Posted on September 12, 2007 · Posted in Writer-in-residence, Writing

The only truly lucrative form of writing  are ransom notes. Being a writer means flying by the seat of one’s pants so often you should be given frequent flier pant points. As I ran away from home at 16, I’d always thought of myself as streetwise, not suite wise. I wasn’t exactly living in a garret, but I had to face the fact that the posh and pampered life of five star hotels would always escape me.

But then one dull winter’s day, I was half-heartedly pushing a vacuum cleaner around the living room in my moth-eaten tracksuit when the phone rang.  It had already been quite a good day as I’d just glimpsed Jennifer Aniston on breakfast television and she looked a little plump. But it was about to get a whole lot better. The caller was the P.R. director of the Savoy Hotel, asking if I’d be interested in moving into a £1,200 a night suite for three months as their Writer in Residence.

“Would I be interested? Are you kidding? What do you want? My first-born child? An internal organ?!” For the rest of the week I smiled so hard I pulled a muscle.

Most writers in residence programmes are run in prisons. So, how did the world’s most pampered residency come about? Well, the Savoy was keen to rekindle its literary links. Not only was the hotel built on the financial back of the Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, but it has also been home to a literary minestrone of famous scribes –  Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, Emile Zola, Mark Twain, Somerset Maugham, Hilaire Belloc, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Fielding, Rudyard Kipling….Kathy Lette. A natural segue, I told myself! All the Savoy required of me in return were four literary dinners and to swan about a bit being witty. I can “bon!” I can “mot!” Hell. For a gig this good, I’d develop a black belt in tongue fu.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the news in the English literary world went over like Pavarotti over a pole vault. When my appointment was announced, I felt the gaze of the literati in the pit of my stomach. There was a pause. A Pinteresque pause. A longer pause than I felt was entirely necessary. Fellow writers wore the kind of facial expression normally associated with a probe of the prostate. Their smiles were so tight I thought it might cut off their circulation.

Regardless, I moved in, lock, stock and Jimmy Choo shoes. (Believe me, Scott went to the Antarctic with less luggage.) My Art Deco suite was so sumptuous, I never once got up before the crack of noon. Would YOU when you’re  served breakfast in bed every morning by tautly-buttocked boys in crisp white jackets? The view was just as inspirational. Strings of fairy lights flickered on the inky waters of the Thames, from the fluted Houses of Parliament to the Globe theatre. I kept demanding my friends call to ask me the time. “What’s the time Kath?” they’d ask, bewildered.

“I don’t know,” I’d gloatingly reply. “Just let me look out the window at BIG BEN”.

My most arduous job as writer in residence was selecting a dish to be named after me on the Savoy’s menu – Kathy Ome-lette. I also had to choose a cocktail to take my namesake. We put a lot of time and effort into that. The only trouble with being writer in residence is the bottle fatigue. I often ended up being thinker than I drunk I am. In the end, I settled on a champagne and cassis concoction, “Kathy Cassis”. Or “Kathis,” as I tended to pronounce it after I’d downed a dozen or so. Although, having a cocktail named after me did make me slightly worried about all the men who could now go around town saying that they’d “had” me.

“As long as they add that you went down rather well,” my writer friend, Julian Barnes quipped in reply, as we lounged on the banquette in the American Bar. (Hey, it’s hard work but somebody’s gotta do it, right?)

Being writer in residence did require a bit of domestic juggling. As a mum of two, at first I was worried my children, Julius then 13 and Georgie 10,  would put themselves up for adoption. I was convinced they’d  write the sequel to “Mummy Dearest.” Disappointment clung to me like a wet shower curtain – I would have to say no….But then the hotel offered me a room for the kids, down the hall. And oh, how their homework improved! When stuck on a maths equation we would simply ring down to reception. One evening we had five Concierges looking for the square root of the Hypotenuse.  (Hell, I didn’t even know it was lost!)

Months of fun and frivolity ensued. Dannii Minogue would pop by for pool parties. John Mortimer, Stephen Fry, Richard E Grant and Salman Rushdie joined me to co-host literary dinners.

Every day I rubbed shoulder pads with the celebritocracy. Mel Brooks had the suite next to mine. Graeme Norton worked out in the gym. The American Bar was so full of Hollywood stars that I contracted A-List-eria. Is it any wonder I was smiling as smugly as a canary filled cat?

Then there was the host of famous ghosts from George Bernard Shaw and Fred Astaire to Christian Dior and Coco Chanel, lurking in the Edwardian halls. Claude Monet and James McNeill Whistler painted the Thames from its windows. Vivien Leigh first locked eyes with hubby-to-be, Laurence Olivier in the Grill restaurant, which invented melba toast for Dame Nellie when she was dieting and Peaches Melba for when she was not. Sarah Bernhardt whooped with delight as she rode in London’s first electric lift, nick-named “the ascending room.” Josephine Baker giggled uncontrollably at being connected from her suite to a waiter by a new- fangled speaking tube. During the Blitz Noel Coward played the piano and sang for over an hour to keep guests distracted and amused. The Kitchen Cabinet was given a quite literal meaning when Winston Churchill lunched here with his ministers during the war.

Then there was the celestial firmament of film stars who glittered in the American Bar – Katharine Hepburn, Errol Flynn, Sophia Loren, Marlon Brando, Al Johnson…. It was here that Queen Elizabeth was first seen in public with Prince Phillip. And Marilyn Monroe created a scene by the dress she was almost wearing. (It had a semi-transparent nylon midriff.) More scandalous was the fact that Oscar Wilde bedded his gay lover Bosie here when homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment.

But the best part of my residency, was that I got to see so much of my girlfriends. Gaggles of girls descended regularly for pyjama parties and pedicures, hot goss and cold champers – plus lots of room service (“I’d like a toy boy on a bed of lettuce please!”) Because that’s the true bliss of hotel living. Room service. Whenever we were peckish, we just wished upon a Michelin star. (George Harrison was so in love with the Savoy Treacle pudding that he actually wrote a song about it.) I just dialled my finger to the bone.

A writers life is the opposite of glamorous. Normally we feel about as valued as a giveaway shampoo sachet in a fashion magazine. But  living at the Savoy, a staff of 500 were at my beck and call.  Adonis-like Porters with shoulders so broad I could shelve all my reading right there, on them, from Jane Austen to Emile Zola, carted and carried for me. Maids delivered fresh flowers daily and fluffed things. Is it any wonder I was smiling as smugly as a canary filled cat?  

The inspirational Stephen Fry has now taken over my post as blogger in residence. So, Stephen, I do have a word of advice. When my tenure came to an end, I found it unbearably hard to go back to the maternal mundanities and domestic drudgeries of real life. If only there’d been a  decompression chamber to wean me off the high life. I was tempted to ring Amnesty and complain that it was Cruel and Unusual Punishment to expect a writer who’d been as pampered as a princess to go back to ironing, washing, hoovering and slaving over a hot can opener. So don’t go cold turkey as I did, but try to wean yourself off the high life, by, say, making your own bed occasionally and rationing yourself to only one bottle of bubbly a day… Because that’s the only trouble with being the Savoy’s writer in residence –  parting is such suite sorrow.