Category Archives: Lost Egypt
Saddened to read this week of the death of Lucette Lagnado, senior investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal and chronicler of a lost cosmopolitan age of Cairo. Her The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is one of the most wonderful of memoirs. It is largely the biography of her father, Leon Lagnado, a Syrian Jew relocated to Cairo, where he ran an import-export business of indeterminate nature. He was a pious Jew by day and playboy by night, gadding about town in his trademark suit, frequenting the city’s hotels and nightclubs.
The family home was on Sharia Malaka Nazli, now Sharia Ramses, just north of Midan Ramses. This was the world inhabited by Leon’s much-younger, bookish wife Edith, and daughter Lucette (Loulou) and her cat PousPous. Lagnado’s book mixes accounts of home life – the daily routines, the neighbours, the world seen from her balcony – with the dashing, glamorous, almost fantasy life of her father.
It all comes to an end in 1962 when almost overnight the family are compelled to leave, with just $212 to their name, moving first to Paris and then on to Brooklyn. Lucette was only six at the time of this upheaval but her memories of early life in Cairo are so vivid and poignant. The book is suffused with a longing to return, to reverse the exodus, and she does eventually go back in 2005, but only to visit.
She went back to Egypt on a number of occasions after that, and a few years ago we exchanged a few emails and said that we must meet up next time we were both in Egypt. Sadly, it never happened.
Lucette Lagnado once wrote that she left Cairo an Egyptian and returned an American. That was Egypt’s loss. She died on 10 July in New York. She was 62.
Ryder Kouba, a colleague working at AUC, recently pointed me to the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. I wish I had known about it when I was putting together Grand Hotels. It has some excellent vintage images of Cairo and Egypt that I would have loved to have included in the book. Malish, maybe if we do a second, updated edition. Meanwhile, see if you can identify the places below – captions at the end.
The pics are Emad ed-Din Street; the main entrance of the Savoy Hotel on Qasr el-Nil Street; Boulaq Bridge, looking toward Zamalek, since replaced by the 26th of July Flyover; the Heliopolis Palace Hotel under construction (now the presidential palace); Shepheard’s Hotel, burned down in 1952; Ataba Square, looking west; Bab al-Hadid Station, now Ramses Square; Opera Square; Rondpont Suleiman Pasha, now Midan Talaat Harb, dominated by the Savoy Hotel; the Hotel d’ Angleterre, next to the Hashamayim synagogue on what’s now Adly Street; Shepheard’s street-side terrace; rue Suleiman Pasha, now Talaat Harb; the Boulaq bridge.
From The Sphinx in 1939/40, a series of soldierly song-themed ads for Egypt’s very own Stella beer.
For an enthusiastic appreciation of Stella and its history visit the Photorientalist site.
Back in August I wrote a post about the Cairo early 20th-century society weekly The Sphinx. I was excited because I had just discovered ten or so issues of it in the newspaper archives of the British Library. Well, I’m just back from Cairo where I have been working in the archives of the American University and what did I find there but almost a whole run of the paper in bound volumes from 1902 to 1947. The project I was working on (of which more at a future date) didn’t allow me to spend much time reading the Sphinxes but I did take plenty of photos of articles, graphics and pages. I’ll be posting some of this material in the coming weeks but to start off with here’s the complete issue from exactly one hundred years ago this week.
As you’ll see (click to enlarge the images), the pages contain many familiar names, including Miss Devonshire, who used to give tours of Islamic architecture to soldiers and whose book Rambles in Cairo was a bestseller for the Egyptian publishing house of Schindler. There is also an obituary for Lord Edward Cecil, whose entertaining The Leisure of an Egyptian Official was published posthumously in 1921, and, under Social and Personal, a brief mention of Governor-General Sir Lee Stack, who six years later would be assassinated while being driven through Cairo. Note also the ad for land and villas for sale in Maadi, marketed as ‘A country resort for summer and winter’.
Cairo has had dozens of English-language newspapers over the last century and a half – I co-founded one myself – and hats off to the Egyptian Gazette, which is the only one that has gone the distance, published (continuously, I think) since 1880. The one that fascinates me, however, is a publication called The Sphinx. Part of the fascination is because it is so rare. It was published weekly from December
1892 until at least 1947, so it lasted for over fifty years. Yet I’ve only ever been able to find a handful of surviving copies, all of which are held by the British Library. From the copies I’ve seen, it’s not a newspaper, it’s a cut-rate Tatler, filled with society news and gossip, write ups of garden parties at the ‘Residence’, that sort of thing.
