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An Interview with Hotelier Jimmy Beaumont

  • The Beaumont, The Cub Room - An Interview with Hotelier Jimmy Beaumont - The Gourmand
    The Beaumont, The Cub Room
  • The Beaumont, Exterior - An Interview with Hotelier Jimmy Beaumont - The Gourmand
    The Beaumont, Exterior

An Interview with Hotelier Jimmy Beaumont

  • Here we publish an archive interview with Jimmy Beaumont, proprietor of The Beaumont Hotel, Mayfair. Now in the care of esteemed restauranteurs Corbin & King, The Beaumont has been restored to reflect its glory days, and the memories made up to Jimmy’s retirement in 1950. 
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  • In our interview Jimmy reflects on New York life during Prohibition and his friendships with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as giving enduring recommendations on how to wile away an evening in London. 
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  • You were general manager at New York’s Lexington hotel during prohibition, it must have been a drastic change in atmosphere, at the hotel and in the city as a whole—could you elaborate on the experience? And how did you come to arrive in London? 
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  • I grew up in Michigan and went to Yale before arriving in New York in 1910 to pursue my career in hotels—working at, amongst others, The Knickerbocker and Algonquin before going to Europe during the war. 
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  • Finding myself seconded to the American Embassy in North Mayfair at the end of hostilities, I grew to love London—but not so much its restaurants! After a year I returned to New York and my life in hotels, becoming general manager of The Lexington in 1923. The problem was that in the interim America had seen the introduction of Prohibition, in January 1920, and the whole face of hospitality changed. Unable to serve drinks, hotels became somewhat deserted and the only people enjoying any success were of course the Speakeasies. 
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  • Coupled with the incipient violence in the city I realised that my time as a hotelier was over, and while lamenting my pending change of career to two of my best clients they urged me not to quit hotels, just New York. “Go somewhere else in the world” they exhorted and when I explained that London had always been attractive since my time there in 1918-19 they offered to ‘bank-roll’ me in opening a medium sized hotel in the American tradition. Hence, The Beaumont was conceived and born in 1924-26. 
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  • When you opened The Beaumont, legend has it that Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Ed Murrow were all guests—had you known them from your days at The Lexington? I’ve also heard that Hemingway gifted a first edition of The Sun Also Rises, you must have been close.
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  • It was not until the 1930s that I reacquainted myself with Fitzgerald who had been a mainstay at both The Algonquin and The Knickerbocker (where he famously went on the rampage with his Princeton buddies not long after I returned from England). He spent quite some time in London en-route to Paris and the Cote d’Azure and I got to know him well. 
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  • Hemingway was also around at that time in New York, but was yet to meet Fitzgerald. Although the story that he dedicated ‘The Sun also Rises’ to me is apocryphal, he did always promise me he would do so, because one night at Chumley’s I had given him some introductions before his trip to Europe and most particularly to his future wife Hadley Richardson.
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  • Murrow I didn’t meet until 1937 when he arrived in London for CBS by which time ‘Jimmy’s Bar’ at The Beaumont had established itself as the most popular officer class US ex-pat hang-out. The advent of Averell Harriman and Ambassador John ‘Gil’ Winant meant that The Beaumont became a crucial catalyst for the efforts of the three of them to persuade President Roosevelt to enter the war.
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  • The decor at the hotel has been maintained beautifully, the Art Deco furniture makes for a beautiful collection, are you proud that it has continued as such a focal element? 
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  • I took a lot of pride in choosing every element of the hotel and the furniture featured the styles and look of 20’s & 30’s transatlantic design. Of course, as time went on I grew to love England more and more and that is reflected in the changing styles of the décor – albeit predominately Art Deco.
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  • You also have an enviable array of pre-war paintings—and the studio portraits, are they from grateful friends gone by? 
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  • There are some 1700 paintings in the hotel, all representing friends & guests during my tenure. As is often the case with a hotelier or restaurateur I was fortunate enough to know many prominent people who all seemed only too happy to be represented on the walls of Jimmy’s Bar, in photos or the restaurant itself in caricature. You will find many there from my days in New York with some Algonquin ‘round-table’ regulars joined by significant individuals from my life on both sides of the Atlantic.
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  • I assume you have seen me, my wife and daughter in the paintings on the way to the lift—I am afraid I have rather gained weight and lost hair since the double portraits you can see at the end of the room on the cocktail cabinet of us as childhood sweethearts. One thing you might notice is that there are a great number of paintings of Phylis Bray in the suites and corridors (17 in all)—she was a bright young painter from the East London Group painting in the 1930s.
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  • Would you share some anecdotes from the early years? It’s been rumored that you were hosting the CIA through the Cold War, we’d love to hear about that but I’d say that we’re really interested in the stars of literature and the silver screen... 
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  • It wasn’t so much that I hosted the CIA, but they have been stationed in Admiralty House across the road in Providence Court.
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  • It is true that my first loves were theatre, movies and literature and hence the preponderance of photos of their great figures from the era. I did get a bit of grief from Sherman Billingsley when he realized I had purloined his name ‘The Cub Room’—but when he saw that I had positioned a caricature of him in the most prominent corner of The Colony, as he would wish, he quickly forgave me! As did Alfred Hartmann forgive me for naming the restaurant after his own, The Colony but although I promised him a caricature too—I reneged as I liked his restaurant, but not him!
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  • It is somewhat against my nature to tell anecdotes as I had to always be so discreet—just thinking of the liaisons that took place makes my eyes water. I had never mentioned this before, but I gather it is now more generally known that Averell Harriman and Gil Winant were conducting sensitive affairs, directly involving Winston Churchill: the former with his daughter-in-law Pamela and the latter with his daughter Sarah. The War changed the morals and behaviours of a generation—maybe I should write a book…
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  • The Colony Grill Room has some fine depictions of American sporting venues; wooden boats racing from Lake Tahoe, downhill skiing from Sun Valley and greyhound racing from Scottsdale—even since your move across the pond, are you still drawn to the habits and traditions of the US? Particularly their porterhouse steaks? 
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  • Those murals all depict the legendary early 20th Century sporting venues of America that I was of course wistful for when I moved over here – so I was keen to surround myself with them. If you look around the building you will see that I was a keen sportsman (particularly the photos in the Gentlemen’s Rest-room of me at Yale etc—much to my Harvard friends chagrin!). This hotel will always be rooted in tradition.
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  • The Colony Grill Room takes its influence from both sides of the Atlantic in the mode of the time – if you look at the menus of The Savoy Grill of the period you would be struck by the similarities.
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  • Of all the suites, which is the one you’d reserve for the top guest. Say, the president or perhaps your mother? 
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  • Well of course the President would need to stay in the Roosevelt Suite but I am particularly fond of the Studio Suites where I think my somewhat abstemious mother would be more than happy – and proud!
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  • Finally, how would you recommend we spend a summer evening in London?
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  • I would fortify yourself with a martini at one of the hotel bars and then ask the concierge to give you a guide to all the Blue Plaques on buildings which chronicle Mayfair’s history, which can be followed until you found yourself at Dukes Hotel. There you could finish with, and compare, one of their martinis, and then perhaps over to The Wolseley for dinner—built in the same era and a particular favourite of mine!