Shepheard’s Hotel: British Base in Cairo

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 letters of the name on the façade have fallen apart. Notice two Egyptian flags, one roosting bird and the “S.H.” monogram, which looks like a dollar sign

Tourist shops line the front of Shepheard’s, south of the terrace entrance, including railroad and airline offices, antique shops, etc. Beyond is Cook’s tourist office, which still does a rushing business in wartime. The hotel has a 456-ft frontage, a maximum of six stories, contains 400 and 180 baths

Wounded from the desert fighting are usual at Shepheard’s these days. Here three Free Frenchmen go down the front steps, past the customary dragoman guides

The American Bar is one of two bars open from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. and from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. British usually drink Scotch and plain water, colonials gin, lime juice and water, Americans Bourbon or rye and soda, everybody beer. Below is dining room where nightly dance is held after October

Nightly dance in garden behind the hotel is mostly in uniform. Saturday is the big night. If the man is in uniform, civilian women usually wears an evening dress. In white at left is a nurse; center, a South African WAAS. In foreground are two very high-priced bottles of Rhineland wine. The band is part female. Guests include Egyptians and Balkan refugees

The porters are picked from Nubian and Sudanese warrior stock and can carry enormous loads. The bellhops never carry anything. These men are theoretically not supposed to be tipped, but usually are

 

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.

Robert ‘Bob’ Landry

Rita by Bob

2 Comments

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2 Responses to Shepheard’s Hotel: British Base in Cairo

  1. vikash lall

    Hello,
    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.
    very best,
    Vikash Lall

  2. Just loved this article. I was in Cario in 1973 too late for Shepheard’s but my Dad had stayed there during the war.

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