Category Archives: Shepheard’s

Posts about what was once one of the world’s most famous hotels.

An eyewitness to the burning of Shepheard’s

Another curiosity discovered in the archives of the American University in Cairo. In an old alumni newsletter I saw a notice for the death of Claude Feninger, who was described as the last manager of the old Shepheard’s hotel. Really? I’d never heard of him. A little googling and I find that it’s more or less true and that Claude even wrote an autobiography, Sang Froid: Keeping My Cool in the International Hotel Business, much of which can be read online.

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Born in Cairo of an Egyptian father of Swiss descent and a Neapolitan mother, after completing his education Claude had to wait until the end of World War II before taking the first boat out of Alexandria. He was bound for the Ecole des Hoteliers in Lausanne, Switzerland. After a brief experience managing a small hotel in a Swiss resort town, he returned to Cairo at the age of 25 to become the ‘resident manager’ of Shepheard’s, working under general manger Antoine Foester.

You can’t trust everything Claude writes. For instance he says Shepheard’s was the first hotel built in the world, which is a ludicrous claim to make – it wasn’t even the first in Cairo. He also says that he started work on 12 October 1952, which he calls ‘the best day of my life’. Except Shepheard’s burned down on 26 January 1952. I think that’s probably a typo and was meant to be 12 October 1951. Claude knows very well when Shepheard’s burned down because he was there and he describes the day in his book.

He relates how that Saturday began with Mrs Blanche Weinberg, a long-term resident, knocking on his office door to tell him she was off to spend the day in Maadi with her daughter-in-law. Twenty minutes later there is a call from Mr Ibrahim Yehya, the minister of culture and a family friend. He says there are anti-British riots breaking out in the city and that Shepheard’s may well be targeted. Claude thanks him for the information and goes to find his boss, Antoine Foester. Foester can’t be found so Claude takes his passkey and goes through the hotel, instructing all the guests to leave what they’re doing and quickly assemble in the gardens at the back of the hotel. By noon, the streets are filled with rioters chanting, ‘Death to England. Death to the puppet Farouk’. Black smoke rises above the surrounding streets. Nubian staff are posted at the entrances to the hotel but the rioters force their way in and start fires all over the hotel. As the flames take hold, 250 guests are in the garden, terrified. They need to be evacuated and taken through the city streets to somewhere safe. Claude steps up on a chair and shouts at the rioters. ‘You’ve done your damage. Now I need some help take the guests to safety.’ He was, he says, swamped by willing volunteers.

Once the flames died down three bodies were found in the ruins. Two were looters found in the basement where the hotel kept its silver. The other was found in suite 302. It was Mrs Weinberg, who must have changed her mind about going to Maadi and returned to the hotel. Claude had never checked her room because he thought she was out for the day.

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In the picture above (click to enlarge), the streetfront terrace is at the bottom of the picture with steps in the middle leading up to the main entrance. The domed structure is the Moorish hall. To the left, beyond the burned-out Shepheard’s, is the Windsor hotel, still in business today.

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Thieves Fall Out (in Cairo)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Christmas at Shepheard’s, 1898

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George Warrington Steevens (1869–1900) was a British journalist, the most famous war correspondent of his time. He accompanied Kitchener to Khartoum and covered the Second Boer War in South Africa. En route to the latter he spent time enough in Egypt to toss off a state of the nation study, Egypt in 1898, published by Dodd, Mead & Co of New York, 1899. A veteran of the battlefield it was unlikely he was going to have much good to say about the lah-di-dah society of his fellow Englishmen in Cairo and, sure enough, he didn’t.

He certainly did not like the company at his hotel: “Inside Shepheard’s you will find just the Bel Alp in winter quarters. All the people who live in their boxes and grand hotels, who know all lands but no languages, who have been everywhere and done nothing, looked at everything and seen nothing, read everything and know nothing – who spoil the globe by trotting on it.”

