the people skills of Basil Fawlty

John Fothergill was an eccentric restaurateur with the people skills of Basil Fawlty.

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He turned the sleepy Spread Eagle Inn into one of the most famous hotels in England, if not the world. Some came for the food and the ambiance, others to marvel at John Fothergill’s eccentric personality. 

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A curmudgeon and an obsessed puritan, Fothergill was not just any old snob. 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.

lorgnette for a fish goddess found here

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 in with Robbie Ross, a close friend of Oscar Wilde’s. 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”

Moon House by architect Antonino Cardillo found here

He seemed destined for a life as an aesthete, or at least a dilettante, surrounded by his gay artist friends. But he turned his back on the world of art and archaeology, and went straight, marrying Doris Elsa Henning. The marriage was a disaster from the start and ended abruptly with Fothergill suffering 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 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 pulled together the money he needed and bought the lease.

Spread Eagle Inn found here

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.

cribbage cards made out of flummery found here

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.”

refaced money found here

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.  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 eat a stringy tough cut of beef that Fothergill ordered directly from the butcher as punishment.

tallest man found here

He had a 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 uninvited guests as possible. If they didn’t personally approach him to thank him for his hospitality, he would follow them outside, berate them publicly 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. 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.”

Magic Cone found here

This is an excerpt from an original review by Brooks Peters you can read here