- Historic Sites
America In London
Within the city’s best-known landmarks and down its least-visited lanes stand surprisingly vivid mementos of our own national history
April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
First to make the grade was William Waldorf Astor, created Lord Astor of Hever Castle in 1916. seventeen years after becoming a British citizen more native than the natives. With boundless wealth, Astor could afford to indulge his eccentricities. One of them survives in the shape of the former Astor Estate Office at 2 Temple Place on the Thames Embankment—a lovely two-story house designed so that Astor, fearful of intruders, could touch a secret spring and instantly lock all the doors. There were no handles, a detail that disturbed more than one visitor trapped inside the room. Hidden panels concealing the release mechanism were revealed only to intimate and trusted friends.
When the house was completed in 1895, William Waldorf Astor threw the most lavish party of the London season. The guests were still arriving at eleven o’clock when he told the orchestra to stop playing. “It’s late and I’m going to bed. The party is over,” he announced. “You’ll find your carriages at the door.”
If London society was offended, it never showed it. The slightly mad, especially if they are rich and breed horses, have always been admired in England. After all, the House of Commons tolerated Nancy, Lady Astor, as an MP from 1919 until 1945. They relished her lively wit. So did the voters. “Your husband’s a millionaire,” yelled a heckler. “Sure he is,” yelled Nancy Astor, “that’s one of the reasons I married him.”
While the Astors were setting up camp in London, another American was planning an even more spectacular invasion, and to see it in action we must go to Oxford Street, said to be the busiest shopping street in the world.
The name Selfridge’s is synonymous with Oxford Street, thanks to a boy from Ripon, Wisconsin, who told his mother that he wanted to be a great man—and became just that.
Harry Gordon Selfridge, born in 1857, was a teacher in Jackson, Michigan, before joining Marshall Field in Chicago. By 1889 he had become a junior partner, responsible for quadrupling the store’s profits during the tourist invasion caused by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Although he stayed with Marshall Field another nine years, the strain was starting to tell. He was refused a senior partnership, and the firm turned down his idea of opening branches in London and Paris.
Selfridge was convinced that the road to riches lay through the British capital. He was appalled by shopping conditions in London. Department stores, with the exception of Harrods and one or two others, were unknown. Shops in general were dimly lit and badly ventilated, and the merchandise was hidden in drawers under the counter. Customers were not allowed to browse and were pressured by sales assistants to buy.
In 1906 Selfridge headed for Britain. Soon he was in business on Oxford Street, selling everything except furniture. His primary backer was Sam Waring, then London’s main furniture retailer. Selfridge agreed never to compete with Waring and honored the deal throughout his lifetime.
During the years that followed, Selfridge’s turned shopping into a spectacle. Its decorations for the coronation of King George VI in 1937 cost a million dollars—a staggering sum in those days. The consequences were inevitable. By 1939 the company was close to bankruptcy; the boy from Ripon, Wisconsin, was forcibly removed as chief executive and turned out to grass as the honorary president.
A failed career? Not a bit of it. By the time of his death in 1947, Harry Gordon Selfridge had lived to see his dream of greatness confirmed as a prosperous reality. A visit to Selfridge’s is still an essential experience for Londoners and their guests. It is wholly British-owned, but the Stars and Stripes fly proudly alongside the Union Jack.
Not all Americans in London have aspired to be millionaires. Writers and artists have traditionally migrated to London for its publishing houses, its galleries, and its willingness to tolerate the eccentric, the unorthodox, and the original. In the eighteenth century, Covent Garden, the Strand, and the new squares and terraces of Mayfair were the American neighborhoods, frequented by Benjamin West, Gilbert Stuart, John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, Joseph Wright, Mather Brown, and William Dunlap. Their homes, where they survive, are marked by the famous “blue plaques” that are so much a part of London’s historic memory.
The nineteenth century saw a drift toward Chelsea. James Abbott McNeill Whistler lived at 96 Cheyne Walk. He painted his mother there. The writer Henry James lived at No. 21, and Richard Harding Davis at No. 118. Tite Street was another American haunt in Chelsea. Whistler, who seems to have spent much of his time on the move, popped up at Nos. 28, 33, and 35. Edwin Austin Abbey, another painter, died at No. 42 in 1911. John Singer Sargent died in 1915 at No. 31.
The addresses come thick and fast: Edgar Allan Poe went to school at 146 Sloane Street. Ezra Pound lived at 8 Duchess Street, alongside what is now the British Broadcasting Corporation. T. S. Eliot had his home at 5 Chester Row. For many years he was a sidesman at St. Stephen’s Church in Southwell Gardens.