Sticking with the last post’s theme of London hotels, I’ve been rereading Andrew Rose’s book Scandal at the Savoy (Bloomsbury, 1991). It deals with an infamous murder case of the 1920s that took place at the London Savoy involving an Egyptian playboy who was shot dead by his French wife of six months.
Ali Fahmy, born in Cairo in 1900, was the sole male heir to a family fortune built on real estate and cotton. He came into his inheritance at the age of 16 and spread it around at the clubs and smart hotels of his hometown such as Shepheard’s, the Semiramis and Grand Continental. He bought a fleet of fast cars, imported from Europe, including two Rolls-Royces, and a 450-horsepower racing boat in which he’d tear up and down the Nile. Then in 1921 he saw something else he fancied. She was Madame Marguerite Laurent (pictured below), a fashionable Parisian woman 10 years his senior, who was staying at the Semiramis in the company of a rich businessman. He pursued his quarry back to France where he subjected her to a whirlwind courtship. Although he returned to Egypt alone, further persistent wooing by mail eventually paid off. On 20 November 1922, Marguerite disembarked from the SS Helouan onto the quayside at Alexandria and was whisked away to Ali’s seaside villa before transferring to his grand residence in the newly established Cairo neighbourhood of Zamalek.
To cut a long story short, they got married in Cairo on 26 December 1922. It’s this bit of Rose’s book that appeals to me. The pre-wedding reception and dinner took place at Shepheard’s on Christmas Day 1922. The author has done his homework and he sets the scene beautifully. Just the previous month Howard Carter had announced to the world the finding of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and Egypt’s hotels were packed with the international press and with wealthy rubberneckers who wanted to be on the spot when the tomb was opened early in the New Year. There must have been a huge sense of anticipation charging the conversation in the hotel lounges and restaurants, and provoking even greater animation in the dancers foxtrotting their way around the ballrooms.
Five nights after the civil marriage, Shepheard’s was packed with 1,200 diners celebrating the arrival of 1923. Drawing on a report in the following day’s Egyptian Gazette, Rose describes the scene: ‘There was barely room for dancing under the great chandelier, which had been decorated in “magnificent cascades of bougainvillea”. At midnight the lights were dimmed and two dozen white doves released from a balcony above the hotel foyer, an effect rather spoiled by the wags who lowered a squealing piglet on a rope from an upper fanlight. Bags of red and white confetti were emptied on the heads of the crowd, “everybody whistled and screeched, cushions were thrown about and a rugger scrum indulged in by the men”.’
A few weeks later Ali and Marguerite sailed up to Luxor, where they moored their boat across from the Winter Palace and gave lavish parties for the international jetset that had lately descended upon the sleepy Nileside town. Howard Carter attended one of the parties and Lord Carnarvon came over for lunch. But it was not a happy marriage and the two fought constantly – Rose paints Marguerite as a compulsive flirt and venal gold-digger, while Ali was attracted to young men and closer to his private secretary, Said, than he was to his wife. Onboard a steamer bound for Europe, escaping Egypt’s summer heat, the ship’s captain had to step in and keep the peace between the pair. In first Paris and then London the two traded blows in public. Ali appeared with scratches on his face, Marguerite sported livid bruises. She threatened to smash him over the head with a wine bottle over supper at the Savoy restaurant and he threatened to throw her in the river at a Thames-side garden party. It all came to a messy end at around 2.30am on a hot July night in a corridor outside suite 41 at the Savoy – Marguerite fired three shots in quick succession and killed Ali Fahmy. A night porter had just passed the room and he turned and ran back to see Marguerite throw down a large black handgun. When the assistant manager arrived minutes later she was cradling her husband’s head and repeating ‘Qu’est-ce que j’ai fait, mon cher?’ (What have I done, my dear?).
The shooting provoked a mass of publicity – it was the OJ Simpson case of its day. The papers were full of lurid details of sexual jealously, squandered riches and assorted vices – notably Ali’s alleged homosexuality, and Marguerite’s past as a serial mistress and likely prostitute. The trial was a sensation, the verdict a scandal – in a truly appalling exhibition of racism, Marguerite was acquitted of both murder and manslaughter and walked free.
Scandal at the Savoy (you can find it on eBay or abebooks.com) gives an excellent account of the courtroom drama, and provides a fascinating portrait of the sexual and racial attitudes of London society in the 1920s. For more on the antics that went on in the ballroom at Shepheard’s and other Cairo high-society hang-outs, that’s all in Grand Hotels of Egypt.