April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
Within the city’s best-known landmarks and down its least-visited lanes stand surprisingly vivid mementos of our own national history
On a recent pilgrimage to Abilene—that epic little town on the Kansas plains that briefly marked the uttermost frontier of the Western world —I stepped into the old timber-frame homestead of the Eisenhowers and felt that part of my life had completed a circle. There, in the cluttered formality of the tiny parlor with its dainty drapes and edifying literature, so bravely genteel compared with the dusty cattledriving life outside, Dwight David Elsenhower was raised for leadership in the greatest military adventure of the twentieth century. It was an adventure that brought the two of us, unwittingly, very close together.
During the Second World War, I was a boy living at Hampton Court, a pleasant suburb of London noted for the vast red palace of Henry VIII and its spacious parklands. “Ike” was a neighbor. He was then Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (AEF) preparing for the invasion of France, and although he would not have known me, I certainly knew him. His staff car (now at Abilene), driven by the elegant Kay Summersby, was a daily sight on the local roads. Sometimes I ventured a wave and received a wave in return. Once, if my memory is right, I was given a lift to school. Years later, in adult life, I remembered the grin.
The Elsenhower residence in those days was a secluded house called Telegraph Cottage on the hill at Kingston-upon-Thames. The name probably came from a signal station in the Napoleonic Wars. Telegraph Cottage is still there, but hard to find and politely private. But Bushy Park, where the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) was located, is open to all. Only a small commemorative stone where the deer graze under the chestnut trees recalls the thousands of American servicemen who were based in the park, doubtless unaware that it was also the former home of Lord North, the British prime minister who “lost” the American colonies.
More troops were based on a nearby racetrack called Hurst Park. A modern housing development now occupies most of the ground, but until quite recently a few of the motor-pool buildings were still intact, taken over by children as hay barns for their ponies. Some prophetic, long-forgotten GI in 1944 had scratched “Ike for President” on the bricks, and 1 regret the bulldozer that removed it.
So it was in Abilene that I completed the circle, crossing once again the path of the man who had filled a particular moment in my own receding childhood. For Americans, London is full of circles of discovery, requiring the shock of personal surprise and recollection. No city on either side of the Atlantic is more poignantly involved in the American story than London, and thanks to London’s unique respect for its own past, there has survived much that anywhere else would have been destroyed.
Craven Street, for example, was never the grandest address in London. When Ben Franklin found lodgings there in 1757, it was a homely terrace running from the busy Strand to the river Thames, just as it does today, squashed between offices and the gloomy bulk of Charing Cross Station. Although Franklin’s house at No. 36 is presently derelict and closed to the public, plans are under way to restore it and turn it into a museum.
That Craven Street, like the rest of London, is regularly swept by the public sanitation department would give Franklin immense satisfaction. He once met a “very pale and feeble” woman brushing the sidewalk outside No. 36 who explained that she got no wages, only an occasional tip. Franklin promptly devised a plan for the more “Effectual Cleaning and Keeping Clean the Streets of London and Westminster,” adding that it might be useful “to some of our towns in America.” It was the start of modern highway supervision and garbage disposal- possibly the most valuable, though one of the least recognized, of Franklin’s odd ideas.
Actually, London could do with a Franklin statue. The bicentenary of his death in 1990 would be an opportunity to fill the gap. Meanwhile, the statues of three Presidents will have to suffice: George Washington in front of the National Gallery; Abraham Lincoln in Parliament Square; and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the middle of Grosvenor Square, facing the U.S. Embassy with its gigantic (some say gargantuan) thirty-five-foot eagle and a few blocks from St. George’s Church, Hanover Square, where another Roosevelt, Theodore, married Edith Carow in 1886.
But even these public tributes by the British to great Americans are modest when contrasted with the breathtaking magnificence of the U.S. War Memorial Chapel in St. Paul’s Cathedral. No American visiting London should miss it, yet all too many do. The gorgeous east window containing the emblems of every state of the Union is enough to bring a lump to the throat, and when the morning sun blazes through the glass onto the roll of honor (containing the names of the twenty-eight thousand U.S. servicemen who lost their lives while based in Britain during World War II), the effect is awesome.
