 1961, Dorothy McGuire, a cabaret singer, arrived with forty-five valises. A clipping attached to her card from the Evening News refers in the headline to her “mountain of luggage.”

The cards of more famous visitors are distinguished with red metal tags, and the Savoy has hosted an impressive constellation of stars—past guests include Oscar Wilde (who carried out his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas at the hotel), Noël Coward, Fred Astaire, Zeppo Marx, Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Coco Chanel, and Bianca Jagger (then married to Mick), who apparently sometimes checked in under the pseudonym Mrs. B. Fitzgerald or Miss Barry. Alongside practical information, and brief descriptions of the subject’s profession (“famous dancer”), the cards carry records of recent achievements, such as appearances in new films or plays—trivia that enabled a slick concierge to compliment clients with flattering familiarity.

Subscribe to access our entire archive.
Log In and read it now.