One of the joys of writing on Egypt’s historic old hotels was discovering some truly picaresque characters. Like Barbara Skelton. An English femme fatale, she reputedly slept her way around the fringes of London’s bohemia in the post-war years, earning herself the most excoriating of obituaries in The Independent in 1996, which described her as “selfish, sulky, socially unmanageable, agreeable only when she was in the mood – the victim of the incurable boredom which fostered her promiscuity and her notorious rudeness”. She was attached to the cipher department of the British Embassy Cairo during World War II and initially lodged at the Continental-Savoy – she described the scene from the window of her room in one of her autobiographies, which is how she comes to be in my book. While in Cairo one of her conquests was Egypt’s King Farouq, who told her approvingly that she was “a real minx” and flogged her outside the palace with the cord of his dressing-gown.
The person I really wish I’d been around to meet was Joe Scialom. From 1937 on he presided over the Long Bar at Shepheard’s Hotel (that’s him there, below, in 1942). He worked in white jacket, black bowtie and eight languages, acting as banker, adviser, umpire and father confessor to his clients. During his tenure the Long Bar was known as St Joe’s Parish and he ministered according to a philosophy of “Mix well, but shake politics”. His place in bar-tending history was secured by the invention of the Suffering Bastard, a potent cocktail that continues to be included in all good mixologist manuals. Joe was tending bar on Black Saturday, 26 January 1952, when the hotel was one of many foreign-owned businesses set on fire by rioters. He escaped the inferno “slightly ruffled and really annoyed”. He subsequently found work across town at the Semiramis but after being imprisoned by Nasser during the Suez Crisis of 1956 he quit the country.
During Joe’s time at Shepheard’s one of the many guests he befriended was Conrad Hilton, and when he left Egypt the acquaintance was renewed leading to Joe taking up a job in Puerto Rico at the Caribe Hilton. From there he moved to Cuba and the Havana Hilton, until he was displaced by revolution once again and chased out of the country by Fidel Castro. He moved to New York and the Waldorf Astoria and travelled frequently opening bars for Hilton hotels including in Paris, Rome and London. Joe’s final job was at Windows on the World in the then-newly opened World Trade Centre before he finally retired to Florida where he lived into his 90s. He survived to see the destruction of another of his bars on 9/11, passing away as recently as 2004.
Although it’s doubtful anyone now remembers Joe in Cairo, over in the US he’s venerated among connoisseurs as one of the world’s great barmen. Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry, author of a host of cocktail books (and source of much of the info in this post on Joe’s post-Shepheard’s life), keeps the memory alive and delivers the occasional talk and slide-show on the subject of ‘Joe Scialom, International Barman of Mystery’.