There was an aura of an Agatha Christie mystery brewing when one boarded the newly restored glamorous Venice Simplon-Orient Express in 1983. The abandoned 1920’s Pullman cars that James Sherwood had located around the world had been restored to their original elegance. Every detail from the Lalique glass panels and intricate wood marquetry to the uniforms worn by the porters and dining room attendants was exactly like the original.
Five of us were on this train journey in September 1983, having first spent three nights in London at Claridge’s. Our trip was a fancy press junket arranged by prestigious PR representative Mary Homi who handled the Savoy Group Hotels (Claridge’s, Berkeley, Connaught, Savoy, Lancaster in Paris) as well as the as all James Sherwood’s 5 star hotels and his Simplon-Orient Express train. The group was made up of society columnists from New York, Palm Beach, Palm Springs and Santa Barbara. Mary made five. And it was glamour all the way! While we were in London I noted in the morning paper that the exciting Night of 100 Stars charity theatre event would take place the night we returned from Venice. Among the stars performing was Charles Dance. I was and still am a tremendous fan of this English actor. Reading about the event I decided I simply had to see him perform in person. Fellow traveler, my long time friend Gloria Greer the Palm Springs representative, was all for it too so we purchased VIP tickets including the after performance reception before taking off on our rail adventure. Something to look forward at the end of our journey.
Excitement was high as we boarded the train in London. The “All Aboard” call sounded loud and clear and we clamored aboard and found our compartments with childlike enthusiasm. Our luggage, having last been seen in our rooms at Claridge’s, awaited us in our compartments. That’s the way travel was then but I’ve already told you about that in my blog on sailing the Atlantic on the S.S. United States in 1953. And believe me those memories are kept alive any time I venture out of Santa Barbara dragging bags on wheels and backpacks and purses hanging from my shoulders with no one to lend a hand.
The train compartments were small but most comfortable. Linens on the beds were fine perfectly ironed Irish linen. All was perfection especially the service of all the train employees. Bathrooms were a bit of a drawback however. In those days you didn’t have bathroom facilities attached to your compartments. You marched in nightgown, bathrobe and bedroom slippers down to the end of the car to the one bathroom per railroad car, tooth brush and towels in hand. Now this was perfectly fine going to Venice as there men occupying the other compartments in my car and they got in there, brushed there teeth and did whatever else needed doing and got out. It was on the return trip, Venice to London that my bathroom problems arose. On that return somewhere in the middle of the night at a small stop in the Italian Alps four American skiers boarded, Patricia Kennedy Lawford and her daughter, and Jeanne Kennedy Smith and her daughter, sisters and nieces of the president of the United States Jack Kennedy.
I met the Kennedy clan early the next morning standing in line waiting to get into the bathroom. Pat Lawford had gotten there first. I’d known her casually in the days when she dated my good friend Alfredo de la Vega, but I didn’t know her bathroom habits. “She takes forever once she gets in there,” Victoria Lawford moaned. Her aunt Jeanne nodded in agreement. What didn’t come out was Jeanne Smith’s daughter didn’t exactly rush through teeth brushing, make up applying etc. either. All I can say is Jeanne Smith and I were practically lifetime friends by the time we left the bumpy hallway and got our turns in that one bathroom.
As I read newspapers today of the wonderful things Jeanne Smith has achieved, Ambassador to Ireland from the United States, her tireless work for the disabled etc. and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given in our country, I remember our brief friendship balancing on the fast moving train with firm grip on our toothbrushes and tooth paste waiting anxiously to get into the bathroom early one morning as our splendid vintage train clicky clacked its way to Paris, then London.
Dinner on the train was true dining in style. Wonderful silk damask cloths and gigantic napkins and shining vintage silver ware dressed the tables. The menu choices were fantastic and the products the kitchen produced were superb. Dining was a very special event on this jaunt. Everyone in the diner was in evening clothes except the Kennedy family who had only ski attire. But it was sweet to notice Jeanne Smith’s daughter, after glancing around the elegantly dressed guests in the dining room, slipped a few small flowers out of the vase of fresh flowers on their dinner table and tucked them into her hair to look more dressed up.
Upon our return to London following the glorious train ride and a 3 day stay at Jim Sherwood’s Hotel Cipriani in Venice, Gloria and I had our tickets for the great charity theatre waiting. It was a most thrilling event. All the biggest names in English theatre, movies, TV, rock stars performed. Interestingly each one did the opposite of what they were known for. A famous opera star sang Rock ‘n Roll. A leading TV comedy star performed a scene from Shakespeare’s King Lear. Charles Dance, known as a serious actor, came out in a tight black tee shirt and jeans and sang Noel Coward’s “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noon day sun.” Following the performance there was the reception on stage. The Royal Patron for the event, the Duchess of Kent, was the center of attention. But I kept looking for Charles Dance. He finally appeared looking very special in black tie after the black tee shirt. I suddenly became shy so Gloria approached him and asked if she could take a photo of him and me. He was very gracious about it. A few days after her return to Palm Springs I got a call from Gloria, “I have the greatest photo of you and Charles Dance. Will get you a print soon.” That was 1983. I’m still waiting. She still can’t find the negative. But I still have hopes! And memories.
Kathleen Fetner, Technical Advisor and Friend