28 August 2017

The Duchess of Jermyn Street by Daphne Fielding

Serendipity played a hand in my reading this book, but a session of dusting the bookcase in the spare room can have that effect.  Seeing 'Jermyn Street' on the spine brought to mind my time spent walking there while on holiday in July.  Although, Rosa Lewis occupied this part of Mayfair long before congestion charges, it was the horse and carriage moving people from place to place.

Rosa Lewis was born on 26 September, 1867 in Essex, the fifth of nine children.  Leaving school at the age of 12 to work in domestic service, she soon progressed from washing floors to an interest in cooking.  Honing her skills while working for the exiled Comte de Paris in France, it wasn't long before members of the upper classes were eager to taste her creations.  Once back in England, Rosa was in demand to prepare meals for society balls.  At the peak of her catering career, she prepared food for 29 balls in a single week.  A regular customer of Covent Garden, Rosa was there each morning at 5 am to choose the very best of what was on offer.

While having definitive ideas about worldly dishes, Rosa regarded herself as 'one of the lads' and would lace her Cockney accent with a torrent of expletives.  An early marriage to a man she wasn't in love with ended quite early, leaving her to shoulder a large debt.  Working all hours of the day and night, she cleared those debts and saved ownership of the Cavendish Hotel.  Running the hotel as though it were her home, rather than a business, Rosa would do as she pleased.  She would sometimes short the bill for poorer clients and then tack those charges on to the bill of someone financially better off.  She would decide when it was time for a guest to leave or refuse a customer altogether, particularly if those potential guests were writers.  Also, during the Great War, Rosa distributed white feathers to gentlemen as she saw fit.

While writers were persona non grata at the Cavendish Hotel (for some unknown reason of her own), the welcome mat was most definitely rolled out for artists.  The likes of Whistler, Sickert, Orpen and Sarpent were visitors to the hotel as were royalty and the aristocracy.  When Doris Delevigne was mentioned for her famously gorgeous legs and list of rich suitors, a quick Google search proved my suspicion...she's the paternal great aunt of Cara Delevigne.

Doris Delevigne (Viscountess Castleross) and painter, Sir John Lavery

Having come a long way from the Edwardian era, Rosa was aging and becoming increasisngly confused.  A lack of leadership at helm, as well as some serious damage sustained during the Blitz resulted in the beginning of the end for the original Cavendish hotel.  As early as 1932, Aldous Huxley wrote in a letter...
'It was like staying in a run-down country house - large comfortable rooms, but everything shabby and a bit dirty.  We were not bibulous, so much have been a disappointment to Rosa Lewis.  However, she put up with us.  Once, I remember, a young man in what the lady novelists call 'faultless evening dress', top hat and all, came swaying into our bedroom at almost 2.30 am., and had to be pushed out.  How sad, but how inevitable, that the hotel should now be doomed to destruction.'


Rosa Lewis died in her sleep in 1952.  Her funeral was held a short walk from the hotel at the Georgian church of St. James's, Piccadilly followed with burial at Putney Vale Cemetary.

The Duchess of Jermyn Street by Daphne Fielding is a fascinating read.  As Evelyn Waugh writes in his preface...'It was most desirable that a definitive study should be made before she passed into legend'.  While Waugh didn't feel he was close enough to the situation to writer Rosa's story, Fielding was a close friend and many of the details in the book are first-hand accounts. 



And coincidentally, as so often is the case, a new book features Rosa Lewis as one of its subjects (thanks, Mary)!

Rosa Lewis at the end of the Edwardian era.

6 comments:

  1. Fascinating review, I'd like to read it. As my grandmother would have said, she sounds like quite a lass!

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    1. And your grandmother would have been right! A force to be reckoned with, to be sure.

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  2. Sounds like a great read. I think she was the (very fictionalized) basis for The Duchess of Duke Street on Masterpiece Theatre some years ago.

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    1. I remember being around nine years old and watching The Duchess of Duke Street in black and white. I'm sure it was my first experience with a serialized program...it made quite an impression!

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  3. I am just glad someone was around who was able to get all the facts down. A pioneering woman.

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    1. She was certainly a hard worker, but I'm sure there were many who crossed the street when they saw her coming!

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