*** Erin Summers interviews Eve Jones about her life with her remarkable husband, Ronald F. Jones OBE HonDUniv FHCIMA MI.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Barbican resident Eve Jones for my next instalment of ‘Interview with a Local’. This time was a little different. Eve’s late husband was famed hotelier Ronald F. Jones OBE, HonDUniv, FHCIMA, MI. In a career that spanned 55 years he was awarded the OBE for services to the hospitality industry, named Hotelier of the Year, and won multiple international awards for the hotels he managed. He retired as Director and General Manager of Claridge’s but… that’s not the end of the story! I’d been asked if I would like to put a piece together to remember him by.
If I’m honest, I wasn’t really sure what it was going to entail, how it would be for Eve, or for me, since her husband had died just a few weeks before, but as it turns out, we had a very pleasant morning. It was a joy learning more about such an inspiring man, and for Eve it seems she enjoyed recounting special memories of someone who obviously meant the absolute world to her.
Working in hotels myself, I of course knew of Ron and the impact he had had on the industry, and I remember finding out he had passed away late last year. This was a lovely excuse to re-read his books* and delve a little deeper into his life.
Erin – One of my highlights in Ron’s biography (Grand Hotelier: Behind the Scenes in Britain’s Best Hotels) has to be your whirlwind romance. Do you mind telling the readers how it all began?
Eve – Well it was my highlight too, the highlight of my life really. Towards the end of 1977 I was a freelance journalist specializing in hospitality and travel. I was commissioned to write a series called Great British Hoteliers. A dear friend John Tovey (Chef-Patron of Miller Howe Hotel in the Lake District) advised that I must make Ronald Jones of the Athenaeum Hotel the very first. ‘He is quite simply the finest hotelier in Britain.’ (John was a man of very firm views…) My editor agreed so I was introduced to Ron at the hotel one afternoon in the bar, where he was bidding farewell to the actor Gerald Harper, a heartthrob of mine – very attractive and charming. And I remember thinking I had died and gone to heaven, for right beside him was this other beautiful man with bright blue eyes and a smile from ear to ear. I thought how could a girl choose between those two on a lucky day!
Ron graciously agreed to set aside half an hour at 10am the next Tuesday. At 2 o’clock he suggested lunch. At 3.30 he felt he’d better get some work done, but suggested I come back in the evening for a light supper, sp we could continue the ‘interview’. ‘Just smoked salmon and a glass of Chablis? About seven?’ That was it, really. He would say later ‘She asked me so many questions I had to marry her to keep her quiet.’ Clearly, it didn’t work!
Erin – That sounds terribly romantic, and a lovely story which obviously means a lot to you. How did things go from there?
Eve – Instead of going on pub crawls we went on five-star West End hotel crawls; Inn on the Park, Hilton, all the Park Lane hotels. If there was music playing in the bar or in the ballroom, or anywhere really, we would go and we would dance, we just loved to dance, didn’t care even if there was no dance-floor. Carpet would do just as well.
Erin – It sounds like a movie, I can imagine you both became very well known!
Eve – It’s a wonder we weren’t asked to leave! It was forty-three years like a movie, believe me. When we made it official, I took John Tovey out to lunch and said I had something to tell. I remember being quite nervous as I was pretty sure that John, who spoke his mind, was going to say this isn’t right, he’s far too good for you or words to that effect, because John knew me quite well. I told him and he said one thing, ‘My dear! A marriage made in heaven’ and it was. John, who sadly died a couple of years ago, was our Cupid!
We were married in September in the Queens Chapel of the Savoy, where we also had my husband’s funeral service – just as beautiful in its own way. At the time of the marriage the Queens’ Chaplain was The Revd. Canon Edwin Young, who was well known as not only the Bishop of London’s Chaplain to the West End hotels but also to the Theatres, Night Clubs – and Strip Clubs.
I had warned him that during the service I may get a bit tearful ‘but they would be happy tears’. He looked over large black-framed glasses and said ‘my dear if I see you are about to cry I will look at you most severely and then you will not’. During the most solemn part of the service, as tears welled, we were interrupted by an ear-splitting non-stop ‘beep-beep-beep’. In pews full of Hoteliers, of course at least one would forget to turn off his pocket-pager (forerunner of mobile phones). Instead of tears the whole congregation tried and failed to suppress giggles – including bride and groom. That’s what happens when a multiplicity of hoteliers are ‘gathered here together’!
At the funeral in the same Savoy Chapel in December, hoteliers once again occupied most of the pews.
Erin – So what was married life like?
Eve – We were at the Atheneum for almost eight years, I carried on working from our apartment next door to the hotel but linked by basement passages. Ron felt the Athenaeum was the perfect hotel, ’just the right size, 120 rooms, in just the right place, overlooking Green Park in the heart of Mayfair, and full of the right people’.
Much of Hollywood, it seemed, made it their ‘home away from home’ a phrase Ron coined, after his PR and marketing team had done their work ‘over there’ during pre-opening. Not all were celebrities but we did have more than our share: John Wayne stayed for six weeks while filming Brannigan and wound down after a hard day on set by playing and singing cowboy songs at the piano, to the delight of the other guests.
