Monthly Archives: January 2012

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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Before the travellers’ cheque

There’s a fascinating essay in the October 2011 issue of willfully eccentric US literary magazine The Believer entitled ‘How to Explore Like a Real Victorian Adventurer’. While researching a book about African exploration the author, Monte Reel, stumbled on a whole long dead and forgotten genre of ‘how to explore’ books. As he explains:

Victorian adventurers rarely took a step into the wild without hauling a small library of how-to-explore books with them. Among the volumes [Richard] Burton carried into East Africa* was a heavily annotated copy of Francis Galton’s The Art of Travel; or, Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries. Originally conceived as a handbook for explorers, and sponsored by England’s Royal Geographical Society, the book was required reading for any self-respecting Victorian traveler. Before rolling up his sleeves and getting down to the hard business of exploring, he could turn to page 134 to learn the best way to do exactly that:

When you have occasion to tuck up your shirt-sleeves, recollect that the way of doing so is, not to begin by turning the cuffs inside-out, but outside-in—the sleeves must be rolled up inwards, towards the arm, and not the reverse way. In the one case, the sleeves will remain tucked up for hours without being touched; in the other, they become loose every five minutes.

I share Reel’s enthusiasm having read lots of early Victorian travel manuals while researching Grand Hotels. Galton’s book, published in 1855 by John Murray, is a particularly fine read (you can download it from the internet in pdf form). Starting with the contents list, which includes entries for Swimming Rivers; Secreting Jewels; Securing Prisoners; Breaking in Oxen; and In Case of Death…

The section on starting a fire explains how this may be done by putting a quarter of a charge of powder into your rifle and on it a quantity of rag. On firing the gun straight up in the air the rag is shot out lighted and you must then run after it as it falls and pick it up quickly. Alternatively, notes Galton, he has read of the crystalline lens of a dead animal’s eye having been used with success in the same way as a magnifying glass. You just don’t get that sort of information in a Lonely Planet.

Other things learned. A good substitute for firewood is bones. A European can live through a bitter night on a sandy plain without any clothes beside what he has on if he buries his body deeply in the sand keeping only his head above the ground. To find honey, catch a bee, tie a feather or straw to its leg, throw it into the air and follow it to the hive. And if you’re worried about having all your valuables stolen, buy a few small jewels and put them in a little silver tube with rounded edges, then make a gash in your skin and bury it there leaving the flesh to heal over; the best place is on the left arm at the spot chosen for vaccination. The only drawback, says Galton, is if robbers are wise to this trick they might mince the traveller to pieces in search of further treasures.

* Burton was a repeat visitor to Shepheard’s hotel in Cairo. He lodged there in 1854 on his return from Mecca where he’d taken part in the Haj disguised as a Muslim Arab pilgrim. He also used the hotel as a base for his expeditions into Africa. The hotel’s owner, Samuel Shepheard thought Burton ‘a bit of a poseur’.

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Scandal at the Savoy

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 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.

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