It is January 12, 2018.
Today the U.S. Embassy in London, both the soon to be opened new one and the one in Grosvenor Square where I worked during the 1960’s, is in the news because our president tweeted that the reason he was not going to “cut the ribbon” was because his predecessor had sold “the best located and finest embassy in London for peanuts”so we could build a new embassy in an “off location.”
This seemed like synchronicity, because this week I have been thinking about the next stop in my Drinking Chronicle, which is London and starts…where else? At the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square.
The United States Travel Service, set up in the Kennedy administration, was just getting started. Our official headquarters were still under construction in Piccadilly, so we “travel consultants” and our boss, Mr. Miller, were toughing it out on the fourth floor of the U.S. Embassy on Grosvenor Square. The CIA must have been driven insane, because we shared the floor with them. The purpose of the new Travel Service was to encourage Europeans to take their vacations in the USA. For Brits, this was a challenge because they were allowed to take only £250 pounds sterling out of their country. At that time, the pound was worth $2.80 in American dollars. So the Department of Commerce went all out, with huge ads, new buildings, free travel advice either by mail or face-to-face visits. During our months in the Embassy, the poor CIA was forced to endure the constant intrusions of hopeful British travelers. (“I beg your pardon, is this where we enquire about the 99 Days for $99 Greyhound trip?”)
In those fourth floor months, we consultants–three, then two, twenty-something American girls–took our lunch in the basement level Embassy Bar, an elegant, dark, spacious place where nobody’s voice carried. Here you could get a club sandwich or a cheeseburger and sit at a small round table and drink your drink(s). I usually ordered some form of spirits, as the English called them. A James Bond martini, or a Manhattan, or a gin and tonic, or, in honor of the favorite man in Miami, a “Cutty and water.”
Later, when we moved to our splendid new USTS quarters at the corner of Sackville and Vigo, we would traipse regularly in our high heels from Piccadilly to Grosvenor Square and sit in the soft privileged American drinking gloom and mellow out.
Should I write next about Dorothea, my co-worker and drinking partner, or go as I had originally planned to the story the Chef at Buckingham Palace told us on one of his visits to our new offices?
I think it’s wisest to stick with my original plan because it connects me with something important I haven’t figured out yet.
The Story of Queen Victoria’s Scotch
The chef who stopped in to visit us in “the fishbowl,” as we called our ground floor office because it was mostly glass, was the chef for the staff at Buckingham Palace. When he found out what Anglophiles we consultants were, he took us to his place of work and we also visited members of the staff who lived in a wing of the palace. There were lots of palace stories, we never tired of his palace stories, but for me this has carried the promise of some yet to be “aha!” for decades. The story is very brief and simple. After Queen Victoria’s death, no one rescinded the order for a bottle of scotch to be delivered to her room every night. And so the bottle continued to be delivered. Same door. Every night. For years? For how many years? The chef may have said, but in those days I frequently didn’t listen and also I was known to embroider or exaggerate the things I heard.
Drawing the scene with my colored pencils got me (a little) closer to the why’s of its abiding attraction for me. But I’m not there yet. It has something to do with the eternalness of certain stories. I knew that much as soon as I started dotting in the stars with my white paint marker. The uniform, by the way, is correct, according to The Crown and Google, and the white and gold door he’s outside of is what’s known as The Queen’s Secret Door.
(To be continued soon)