An evening with the one and only Omar Sharif
Our Mayfair Insider series showcases Anna Nicholas, Freelance Author and Journalist, and her unforgettable experience meeting Omar Sharif at The Athenaeum
2nd June 2016
Celebrities are often portrayed as a fickle bunch, as restless as a murmuration of starlings, as voracious as a swarm of locusts. A-listers, in this cliché, tend to alight on a new restaurant/bar/hotel/resort/island and propel it into the limelight by their very presence. But, by the time we mere mortals pitch up, the beautiful people have moved on to the next hot spot, leaving the tardy wondering where all the famous faces have gone.
Well, there might be some truth in that scenario for a certain magpie (and fly-by-night) type of celebrity, always drawn to the next shiny thing. But it is also true that some destinations, by a mixture of circumstance, luck and, ultimately, consistently delivering the goods, achieve longevity and become permanent fixtures in the little black books of more discerning celebs. One such is The Athenaeum hotel, which, for more than five decades, has welcomed the great, the good, the gregarious and the publicity-shy through its doors.
It was in the early 1970s that circumstances conspired to bring the first major wave of household names to 116 Piccadilly. The Rank Organisation was diversifying its portfolio beyond entertainment and into photocopiers and property, and among the latter was The Athenaeum (or the Athenaeum Court, as it was previously known). It made sense, the new owners realised, to use this acquisition to house visiting actors and directors working at Pinewood or Ealing Studios, rather than pay good money to rivals such as Claridge’s or The Savoy. It helped that the hotel had (as it does to this day) self-contained apartments at the rear of the property, which not only offered a more homely feel, but also a welcome sense of privacy.
Sally had a star quality about her that I leapt at… and she had a fab voice, very theatrical, like warm treacle.
So it was that the staff grew used to seeing Marlon Brando, Cary Grant, 007 producer Cubby Broccoli, Sean Connery, various Bond girls, Peter Finch, Joan Collins, Robert Mitchum, Elizabeth Taylor and many others. But luck was about to take the star count up to Milky Way proportions when, in 1976, Sally Bulloch walked in looking for a job.
On paper, Sally had no qualifications for a position in such a hotel. She had enjoyed a chaotic, bohemian upbringing, been a child actor (notably on The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s), a nanny to Peter Cook’s children, a radio presenter in Malta, and even (briefly) a Butlin’s Redcoat. And here she was asking for a job in swanky Mayfair. But fate decided that she would be interviewed by a suave, elegant duty manager called Gordon Campbell Gray (who went on to be a successful hotelier in his own right). It should have been a case of chalk and cheese and ‘we’ll let you know’, and while Campbell Gray might have the manners and charm of an old-school Brit, he has a taste for taking a chance on unconventional people. ‘I like individuality,’ he told Lynda Berry, author of Say Hello to Sally For Me.
He also explained: ‘Sally had a star quality about her that I leapt at… and she had a fab voice, very theatrical, like warm treacle.’ She got the job, although what the job title would be mutated over the years, settling eventually on Executive Manager, but in truth it was impossible to define what she did – yes, stints in PR, sales and as ‘front of house’, but she was also a shoulder to cry on, chief party-thrower, crisis manager, confidant, companion, fixer – or, as one friend put it, ‘a kind, big-hearted hedonist’. For many people, the effervescent Sally Bulloch simply was the Athenaeum made flesh.
Legend has it that, as she left the job interview, the canny Campbell Gray asked her if any of what she had told him was true. ‘Yes,’ she said with a soon-to-be-famous twinkle in her eye: ‘My name.’
Campbell Gray’s instincts were spot on – Sally had found her true vocation. It helped that she had been an actress, and saw the hotel as a stage for a we-never-close performance, and it was certainly no hindrance that, as the nanny at Peter Cook’s house, she had met and chatted to the likes of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, the Pythons, Trevor Nunn and all the ‘faces’ of the satirical Sixties. Celebrities did not phase her. And it did no harm that her half-brother Robert Watts was a movie producer (he would help steer Star Wars and the first three Indiana Jones films) or that brother Jeremy would find cult fame as the helmeted bounty hunter Boba Fett in Star Wars.
But good contacts only bring to mind the old ‘you can lead a horse to water’ adage. Once they were through the door, it was Sally’s un-British can-do attitude (‘The answer is always yes’ was one of her aphorisms), the sheer hurricane force of her personality and her fallback position that every situation is improved by a glass of champagne that melted the hearts of the most world-weary or fussy guests. Hotel clients not only fell in love with her, they told their friends about her and the hotel (hence the title of Lynda Berry’s book). Michael Douglas once commented: ‘Knowing Sally Bulloch is like getting your raincoat caught in a fast-departing roller-coaster.’ And long-term fan Richard Dreyfuss remarked: ‘There wasn’t a guy who would not have taken a bullet for that girl. She was such a delightful talent, so bright, a great hostess. I never had a better friend, ever.’
Knowing Sally Bulloch is like getting your raincoat caught in a fast-departing roller-coaster.
Tales of her late-night sessions in the Whiskey Bar are legendary, and the cast of characters head-spinning – it might include Steven Spielberg (who edited Close Encounters, E.T. and Raiders on an edit suite in his Athenaeum apartment), Albert Finney, Larry Hagman, Linda Gray, Dionne Warwick, Warren Beatty, Michelle Pfeiffer, Stacy Keach, Russell Crowe (whom she once shamed into tidying his room), Harrison Ford and Sandra Bullock. Industry veteran George Christy of The Hollywood Reporter christened The Athenaeum ‘Tinseltown on the Thames’. Even when Rank sold the hotel and it became family-owned in the early 1990s, the glamour quotient didn’t dip. It was like a nonstop party that nobody wanted to end. Except all things must pass.
After a few showbiz-like false exits and returns, Sally eventually left The Athenaeum and settled in South Africa. She died there in 2008, aged just 59. She was mourned worldwide, not least by The Athenaeum and its famous guests.
There is an old but still very influential (ask Anthony Horowitz) BBC play by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale called The Stone Tape. In it, a cottage remembers and replays the often-gruesome events that took place within its walls in the distant past. Well, The Athenaeum is a positive, not-so-distant version of that, for sometimes it seems that the Whiskey Bar is echoing to the sound of Sally’s distinctive and infectious laugh and the chink of her champagne glass as she tells another of her outrageous stories. And her ‘the answer is always yes’ spirit remains firmly in place at the hotel, which is just one of the reasons that a new generation of guests, from Christian Bale to Harry Styles, Samuel L Jackson to Alex James, Natalie Portman to Kim and Kanye, choose to stay at Sally’s beloved Athenaeum. The party goes on, just as she would have wanted.