He was in residence at Shepheard’s on 25 December: “I woke this morning in the usual cage of mosquito-gauze, rang the bell, and the usual brown face under a tarbush poked itself in at the door: ‘Good Christmas, sar,’ it said. By Jove! Yes, it was Christmas Day; and looking out of window I saw, for the first time in Egypt, a true English sky, heavy and yellow. It was chilly cold too; Egypt is not near so warm as it looks. Looking down from the window, I started. Was I still asleep, or did I really see that great white bird, stork-billed, duck-footed, waddling placidly up to the back-door of Shepheard’s? And then I remembered that a tame pelican of great dignity was wont to disport himself there; but that took all the Christmas out of my mouth.”

“When I got up I found the hotel full of bouquets of roses; a few people went out later, ostensibly to church; but otherwise the wandering English made Christmas Day much like any other day. No such luck for the British residents of Cairo. It seems that when they first came here, the society of Cairo was much concerned to find that they had no day for all going round calling on each other, as Continentals do on New Year’s Day, Levantine Christians on their New Year’s Day, and Mussulmans at Bairam. On consideration, the society of Cairo decided that the British ought to have such an anniversary, and fixed on Christmas Day as the most suitable. So the ladies sit at home all the afternoon dealing out tea, and the gentlemen go round, calling on everybody else, and Egyptian friends call on everybody after the same manner; so that the whole British colony, with native auxiliaries, rotates in a body round itself all Christmas afternoon. A stranger, I was called on for no such effort; so I went out peacefully to lunch.”

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Portrait of George Warrington Steevens by John Maler Collier

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The final journey of Sir Richard Francis Burton

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I made a visit to one of London’s most unusual tombs today. No great hardship as it’s only a 30-minute walk from my own front door. It is the final resting place of the famously restless Sir Richard Francis Burton and his forbearing wife Isabel.

His was a life that is hard to summarise in just a few sentences. He was perhaps the preeminent British explorer of the Victorian age, but he was also a soldier, spy, diplomat, linguist, ethnographer, travel writer, poet, translator and bloody-minded controversialist. He claimed to have learnt Latin at the age of three and Greek at four. In adulthood he was said to be proficient in an astonishing total of 40 languages and dialects. In his university years (Oxford), he was an accomplished boxer, fencer and frequenter of brothels. He began his career as a soldier and intelligence agent in India, where he perfected the art of passing himself off as a trader from the Arab Gulf. In 1853, disguised as a pilgrim he became one of the first Europeans to visit Mecca and Medina. He next ventured into Africa in search of the forbidden fortress city of Harar. At Berbera, an ancient Somali port, his expedition was attacked by local tribesmen one of whom drove a barbed lance through Burton’s face, scarring him for life. Undeterred in 1856, he returned to Africa in search of the source of the Nile in the company of fellow explorer John Hanning Speke. Both men fell sick and both went nearly blind. In 1861, aged 39, he married Isabel Arundell, a devout Roman Catholic who was ten years his junior. She evidently exerted a calming influence because Burton not long after joined the British Foreign Office and was sent as consul successively to Fernando Po (an island of the coast of West Africa), Brazil, Damascus and finally Trieste in Italy, which is where he died in 1890.

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The caption has a Baedeker guide saying to a Murry’s handbook, ‘A bit ahead of us old boy’

Burton was in Egypt several times, notably in 1853 enroute to Mecca. In Cairo he stayed at Shepheard’s hotel, where he came to know the proprietor, this blog’s old friend Samuel Shepheard. In the introduction to later editions of his Pilgrimage to Al Medina and Mecca, Burton thanked Shepheard for helping raise money for the expedition. He was back at the hotel three years later. Perhaps he was looking for money again because when Shepheard mentioned the visit in a letter, it was with a testy, ‘Captain Burton has just come to bother me about his expedition to the interior of Africa’.

