The photo that headed up the last post shows Shepheard’s streetfront terrace. It’s an evocative scene, full of character and detail, such as the officer in shorts and knee-length socks with the bandaged ear at right, the slightly sinister slim guy in round shades consulting his watch at left, and, centre, the violinist who is the only one to have noticed the photographer. He’s across the street using a telephoto lens, not wanting to be too obvious because it’s 1942, right in the middle of the Desert War, and the military in Cairo is getting a bit touchy over comments about the battle for Egypt being ‘fought from Shepheard’s terrace’. The time is just after 12:30pm, which is the time dictated by local licensing laws after which alcoholic drinks are permitted to be served. Among the sprinkling of military types and civilians here might well be a spy or two. (Cairo’s favorite bellydancer, Hekmet, has lately been arrested as a spy.)
How do we know all this? Because the photo is part of a set that ran in the 14 December 1942 issue of LIFE magazine (pictured above) accompanying a story with the same title as this post. I managed to track down a copy and buy it; here’s the text and some more images with their captions:
‘The well-to-do British officers in Egypt, the ambassadors with letters plenipotentiary, the Americans with fat purses, the glamor girls of the Middle East, the Russian commissars the famous war correspondents and the civilian tank experts, all stay at just one hotel in Cairo: Shepheard’s. When the war in the desert went really badly, a favorite criticism back home was that it was being fought from the terrace at Shepheard’s. The high officers did not stay there because it was too conspicuous, but nearly everyone else did.
‘The first impression of Shepheard’s is that for a renowned a hotel it looks dowdy and down-at-heel. The second is that behind this artful effect of musty Victorianism is concealed a massive outlay of money and attention to detail. The food is as good as anything at Paris’ Ritz, or Berlin’s Adlon or Rome’s Grand. The service, by silent slippered Egyptians and the Swiss elite of hotel experts, is unmatched. Solid money has gone into the Oriental rugs and tapestries, the silver service, the imported grouse, the Khartoum ducks, the vast wine cellars.
‘Against the last fantastic century of Egypt’s history, Shepheard’s gas stood where it is today just over 100 years. It was found as a caravan tavern in 1841 [not true] by one Samuel Shepheard before Cairo had a railway or the Suez Canal had been built. It has remained a neutral island of Swiss hotel keeping through the conquest of Egypt, and World Wars I ad II. Here came Kitchener form Khartoum, Stanley after he had found Livingstone and Theodore Roosevelt who told the British, “Rule or get out”. When Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps army was victoriously nearing Cairo it was said that Rommel had already picked out his room at Shepheard’s. LIFE photographer Robert Landry, who took these pictures, got it instead.’
The man responsible for the words and pictures above, photographer Bob Landry (1913-1960), was a LIFE regular. He was on a cruiser in the Pacific when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and from then on he was in one important place after another during that long war. He was in Egypt to shoot the desert war; later he went in with the first wave at D-Day but all of his film was lost, and his shoes to boot. Despite braving combat, it was a peacetime picture he took in the summer of 1941 that he is most remembered for, a shot of Rita Hayworth in a negligee.
8 Responses to Shepheard’s Hotel: British Base in Cairo
I was wondering if you had any information or further photos of the area around the Shepheard’s Hotel? My family had a jewellery shop in front of the hotel till 1952. I was delighted to see your post of August 11, 2012 (with the photo of three Free Frenchmen). Very clearly, one can see our shop “Ganeshi Lall and Son” across the street. This is the only photo that I have found so far. Thank you for any help.
Just loved this article. I was in Cario in 1973 too late for Shepheard’s but my Dad had stayed there during the war.
My grandfather was editor of a Greek Newspaper in Cairo during the war. I am trying to find out any information to write a book about my family- can you help me at all?
While I await my copy of “Grand Hotels of Egypt” to arrive, can you clear up a question? I’m researching travel on the “Overland Route” of the P&O Steam Navigation Company in October 1846. My question is if you know where passengers would stay in Cairo in October 1846 along the path from Alexandria to Port Suez. Was there a Shepheard’s Hotel in that year? You mention Shepheard’s was established in 1851, not 1841 as frequently quoted. Was there a prominent hotel, perhaps “Anglais Hotel” at that time, not yet to be renamed Shepheard’s? Or another hotel, perhaps owned by P&O? Thanks for any help you can give.
The first edition of Murray’s Handbook to Egypt, which was published in 1847, lists the following hotels in Cairo: the British Hotel, which was formerly Hill’s (and would later become Shepheard’s albeit in a new location); the Hôtel d’Orient, which was on the north side of the Ezbekiya, and Levick’s. Not mentioned by Murray’s but in existence since the mid 1830s was the Hotel du Nil. For travellers coming from England with P&O I imagine the British Hotel would have been the hotel of choice.
I’m working on some correspondence and I wanted to share. Egyptologist Walter Bryan Emery wrote to a friend (from the Turf Club) in Sept 1939, saying “I find a uniform has some grave disadvantages for one must not appear in a public bar before 12 oclock in the morning or remain in one after 1 oclock in the morning!!!! However they don’t give me me chance to get the time for a swill so I don’t mind.”
I thought it was fitting to add here. 🙂
Thanks always for sharing.
Kate, thanks for that.
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