The Cadogan hotel, Chelsea, is where Oscar Wilde was arrested for sodomy and gross indecency in 1895, in Room 118, which is now memorialised as the site of the arrest. Institutional homophobia is a weird thing to commemorate in fabrics, but everything is a tourist attraction these days.
The hotel is a tall red late-Victorian castle incorporating neighbouring houses, one of which belonged to the actress and mistress of Edward VII, Lillie Langtry. It was, then, a hotel for betrayal on the corner of Pont Street. John Betjeman mentions this in his poem ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’, and offers disaster PR of a timeless kind: ‘More hock, Robbie — where is the seltzer?/ Dear boy, pull again at the bell!/ They are all little better than cretins,/ Though this is the Cadogan Hotel.’
The Belmond group — who own the Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and the Orient Express, among others — have paid £35 million for a renovation, and the Cadogan is now beautiful. Of course it is: Belmond can make a train beautiful, and if that is not enough, they will arrange for you to watch a chef attack a lobster on a Paris station platform. I had a happy day on the Orient Express, even if our carriage was leased to the Nazis for almost the whole of the second world war, which I learned from a plaque by the loo. (Everything is a tourist attraction these days. Also — did they get slippers?)
The hotel has frescoes and mosaics, art deco chandeliers and paintings of aristocratic women with their eyes rubbed out. In the lobby, which shrinks under foliage, there is a clock naming the next Belmond train to depart: a British Pullman from Victoria station, which will wind through the suburbs taunting commuters. There is a fake bookshelf with fake books, and for this I partially forgive them. Oscar is dead, but at least the clientele in his tribute grand hotel want to be reminded that books exist, even if they are an idea nailed to a wall.
The restaurant is the LaLee, named for Lillie Langtry’s private railway carriage, in which she toured the United States. (It was built by a rival manufacturer to Pullman. This is cold revenge.) The menu is based on Lillie’s imagined culinary tastes — and why not? The dead can’t gainsay you. They are always available for marketing and so the LaLee ‘reflects her refined tastes in sophisticated European cuisine’. Lillie loved Edward VII. She also loved brasserie food. They weren’t that dissimilar. The choice is vast: lobsters; oysters; caviar; hamburgers; Wiener schnitzel; sea bass; an onion tart; scrambled eggs. We both take steak frites and tiramisu, because we are tired, and they are as good as it gets. I knew they would be. They are recommended by a ghost.
The hotel is quiet, so the staff let us explore. They show us Lillie’s bedroom and its curling plaster ceiling. They show us the Oscar Wilde suite, which is now called the Royal Suite. Would he care? ‘Oscar’ is written on the wall in neat black capital letters, next to a sculpture of a glittering, bright-white peacock. The door with 118 written on it is preserved, presumably for Tripadvisor photographs; another door has been added. Inside it is browns of the plushest kind and a chair the colour of old blood.
There is a novel on a table, but it is not his. It is Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, and this, tiramisu or no, makes me unspeakably sad.
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The LaLee, Cadogan hotel, 75 Sloane St, London SW1X; tel: 020 8089 7070.
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