Most of London’s Americana, however, is so carefully hidden and tucked away that even the most determined enthusiast can easily miss it. In a small courtyard along a narrow passage leading off St. James’s Street, for instance, is the old Texas Legation. Few Londoners and fewer Texans have ever spotted the bronze tablet in Pickering Place with its Lone Star recording those three remarkable years from 1842 when the Republic of Texas had its own ministers at Queen Victoria’s Court of St. James’s.
The same is true of 14 Princes Gate, a terrace mansion almost next door to the Iranian Embassy, which caught the headlines in 1980 when it was stormed by British commandos to end a hostage crisis. Most of the reporters covering that story missed the fact that No. 14, with its Indian chief in full headdress over the main entrance, became the home of John F. Kennedy in 1938, when his father was appointed ambassador in London.
John F. Kennedy was already familiar with the city, having studied in 1935 at the London School of Economics (LSE) under Harold Laski, a prominent Marxist and friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt. “My father wanted me to see both sides of the street” was Kennedy’s explanation in later years. Incidentally, his election as President earned a paragraph in the LSE magazine under the laconic heading “Old Student’s Success.” Kennedy’s assassination profoundly shocked the British. There was no disagreement when the government decided to give three acres of land at historic Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed, to the United States as a memorial. It is now American territory in perpetuity.
In terms of pure, concentrated Americana, however, no place in London can rival Westminster Abbey. Every citizen of the United States is entitled to regard it as a direct, personal heritage, just as President Jimmy Carter did some years ago when he admired the bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the Poets’ Corner but complained about the absence of a memorial to one of his favorite writers, the Welshman Dylan Thomas. The abbey authorities got the message, and a stone was duly installed.
The Congressional Medal of Honor hangs by the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. The abbey’s processional cross, carried at coronations, royal weddings, and other state occasions, was the gift in 1906 of Rodman Wanamaker, the Philadelphia department-store magnate. To mark the nine hundredth anniversary of the abbey, in 1966, his family added twenty diamonds.
Here at Westminster lie the mortal remains of Col. Henry Disney, ancestor of the more illustrious Walt; of Gen. John Burgoyne, late of Saratoga; of Adm. Edward Vernon, remembered in Mount Vernon; of James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia; of Queen Elizabeth I, the namesake of Virginia; of King Charles II, the namesake of Carolina; of Queen Anne, she of Annapolis; and here, too, lies Mr. Henry Warren, a Londoner born in Greenwich, who bought land on Manhattan Island and named the plot Greenwich Village.
Most touching of the abbey tombs —and one of the most elaborate—is that of Maj. John André, shot as a spy by George Washington after the wretched muddle with Benedict Arnold over West Point. André was a reluctant partner in the plot to surrender the fortress to the British, and Washington himself acknowledged that he was “more unfortunate than criminal.” By way of posthumous recompense, his body was reinterred in the abbey in 1821.
And Arnold? He lived on in London until 1801, somewhat clouded because of his part in André’s death but nevertheless regarded as a military genius. Americans who are prepared to indulge their regard for black sheep should go to St. Mary’s Church in Battersea, just up the river from Westminster. There, far from his native Connecticut, the bones of Benedict Arnold rest in a sort of peace. Unlike John André, no forgiving ship has ever arrived to carry them home.
A crude plaque tells the story: “In this crypt lie buried the bodies of Benedict Arnold, sometime general in the army of George Washington and of his faithful and devoted wife Margaret Arnold of Pennsylvania and of their loved daughter Sophia Matilda Phipps. The two nations whom he served in turn in the years of their enmity have united in this memorial as a token of their enduring friendship.”
Before we leave Westminster Abbey, one final American link demands attention: the figure of William Pitt the Elder in the abbey waxworks. It was made in 1779 by the mysterious Patience Lovell Wright, a New Jersey woman who had set up a studio in London a few years earlier. Mrs. Wright was more than a waxworker; she was also an intelligence agent acting for the revolutionary cause, passing information to Congress.