Many years later, long after Samuel Shepheard had exchanged Cairo for the life of a wealthy landowner back in his native England – and had died there in 1866 – Burton was back at his former hotel. It was 1877 and he was off in search of gold and other valuable metals in the Arabian peninsula. In his account of the expedition, The Gold Mines of Midian, he writes, ‘I cannot pass Sam Shepheard’s old home without a few words upon the subject of its first owner, a remarkable man in many points’. He praises Shepheard for his independence of mind and manner, noting that he once threw a prince out of the hotel because he ‘would not behave like a gentleman’. According to his biographer, Sam was also independently minded when it came to Burton, who he considered a poseur.

On his death, Isabel tried to have Richard Burton buried in the hallowed precincts of Westminster Abbey. The problem was Burton’s later years had been spent in large part translating international erotica, including the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden. His greatest work was a major new 16-volume translation of The Book of the Thousand and One Nights, in which he played up the sexual content. As a consequence, the establishment considered Burton far too rakish for the Abbey. (This can’t have come as a surprise to Isabel, who was also very uncomfortable with some of her husband’s enthusiasms, so much so that on his death she burned all his manuscripts, notes and diaries.)

Instead, she had him buried in the graveyard of St Mary Magdalen in the then-village of Mortlake, west of London, in what was then one of the city’s few Catholic cemeteries. She designed the tomb herself, which is in the form of an elaborate desert tent, based on one the couple had made for themselves when they lived in Damascus. She joined him in the tomb when her time came in 1896.

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These days the tomb can be visited – though not many do – in a small, unassuming but beautifully tended churchyard beside the railway tracks, not far from Mortlake station. This is how it looked today – thanks to a recent restoration it’s in magnificent condition.

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It is about 12-foot square and 12-foot high, with sloping sides, skilfully carved from sandstone to represent the folds of canvas. In addition to a Christian crucifix, there is also a frieze of gold-painted Islamic crescents running around all four sides. Around the back is ladder so visitors can climb up and peer into the interior of the tomb through a glass panel – which is there supposedly because Richard Burton didn’t like the dark. You can see the two caskets, an iron one on the right containing him and one of mahogany on the left containing her. The walls are festooned with camel bells, which were once wired up to ring when anybody entered the tomb, although the door has since been sealed up to prevent against vandalism.

It’s a fittingly eccentric tomb for a very unconventional couple.

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Dora dines in Cairo

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A pingback linking to this site alerted me to a fascinating post over at the Sydney Living Museums website. It concerns a new book containing correspondence between Dora Sheller and her son Leslie Walford, one of the leading figures in Australian interior design until his death in 2012. In 1929 Dora Walford, a glamorous Sydney socialite, set off on a honeymoon voyage to England, stopping off in Cairo from late December 1929 until the first week of January 1930. She was well-heeled enough to stay at the top hotels, notably Mena House and Shepheard’s. The photo below is Dora on the steps to the tea gardens at Mena House.

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Dora spent Christmas at Shepheard’s and kept hold of the printed and tassel-corded menu for the Christmas Eve dinner at Shepheard’s Grill, with a beautiful cover showing a masqued ball in full swing.

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The Sydney Living Museums post helpfully translates the belt-busting menu:

Blinis with caviar
Tomato soup (served in a cup)
Lobster thermidor
Quail in puff pastry (named for the writer George Sand)
Chicken breast in a rich cream sauce ‘Russian style’
Indian salad (lettuce, cress; a dressing of red wine, vinegar, spices)
Mandarin sorbet with Chantilly cream;
‘Chocolate shoes’ – a novelty chocolate biscuit shaped like a shoe
Chocolate Yule log

A few days later Dora dined at the Mena House and, again, she kept the menu.

