Tag Archives: Joe Scialom

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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Shepheard’s in photographs

Although no physical trace of the original Shepheard’s hotel remains, it was well documented while it stood. It was the subject of several photo essays in international magazines including Life and, I think, Picture Post. The hotel’s earlier incarnation (before the 1890 rebuild) was captured by several of the pioneering Middle Eastern photographers including Bonfils and Sebah. When it came to selecting images for Grand Hotels, we were spoiled for choice, and we were only able to include the merest fraction of what was available. I thought I might post some of those images that did not make the cut here. This particular set, below, dates from 1948, so just four years before the hotel was burned down.

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The chap behind the counter here is bartender Joe Scialom: if you don’t know about Joe, then go here.

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Lee Miller invades the Long Bar

Like the protagonist in William Boyd’s novel Any Human Heart, whose life (beginning in 1906) maps the course of the 20th-century experience, over her 70 years Lee Miller (born 1907) made a habit of being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. At age 19, she was stopped from stepping out in front of a car by a gent who turned out to be magazine-magnate Condé Nast and in double-quick time her face was on the cover of his flagship title, Vogue. She was the original supermodel in Jazz Age New York. At the age of 22 she went to Paris. It was the dawn of Surrealism and there she became pupil, lover and muse of Man Ray; she appeared in a film by Jean Cocteau, and got to know Charlie Chaplin, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso – the latter remained a lifelong friend. In France she moved from in front of the camera to behind and when she returned to New York it was to set herself up as a portrait photographer. For a while anyway, until in 1939 she moved to Britain where on the outbreak of World War II she embarked on a new career in photojournalism; working for Vogue she shot the London Blitz and the liberation of Paris, was one of the first correspondents into the death camps at Buchenwald and Dachau, and soaked in Hitler’s bathtub in fallen Berlin. After the war she covered fashion and celebrities for Vogue, before reinventing herself as a gourmet cook on a farm in the English countryside.

For me, given the choice, the right place and time would have to be the bar of Shepheard’s hotel in Cairo during the 1930s. Well, of course, Lee Miller was there too. In 1934, she married Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey in New York and moved to Cairo. The couple’s home was a villa in Doqqi Zamalek, where Lee socialized with the frivolous ‘black satin and pearls’ set. They played tennis and gambled, and went out for cakes at Groppis (weight became increasingly a concern of Lee’s in Cairo) and for cocktails at Shepheard’s. Lee was an occasional guest of Baron Jean Empain at his Palais Hindou (what’s now known as the Baron’s Palace) up in Heliopolis. Something of a playboy, Baron Jean liked to surround himself with glamorous women, a description that certainly fitted Lee, although it was another American girl that really caught his eye: Rosezell Rowland, also known as Goldie, after a stage act that saw her strip naked apart from the gold paint that covered her body (pictured below). (In Feb 1937, the baron, worth a reputed US$10m took his burlesque beauty on safari to the Congo and married her there.) Lee, incidentally, also studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo, whose inhouse Press is the publisher of Grand Hotels.

By 1937 Lee was becoming increasingly frustrated with life as a woman in Egypt. Her answer was to behave like a man. She told an Egyptian friend: ‘If I need to pee, I pee in the road; if I have a letch for someone, I hop into bed with him’. It was this outlook that led her, in the company of her sister-in-law, to invade the Long Bar. Since its creation in 1890, Shepheard’s famed bar had been strictly men only. Lee may have been the first woman in nearly 40 years to have drunk there, which apparently she did on more than one occasion. One wonders how the conversation between her and barman Joe (see my earliest post) would have gone.

Portrait of Space, 1937 by Lee Miller

She never managed to adjust to formal society in Cairo and in 1939 she left Aziz to live in England picking up an affair begun a couple of years previously. Her time in Egypt did result in some fine images, notably a shot taken in Siwa called ‘Portrait of Space’; this image was chosen by the designers at Bloomsbury publishing house to grace the cover of the UK paperback release of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, a novel which famously includes Shepheard’s hotel as a location for reckless infidelity. How apt.

For more on Lee Miller’s extraordinary life, read Carolyn Burke’s excellent Lee Miller: On Both Sides of the Camera.

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St Joe’s Parish

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’.

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