King George III and Queen Charlotte accepted her into the royal entourage and maintained stiff upper lips when she scolded them for making war and addressed them as “George” and “Charlotte.” But not all Americans in London approved of Mrs. Wright. Abigail Adams thought she was dissolute. Elkanah Watson described her as a maniac. Mrs. Wright was unmoved. Spies must have thick skins. To Franklin she wrote, “I meet with the greatest politeness from the people of England,” adding, “My education joined with my father’s courage can be serviceable to bring on the glorious cause of civil and religious liberty.”
An earlier American with a shadowy reputation, George Downing, graduated from Harvard in 1642 and became one of the trickiest, meanest, most unscrupulous wheeler-dealers in the politics of Restoration London. Contracting a lucrative marriage, he invested the proceeds in a piece of real estate within walking distance of Parliament. It was a shrewd deal that ensured the buyer’s immortality: 10 Downing Street has been the official residence of British prime ministers since 1735. During the 1940 blitz, Winston Churchill, himself the son of an American mother, fumed at Downing’s rickety houses—“shaky and lightly built by the profiteering contractor whose name they bear.” He knew what he was talking about; Churchill was an expert bricklayer.
Four miles from London’s center is Rotherhithe, rich in Mayflower lore. The Pilgrim vessel was probably built at Rotherhithe and dismantled there after her final voyage, in 1642. Some of the timbers are thought to be part of a barn at Jordans, to the west of London. The skipper of the Mayflower, Capt. Christopher Jones, is buried in Rotherhithe Church. There is even a pub called the Mayflower Inn, dating from the Pilgrim era, when it was known as the Shippe. Tradition has it that the four part owners of the Mayflower often met there.
Back, now, across London Bridge (not the medieval original with shops and houses or the replacement, which currently bakes in the sun of Lake Havasu, Arizona) and into the City once again. Outside the Royal Exchange is the statue of George Peabody, born Danvers, Massachusetts, 1795; died Eaton Square, London, 1869. In those seventy-four years Peabody established a reputation as a philanthropist that has never been surpassed. Among the Victorian poor of London his name was revered, and his “dwellings for the needy,” known as Peabody buildings, are still classics of innercity low-cost housing. It was Peabody who paid for the U.S. section of the Great Exhibition in 1851 when Congress refused to vote a cent.
To the west looms St. Paul’s (the American painter Benjamin West lies there), and beyond it comes the slope of Ludgate Hill. This is where Princess Pocahontas stayed in 1616. A vanished tavern called La Belle Sauvage was named for her. She died at Gravesend, far down the river, on the voyage home. In St. Martin s Ludgate Church, Capt. William Perm married Margaret van der Schuren in 1643. Their son, the founder of Pennsylvania, was born the following year.
Ludgate Hill gives way to Fleet Street, where St. Bride’s contains a memorial to Virginia Dare, the first child born to English parents in the New World, just four hundred years ago, in 1587. Ben Franklin fixed a lightning conductor on St. Bride’s steeple. George III said it wouldn’t work, but he was wrong.
Another Fleet Street church, St. Dunstan’s, has memorials to the Calverts, the founders of Maryland, and to the De La Warrs of Delaware. Nearby, in the Strand, St. Clement Dane’s—famous for a nursery rhyme, “Oranges and lemons. Say the bells of St. Clement’s”—belongs to the Royal Air Force. It contains a shrine and honor roll of U.S. airmen based in Britain and killed in World War II, with a tablet quoting the Gettysburg Address. The fine organ was presented by the United States Air Force. We need not dwell too long on the statue behind the church of Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose opinion of Americans during the Revolutionary War was less than flattering: “Rascals, robbers, pirates: I am willing to love all mankind except an American.”
While Johnson was fulminating against Americans, a young German who was to become the archetype of the American self-made man was walking the streets of London. John Jacob Astor spent only three years in the capital before heading for New York and a dynastic fortune. A century later his descendants arrived back in London, determined to join the aristocracy and armed with a hundred million dollars to smooth the path.
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.
From Henry VII, who granted a charter in 1496 to John Cabot “to sail to the mainland of the western sea,” to the present day, when the City actually has more American banks than New York, London has remained a truly intercontinental metropolis. It has not diminished with the passage of generations. For anyone proud enough to claim citizenship of the United States, the town on the Thames is home.