Of much more interest than the writing (sample: ‘Oh! One could write reams on the top-hats of Cairo’) are the ads that pack the pages. Each issue is like a directory of fashionable businesses. For instance, the intriguing ad above for the Lipton’s Tea Rooms, which a story inside describes as being entered from Emad el-Din Street, near the Rond Pont Suares. It is supposed to have a garden with two circular domed summer houses and is being designed by St John Diamont, architect of the AUC’s Ewart Hall. I’m guessing this is what became Groppi’s garden café.
The founder of The Sphinx was an Anglophile American named David Garrick Longworth. Born in Addison, Ohio in 1853, as a young man Longworth worked as a booster for Barnum, whipping up publicity for his shows. He went into business for himself and travelled widely in Africa, where he continued to employ his talents for promotion: on one occasion in Cape Town he hired an army of locals to march, laden with white rocks, up Table Mountain, where he had the stones arranged to spell out ‘Take Liver Pills’. He arrived in Cairo in October 1892, a man in a hurry to make a splash, and launched The Sphinx a little over a month later. He remained at the helm of the paper only until 1894, at which point he moved on to Nairobi, where he founded another journal. He later surfaced in London as an agent for the Uganda State Railways.
Longworth was described – in his own paper – as being a ‘regular Bohemian’ and in addition to The Sphinx he ran a theatrical troupe and operated a bar-nightclub, also called The Sphinx, which was on rue Fuad (present-day 26th of July Street), which flourished in the 1890s. I know nothing else about the bar, except it was famous/infamous enough to feature on postcards (above).
Meanwhile, Longworth’s wife spent three years sculpting a scale plaster model of the actual Sphinx, ten feet long and three feet high, which she exhibited in Paris in 1903, and which was subsequently bought by the Field Museum of Chicago, Mrs Longworth’s hometown. Mr Longworth died in London in January 1928. If anybody knows anything more about this intriguing character, his newspaper or bar, please get in touch.
I’ve recently being doing some work in the American University in Cairo archives, which is where I found the above drawing (click to enlarge). It was in a folder of miscellaneous documents relating to the AUC buildings on Tahrir Square. It shows an alternative reality for a Tahrir Square that might have been. On it are some recognizable landmarks, notably the Egyptian Museum, and the blocks labeled Semiramis Hotel and AUC, while the block labeled ‘Municipality’ corresponds to the Mugamma, Cairo’s hated administrative fortress. What is labeled ‘Parliament’ was at the time the plan was made (it is dated 14 June 1950) the Qasr el-Nil barracks, evacuated by the British Army in 1947 and torn down in 1951–52 to be replaced by the Nile Hilton. (Another document in the AUC archive, dated 1948, refers to a plan to replace the barracks with Cairo’s answer to New York’s Central Park.) None of the other structures shown on the plan – the Arab Museum, Broadcasting House, National Library, Cultural Museum, Premier’s House – were ever built. The drawing is titled ‘View of Proposed Development’ and it is signed JS Badeau – John Badeau was then president of AUC. Why would the president of the American University be replanning Cairo’s central square? Was this ever a serious plan or was it just a bit of presidential doodling? There is nothing else in the archive’s folder relating to the plan and it is a mystery. I’d love to know more.
Toward the end of last year I posted some thoughts on revisiting the old Nile Hilton on Tahrir Square, now the Ritz-Carlton (here). I wrote a little about the hotel’s heritage as the first modern international hotel in Cairo. Well, just recently I came across a fascinating piece written by someone who was at the hotel’s launch back in early 1959. He was part of a press junket organised by the Hilton group composed of prominent columnists, journalists, and famous actors and actresses, all flown out from New York to Cairo for the big glitzy opening bash. Also in attendance was President Nasser and his special guest Marshal Josip Broz Tito, president of what was then Yugoslavia.
The piece, which I include in full below (it’s long but it’s an interesting read), originally ran in the July 1959 issue of Holiday. This was a sumptuous and glamorous magazine that in the immediate post-World War II-era did for travel what Vogue did for fashion. It was big, glossy, packed with gorgeous photography and noted for using serious literary talent, names like Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac, packing them off on all-expenses vacation with a brief to file a lengthy report to the editors. You can read more about the background to the magazine in this 2013 Vanity Fair piece.
