Born: Rosa Ovenden
Sector: Travel and Leisure
If you were a TV viewer in the 1970s you might well have come across Rosa Lewis, the chef and hotelier who ran The Cavendish Hotel on Jermyn Street for fifty years. Her life inspired a popular BBC drama, ‘The Duchess of Duke Street’, which started in 1976 and ran for two series. This was not her only fictional representation: to her immense displeasure she was the model for the character of Lottie Crump in Evelyn Waugh’s book ‘Vile Bodies’. She has been the subject of three full-length biographies, her portrait is in the National Portrait Gallery collection and on the site of her hotel there is a plaque in her honour. Now her name recognition would probably be extremely low but once she was a figure of great fascination. Why?
First, Rosa was a ‘working-girl-done-good’, always a popular story. She left school aged 12 and became a woman of wealth and fame, a favourite of Kings, Queens and Kaisers. Second, she had a large circle of influence. From her hotel she dished up a warm welcome and chilled champagne to three generations of guests. She saw them through Edwardian excesses, First World War tragedies, interwar intrigues and the Blitz, a point of stability in a rapidly changing world.
Finally, despite her high profile, Rosa retained an air of mystery. Was King Edward VII a lover? How did she get the money for the hotel? What happened to Mr Lewis? On these points and more, Rosa generally stayed schtum. She gave a long interview to an American journalist in 1925 but when it was published in the US she threatened to sue for libel. Later in her life she had cagey conversations with British journalists but by then her memory was less reliable. Over time fact, rumour and fiction have intertwined and so all I can say is that most of what follows is true…
Rosa Ovenden was born in Leyton, east of the Hackney Marshes, on 26th September 1867. Her father was a watchmaker and later an undertaker; her mother, Eliza, came from a family of jewellers. She was the fifth of nine children, all of whom survived until adulthood, suggesting that there was enough money to keep everyone properly housed and fed.
Rosa played her part in generating family income. At the age of 12 she left school to take a live-in job as a general servant for a local family. She worked long days, up at 5.30am, in bed by 10pm if she was lucky. She had no time to herself during her waking hours but at night she dreamt big. When she was 16 she resigned and with good references and a bit of help (from whom it is not entirely clear) secured a job in the household of the exiled French royal family, many of whom were living in and around Richmond. Immersed in the world of French cuisine, she started to learn to cook. She was clearly both naturally talented as well as driven because in 1886, when she was still only 19, she was appointed to run the kitchen of Prince Philip, Duc d’Orléans, son of the Pretender to the French throne.
At some point in the late 1880s, Rosa met Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. He was a frequent dinner guest at Sheen House in Mortlake, where she was working, and a regular at other parties where she did the catering. There are a few different versions of their first encounter but whatever the truth he quickly took a shine to this sparky young woman with her elegant figure and Cockney accent who could rustle up delicious meals in the French style that he loved.
Edward was in his mid-40s, married with five children, and still pursuing a playboy lifestyle. Surrounded by a wealthy coterie, the Marlborough House set, he partied through the summer season at the races and Cowes or spent long weekends in country houses getting up to whatever he wanted. Rosa was soon in demand from society’s top hostesses who knew that her food would keep their most important guest happy.
At the end of 1887, Rosa decided it was time for another move. Armed with more glowing references she secured a job with Lady Randolph Churchill, renowned for hosting large, elaborate dinners in her lavish Mayfair home. It was here that Rosa encountered a young Winston Churchill, who could often be found hanging out in the kitchens. Did she really once chase him out of there brandishing a ladle? Or call him ‘carrot top’ for the rest of of his life? Her stint there certainly provided more fodder for the Lewis legend.
Within a year or so, spurred on by her success, she risked going freelance. It was a smart move, giving her experience of managing a wide range of large complex kitchens, broadening her repertoire and building her reputation.
A marriage of convenience?
