by Brooks Peters
Whenever I’m feeling unusually crotchety and/or particularly misanthropic (which is more often than I’d care to admit these days) I pick up a copy of John Fothergill’s infamous 1931 memoir, An Innkeeper's Diary, recounting his days as the proprietor of the Spread Eagle at Thame, one of the in-est inns in England at the time. His exceptional blend of bitchiness, vitriol and snobbery always smooths my rougher edges, and reminds me that subscribing to very high standards is often a recipe for disappointment and disillusionment, if not outright hostility. But more often than not, it’s a ticket to hilarity.
For Fothergill’s exploits as the original “host with the most” are exceptionally funny. He turned the eternally sleepy Spread Eagle into one of the most famous hotels in England, if not the world. Evelyn Waugh memorialized it in Brideshead Revisited as the inn Blanche and Ryder sneak away to in Thame (pronounced ‘tame’). Waugh told Fothergill (shot at top, by Angus Bean) that he was “Oxford’s only civilizing influence.” Fothergill implored him for more of “his Waugh stories.” Sir John Gielgud praised it as his favorite hotel. H. G. Wells came for weeks at a time to write and had his own room. J. B. Priestley, Hugh Walpole, Max Beerbohm, Lord and Lady Colefax are all names the owner drops as he details the inn’s “petty domestic vacuities.” For ten years it drew an illustrious and diverse crowd, ranging from beauties Hermione Baddeley and Princess Galatzine to the Aga Khan and Field Marshal Jan Smuts. Some came for the food and the ambiance, others to marvel at Fothergill’s eccentric personality.
A curmudgeon and an obsessed puritan, Fothergill was not just any old snob. He was the ne plus ultra. Sporting knee breeches, a dark green “over-garment that has been described as a cross between a page boy’s and a parson’s,” a flamboyant foulard, an Eton collar, buckled shoes, and a lorgnette that dangled on a black cord down to his navel, he inevitably cut a curious, if romantic figure. In summer, he favored a suit of white duck. Craggy-browed and quick with the barbed bon mot, Fothergill was a dandy out of the age of aesthetes. But that is not surprising considering his background.
Born in Kent, England in 1876, John Rowland Fothergill was part of a long line of Lakeland gentry, descended from Norman barons, deeded land by William the Conqueror. His mother died when he was only two days old, and although his father remarried, he remained aloof and cold. Fothergill was bullied and caned as a boy at the Old College in Windermere, a cause against which he became a fanatic later in life, writing heated letters to the Times denouncing corporal punishment. He attended public school at Bath College in Cumbria, then studied at St. John’s College, Oxford, before dropping out after one term, having flunked his exams.
Fothergill quickly fell into a smart crowd surrounding Robbie Ross, Oscar Wilde’s close friend. At that early age, Fothergill was strikingly handsome, with a notable élan. Wilde, who cherished being in his company, called him the “architect of the moon” for reasons that escape me, but I sense it had something to do with his dark, mysterious looks and perhaps a penchant for late night romance. Whether Fothergill was intimate with either Ross or Wilde is not exactly clear, although it’s hinted at by some biographers, including himself. He claimed that he was “mauled over” by various men while at Oxford, but managed to fend them off. He liked to play his own revelations close to his chest. Unlike other acolytes, who turned their backs on Wilde, Fothergill remained loyal to his former mentor after the playwright’s disgrace, staying in touch with him during his painful exile in France.
From Oxford, Fothergill went to Leipzig to study art, then the Slade School of Art. He became friends with artists Augustus John, Walter Sickert and author Reginald Turner. At some point he traveled to Greece and immersed himself in antiquities. He penned an English translation of Emanuel Lowy’s The Rendering of Nature in Greek Art and contributed on art to the famed 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
I first learned of Fothergill by reading David Sox’s fascinating biography Bachelors of Art about Edward Perry Warren and the homophile-inclined Lewes House brotherhood, a fraternity of art enthusiasts and experts. Warren had been a primary source for the antiquities purchased by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, as well as the owner of the much-coveted and controversial “Warren Cup,” a Roman drinking vessel that depicts explicit homoerotic scenes. In 1898, with the backing of William Rothenstein, Fothergill opened the Carfax Gallery of art in Oxford, where he catered to a sophisticated clientele.
