What Ended the Career of the World’s First Celebrity Female Bartender?
Ada Coleman’s retirement 90 years ago from The Savoy hotel’s American Bar might not have been voluntary.
The past has been exceedingly present during the recent cocktail renaissance—the elaborate mustaches, the classic cocktails, the nostalgic decor of speakeasy-ish bars. But in one important way, the craft-cocktail revival has blazed a new trail, marked by the rise of female bartenders in traditionally male-dominated establishments.
A century or so ago, prominent women behind the mahogany were rare. The few who survived and thrived stood out. Chief among them is Ada Coleman, inventor of the Hanky Panky cocktail and beloved bartender at one of London’s more storied bars—The American Bar at The Savoy hotel, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary.
Yet one mystery persists: Why did Coleman leave when she did? Some suspect that she was forced out—90 years ago this year—by Harry Craddock, acclaimed bartender and author of The Savoy Cocktail Book. Or was something else going on?
Let’s look at what we know.
Coleman was born in England around 1875, which would make her the same age as Craddock, although her exact birth date remains unknown. Her father had been a steward at a golf club owned by a successful musical theater producer-turned-hotelier named Rupert D’Oyly Carte; after her father’s death, Coleman was offered a job at the club. She proved talented, and was soon transferred to one of D’Oyly Carte’s other holdings, the posh Claridge’s hotel in London, in 1899, where she worked in the flower shop.
The wine merchant at Claridge’s took a shine to her, teaching her how to properly compound a drink and shake a shaker. When she moved behind the bar, she proved something of a drinks-crafting prodigy. It didn’t hurt that she also had a personality the customers adored. Management saw gold and soon transferred her to another of D’Oyly Carte’s high-profile properties, the newly renovated American Bar at The Savoy hotel.
Here, Coleman found her stage and spotlight. Charismatic and entertaining (musical theater was one of her passions), she made an impression on both everyday businessmen and the widely famous—the Prince of Wales, Charlie Chaplin, and Mark Twain were among her customers. Cocktail historian Ted Haigh has noted that “not only was Coley…a woman in the world of male bartenders, it was she who made the bar famous.”
Coleman worked at The Savoy’s American Bar for more than a quarter-century. When she finally retired, in 1926, five newspapers saw it as worth a mention. The Daily Express described her, with backhanded enthusiasm, as the country’s “most famous barmaid.”
Craddock was long thought to be American-born. But Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown, while researching their 2013 book, The Deans of Drink, discovered that he was actually born in Gloucestershire, England, in August 1875. At 22, he sailed for America and took up bartending in Cleveland, Chicago, and New York. He worked at the famous Hoffman House, Holland House, and Knickerbocker Hotel, among other venues. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1916, but his new country soon proved duplicitous, eliminating his livelihood in 1920, when Prohibition went into effect. (Craddock mixed the last legal drink in America—or so a placard next to his likeness at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum would later claim.) Craddock returned to England, where found he work at the service bar of The Savoy in the fall of 1921.
Any interactions he had with his higher-profile colleague Coleman are undocumented and unknown.
Changes, however, came to The Savoy in 1926. The hotel apparently shut down its bar for renovations in late 1925 and simultaneously announced Coleman’s retirement (along with that of another female bartender, Ruth Burgess). When it reopened, in early 1926, Craddock was touted as the new head barman and he prospered in fame. (Newspapers would report the dates when he would return to work after his annual holidays.)
In 1930, the hotel published The Savoy Cocktail Book, which Craddock had compiled and would grow into an icon for its swank deco design and sophisticated drink recipes. (It became an essential reference book for the modern cocktail revival 70 years later.) Craddock is also credited with inventing the once-popular White Lady Cocktail (gin, Cointreau, lemon juice) and for setting a lofty standard that other London hotel bars sought to achieve.
So what happened when the two giant halos of Coleman and Craddock overlapped? A couple of suppositions:
The Buddy Theory: “Coleman was a mentor to Harry Craddock, who worked under her for four years,” wrote Tenaya and André Darlington in The New Cocktail Hour, published this year.