In June 1893, Rosa married Excelsior Lewis. He was a butler to Sir Andrew Clarke, a famed soldier and colonial governor with connections to the Royal Household. The ceremony was very small. They moved into 55 Eaton Terrace together with Excelsior’s sister, Mary, living in the bottom half and letting out the top floors. The marriage was not particularly satisfactory and by 1903 Excelsior had exited stage left. Rosa later tried to distance herself from the relationship, claiming that she and her new husband quarrelled on leaving the church and the marriage was over before it even started.
These few facts have left plenty of space for rumour and conjecture: Rosa was identified by Palace fixers as a good candidate to run a discreet establishment where the Prince of Wales and others could meet their mistresses without fear of scandal; they paid for the house; they arranged her marriage to add another layer of respectability. Or: Excelsior earned the money to lease the house; he was a family friend; there was nothing special about the guests who paid for the rooms.
Whatever was really going on at Eaton Terrace, during her first decade as Mrs Lewis, Rosa built an incredibly successful, large-scale catering business. She made a 5am start in the markets buying the freshest produce, then spent the day with her team doing as much advance preparation as possible. In the late afternoon they loaded the food into hampers and travelled to the dinner venue, taking over the kitchen to create the multi-course menus on site. These events were not all in private homes: on occasions she set up large marquees or took over empty houses that she furnished and decorated for the night. In 1899 Rosa spent a short period running the kitchen at White’s, the oldest gentlemen’s club in London (and one of the few that still does not accept women as members) but she soon returned to freelancing.
She made some important relationships during this period. Auguste Escoffier was working at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and they developed deep professional respect for one another: he called her ‘The Queen of Cooks’; she said he taught her more than anyone else about cooking and kept a photograph of him in her parlour. William Waldorf Astor and Thomas Lister, Lord Ribblesdale, both wealthy and well-connected, became patrons. Later in his life, Ribblesdale made The Cavendish his London home.
Some of the men in Rosa’s life: Auguste Escoffier; William Waldorf, 1st Viscount Astor; Lord Ribblesdale (painting by John Singer Sargent, 1902, National Gallery)
The Cavendish Hotel
In 1902 Rosa made the move that would see her immortalised in fact and fiction: she bought the lease of The Cavendish Hotel. Sitting on the corner of Duke Street and Jermyn Street it was a short walk from St James’s Palace and Green Park. Perhaps she used her own money or arranged a private loan from one of her patrons. Gossips preferred the version where the new King gave her the money. It was already a well-established hotel, designed for privacy. Each apartment had its own dining room. The King had a suite permanently available to him and a dedicated space in the hotel cellar for his private wine collection. The coronation in August 1902 was an excuse for back-to-back parties and Rosa catered nearly thirty balls in the space of six weeks. Within a year she had been able to expand the site, taking leases on surrounding houses and eventually creating a private courtyard and garden.
By now Excelsior was no longer in the picture, perhaps dead (Rosa recorded her status on the 1911 census as ‘widow’), perhaps just starting over somewhere else.
As well as managing the hotel, Rosa continued to run her flourishing catering business. In June 1907 the King and Queen were attended a lunch for ninety guests in Bangor, North Wales. Rosa prepared all the food in London and transported it up to Wales by train, everything arriving in perfect condition. That winter the Kaiser made a three-week trip to Britain, staying at Highcliffe Castle. Rosa made it into the papers as ‘the famous woman chef’ who was in charge of the kitchen and responsible for ensuring that the Kaiser’s demands for ‘almost military punctuality at every meal’ were met. It was probably after this that the Kaiser gave Rosa a signed photograph which, when war broke out, she hung upside down in a loo.
Often the dinners Rosa catered were ‘just’ six or seven courses, but for grand occasions, like the Royal banquet in honour of the French President on 25th May 1908, there was a nine-course meal with two or three dishes in each course. In February 1909 she was in the news again when she organised a banquet at the Foreign Office and she was photographed for full-page newspaper spreads. Speculation circulated about her earnings, said to ‘rival those of the foremost men chefs in the country’. Her recipes featured in newspaper columns. Even her terriers became famous.