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In English:

Consommé garnished with finely diced carrot, turnip, green beans, truffle &c;
Turbot with a tomato sauce
Roast premium cut of lamb cooked with sage
Asparagus
Bresse chicken in a very rich casserole sauce
Ice cream bombe
Fruit basket
Coffee

After getting through all that, you’d imagine Dora wouldn’t have to eat again until she reached England. However there was a trip into the desert – which may have just been across the road to the Pyramids – for which the Mena House provided a picnic that was transported on its own trolley, as seen in the photograph below, which shows Dora’s husband Eric Sheller and son Leslie.

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All these items come from the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums. You can read more here.

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One for the world

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My first post on this site back in November 2011 concerned Joe Scialom (that’s him, above). Joe was the legendary bartender in charge of the Long Bar at Shepheard’s from 1939 until 1952. In that time he became just about as famous as the hotel in which he worked. I found pieces on him in a 1952 edition of the New York Times and in the Washington Post in 1957 – these are where I drew my information from for what I wrote about Joe in Grand Hotels of Egypt. Since then I’ve got a hold of an issue of Collier’s magazine from 4 September 1953, which also has a piece on Joe, which I’m reproducing in full below because Joe seems such a swell guy everybody should get to know him a little more.

It’s titled ‘One for the World’ and it’s written by Robert Ruark, who would later make his name writing about big-game hunting in Africa and of whom his obituary in the New York Times said he was “sometimes glad, sometimes sad, often mad, but always provocative”. Sounds like perfect Long Bar company.

Anyway, here you go…

 

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Joe Scialom’s Cairo customers come from all over the world – yet he never forgets a face of the drink that goes with it. That’s why he’s probably the world’s most famous barkeep

Happiness to a great many people for a great many years, has been a thing called Joe. Ninety-nine per cent of the happy people have never known his last name, which is Scialom, but he has been an arbiter of barroom culture for so many years in so many places that his face and his fame have become synonymous.

In the older, gentler world, there were a few places where is a man tarried he could see anybody he wanted to see. One was The Long Bar in Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo; behind it Joe reigned.

Joe speaks a few languages fluently – English, French, Italian, Greek, Arabic, German, Russian. He also has a faculty for never forgetting a face or the drink that goes with it. From 1939 to 1952 he was the master of the world which travelled through Cairo. Messages were left with Joe. Commissions were given to Joe. Strange duties were entrusted to Joe. Joe became a kind of international bank, post office, underground and extension agent.

Shepheard’s is no more, having been set afire in 1952 by some of the rioting citizens of Egypt. But Joe has remained an institution. The tiny world created by crisscrossing airlines that pause in Cairo badly needed Joe. So the people who ran Shepheard’s created him a shrine in another of their hotels, the Semiramis. It is called Joe’s Bar, and if you are looking for somebody in Cairo, that’s where he’ll be, whether he drinks or not.

On an average evening in Joe’s you will see a brace of Egyptian Cabinet ministers, a dozen airline officials, some high-blown military, a debutante or so, a cotton broker, 20 oil people in from the fields in the Middle East, a sheik in a burnoose and agal ropes and a variety of unidentifiable angle-shooters.

Nobody has ever defined what makes a bar a mecca, as Toots Shor’s is a mecca for one kind of person in New York, as “21” beckons another brand, as the Stork Club attracts another. But Joe’s attraction is obvious: it is his understanding of the international floaters who never look forward to a chicken farm any place, from Long Island to Tanganyika. His background makes him the perfect foil. “I was born,” he says, “at some date which escapes me, of a Venetian father and a Russian mother, on the high seas. I became a legal Venetian but got my birth certificate in Egypt. I was named Giuseppe, after the captain of the ship I was born on. I am an American by adoption, and Scotch by absorption. I am married to a woman who is half French and half Algerian. I look like anybody’s cousin Joe, whether it’s Cousin José, Cousin Giuseppe, Cousin Yusuf, or what.

“I have worked in Paris, New York, London, Khartoum, Johannesburg, Algiers, Istanbul and Rome, not to mention Cairo. I have seen very traveller who drinks, at least twice: once when he comes in, and once when he comes back to see I remember his name and preference in drinks.”

