Perhaps no other neighbourhood better encapsulates the turmoil, decadence, and extraordinary history of the 20th century like Mayfair in central London. From its origins in the 1700s as a riotous open air spring market–replete with jugglers, bare-knuckle fighters, and musicians–to the stomping grounds of Britain’s elite, Mayfair has evolved as a physical time capsule of the city’s epic biography. So when King George V and Queen Mary gave their royal seal of approval to newly opened May Fair Hotel in 1927, it was perhaps no surprise that the property would soon find itself playing host to the most captivating figures of the 20th century.
The opening of The May Fair Hotel celebrated the wave of energy that ran through London in the late 1920s; the war was over, and the economic depression was lifting as quickly as the hemlines. This exuberance was captured in the hotel’s shimmering ballrooms, where legendary bandleader Bert Ambrose brought together the most innovative and dynamic musicians of the era to create a “see-and-be-seen” atmosphere. Guests could mingle with royalty, and the hotel served as an oasis from which to explore Mayfair’s exclusive boutiques, galleries, and museums. Not even World War II could halt the festivities: the celebrations moved to the basement ballroom as Londoners braved the Blitz and kept one eye on the future.
When WWII ended, The May Fair Hotel was still standing, and Hollywood took notice. Edward and Harry Danzinger, native New Yorkers and budding filmmakers, looked to London for inspiration. They quickly snapped up the hotel, transforming it into a modern pleasure palace and ode to cinematic unreality. The brothers made over 50 films and television series in the 1950s and 60s while remodelling, adding pianos in every suite, constructing a private theatre, and opening The Beachcomber, introducing American Polynesian kitsch to London. The bar was a movie set in motion, with waterfalls complete with swimming crocodiles, flaming rum drinks in Tiki mugs, and tropical storm lighting and sound effects.
The Danzigers were a prescient pair. Swinging London had become the cultural capital of the world, and The May Fair Hotel stood at its centre. This hedonist, modern atmosphere shook off convention and celebrated optimism. Nowhere was the energy of the Swinging Sixties more transformative than in the explosion of the “London sound,” which forever changed the way we experience music. The Mayfair district had always been a haven for musicians, with a number of rock icons staying in the hotel whilst recording nearby.
The wild days (and nights) couldn’t last forever, but after a turbulent few decades, London and The May Fair Hotel were once again embracing luxury and style. In 2004, under the ownership of Edwardian Hotels, the landmark hotel was given a multimillion pound transformation, celebrating its connection with London’s arts and fashion scenes. When doors to the new May Fair Hotel swung open in 2006, it quickly became a refuge for celebrities and the global elite, offering respite from the bustling West End.
Today, Mayfair remains one of the most exclusive addresses in London, home to luxurious boutiques, auction houses, and architecturally-inspiring private residences. It is a tribute to living history. The world spins on, but The May Fair Hotel remains standing, a tribute to the stratospheric transformations of arts and culture over the last century. Now part of Radisson Collection, a group of exceptional hotels designed to echo their unique locations, it’s set to continue to shape the neighbourhood for years to come.
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This article was written for Radisson Collection by Quartz Creative and not the Quartz editorial staff.