Anyway, here’s the Nile Hilton story, which was written by Ted Patrick, the editor of Holiday. Incidentally, the photos do not come from the magazine – the clipping I saw was text only, no images – but were found tucked away in dusty corners of the internet. The pic at the top of the post is supposedly taken from the balcony of the Nile Hilton but do the Pyramids really loom that large seen from the east bank of the Nile?
ONE AFTERNOON SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, a group of writers, columnists, editors, actors, actresses, society people, celebrity and celebrity-fringe characters gathered in the Sert Room of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. We were lavishly entertained at a buffet luncheon by a tall, broad, handsome, Texas-type gentleman who was singled out for very special attention by Sert Room captains and guests. The Texas-like gentleman happened to own the hotel. He was Conrad N. Hilton. He had invited us to take part in the opening ceremonies and festivities for the newest hotel in his rapidly growing empire, the Nile Hilton in Cairo, and the luncheon was our send-off party. The group was cleverly chosen to give a nice balance of glamour, substance, beauty, gaiety and dignity to the affair, and included such prominent names as Hedda Hopper [Hollywood gossip columnist], Mrs. Earl Warren and her daughter Virginia [wife and daughter of the Chief Justice of the United States]; Jane Russell [Hollywood royalty], Cobina Wright [former model and actress], Van Johnson [film and TV actor], Earl Wilson [gossip columnist], Jeanne Crain [actress], Leonard Lyons [newspaper columnist], Hugh O’Brian [actor], Leo Carrillo [actor], Martha Hyer [actress], Robert Cummings [actor], Robert Sterling [actor] and his wife Anne Jeffreys, and Diahann Carroll [actress].
At four o’clock the show was ready and put on the road. To the popping of flash bulbs and scratching of pens signing autographs, we piled on buses and were driven to Idlewild. Every last shred of responsibility—baggage, passports, tickets—was daintily removed from our shoulders. I was given seat 15B. Next to me, in 15A, sat Hedda Hopper who, hats and all, was to be my seat companion for the trip. It turned out to be a most happy arrangement, and even gave me a conversational ploy for future cocktail or dinner parties. If Miss Hopper’s name should come up, I can say, offhandedly, “Interesting thing—Hedda never snores or mumbles in her sleep, and she never sleeps with her mouth open. Very attractive qualities.”
The atmosphere on the plane was nice and relaxed. Everyone knew everyone else, and everyone had something to contribute. Rarely has such beauty been assembled on a plane, and those air travelers of us who had been accustomed to a pulchritude ration of exactly two stewardesses beamed, and sighed, and dreamed.
The plane put down at Madrid late next morning, and again magic, unseen and efficient hands protected us from all the bedevilments customs and immigration officials can dream up. At the hotel there was a large crowd of autograph seekers and gapers in the lobby, friendly and well-behaved. Here, too, the tall, broad, handsome, Texas-type gentleman was singled out for very special attention, for here, too, he owned the hotel, which happened to be the plush Castellana Hilton.
We went to our rooms to freshen up, then were escorted to a Castilian luncheon outside Madrid. Here Leo Carillo appeared for the first time in his Spanish cowboy outfit. He was well accepted by the crowd as obviously his costume groped toward the Spanish.
The lunch was very fine indeed and we were suitably lulled into a siesta mood by an orchestra which played appropriate Spanish songs from an overhanging balcony. That evening our group took over, or more accurately, had given over to us, the entire Rendez Vous, the night club of the Hotel Castellana Hilton.
A flawless dinner was followed by night-club entertainment of rare quality. The flamenco singing and dancing were as good as you’d hear and see anywhere, the orchestra was first-rate, the Spanish dancers were seductive in the Spanish tradition, and the whole was one big, happy, family party. And there was no check.
Our next stop was Cairo, the principal destination of the trip. On approaching Cairo, Tex Butler, the very special pilot, received permission to circle the Pyramids and Sphinx, and the city before landing. The usual mob at the airport enthusiastically greeted the members of the group as they descended the stairs. Leo Carillo had on his third Spanish cowboy outfit (he had worn a white one in the daytime in Madrid, and a black one in the evening) but the Arabs, whose superb horsemen have probably the most dazzling riding costumes in the world, were not impressed. Having invented geometry, they have, I am sure, a word for square. Jane Russell, who is known to have an effect on even sluggish western blood, was just too overwhelming for the fiery Arab blood. They mobbed her, enveloped her, and it took a squad of cops to get her to the bus, where she landed shaken and ashen but still fully robed.