Fothergill seemed destined for a life as an aesthete, or at least a dilettante, surrounded by his gay artist friends. But something happened. He turned his back on the world of art and archaeology, and went straight. He married Doris Elsa Henning. But the marriage was a disaster from the start and ended abruptly. Fothergill suffered a nervous collapse. Finding himself, at 46, a broken man with few prospects, he was, as he says in his memoir, “counselled to take an inn.” In 1922, he and a new wife, Kate Headley Kirby, heard about a place near Oxford called The Spread Eagle in Thame that was “very shabby but very possible.” Fothergill asked his friend Lady Pollock to go vet the space for him. She approved and he pulled together the money he needed and bought the lease.
For a man of his status and class in 1930s England, this was a rather outré step. But it proved to be a perfect fit. For Fothergill thrived at cooking, gardening, keeping house, catering to his often distinguished guests’ wishes. He used his skills as a gallery owner to create a vivid backdrop for his services, filling the space with his own prized antiques, paintings and decorations. One of his strokes of genius was to ask Dora Carrington to paint the sign outdoors, topping a lamppost. He channeled his enthusiasm for fine wine into creating one of the finest wine cellars in the area, and crafted a menu that focused on what he called “real food” — not the usual hotel fare of prepared meals, but an ever changing menu of tavern standards such as jugged hare or saddle of mutton, mixed with then exotic French dishes, and fanciful desserts such as “lemon flummery,” an 18th-century dish.
Soon the Spread Eagle became one of the best known eateries in England, luring literary swells as well as the titled set (from Great Britain and as far as India). London’s “Bright Young Things” descended in droves, as did writers Rebecca West, L. P. Hartley, G. B. Stern, H. R. Barbor, Elizabeth Bowen, C. K. Chesterton, E. M. Delafield, Storm Jameson, Evelyn Waugh and the Sitwells. Alan Pryce-Jones and Peter Watson were regulars. Romaine Brooks, an early friend, painted his portrait (below).
What had been a run-down country inn soon became the country crash pad of high society. But not everyone was welcome. Fothergill had not shed his aesthetic standards. If a customer was “ill-shaped, ugly or ill-dressed,” he was known to snub them and to charge them an added fee, what he dubbed “face-money.” Fothergill defended the policy by arguing that most establishments charge the beautiful and famous extra, so he was only reversing the practice.
But it wasn’t only the unattractive that he disapproved of. Fothergill was outraged by lewd or common behavior. If students from Oxford came in and proceeded to get drunk and cause a ruckus, he threw them out and told them never to return, unless of course they were attractive. One of the delights of reading Fothergill’s first book An Innkeeper’s Diary is the offhand way he mentions the good looks of the young men who frequent his establishment, such as the Marquess of Graham: “the most beautiful youth we’ve had here.” You often have to read between the lines but it’s clear when he’s entranced by a boy. His wife is slaving away in the kitchen or the office, while Fothergill is sharing a pint with some comely Adonis or an old Oxford mate such as Harold Acton whom he praises for his timeless wit and literary style.
He also seems to have had a fetish for especially tall men, for whom he often offered a free pint. He kept a tally of them, with a measuring stick, marking their heights on a wall. (This record keeping is even more remarkable since Fothergill refused to keep a hotel register for over eight years, a fact that became embarrassingly apparent when the police came one day to check up on a suspect.) But beauty did not always guarantee special treatment. One boy who mistakenly ordered a pint of Angostura, thinking it was an aperitif, was given it and made to drink it. Another fellow who demanded steak, even though it wasn’t on the menu, had to endure a stringy tough cut of beef that Fothergill ordered directly from the butcher to punish the brute.