This is essentially the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers theory: It’s nice to imagine the two mixing up drinks while engaged in lively banter as Coleman upped Craddock’s game.
Regrettably, there is no evidence to support this. Craddock may have toiled in the distant service bar the whole while; I’ve found no accounts of any interaction between the two. It may be telling that of all the drinks Craddock compiled in the Savoy cocktail guide, only one is credited to Coleman—the Hanky Panky (gin, vermouth, a hint of Fernet-Branca). Astaire would have been more gentlemanly.
The Craddock-Forced-Coleman-Out Theory: “It’s suggested Coleman was possibly forced out of the American Bar because Craddock was not super happy with a female head bartender,” wrote Emily Bell earlier this year on Vinepair. And it’s not far-fetched to imagine that Craddock, who was by most accounts quite pleased with his own talents, didn’t want competition when he was called up to the majors. Wholly plausible, but, again, without evidence.
A subset of this theory blames not Craddock, but a broader change that favored him. “American bars” in London thrived before Prohibition and were so named because they served American-style drinks, heavy on the ice. The Savoy’s golden era occurred during American Prohibition, and this theory posits that the bar was thus swamped with thirsty Yankees who were uncomfortable with female bartenders and preferred their drinks with a side of waxed mustache and white jacket.
“Americans—New Yorkers especially—felt it was inappropriate for women to work in bar rooms,” wrote Miller and Brown.
Others reached a similar conclusion: “Americans, unlike the British, found the notion of female bartenders troubling,” wrote British cocktail journalist Alice Lascelles in Ten Cocktails: The Art of Convivial Drinking. She suggested that Coleman was “deposed” and later “took a course of action rather more befitting a woman and retired to the hotel’s flower shop.” In short: Male privilege asserted itself.
Seeking to sort out what actually happened, I checked in with two London-based researchers who had Craddock and Coleman on their radar: Alex Werner, head of history collections at the Museum of London, and Susan Scott, archivist at The Savoy hotel.
Werner hadn’t turned up any solid evidence about the pair’s relationship, but he deemed plausible the Americans-are-coming theory—not so much that the Americans were demanding male bartenders, but that, from a marketing perspective, it made sense to put someone with an American accent and American experience behind the American Bar. “Maybe they were thinking about the large numbers of Americans who were coming to London and they needed a new angle,” he suggested. “There had been an old way of making cocktails, and perhaps [Craddock] brought something new.”
Scott agrees that the bar was seeking to reinvent itself at roughly that time, but not necessarily to appeal to Americans. “The idea of the change being made to accommodate Americans is definitely untrue,” she says. “The hotel had and still has a large American client base, but the American Bar was intended to appeal not only to visitors to London, but also and to some extent predominantly to the local clientele. No one, Americans included, had minded being served by a woman previously.”
The client base was changing in the post-World War I years, she added. “I do think the company wanted to make some changes to the bar to attract the bright young things of the mid-late 1920s.”
“Overall, I’d say, no, I don’t feel she was ‘pushed out,’” Scott said. Coleman would have been in her 50s at the time, and behind the bar for more than 25 years. That’s a lengthy run by any standard. “Perhaps she felt that now was the time to go, as the client base would have changed substantially after the first world war.”
After leaving the Savoy, Coleman may or may not have resurfaced in the flower shop at the hotel. (Brown and Miller cite a comment she made suggesting she had been happy there; Scott said, “I don’t know where the florists story has come from and I have found no evidence for that.”)
As for Craddock, he remained head barman at the Savoy until 1938, when he left to open the bar at the Dorchester Hotel. And Scott found evidence that Coleman later took a part-time job managing the girls in the ladies’ cloakroom at The Berkeley hotel, likely for pin money in her retirement.
Both Coleman and Craddock lived long lives and both died within three years of one each other, in the mid-’60s. They left behind several fine drinks, one outstanding bar guide, and some lingering questions.
But as for the nature of their relationship, “We probably will never know,” admits Werner.