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Discord at the world's classiest hotel

LONDON — London--The Savoy has been called the world's best hotel so long that everybody believes it, especially the owners. The Savoy is 105 years old and still sumptuous, glamorous and elegant in a style that makes people nostalgic for a way they never were.

The preferred hostelry for generations of stars from the movies to the monarchy, the Savoy is now starring in its own boardroom drama.

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The hotel is the prize in a somewhat unseemly struggle for control between an entrenched and traditional British management and upstart challengers led by the son of an Italian immigrant who started out selling milk shakes on Upper Regent Street.

Good milk shakes, says Charles Forte, now 85, in his autobiography modestly titled "Forte."

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"People certainly flocked in," he says.

Now Lord Forte -- chairman of Trusthouse Forte -- he made his first bid for the Savoy in 1981, a year before he became a life peer, courtesy of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The bid was rebuffed and a bitter feud ignited, spiced by whiffs of snobbery and chauvinism.

The late Sir Hugh Wontner, the Savoy's managing director, chairman and spiritual leader for nearly 50 years, warned of the possibility of "a severe risk of damage to standards."

Giles Shepard, Sir Hugh's successor as managing director, sniffed: "We have never thought that a vast combine like Trusthouse Forte, which among other things runs service stations on the main arterial roads and airport catering, is at all suitable to run services of the quality of the Savoy."

Rocco Forte, Lord Forte's 49-year-old son and chief executive of the Forte group, reportedly replied that he wouldn't have Mr. Shepard as a doorman at any of his hotels.

Trusthouse Forte claims to be the largest hotel, catering and leisure group in the world.

Forte establishments on British highways are known as Little Chef and Welcome Break, where the food falls between McDonald's and Denny's, and the accommodations are about like the rooms in the 500 or so Travelodges Forte owns in the United States.

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Forte provides in-flight food for about 150 international airlines and catering at more than 20 airports.

Forte also owns hotels posh enough for anybody, except perhaps the management of the Savoy. They include the Hyde Park in London, the George V in Paris, the Plaza Athenee in New York and the Watergate in Washington.

After their 1981 bid, Forte ended up owning 68 percent of the Savoy Group, but had only 42 percent of the boardroom votes. Sir Hugh had built a two-tier stock structure as impregnable to frontal assault as a medieval fortress.

The two sides signed an armistice in 1989 that froze Forte stock acquisitions for five years. That agreement ends in November. London analysts believe new skirmishing already has started.

Forte has been seeking alliances with various family trusts that control Savoy stock. Dame Bridget D'Oyly Carte, the granddaughter of the Gilbert and Sullivan impresario who founded the Savoy, was a firm and vital ally of Sir Hugh during his takeover defense. The D'Oyly Carte Charities Trust she set up before her 1985 death owns 14.1 percent of the Savoy shareholders' votes.

Since Sir Hugh's death two years ago, such trusts may be more tempted by propositions that increase their returns, according to London analysts. Earnings of the Savoy have been slim or nonexistent in recent years.

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The Fortes may covet the panache of owning the world's best hotel, but they also think they can increase its profits. The Savoy's management has been accused of being more concerned with the quality of the linen than with the return on the investment.

But there is no question that the Savoy always has had the fascination of romantic elitism for both owners and guests.

Impressing Americans

Richard D'Oyly Carte, Dame Bridget's granddad, wanted to create a swank hotel in London after he had seen grand hotels in New York and San Francisco. He wanted to impress the increasing numbers of American visitors starting their grand tour here. He did. Americans continue to make up half of the Savoy's guests.

He built the Savoy in 1889 with money he made producing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas at the theater next door. The Savoy's private dining rooms are still named after Gilbert and Sullivan works.

Swiss hotelier Cesar Ritz initiated the suave service and sophisticated comfort that has made the Savoy Hotel a touchstone for British luxury -- and his name synonymous with splendiferous elegance.

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The patriarch of master chefs, Auguste Escoffier, launched a culinary tradition when he created peach Melba, pears Melba and Melba toast for the celebrated soprano Dame Nellie Melba when she dined at the Savoy.

Giacomo Puccini feted Dame Melba at the Savoy after she sang "Manon" at Covent Garden. Mark Twain ate Melba toast in his suite when his stomach bothered him.

Royals have popped in for private dinners since Edward VII was Prince of Wales back before the turn of the century. Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, the Queen Mother and all the rest now enter discreetly through a portal on Savoy Hill, a rise between the Thames Embankment and The Strand. On this site in the 13th century, Peter, the Count of Savoy, built "the fairest manor" in Europe and gave the neighborhood its name.

A famous crime

Lillie Langtry and Oscar Wilde supped at the Savoy with their boy friends. Pablo Picasso stayed at the Savoy with his first wife, and Elizabeth Taylor honeymooned here with her first husband. Madame Fahmy shot her husband here in a famous crime of the 1920s.

F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed elegantly sober at the Savoy. Ernest Hemingway drank at the American Bar with Irwin Shaw and Marlene Dietrich before embarking to France after D-Day.

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The Savoy remains the same luxurious London oasis for Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson and Placido Domingo that it was for Ava Gardner, Clark Gable and Enrico Caruso.

And in an increasingly indecorous world, the Savoy maintains its standards. But this may be a doomed rear-guard action, no matter who owns it.

Gentlemen must still wear a coat and tie to high tea at the Savoy. Last week its closest rival, the Ritz on Picadilly, caved in to open collars, shirt sleeves and polo shirts. Jeans and sneakers may be next. But not yet at the Savoy, where even lavatory attendants still wear top hats and livery.



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