The King’s Former Lover Shot Her Rich New Husband in World’s Most Famous Hotel
A Chanel dress covered in blood, love letters from a future king, and one dead Egyptian prince. It was enough to make or break the Savoy.
Parisian courtesan Marguerite Fahmy slept with a pistol under her pillow every night of her honeymoon at the Savoy. Her husband was twenty-three-year-old Prince Ali Kamel Fahmy, a playboy ten years her junior whom she had met through her work. They had started the extended trip in his native Egypt, where he had coerced her into posing for photographs in a pharaoh’s sarcophagus and kept her a virtual prisoner on his yacht, she later claimed. The marriage, characterized by violence and material excess, had been a disaster so far.
Nevertheless, Marguerite and Ali continued on to London, intending to stay for a month. With their luggage, staff and yapping dog, they took up residence on the fourth floor of the Savoy Court, the furnished apartments attached to the hotel. Richard D’Oyly Carte, the mastermind behind Gilbert and Sullivan, had built the hotel, theatre and the set of lanes around it from scratch, starting in the 1870’s. They were his lasting treasures, financed with his profits from The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. It was all now the domain of his younger son, Rupert D’Oyly Carte, and covered nearly an acre of central London. Rupert was charged with upholding his father’s grand ambition for the Savoy, that it be not only the finest hotel in London, but the world.
With this in mind, one of Rupert’s many innovations had been putting together the Savoy Havana Band as in-house musicians, mainly with his American guests’ taste in mind. Popularizing the Band’s jazz through nightly BBC broadcasts and record deals, he believed, with some pride, that there was no more famous band in all of Europe. They had been entertaining Marguerite and Ali in the hotel’s Louis Quatorze-style ballroom nightly during their stay. The couple also made regular use of the Restaurant, with its soothing view of the River Thames, and Hungarian quartet playing ‘melodies of melancholy sweetness’.
As with many younger guests, Marguerite and Ali also did the rounds of local nightclubs before bedtime. Around the hotspots of London they made a spectacle of themselves with their loud rows. At the Riviera Club on Grosvenor Road, patrons heard Ali shouting that he had a good mind to throw Marguerite in the river. A few days later, they were visiting Hampton Court Palace one afternoon, where the Savoy kept punts for guests, and exchanged blows next to their chauffeur- driven car before being separated by friends.
On 9 July, a hot and humid day, they had been out for another drive, then back for lunch at the Savoy, followed by shopping at Selfridges. For the theatre, Ali changed into full evening dress: a tailcoat, bow-tie, starched shirtfront and waistcoat. Marguerite chose a beaded white-satin cocktail dress, designed for her by Coco Chanel. In their finery, they went to Leicester Square to see the operetta The Merry Widow, which turned out to be an appropriate choice.
Relations became more strained than ever during the interval, when Marguerite insisted that she would return to the couple’s house in Paris alone the next day. Unable to persuade her to stay, Ali had telegrams sent to her favorite shops to pre-empt one of her sprees. They read: ‘Nothing to be delivered to my wife on my account during my absence. Fahmy.’
They were sent to Louis Vuitton on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Cartier on the Rue de la Paix and Van Cleef & Arples on the Place Vendôme
Back at the Savoy after The Merry Widow, the pair fought again. Marguerite brandished a wine bottle during their late supper in the Restaurant, threatening to smash it over his head. In bad humor, they made their way to the ballroom. Marguerite stayed until 1 a.m., at which point she left Ali to brood over whether their marriage was already finished.
He turned up at their suite of rooms at 2 a.m., where Marguerite was still in her satin dress, writing letters, and they had another fight. In distress, Ali came rushing out into the corridor in the white silk djellaba that he wore for bed and ran into the night porter, John Paul Beattie. ‘Look at my face,’ he pleaded, and pointed to marks on his cheek where Marguerite had hit him. Ali wanted to speak to the night manager, Arthur Marini. Beattie told the lift attendant to pass on the message, while he proceeded to attend to some newly arrived guests.
After walking a few paces down the corridor with the guests’ luggage, Beattie heard three shots over the storm that was in full force outside. He ran back to see that Marguerite had thrown her Browning semi-automatic down on the carpet. Next to the pistol was Ali, slumped on the Boor against the wall. Brain tissue and fragmented bone were protruding from his temple. Further wounds were found in his back and his neck. A pool of blood was spreading out around him.