Some of the funniest passages have to do with Fothergill’s rabid distaste for travelers who stopped in merely to use the lavatory. Even though it was common practice among inns at the time to offer this service, as part of an arrangement with the automobile touring association, Fothergill was determined to make it as unpleasant for these uninvited guests as possible. If they hadn’t personally approached him to thank him for his hospitality, he would follow them outside, berate them publicly, insult them and tell them never to set foot in his hotel again. Often if they slipped out before he could get to them, he would take down their license numbers and write them a scathing letter. Eventually Fothergill canceled his membership in the auto club to prevent people from complaining to it about him. The travel writer Hilary Rubinstein wrote that Fothergill “had no capacity to cloak his feelings.” One time he asked one of these intruders, a rather grand lady, for her home address “in case I need a pumpship when I’m passing your home.”
Whether a pose or not, it makes for fun reading and Fothergill’s first book flew off the shelves, becoming a bestseller in England. The loony loo bits guaranteed it notoriety. “Robbie Ross said that the Englishman,” Fothergill wrote, “went about pretending that he didn’t empty himself.” So it struck a chord with readers and became everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure. Perhaps, too, people responded to its cantankerous spirit. “Snobbery is after all a universal emotion,” Fothergill wrote.
In a sequel written in 1938, Confessions of an Innkeeper, Fothergill described the Diary as “that nasty little book.” But it had put him on the map. He stayed at the Spread Eagle for ten years. But his lack of any real business sense was his undoing. When he bought the place, he paid 1400 pounds for the furnishings alone, then sold them for 85. He was flippant and willful, and overspent frequently on food. “I can not get enough money out of the place to educate children or to have anything in hand to retire upon.” No doubt his wife must have had the patience of Job, a biblical figure Fothergill quotes in his book. Nor were the royalties on his books sufficient to keep the place going. He sold it at a loss after ten years, then took over the Royal Hotel Ascot, a white elephant that proved insurmountable. He left there after a tortured year, then landed on his feet at the Three Swans in Market Harborough, below, which he maintained until he retired at the age of 77. He died in 1957 at 81.
In 1943 he penned a cookbook, and along the way also managed to find time to write a book on rare plants for the garden. One of his more peculiar creations was Mr. Fothergill’s Plot, a mystery based on an idea of his own, written in consortium by fourteen of his famous literary friends, including Chesterton, West, Stern and Hartley. His last book, in 1949, was a compendium entitled My Three Inns. While amusing and fun to read, it lacks the punch of his first book. And it is for the Diary alone that Fothergill will be remembered. One reviewer, he says, “called me a systematic browbeater, and a clown, and implied that I was a fraud and a cad.” What it boiled down to, he argued, was simple prejudice since they didn’t like “the cut of my hair.”
Fothergill’s flaming personality certainly raised a few eyebrows. When he chastised an unmarried journalist who came to stay with his lady friend, complaining about his immoral liaison, the journalist shot back that Fothergill held to a double standard since he didn’t object when two “male friends” shared a room. The implication was obvious. Likewise a young man he particularly admired who’d been caught sneaking a girl into his room and had been dragged out on the carpet for it the next day, said “If Mr. Fothergill hints at a male friend surely he wouldn’t mind a female one.” But part of what makes Fothergill an intriguing character is that he did indeed mind. One can’t help suspect that he was put out more from jealousy than any high moral dudgeon, and no doubt the venom that leaked so divinely from his pen was due in no small part to his own self-hatred.
There’s a telling moment in one of Fothergill’s sequels to the Diary, after he’d left the Spread Eagle and took over The Three Swans in Market Harborough. His son Johnny was telling an Oxford chum about having grown up there and the friend carelessly said, “Didn’t a closet write a book about that place?” To which Johnny responded, “Yes, indeed. I am the son of that closet.” In Britain, “closet” means “toilet” but it could also be inferred here to mean “closet case.” Like many other famous “closet cases,” Fothergill channeled his queer sensibilities into his work, creating an unusual atmosphere of good taste, excellence and idiosyncratic charm, and a diary that Nigel Nicolson assured him would remain a valuable volume in people’s libraries for years to come.