Elena Salvoni wasn’t particularly keen on her unofficial title of The Queen of Soho – it was all too reminiscent of the girls who plied their trade on the streets outside her restaurants – but it’s hard to think of her by any other and, as her death this week at the age of 95 brings her reign to an end, it’s equally hard to imagine that we will ever see her like again.
I consider myself very lucky that an odd triangulation of interests allowed me to get to know her, and privileged that she allowed Mrs M, our friend Judy, and me to spend a fascinating morning with her at her Islington home to hear at first hand her tales of Soho throughout the 50s, 60s and beyond.
To summarise her biography, Elena was born in Clerkenwell’s ‘Little Italy’ (just around the corner from where my own grandfather was born) in 1920, moving as a girl to the family home in Islington where she lived the rest of her life. She began working as a waitress in Soho restaurants in her teens, and never left, rapidly rising to become an essential maitre d’ at a succession of iconic venues, from Café Bleu, to Bianchi’s, to L’Escargot, to L’Etoile, from where she was forcily ‘retired’ on reaching ninety in 2010, only to take up residence as the host of her regular lunches first at Little Italy and latterly, right up until her final illness, at Quo Vadis. In the course of over 70 years at the heart of London’s restaurant business, she saw Soho’s role as the capital’s cultural melting pot evolve from cosmopolitan village, through post-War musical clubland, the mixture of seediness and diversity that marked Soho’s liberal attitudes, to the harder edge of commercialism that today threatens the character of London’s heartland. Along the way, she met – well, pretty much everyone who chanced to dine in one of the restaurants she presided over – nobility, politicians, artists, performers, actors. Her stories were peppered with the names that defined 20th Century Britain, told always with the professional discretion that hallmarks the best restauranteur; for every tale she told, you could be sure there were a dozen more that would stay secured away in the massive database of names, faces, likes and dislikes that sat within her diminutive frame.
As proud as she was of the roll call of celebrities whom she had served, it was clear that she knew them because that was the nature of a job that she loved and took pride in, not because she courted their company, and her job came second only to her family. It was equally clear, though, that it was the combination of maternal affection and stern matriarch that made her such a success, and her ability to gently support one diner, whilst putting another quietly in his place, the both without fuss or embarassment, was a theme that recurred often in incidents from her memoirs.
That family extended beyond home and restaurant, too, including playwright Joe Orton and his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, who lived next door to her in the 1960s. With no time for the discrimination against gay men prevalent at the time, Elena’s hospitality quickly drew the boys into her circle of visitors for cups of tea, and it was from Elena’s house phone that Orton conducted conversations with established dramatist, Terence Rattigan (also one of Elena’s regulars at L’Etoile) that led to Rattigan backing Joe’s breakthrough play ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’. As Elena put it, how could she resist Joe’s plea “Come on Elena, I can’t call Terence Rattigan from a phone box, can I?”. It was, of course, a huge shock for Elena to arrive from work late one August night in 1967 to learn from husband, Aldo, that Halliwell had murdered Orton and then committed suicide. In the days that followed, members of the press who came calling discovered to their cost that Elena’s natural hospitality did not extend to those who sought to pry into the tragedy of ‘the boys next door’.
As the later years of her professional career created more time for life outside work, Elena’s energy and organisational skills were put to good use for the benefit of those whose aspirations fell far below the Soho restaurant scene, and she spoke passionately about her involvement with son, Louie’s work to provide support for the homeless through his charity, Shelter for the Storm. Louie, who has followed into the business as a dealer in coffee (you might have spotted him in BBC4’s excellent documentary on the history of coffee drinking in Britain), Aldo, daughter Adriana and Elena’s grandchildren, were never far from her mind, and their photos were as proudly displayed as any of her celebrity acquaintances.
I never imagined that I would share tea and cake with someone who’d taken supper across to Ella Fitzgerald in her dressing room, and been rewarded by Ella singing lullabies to her son, nor be transported so close to Soho of the 1950s by one who’d daily passed the coffee bars and clubs I’ve read so much about as she went about her daily business (did she go in? ‘Of course not. I finished work late and got the bus home to my family’). But to meet Elena was about more than oral history; to feel her energy and her enthusiasm, her excitement for events yet to come when already in her 90s, to see her dart amongst the tables of diners at Quo Vadis, then return to the team of waiting staff 70 years her junior but very much ‘her people’ was an object lesson in a life lived to the full. I’m deeply proud to have known her.
Fortunately, Elena’s raft of contacts in the literary world led to her writing not just an autobiography but also a book of favourite recipies. Copies of ‘A Life in Soho’ can be found fairly easily on Ebay or similar. ‘Eating Famously’ doesn’t crop up quite so often (and it’s a great shame that our scheme for a reprint didn’t come to fruition), but is well worth looking out for. For a full obituary, I can recommend the one that appeared in the Times on 23 March where, quite rightly, the best part of a page was devoted to this petite lady with the huge personality.