Traveling in Style : PLACES OF THE HEART : London : The Essence of England : Staying to the Genteel Connaught Is a Little Like Being Accepted at London's Finest Private Club

In the days of the dissolution of the British Empire, so the story goes, an American who had emigrated from Eastern Europe and prospered in the New World set sail for England aboard the Queen Elizabeth, his object to gain the refinement and the mastery of English he believed he needed to attain the social acceptance that had eluded him in his adopted land. His first stop after settling into his hotel was a tailor shop on Savile Row, where he was measured for a suit. Ten days later, he arrived for the final fitting bearing two boxes. As the anxious tailor stood by, he put on the suit. Then, from the first box, he extracted a bowler, which he placed on his head. From the second box came an umbrella, which he hooked over his forearm. As he studied himself in the mirror, he burst into tears. The tailor paled.

"Is something wrong with the suit, sir?" he asked.

The customer shook his head.

"What then, sir?" the tailor asked.

Through his tears, the customer cried, "Ve've lost India."

I understand that man. There is something about England that makes me want to belong. Forget the gray weather and sometimes-insipid food. Everything else is as it ought to be: the cars and clothes, the pubs and inns, the squares and gardens, the theaters and galleries and, above all, the amused, equable manner with which cultivated English men and women seem to go about their lives. In France, the sum of these expressions would be called panache , but panache is flamboyant, whereas true style, as expressed by the English, doesn't proclaim itself. It simply is.

To me, the quintessential expression of English style is London's Connaught Hotel.

OVER THE YEARS, I'VE HAD THE GOOD fortune to stay at some of the best hotels in the world, among them the Ritz in Paris, the Baur au Lac in Zurich, the Grand Hotel du Cap in Cap d'Antibes, the Beau Rivage in Geneva, the Oriental in Bangkok, and the Mandarin Oriental and Regent in Hong Kong. As splendid as those hotels may be, and as pleasant were the stays, none of them evokes such sweet memories as that small establishment on Carlos Place in Mayfair that, during the late '60s, came to seem more like a home than a hotel.

I was at that time the European editor of Look, based in Paris but with a free-wheeling assignment that frequently took me to London. From 1966 to 1970, I spent about 200 nights in the Connaught, every one of them with the conviction that I'd been granted a temporary membership in an exclusive club.

Just calling the hotel to book a room got my juices going, one reason I always made the call myself. First, I'd hear that deep, double ring of the English telephones and then the operator's sing-song voice--"The Connaught, good MOR -ning"--and as I waited for the reception desk to answer, I could almost smell the perfectly broiled kipper I'd be having in the dining room a few mornings hence.

There was another reason I made the call myself, and that was because I knew how much management valued personal relationships with its guests. I knew how much easier it would be for one of the gentlemen at the reservations desk, all of whom I knew, to say no to my secretary, if space were tight, than it would be to say no to me. One day I called to say that I intended to fly to London that afternoon and needed a room. The reservations manager got on the phone. "We're absolutely booked," he said. "We can't take you."

"Well, if you can't take me, I'm not coming to London," I said, because I'd never stayed anywhere else and had become hopelessly spoiled.

"Oh, come on then. We'll find something," he said, obviously peeved yet pleased, I suspected, by such an extreme expression of loyalty.

Among travel agents, the Connaught management has a reputation for being difficult, to use a kinder word than the agents do. Many will tell you that a room reservation is harder to come by there than at any hotel in the world (or was, at least, until the outbreak of hostilities in the Middle East put a damper on tourism). The management, for its part, points out that the hotel is small--it has but 90 rooms and 24 suites--and is usually fully booked and that on any given night, 80% of the occupants are clients of long standing. It's out of deference to these clients as well as to prospective new guests that management attempts to make certain the newcomers will fit in. It knows from experience that people who like elaborate hotels will not like the Connaught and that their discomfort will be felt by the staff and other guests. So it is that management much prefers a letter from first-time applicants to a telephone call or telex from their travel agents. Only recently, in fact, did the hotel install a telex.

