Ah, the legends that surround the Savoy.
Built by Richard D’oyly Carte using the profits from the Gilbert and Sullivan operas on the site of the ancient house owned by the ruling monarch of Savoy, Count Humbert I of Sabaudia, it is unashamedly theatrical.
And technically brilliant, too. Opened in August 1889, Britain’s first luxury hotel had state-of-the-art touches like electric lights in every room, electric lifts and hot and cold running water.
Everyone has some anecdote or other about the place: Churchill dined there with his cabinet. The entrance to the Savoy is the only road in Britain where one simply must drive on the left. London taxis have an extraordinarily good turning circle; the acid test? They must be able to turn round the tight little curve of the entrance road opposite the Strand.
The lights outside used to be lit by the gas from the London sewers: one light, tucked down a side street, still runs on it.
But today’s story concerns luck. Ill luck; the kind of fortune which is said to dog a dinner at which 13 people are seated.
1898: and a diamond magnate, Woolf Joel, had booked a dinner for 14 at The Savoy when someone cancelled.
There was consternation. What could be done? And Joel scoffed at everyone’s superstitious anxiety, and they sat down and ate a hearty meal anyway.
A couple of weeks later, Joel was shot dead.
This was not good publicity for a plush London hotel. The story spread like wildfire. And the Savoy management realised that a system must be put in place to stop it happening again, at all costs.
Even if it meant sitting down with Staff. And so for almost 30 years, that is what happened. If a set of 13 guests were due to sit down at table, a member of staff would gamely join them.
But let’s face it, who wants a waiter sitting at table?
It fell to an artist to fashion a permanent answer. Basil Ionides, grandson of a Greek Ambassador and famous Art Deco proponent, redesigned the Savoy in the late 20s. And for tables of 13 he created the most glorious life-size sculpture of a cat, who was quickly named Kaspar.
Kaspar was briefly catnapped during the war, folklore has it, and flown to Singapore by mischievous RAF staff. And it was Churchill himself who, outraged, demanded tha cat’s return.
So; ever since, when a fourteenth guest drops out, there is no need to have a waiter at a guest’s table. And he’s a famous old soul. Michael Morpurgo even wrote a book about him.
Every time, Kaspar saves the day.