Saturday, 23 July 2011

1913: Ho Chi Minh, Mae West, Madame Strindberg

‘We rang for room service and the year 1913 answered.’– Khlebnikov

I first saw the above plaque years ago, and today came across it again. In my memory it’s on a different building, and the date is different, but still: Ho Chi Minh working in London at the Carlton Hotel in 1913.

(The Carlton, by the way, was founded by Cesar Ritz and the chef Auguste Escoffier with cash they’d skimmed off while working at the Savoy. ‘Ritz was implicated in the disappearance of over £3,400 of wine and spirits,’ says Wiki, quoting the DNB; in 1897 that was a lot of bottles. Ritz went on to open the Ritz hotels in Paris and then London.)

In 1968 the writer Gavin Young interviewed Mae West, who claimed that she stayed at the Carlton while starring in a show called Sex at the Haymarket Theatre, and while there she came across a kitchen porter called ‘Ho . . . Ho . . . Ho something . . . I know he had the slinkiest eyes though. We met in the corridor. We – well . . .’ Her voice, wrote Young, ‘trailed off in a husky sigh’.

The biographies state that Mae West’s Sex didn’t open on Broadway until 1926, by which time Ho was in China; and her first visit to Britain wasn’t until 1947. But I’m not letting that spoil a great story. If only the run of Sex had been a bit longer all capitalist/communist quarrels could have been settled in bed and the course of the 20th century might have been different.

Back to 1913: while Ho Chi Minh was kitchen-portering, a few streets away, in a basement just off Regent Street, a nightclub called The Cave of the Golden Calf was flourishing. Established in 1912 by Frida Strindberg (divorced from August in 1895), it had murals inspired by the Russian ballet, other art by Epstein and Wyndham Lewis, and a phallic motif designed by Eric Gill. Here’s Ford Madox Ford recalling that period: ‘There would be dinner, a theatre or a party, a dance. Usually a breakfast at four after that. Or Ezra and his gang carried me off to their night-club which was kept by Madame Strindberg, decorated by Epstein and situated underground . . . London was adorable then at four in the morning after a good dance. You walked along the south side of the park in the lovely pearl-grey coolness of the dawn . . . Then, as like as not, you turned into the house of someone who had gone before you from the dance to grill sausages and make coffee . . .’

1914: the club went bankrupt, war broke out and the century began in earnest.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is extremely interesting. I've read these accounts before and this is the first that has questioned the veracity of the story.
Anyone who would use Mae West as an authority to prove a historic event has to be really scratching for evidence. Since Ho Chi Minh didn't begin using that name until some time in the 1940s of course I knew the story couldn't be true, but I doubt a lot of the stories.
That leads me to this: by what name was Ho Chi Minh employed as a scullery worker or porter or pastry chef or whatever the current claim?
I'm extremely interested to know exactly when (and if) he was in London. There isn't too much doubt that he perched in Paris for some time, but I'd like to see some evidence that he lived (as opposed to changed planes or ships) in the UK prior to WW2.