The death of King Edward VII in 1910 marked the end to Rosa’s remarkable 25-year ascent. She marched guests and servants down to the hotel wine cellar and unlocked the door to a small inner storage room where everyone paid homage to the King and his priceless collection of eighty-year old brandy, vintage champagne and Grand Cru Bordeaux. The Cavendish remained popular with London society but it never again attracted royal patronage.
The Great War
When war broke out the feel of the Cavendish changed as Rosa threw open her doors to soldiers, sailors and airmen, British and American. She had watched the children of her long-standing clients grow up, made their christening cakes and catered their weddings. Now she saw their deaths announced in the papers. Men and women who had partied through the late 1890s and early 1900s were now parents pole-axed with grief. Lord Ribblesdale was just one of the millions left grief-stricken. In April 1913, Rosa had made the cake for the wedding of his youngest daughter, Diana. By 14th September 1914 she was a widow. His elder son had been killed in the Boer War; the Great Wart took his younger son.
Rosa used her many contacts to secure food, wine and cigarettes to indulge her ‘boys’ during periods of leave and send them back to the front well-stocked. The future Prime Minister Anthony Eden was just one of the many who later remembered her kindness and generosity. The hotel was busy and she had little help. She finished the war emotionally exhausted and financially stretched.
It must have been a huge relief when she found an assistant. Edith Jeffery joined the team at the Cavendish in around 1919. She was a dressmaker who answered an advert to repair the hotel’s war-torn fabrics. Rosa soon realised that here she had someone who could relieve her of much of the day-to-day administration and manage the books. They became life-long colleagues and friends and slowly Rosa got her groove back.
Like Rosa, The Cavendish could have fallen into a slump after the War, passé, too strongly associated with a previous generation. Instead, it was during the inter-war period that it cemented its legendary status. Although the hotel showed the effects of the war with abandoned belongings, uncollected mail and photographs of men now forever young, the Bright Young Things embraced it. Its raffish feel had a different kind of novelty value from the new nightclubs and it was a convenient stopping-off point between the new Soho nightclubs and their Mayfair mansions. For some, thought, it offered much-needed continuity. Half a mile away, another woman just a few years younger than Rosa was also popular with the BYTs but while Kate Meyrick was in and out of jail during the 1920s, Rosa seemed to have earned a degree of legal immunity: her first fine for selling alcohol outside permitted hours was in 1939.
Guests found Rosa holding court in her sitting room surrounded by photographs of the famous, the not so famous and the simply notorious. One guest later remembered her as living ‘entirely on champagne and sandwiches’, the champagne often appearing on the bill of whoever Rosa felt could most afford it. She was embraced by a new generation. Rex Whistler sketched her in the visitors book. She was painted by Alvaro Guevara and graced the walls of the Royal Academy. She turned up at society weddings and parties.
This new lease of life translated into business expansion. The Cavendish started offering new services: guests could be driven to dinner, the theatre and back to the hotel in a Rolls or avail themselves of the brand-new in-house laundry, their washing returned within 24 hours. Rosa expanded outside London. She bought ‘The Homestead’ in the Sussex village of Jevington, close to Eastbourne. Set in nearly eight acres the house had seven bedrooms, three reception rooms, a tennis court and a croquet lawn and was popular with some of the Cavendish regulars. She staked a firmer claim to her role as the go-to society hotelier with the purchase of ‘Castle Rock’ in Cowes, right next to the Royal Yacht Squadron. Its grandees were not best thrilled with their new, slightly disreputable, neighbour, particularly when she installed a roulette wheel.
War on Waugh
In 1930, Evelyn Waugh published ‘Vile Bodies’. It was immediately obvious where he had found the inspiration for ‘Shepheard’s Hotel’ on Dover Street, crammed with furniture ‘some of it rare, some of it hideous beyond description’, staffed with doddery servants, where ‘all you are likely to find in your room..is an empty champagne bottle or two and a crumpled camisole’. Overseeing this throwback to the Edwardian era was proprietress Lottie Crump ‘attended invariably by two Cairn terriers’, sitting in her parlour surrounded by memories of the past, dropping the names she could remember and knocking back champagne.