ONCE YOU'RE IN, HOWEVER, THE ARM'S-length formalities vanish, and you really do feel as though you're in your home, at your club or at the country estate of an exceedingly wealthy friend. What you definitely don't feel is that you're in a commercial hotel.

To begin with, the Connaught is not located where you would expect a hotel to be. Carlos Place, at Mount Street, is in the heart of an upscale residential district, halfway between Grosvenor and Berkeley squares, dotted with small, choice groceries and delicatessens: Allen's, a splendid butcher shop, is cater-corner from the hotel, and the Audley, one of London's better pubs, is down the street. The hotel's six-story Victorian structure, faced with red brick and black trim, fits right into the neighborhood, with only a discreet sign above the Mount Street entrance to identify it. Inside, there is no lobby to speak of, just a modest foyer, with a small reception desk to the right and a hall porter's desk to the left. Adjacent to the reception area are two parlors, the less formal to the left, the more formal to the right. There are no shops or window displays. The small, mahogany-paneled Restaurant, the even smaller Grill and the oak-paneled American Bar, each mere paces from the others, complete the downstairs.

Upstairs, the corridors are decorated as that country estate might be, with oil paintings, prints, centuries-old maps, cabinets and clocks. The rooms are furnished with sturdy pieces, most of which have been there since the hotel was founded at the turn of the century. Faded chintz abounds. It is all very genteel yet unpretentious and as comfortable as, well, your own bedroom. As often as not, you're in the room you were in the time before and the time before that. The entire staff calls you by name and remembers your preferences; if you asked for a bed board during your first stay, you won't need to ask again.

The guardian of these traditions, at least when I was a guest at the Connaught, was Henry Gustave--the tall, thin, stately-looking manager--who seemed to preside over the hotel in an omnipresent yet invisible manner. There was only one occasion on which I ever saw him flustered, and in that case I was the indirect cause. I was in London to do a story about British medicine. In addition to interviewing, I'd been working with a British photographer on a picture story about a Harley Street physician whose work straddled both the public and private sectors. After we'd spent a morning with the doctor, the photographer drove me back to the hotel. It was about 12:30 p.m. I asked him if he'd like to come in for a drink. He accepted. We walked into the hotel and then into the parlor on the right, where we took a seat in the corner opposite the hallway. Moments later, I was aware of a commotion in the hallway and, suddenly, I saw Mr. Gustave--one always called him Mr. Gustave--flying by, shouting orders. Only then did I realize that I'd unwittingly brought a member of Britain's Royal Family into the hotel unannounced. The photographer, of course, was Lord Snowdon, then the husband of Princess Margaret.

THE CONNAUGHT IS AT LEAST AS well-known for its cuisine as for its accommodations. Some consider its kitchen--which serves the Grill and the Restaurant--one of the finest in London, many of whose better establishments have always belied that English reputation for uninspired food. Early on, I discovered that an invitation to dine at the Connaught was a prize so treasured that it could help open even the most closely guarded doors in town, including a few at Buckingham Palace.

In the fall of 1966, I proposed to Look's editors that I profile Prince Charles. No serious, comprehensive story had been done on the future king; yet such an explosion of national doubt had accompanied his 18th birthday that the occasion took on aspects of an analytic breakthrough. British newspapers demanded that Charles be educated to rouse Britain's self-respect, raise her sagging moral standards and be a Common Market king. As if these fobbed-off fears and yearnings were not load enough for a schoolboy who had yet to have a proper date, there were abundant unpublished doubts about his ability to measure up.

With the blessing of my editors, I found myself one day at Buckingham Palace, in the office of Sir Richard Colville, Her Majesty's press secretary. He listened gravely to my request to interview Charles as well as members of the royal household who knew him best, nodded his understanding when I'd finished, and said, "You really want to do a thorough job, don't you?"