For the barter world, Joe is the one-man brokerage house. You want an apartment? Ask Joe. You want to sell a car, or buy one? Joe’s the boy. You want a ticket on the airlines? Tell Joe I sent you, and he will call Hassan el Samra of TWA or somebody I BOAC or Ethiopian Airlines or Air France and what exactly is it you want?

Joe is never at a loss, which helps explain how he invented a drink I’ll call the Suffering Buzzard, although that’s not precisely its name. It was 1941, and the war was running Joe short of ingredients. A couple of hang-overs came in one day beseeching aid, and Joe looked desperately around him.

“I always thought that gin, which I had, and bourbon, which I had, don’t marry,” Joe says. “But I stuck some gin and bourbon into the vase, and looked about for something to take the curse off. There was some angostura and some lime cordial and some dry ginger ale for fizz. I shook it all up with some ice and decorated it with mint.

“I was most surprised at the result. The customers did not drop dead. They recovered, and clamoured for more. Been clamouring ever since.

“You see,” says Joe, “I am a healer at heart. I started out as a chemist – studied in France–and got bored with it. Merely changed bottles.”

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Joe refers to his domain as St Joe’s Parish, and runs it on somewhat ecclesiastical lines. He is very proud of the fact that in Shepheard’s, during five years of war, there was never a fight amongst all the motley warriors who drank under his aegis. He had some unusual experiences, though.

He remembers one Homeric drinking bout between a Turk and a Canadian. The Turk was holding out for the healing, soothing benefits of honest Scotch whisky. The Canadian was a Martini man. They drank, drink for drink, 52 slaps a piece. The Martini aficionado survived. The Turk went out on a board.

Joe refers to himself as the man in the white coat – a psychiatrist who uses a mixing glass instead of a couch, and some salted nuts instead of the works of the late S. Freud.

“A man in a bar wants to feel important,” says Joe. “I have mastered the art of making a man feel important. I am perhaps the best listener in the world, in any one of seven languages.

“I also flatter him in another way,” Joe continues, melding a Martini with meticulous care. “The fact that I know his name, his face and his language makes him suddenly feel like a prince. I have tried this on princes too, and they feel like kings. We don’t have much king business any more in this locality since Farouk left, but will you tell me what that Arab emir is doing over there with his lemonade if he doesn’t feel a psychic need to be at Joe’s, even if he doesn’t drink the hard stuff?”

The airplane has made things easier for folks with a psychic need to be at Joe’s; today people cross hi path much ore oftener than in the old days of the Orient Express and steamer travel. I was pushing off from Cairo not long ago and dropped in Giuseppe for a farewell pop. I swiped a line from the song. “One for my baby,” I said, “and one more for the road.”

Joe looked his mystic look, and the blue stone in his ring twinkled when he poured the drink.

“Not road, chum,” he said. “One more for the world.”

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Did MGM rebuild Shepheard’s in Hollywood?

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It’s a beautiful poster and it belongs to the most politically incorrect film you’re ever likely to see. This poster is Italian, but the film was American, released by MGM in 1933 as A Night in Cairo (aka The Barbarian).

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The plot is an American socialite (Myrna Loy) arrives in Egypt to marry her terminally dull English fiancé, where she attracts the attentions of a sleazy desert prince (Ramon Novarro) who poses as a tour guide in order to make moves on foreign women. This charmer kidnaps, tortures and rapes her, after which she decides she loves him and the pair elope up the Nile. What got everybody heated up back then though was a scene in which Loy appeared to be naked in a sunken bath, modesty not quite preserved by floating petals.