Beattie held on to Marguerite with one hand, while calling the telephonist for the hotel doctor and an ambulance with the other. Marini came up from the night service office and instructed Beattie to fetch the police. The Savoy’s managing director, George Reeves-Smith, who had held the position since 1900, would be informed at a more civilized hour. He was known for being elegant and handsome and resolutely unflappable. He lived ten minutes’ drive away in a penthouse suite at Claridge’s, the Savoy’s smaller sister hotel in Mayfair. Rupert lived nearby in a townhouse on Derby Street, just behind Park Lane.
Ali meanwhile was taken to the Charing Cross Hospital, just down the road from the Savoy, by Trafalgar Square. He was already unconscious and would die at 3:25 a.m. In the meantime, Beattie set to work scrubbing the corridor walls and the carpet. His overzealous cleaning destroyed forensic material that the prosecution would later want for the trial.
Rupert and Reeves-Smith, the top of the Savoy hierarchy, would be informed of the crime at their usual daily meeting at 10:05 a.m. Like Reeves-Smith, Rupert himself had decades of experience by now. He had worked at his father’s hotel since 1893, when he had started as his father’s assistant, aged seventeen. Richard D’Oyly Carte had taught his son all that he knew about running his hotel and the adjoining Savoy Theatre, and Rupert paid close attention. By now, aged forty-seven, he had seen plenty of overdoses, affairs and scandals among his guests. Deaths were discreetly dealt with and bodies removed surreptitiously—but a murder was a first.
By lunchtime, Rupert’s clockwork routine was over. Many second-edition newspapers carried the murder in their STOP PRESS column. His hotel and its infamous guests were splashed around London on billboards for the Evening Standard, Evening News, Star and Pall Mall Gazette, and journalists were jostling outside in search of more details. Marguerite was not just a source of horror and embarrassment for the Savoy, however. When the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, had been a seventeen-year-old in Paris, he had met Marguerite at the Hôtel de Crillon and she had become his wartime lover. The Palace sprang into action to avoid the calamity of their association becoming public, and the judge agreed that her previous relationships would not be discussed at the trial, which was vital for the prince. ‘His name is to be kept out’, the relieved foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, wrote to his wife. Ill-advisedly, the prince had committed his feelings for Marguerite to paper, which created an extra headache. After some horse trading, a then-junior member of the Foreign Office, Archie Clark Kerr, retrieved the cache of incriminating letters.
The prince postponed a planned tour of British cities and abruptly left for Canada.
As Marguerite’s trial at the Old Bailey unfolded, what the coroner referred to as ‘a sordid, unsavory and unpleasant story’ of married life was relayed to an intrigued public.4 Marguerite’s barrister, Edward Marshall Hall, seemed to be borrowing heavily from Othello for his characterizations of the couple. He described Ali as ‘a monster of Eastern depravity and decadence, whose sexual tastes were indicative of an amoral sadism’ and Marguerite as a ‘helpless European wife’, driven to despair by the lasciviousness of her North African brute of a husband.5 Marguerite made but one grave mistake in life, Marshall Hall argued, and that was being ‘a woman of the West’ married to ‘an Oriental’.
Rupert feared that the case’s lurid descriptions would put off respectable guests. He should, however, have adopted the attitude of Savoy regular Oscar Wilde: the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about. Money could not have bought publicity on this scale. To add to the perverse glamour of the case, Marguerite turned up to court glinting with jewelry: pearl earrings, a pearl necklace, her marquise- diamond engagement ring, another, even heftier emerald ring, and a three-tier diamond-and-sapphire bracelet. The risqué details of the murder and of the life of Marguerite Fahmy did no harm to the Savoy – quite the opposite. The flurry of attention, with the photographs and newspapers’ breathless insights into the high life, gave the hotel an even greater magnetism. Coco Chanel, designer of Marguerite’s now infamous bloodied white dress, would start coming to stay herself the following year.
As for Marguerite, sensationally, she was acquitted. She spent the rest of her days in legal wrangles with her murdered husband’s family, who, unsurprisingly, did not agree with the British court’s verdict. She lived well into old age on the Place Vendôme, opposite The Ritz in Paris. When she died, it turned out that, calculating character that she was, she had kept back a few letters from the Prince of Wales – just in case.
Excerpted with permission from The Secret Life of the Savoy by Olivia Williams. Courtesy Pegasus Books.