Yes, I said.

"I mean, you want to do the definitive story, isn't that right?"

Yes, I agreed again, pleased by the good impression I seemed to be making.

"Well," he said, "I'm not going to help you a damn bit. My job's to protect the Royal Family from people like you." For the next few minutes, I was made to feel like a predator. When I left Sir Richard's office, I was so angry that I needed to walk it off and set out on foot for the hotel. Somewhere in the middle of Green Park, I vowed that I would get the story, and by the time I'd returned to the Connaught I'd hatched a plan to do so.

For the next two weeks, using the hotel as my base, I followed every lead and ran down every potential source. It wasn't easy. Friends of the Royal Family understand that they speak about the family to the press on pain of exclusion from England's innermost circle. But one day I learned that a kindly gentleman had been retained to write an official biography of Charles and that he had been given access to the people closest to the prince. I contacted this author and invited him to the Connaught for lunch. He appeared the following day, positively awe-struck by the surroundings. "Well, I don't know if I'm supposed to tell you this, but--" he said several times during the meal. And by the time we'd gotten to our bread-and-butter pudding, I knew virtually everything about Charles that his biographer did.

All the while I'd been gathering information, I'd been attempting to find a sponsor, someone of impeccable reputation who could plead my case to others in the palace who might be more sympathetic than Sir Richard. And, of course, when I found the sponsor, I invited him to lunch at the Connaught. This gentleman, the editor emeritus of a leading English newspaper, was not awed at being in the hotel--he'd been there many times--but my presence there, I'm sure, helped to convince him that I was someone to be taken seriously. "Look," I told him, "I've got to write this story. I don't want to write it with secondhand information, but if I have to, I can. All I'm asking is a chance to do a good story."

The former editor was completely sympathetic. "The story will be a resource for other publications for years to come," he said after we ate. "It's important for the Royal Family that it be done well." Then and there he offered to champion my case with Sir Michael Adeane, the queen's private secretary.

In Paris a few weeks later, I received a letter from my sponsor, quoting a letter to him from Sir Michael, who had put my case before the queen. "Her Royal Highness," Sir Michael wrote (I am quoting here from memory), "does not wish Mr. Gross to speak to Prince Charles directly because no British publication has been permitted to do so, and it would be difficult to explain why precedent should be broken in behalf of an American magazine. However, if Mr. Gross wishes, he may speak with the three men in the royal household most closely associated with the prince's upbringing: myself, the prince's equerry and Sir Richard Colville."

A week later, I was ushered into Sir Richard's office. Smiling warmly, arm extended, he walked around his desk to greet me. "My dear boy," he said. To his credit, Sir Richard not only gave me the best information I got, he also arranged for me to spend time observing Charles at Gordonstoun, his prep school--an invaluable experience in shaping my impressions of the prince.

Would I have done as well had I not had the Connaught as my base? Perhaps, but I'm glad I didn't have to try.

Late in 1970, Look closed its Paris bureau and transferred me to Los Angeles to be the magazine's West Coast editor. After the magazine folded, I began to write books. Several were novels. In three of them, I managed to find a way to set part of the story in the Connaught. In one scene, a woman berates her husband for failing to leave the hotel when he visits London. "I happen to like the hotel," he replies. "I happen to think that the Connaught Hotel is the best hotel in the world. The reason I come to London is to stay at the Connaught Hotel."

I understand that man, too.

GUIDEBOOK: The Connaught Hotel

Reservations: The Connaught Hotel, Carlos Place, Mayfair, London W1Y6AL, England; telephone 011-44-071-499-7070, or through Leading Hotels of the World, (800) 223-6800.

Rates: Singles about $330-410; doubles $390-420; suites $810.

Miscellaneous: Located in the Mayfair district of central London near Hyde Park, the hotel will arrange car service by advance request from Heathrow and Gatwick airports via Rolls-Royce, Jaguar, limo or saloon car. Jackets are required in all restaurants.

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