Rosa was hurt and furious. She might have fictionalised parts of her story herself over the years but she was proud of what she had achieved. Invited once to give a talk to girls in the East End of London, she dressed up in a mink coat, an expensive hat and large diamond ear-rings. ‘You may wonder why I am all dressed up to talk to these young girls’ she is quoted as saying, ‘but I am going to tell them that I started life scrubbing floors at 2s 6d a week and if I was in a shabby old dress they would say to themselves “Yes, and a fat lot of good it’s done to the old girl!” But when they see my fur coat and hat I hope they will realize that honest hard work does seem to pay.’
Years later in a letter to one of Rosa’s biographers, Waugh said that ‘I put all I knew about her into that sketch. I was never allowed back.’
The Blitz and beyond
Through this dazzling crowd Rosa see the London she knew disappearing as the grand houses in which she had cooked at the start of the century were pulled down around her. The outbreak of World War II brought more change, with a huge influx of forces personnel, and more pain as another generation of her extended Cavendish family endured the grief and pain of war. Once again Rosa’s way of dealing with it was to crack open a bottle of champagne and waive the bills of those she thought needed it.
This time, though, the bombing raids brought direct risk to the building into which she had poured her time, energy and money. In May 1941, The Cavendish took a direct hit. A guest was killed, the top story was destroyed and the ceiling fell in on Rosa’s memory-chocked parlour. The hotel did eventually re-open and limped on in the post-war years, still dear to a dwindling local crowd but less appealing to guests more interested in cleanliness, reliable hot running water and an en-suite bathroom.
Rosa died on 28th November 1952. She was remembered in The Times as ‘a welcoming gracious survivor from another age’, a woman who for many evoked ‘memories of a society which two wars have done much to destroy’. Her funeral, held in St James’s, the Wren-designed church that still stands between Jermyn Street and Piccadilly, was packed. Edith Jeffery took over the management of the hotel and ran it for another ten years. It was her retirement in 1962that finally forced The Cavendish to close its doors. When she died in 1970, she was buried with Rosa.
Brian Franks, the manager of the Hyde Park Hotel, bought The Cavendish with the aim of re-building it. Even though he hadn’t set foot in it for more than three decades, his friend, Evelyn Waugh, knew what Rosa had created and wrote to him suggesting that he retain Rosa’s sitting room as a champagne parlour:
‘The value of your property is 4/5 the prestige (?) Rosa gave it. You should attract English customers of the right (?) sort – i.e. old Rosa types. They will draw in the Yanks more than any new-fangled shower-baths etc… If they come to Cavendish, it will be for unique atmosphere, associations etc.’
In the end, these plans came to nothing: the hotel was demolished and the namesake that stands on the site now bears no trace of its predecessor beyond the green plaque on an exterior wall.
The demise of The Cavendish sparked a resurgence of interest in Rosa which lasted until the 1970s, with three biographies in the space of 15 years, the BBC TV series and even plans for a large-scale musical based on her life. Then she faded away once again. The ongoing fascination with the inter-war years means that if Rosa makes an appearance now, it is usually in the context of this period, a quickly-sketched caricature of a woman living off unexplained past glories. The Edwardian era attracts less attention but this is where Rosa had her finest hours, months and years. In the context of those rigid societal norms, her achievements are truly impressive.
Leeds Mercury 12/12/1907; Daily Mirror 16/2/1909; London Evening News 10/5/1911; Daily News 22/4/1914; Daily Telegraph 4/3/1939; The Tatler 13/3/1946; The Times 1/12/1952; 4/12/1952; Irish Independent 19/7/2008;
The Letters of Evelyn Waugh ed. Mark Amory (1980)
‘Rosa’ by Michael Harrison (1962); ‘The Duchess of Jermyn Street’ by Daphne Fielding (1964); ‘Rosa Lewis: An Exceptional Edwardian’ by Anthony Masters (1977); ‘The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and his friends’ by Humphrey Carpenter (1989); ‘Escoffier: The King of Chefs’ by Kenneth Jones (2002)