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Much of the film takes place in Cairo, the bulk of it in a hotel that is clearly modelled on Shepheard’s. The shooting took place on an MGM back lot in Culver City, California, with Yuma, Arizona used for the desert scenes. Being a studio shoot there are no street scenes and only a handful of well-used locations, including a railway station, the Pyramids, hotel rooms and the desert. The hotel rooms are totally generic and look nothing like the photos I’ve seen of rooms at Shepheard’s from that time. But then there are a couple of scenes in which the characters go out onto the hotel terrace and they baffle me. They look completely authentic. The doorway, the steps down to the street, the arrangement of the terrace all appear exactly as they really were. Check out the railings in the screengrab below and compare them with the actual photo of Shepheard’s beneath it.

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They are identical. In a scene in which Loy and party leave the hotel you see part of the name Shepheard’s on the terrace wall (a bit dark, I’m sorry), as it was in real life (bottom image, taken in the 1920s).

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No way did the studio fly out Myrna Loy (that’s her in the screenshots) to shoot a couple of exterior scenes in Cairo, so this must have been a studio set back in California. How intriguing to think that in the early 1930s technicians built a replica Shepheard’s terrace in Hollywood. I wonder, as was the way with these things, if it ever got recycled for any other films?

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Cairo in the war

EGYPT. Cairo. W.W. II. Servicemen relax on the Hotel Shepheards terrace. 1941

Not too much to say about the photo above except it depicts British officers (no non-ranked soldiers allowed) relaxing on the terrace at Shepheard’s in 1941 and it’s new to me. It was shot by British photojournalist George Rodger (1908–1995), who went on to photograph the mass graves at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the end of World War II and later became famous for his images of tribal Africa. Rodger also shot the images below of soldiers relaxing at the other grand Cairo hotel, the Mena House.

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Sirena’s creamy skin was wealed with lash marks, old and new!

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“Every city has its something. Rome has St Peter’s. Peking has its Summer Palace. Moscow has the Kremlin. In Madrid there’s the Prado. In New York there’s the Empire State. Constantinople has St Sophia. Cairo has Shepheard’s.”

If it seems like this site seems to bang on about Shepheard’s hotel a lot, maybe the quote above goes some way to explaining why. It comes from the 1945 novel London Belongs to Me, written by author Norman Collins, which is a gritty slice of wartime British realism. What it illustrates is how familiar British readers were with the glamorous, internationally renowned Cairo hotel – it suggests that as a shorthand for the city, Shepheard’s was maybe even more familiar than the Pyramids or the Egyptian Museum. I was reading another canonical English novel recently, Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse, written in 1959, and Shepheard’s is namechecked in that, too.

The hotel’s fame and appeal to writers in the English language dates back far beyond the 1940s and ’50s. In 1893, a reporter named Richard Harding Davis in a book called The Rulers of the Mediterranean, noted, ‘Shepheard’s is so historical, and its terrace has been made the scene of so many novels [my italics], that all sorts of amusing people go there, from sultans to the last man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, and its terrace is like a private box at a mask ball.’

I’ve no idea what those 19th century novels were that featured Shepheard’s, they’re long gone, but there is a vintage genre of fiction in which Shepheard’s frequently cropped up that is still read, and that’s pulp.

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Cairo was rich pickings for pulp writers: labyrinthine souks, inhospitable deserts, mighty pharaohs and ancient gods, treasures buried deep beneath the sands… and remote enough from the average reader’s experience that a writer could get away with all kinds of distortions, exaggerations and stereotyping, not to mention outright racism. Weird tales writer HP Lovecraft took a swerve from his usual New England setting to collaborate with Harry Houdini on the story ‘Under the Pyramids’, which had the famous escapologist visiting Egypt and becoming imprisoned inside one of its most famous monuments, but not before a stop off at Shepheard’s:

“We stopped at Shepherd’s Hotel, reached in a taxi that sped along broad, smartly built-up streets; and amidst the perfect service of its restaurant, elevators, and generally Anglo-American luxuries the mysterious East and immemorial past seemed very far away.