The approach to the Nile Hilton through the main square of Cairo was spectacular. The hotel is an outstanding example of modern architecture but designed to blend beautifully with the part of the city which surrounds it. The first sight was something of a shock as the hotel definitely was still in the process of being built. Workmen were all over the lobby, plaster and plaster dust all over the floor, and the song of hammers, planes and riveting machines filled the air. But the elevators worked and each guest was ushered into a completely finished, attractive room.
The official opening of the hotel took place on a Sunday. At 11:00 A.M. there were ceremonies in the hotel plaza facing the huge square, ribbons were cut and speeches were made, movie and TV cameras ground and flash bulbs popped, a crowd surged and cheered and Colonel Nasser, with his guest. Marshal Tito, appeared to add an official note to the event.
Lunch was stag, attended by the masculine members of the junket group, hotel officials, Cairo business leaders and members of the press. Speeches followed luncheon as inexorably as the main course followed soup. The head man of the Misr Hotels Company of Egypt, which is deeply involved in the Nile Hilton, spoke eloquently and inspiringly in Egyptian. At least, I assume it was eloquent and inspiring. Two other Egyptian gentlemen followed suit—so did the translations. The preliminaries were finished and the time came for the main event, Conrad Hilton.
Mr. Hilton, having the size, presence, voice, and writer for it, gave forth in true oratorical style. It being George Washington’s Birthday, he and his writer naturally felt they should play with the-father-of-his-country theme. They did. And whom does this indicate, or what juxtaposition does it indicate, February twenty-second and Cairo? Exactly. George Washington and Colonel Nasser. In Mr. Hilton’s speech the two were made as one. George Washington, the liberator of his country. Colonel Nasser, the liberator of his country. George Washington, the father of his people. Colonel Nasser, the father of his people. Some Americans shuddered visibly. Most Egyptians cheered lustily. Oratorically, it was a good ploy. Historically, it might even turn out to be moderately true.
That night there was an informal dinner in the Belvedere Room, high up in the hotel, its huge windowed front looking out on the silver-flowing Nile. There was an incomparable buffet. There was also a Cuban orchestra with a jumping-jack leader, raised strictly on corn in his native land, and if by now he isn’t right back there I’m a poor reader of yawns and Conrad Hilton’s facial expressions.
On Tuesday night was the Grand Ball, formal, attended by the Hilton guests and the social elite of Cairo. The social elite of Cairo is a most remarkable assemblage. The men were magnificent. The women, with their Mideast sultry complexion and beauty, held their own superbly with the lovelies of Hollywood. They were exquisitely gowned, maybe with oil money, maybe with dough from trinkets they’d got from Tutankhamen’s tomb, maybe from just Cairo-earned gold.
Lining the majestic grand stairway to the Jewel of the Nile Room were early-teenage girls with torches exuding light and incense. Special costumes had been designed for them—long black stockings, black wigs, bright orange short shorts and tight bodices. Both girls and costumes were extremely well chosen; and walking up between them and their lighted torches I could understand the aging Caesar’s infatuation for the child Cleopatra, as well as the thesis dwelt on in Lolita. There was a lovely buffet, there was dancing to good music, and there was the inescapable belly dancing, in solo and in multiple. You probably have heard a lot about the entrancing and aphrodisiacal quality of belly dancing. I’ll tell you the truth about it. It’s a bore. You can get a bellyful of belly dancing very early and easily—I’d say twenty-four hours’ normal exposure would do it nicely. Along about 2:30 a.m., as the last strains of music faded, and the last beautiful gown trailed down the stairs, the Nile Hilton was officially open.
The Nile Hilton is an ingenious international setup. Although American knowledge put it up, the hotel is actually owned by the Egyptians. The Americans get a comfortable chunk for running it, and the Egyptians take the lion’s share of the profits. Consequently, everybody is happy.
Art Buchwald summed it up pretty well in a talk he was asked to give to the Arab students at the American University of Cairo. Art explained the setup, and why we were there. Then he said, “Look, the next time you feel the urge to do a little rioting, and to bust out with a bit of anti-American feeling, don’t smash up the Nile Hilton, because it’s yours!” They loved it.
