February half-term in London: the best things to do
Get stuck into London’s many special half-term events with the whole family this 16 to 23 February 2019.
19th June 2017
Lesley-Ann Jones, Author
We who lushed it all over Mayfair during the Eighties and Nineties on vitriol and vitamins, blitzed to the nines; who blagged our way around the world on unthinkable expenses, upstaging our rivals, endangering our integrity, shaping attention-grabbing pull-quotes, narrowly escaping arrest and risking our very lives for the sake of a splash tabloid headline; who made our names during Fleet Street’s perilous heyday and who somehow lived to tell the tale, are no strangers to the Athenaeum Hotel.
It was a staffer on the Hollywood Reporter who famously remarked that the movie-star headcount at the Athenaeum exceeded that of the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills. For this was nothing if not the discreet haven of motion picture mavens, the preferred London home-away-from-home of Lauren Bacall, Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor – all of whom I interviewed in the glory days. As one of the first luxury hotels to cater to the specific needs of lady guests in transit, it was no wonder the grandest dames of Hollywood chose to sojourn here.
Guests are what gives a hotel its personality. Glamorous, elegant and distinguished, the waft of the cine-sirens whispered volumes about the Athenaeum’s chic and desirability. All that was missing from the mix, perhaps, was a dash of danger, a soupçon of larger-than-life. Enter the dragons. Thus did rock superstars, burning with boredom and on the prowl for fresh meat, roll up with battered guitar cases to see what all the fuss was about. And thus did The Athenaeum enter yet another phase in its irresistible history, as London’s premier celebrity auberge.
Would that I could count the number of exclusive interviews, press conferences, elaborate junkets, star-crammed launch parties and photo shoots I attended within these walls during my tenure as columnist on such titles as the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, the News of the World and the Sunday Express. Here was where I took afternoon tea with rock goddess Stevie Nicks, whom I had interviewed only a fortnight earlier at her home in the Hollywood Hills; who presented me, not with an embellished shawl nor a beribboned tambourine, but with a fetching self-portrait she had daubed for me on the flight over, setting up her easel, brushes and paints right there in First Class.
Here was where an encounter with a pungent frontman led to a panic-stricken kiss-chase all over the hotel, the ardent lad having failed to process that No, in raw Anglo Saxon, tends to mean No. Reader, I shook him off, and lived to glug another bottle of Krug. Here, too, was where a couple of we more reckless hacks, got up as London Zoo keepers, secreted ourselves with Michael Jackson that unforgettable afternoon when the world’s press camped en masse outside the Dorchester, desperate to snap the King of Pop with Bubbles the chimp.
Hard-boiled rock hell-raisers and five-star hotels are a famously lethal combination. Back then, spoilt degenerates tended to treat hotels as their own personal crack-dens, bordellos and skidpans. Wig-raising were the tales, from an inebriated Keith Richards tipping a television off his balcony to John Bonham riding a motorbike through the lobby of the Continental Hyatt House (some claim it was the Chateau Marmont). From Keith Moon ‘the Loon’ dropping cherry bombs into the toilets of every hotel he ever stayed in, thus destroying entire rooms and getting the Who banned for life, to the pot-plant Norwegian Wood created outside the suite of A-Ha star Morten Harket at the Montreux Palace. (Confession. That one was us. Her Britannic Majesty’s press corps, punishing the Scandinavian upstart for hurling a tantrum and ducking out of the interview).
There were never, to the best of, such décor-threatening rampages at The Athenaeum. Perhaps its rock residents realised they were onto too good a thing to shoot themselves in the cowboy boot. Discretion and privacy assured. Top security a given. No demand too extreme for its fabulous Room Service. Close proximity to Soho – for the Groucho Club, the Hippodrome and Stringfellows, to Mayfair’s Scott’s and to Piccadilly’s Hard Rock Café, with the longest queues in Christendom (we bona fide rock fiends were blessed with the requisite go-to-the-front pass). Life in the fast lane? Getting warmer.
Glenn Frey, with whom I once dined à deux at the Athenaeum, came closest to explaining the conundrum. The Eagles’ magnum opus fifth album ‘Hotel California’ had landed in 1976, and never went out of fashion. Its title track, about a hotel stay that ‘crosses over to the dark side’, was, at its simplest, a metaphor for reckless rock star living. On a deeper level, co-writer Don Henley once suggested, their most enduring song was a lament on the loss of innocence. Nothing else on the theme has ever eclipsed it. But what was it really about, I got to ask Glenn Frey years later, thanks to the Athenaeum, one on one.
‘‘Hotel California’ is a metaphor for somewhere that’s neither here nor there,’ he said. ‘It’s a notion. A parallel universe. It’s neither home, nor the final destination – because the ‘final destination’ has got to be ‘home’, when you think about it. So it’s somewhere en route, a place along the way, which you want to be as home-like and as comfortable as possible. But also not. It’s got to have that something extra, a dimension you’d never find back home. And that can sometimes, particularly in so-called ‘rock star’ terms, become the very thing that threatens your existence.
‘What if you become addicted to those ‘places along the way’? What happens when you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave?’
So the ‘place you can never leave’ is all in the mind, after all. Or is it? Champagne?
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