The next day, however, precipitated us delightfully into the heart of the Arabian Nights atmosphere; and in the winding ways and exotic skyline of Cairo, the Bagdad of Haroun-al-Raschid seemed to live again. Guided by our Baedeker, we had struck east past the Ezbekiyeh Gardens along the Mouski in quest of the native quarter, and were soon in the hands of a clamorous cicerone who – notwithstanding later developments – was assuredly a master at his trade.”

Lovecraft never visited Egypt and, like the story’s protagonist, he probably gained all his information from a Baedeker, but not so other pulp writers, as reported in the Egyptian Gazette of 15 April 1929:

“There is an immense fascination about Egypt which never fails to appeal to imaginative folk and it is not surprising therefore that many well-known authors are constant visitors to this country. Just at the moment Mr Sax Rohmer, whose works include a number of stories with an Egyptian setting, is staying at Shepheard’s. Mr Robert Hichens, who is a very regular visitor to Egypt – one might almost call him a resident here – is staying at Mena House. Mr AEW Mason spent the greater part of the winter in Aswan and Cairo, and Mr Rudyard Kipling, who finds this country so much to his liking that he is engaged in writing a book about it, only left these shores a short time ago.”

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Kipling’s no pulp writer but Hichens wrote supernatural fiction and Mason turned out detective stories (as well as the novel The Four Feathers), while Rohmer is the pulpiest of the pulp, creator of the brilliantly over-the-top stories of master-criminal Fu Manchu. In 13 bestselling books and at least as many film adaptations, Fu Manchu plots to take over the world, only to be constantly thwarted (in the early books, at least) by the dogged colonial police commissioner Nayland Smith. Although Fu Manchu was Chinese, the orient was the orient and Rohmer’s stories freely mixed the eastern Asian with the Middle Eastern and North African. The wily Fu Manchu was as liable to pop up in Cairo as Shanghai or London’s Limehouse. Rohmer also wrote reams of stories and novels that did not feature Fu Manchu, and many of these were set in Egypt, a country with which he had a deep fascination.

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Apparently Shepheard’s was one of his favourite hotels; he once met Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, on its terrace, and it crops up numerous times in his novels (including in Brood of the Witch Queen, 1918, and Daughter of Fu Manchu, 1931) and short story collections (including Tales of Secret Egypt, 1918). There was even a short story called ‘A Date at Shepheard’s’ published in Blue Book magazine, a slight tale of a mysterious woman imprisoned in room 34B.

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Rohmer’s frequent namechecking of the hotel apparently paid off: in his author’s biography in the Blue Book, the editors claim that Rohmer (who died in 1959) never had to pay a bill at Shepheard’s. The practice of product placement has been around a lot longer than you imagined.

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Fauvism comes to Shepheard’s

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The painting above is new to me – I stumbled across this image online only last week. It’s titled ‘At Shepheard’s Restaurant’ and it was painted in 1928 by Dutch-French artist Kees van Dongen. I’d only vaguely heard of van Dongen. I knew he was a Fauvist, part of that colourfully slapdash group that grasped the baton from Impressionism in France in the early years of the 20th century and whose leading light was Henri Matisse. What I didn’t know was that, like Matisse, who was majorly inspired by his travels in Morocco, van Dongen also went looking for inspiration in North Africa. Around the same time Matisse was in Tangier (1912–13), van Dongen was in Egypt. But whereas Matisse saw Morocco through Orientalist eyes, knocking out a series of bare-breasted odalisques, van Dongen carried with him his preoccupations from Paris, which notably included nightlife, partying, high society and pretty women. These he apparently found at Cairo’s hotels and also, it seems, cafes, judging by the painting below (titled ‘The Cairo Bar’).

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Van Dongen wasn’t totally immune to the temptations of Orientalism, however; he also produced a series of lurid illustrations for an edition of the Arabian Nights that would have titillated European readers with its significant nipple count.

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Filed under Art and artists, Shepheard's