The versatile Gore Vidal wrote 25 novels, two volumes of memoirs, countless essays, plus numerous plays and screenplays, including for the films Ben Hur and Suddenly Last Summer. But he is probably best remembered for simply being Gore Vidal, originator of such fine aphorisms as ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little’ and ‘The four most beautiful words in our common language: “I told you so”’. He also suggested that ‘Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically by definition be disqualified from ever doing so’ – an idea whose time came and went in 2016. What Gore Vidal certainly will never be remembered for is a book he wrote in 1952 called Thieves Fall Out.
In the early 1950s, the high-living Vidal found himself short of cash. Still only in his twenties, he had already written several serious novels but they had failed to provide any sort of decent income. So he turned to pulp fiction, knocking out a short novel of two-fisted adventure in the space of a few weeks for a $3,000 paycheque. This was Thieves Fall Out, which was published under the pseudonym of Cameron Kay and was all but ignored by the book-buying public and quickly forgotten until over 60 years later it was rediscovered and republished in the spring of 2015 by an imprint specialising in reviving lost works of pulp crime fiction. There’s good reason this book was out of print for so long: it’s bad. It’s a B-movie take on Casablanca, a tale of a young American drifter who finds himself broke in foreign lands and in order to earn some money becomes entangled with a femme fatale who entices him into a scheme to smuggle a valuable antique necklace out of the country. There’s a piano-playing, brothel-running hunchback named La Mouche and the beautiful daughter of a high-ranking Nazi as the love interest. What it doesn’t have is a topless dancer wielding a wickedly curving dagger as depicted on the cover of the 2015 reprint at the top of this post but, still, you are never quite sure whether it is meant to be a parody or not. But you will understand what makes the book fascinating to me when I tell you that the story’s setting is Egypt and, more specifically for large parts, Shepheard’s hotel.
Vidal spent two or three weeks in Egypt in spring 1948. According to his biographer, Fred Kaplan, the writer stayed at ‘El Mint Hotel’, a modest place out near the Pyramids but spent his days hanging out at Shepheard’s, where he wrote in one of the public rooms, and it shows:
Shepheard’s was a long building, several stories high, with big shuttered windows and a porch on the side street, where, at numerous tables, foreigners and rich Egyptians sat at the end of the day, watching the street and drinking aperitifs; but at this time of day the porch was deserted.
With a show of confidence, he walked up the steps to the main door, glad to be rid at last of the beggars, who now fell into position against the terrace wall, waiting for American and European victims.
The lobby of the hotel was blissfully cool after the heat outside. Negro servants in hotel livery moved silently about the great room, carrying bags, doing errands for the guests. Though it was out of season, there were still quite a few guests here, he saw to his relief. Help would come from them, though he was not sure how.
He sauntered from the main lobby into a vast room with a high domed ceiling, like the interior of a mosque, much decorated, ornate, Turkish in style. It was cool and mysterious with dark alcoves in which people sat doing business: fat stolid Europeans and lean, red-faced British, exchanging papers, peering at small type, murmuring their deals in low voices.
At the end of the room, to the left, was the famous bar, a wood-panelled room with an oval-shaped bar at which stood a dozen men in white suits, drinking, their feet resting on the shining brass rail.
It’s in Shepheard’s bar that the American Pete Wells encounters the shifty Brit who introduces him to the world of antiquities smuggling.
One evening at L’Auberge des Pyramides nightclub Vidal saw King Farouk with a blonde European girl on his arm: ‘Like a mafia don, with dark glasses, he was surrounded by plainclothesmen, also in dark glasses.’ This finds its way into Thieves Fall Out (where Vidal cattily remarks that Farouk ‘looks more like a dentist than a king’), as does Luxor, which Vidal visited, and where he must have stayed at the Karnak hotel on the Corniche because he makes it the setting for a series of encounters in the book.
Vidal was always interested in politics and maybe the most interesting thing about Thieves Fall Out is that it is set against the backdrop of the 1952 Revolution. Like the recently released film The Nile Hilton Incident (which I saw again last week and which is even better on second viewing) the chaos of the revolution swarms around the final scenes of the story.
If you can overlook the clichés – Arabs are reliably ‘swarthy’ and women are prostitutes, double-crossing sirens or nightclub singers in need of rescue – then Thieves Fall Out is a breezy time-travelling trip to a more innocent Cairo, in which waking up to find you’ve been drugged and robbed by the girl you met last night, and deciding to smuggle antiquities to raise money for a ticket home is just all part of the visitor experience.