Shirley MacLaine arrived with an entourage of nine including her personal astrologer who wouldn’t allow her to sleep in any room with the number nine in it. A pity because the best suite did have a number nine, and the only remaining suite was a much smaller, more modest one on the 3rd floor. Ms MacLaine accepted that and guess what – the lucky Astrologer and his wife had the Bridal Suite!
The non-showbiz guests loved the passing Hollywood Parade but it sometimes backfired. The fine actress Maureen Stapleton stayed for a week and when Reception phoned Ron to say she had just asked for her bill, Ron went down to bid her farewell. He arrived at the bottom of the stairs just in time to hear Ms Stapleton shreik: ‘Three thousand bucks and I didn’t even get to f— the Manager?’ It is not to his credit that this manager stayed behind a pillar until he could hot-foot it back to his office.
Mind you, he wasn’t so reticent when he had to escort Dolly Parton to her suite in the very small Athenaeum Hotel lift. He said afterwards ‘I wondered if there’d be room in there for the four of us…’
Many of those Athenaeum guests became close friends and we still correspond and visit in both directions.
Erin – It’s great to see how much passion you both had for your jobs and hotels. I think you either love working in hotels or you don’t. It’s a different way of life, and as someone who also works in one I completely understand your passion. It’s the people you come across, not just guests but colleagues in all the different departments from many different backgrounds. Ron obviously felt the same and he seems to have made a huge impact at every hotel he worked in.
Eve – He always believed that happy staff meant happy guests and that if your staff aren’t happy, then the guests were never going to be made happy. He began each day early in the morning going from top to bottom of the hotel, saying good morning to everyone working that shift: his way of ‘taking the temperature’ of the hotel. If someone looked a bit down in the mouth you could gently find out if there was an issue at work and act upon it, or if they were unwell or had a problem at home.
1984 he was head-hunted by the Managing Director of the Savoy Company to take over the management of Claridge’s. Here was a much older, grander, more formal property; it needed a lot of work and a lot of investment. Ron saw the state of the guest rooms and he saw the out-dated attitude of the front-of-house staff, but what troubled him most was the state of the staff facilities. Five different levels of dining. Senior management dined up on the fifth floor in a nicely set up dining room, junior management in a different room on a lower floor. Then a seating area for the office staff on a floor below that – all the rest took their food in a dingy, depressing basement room. Though to be fair, the same sub-standard food, usually barely tepid, served in all of them.
He decided the guest rooms could wait: first task was to create a brand new kitchen and staff restaurant, both of which won major awards when they came on stream. Everyone, from kitchen porters to Receptionists, Head Housekeeper and General Manager dined in the same place, on the same first-class food,
What’s also important is that he never stopped learning. A six-week residential senior management course while at BTH, an application to become a Master Innholder involving a long interview and an even longer essay on hotel-keeping, a top-up French course before going to Claridge’s. And this was always the advice he gave to young people with ambition: never stop learning. He was proud to be a Master Innholder, a Fellow of the Institute of Hospitality, Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts and of the Reunion des Gastronomes, even when declining health meant he was unable to attend meetings.
Erin – That’s incredible and very inspiring. But where did he get that mentality from? Where did these views and ideas come from?
Eve – Well, he had ‘been there, done that’. He had worked in hotels since he was fourteen years old, when his father died of injuries sustained in World War One and Ron became sole support of his widowed mother. No widows’ pensions, no benefits of any kind in those days. As a very junior member of staff Ron was in a good position to observe and to learn: what was wrong, what could and could not be done better, how unfair life could be for those at the bottom of the ladder, and he set his heart on making a difference. And remember he came from a hospitality background. His father was in charge of catering on the Royal Train. His mother ran a fashionable tea-room in the Theatre district of Liverpool. Even his parents-in-law were in hospitality, father-in-law Banquet Manager at The Midland, Manchester, mother-in-law in Housekeeping.
So when he started to be promoted to more senior positions, he set about changing what he could. His first summer season at Gleneagles (also a British Transport Hotel) he was a waiter. When he arrived he was horrified because here was this magnificent hotel yet the male staff slept in airless, windowless, malodorous attic dormitories. He complained to the management. And got his just desserts the next year when he returned as Assistant Manager. Hoist on his own petard, his first task was to put right all the things he had complained about the year before!
Erin – He appears way ahead of his time. Can you tell us how he first got into management level in hotels? It wasn’t an easy start for him was it?
Eve – He started work in the accounts office where he had to balance the books – the wrong job for him since maths was his worst subject at school. Undaunted he bought a ‘Ready Reckoner’ (a thick book of calculations, the 1940s version of an adding machine!) and worked with it religiously at home every night until he got all the sums right. At ninety-three he could still add up columns of figures in £s, shillings and pence as a party trick! When he asked to be put on the official management training course he was refused: he hadn’t the right background, hadn’t been to public school (he had, but only for the last year of his education), or been to university.
In any case, the day he turned eighteen he had his call-up papers and joined the Royal Navy, serving as a Wireless Telegraphist on the battleship King George V in the Pacific, under fire from the kamikaze pilots who hadn’t heard the war had ended the day before! The ship docked in Sydney and instead of applying for immediate demob he decided he’d like to stay in Australia for a year. His new job was assisting with the demob process for all the servicemen heading for home. That year in Australia he and his shipmates were feted – almost adopted – by local families (especially those with daughters…) He was entertained, was able to travel around NSW and even got himself invited to a cocktail party at Government House in Canberra after a chance meeting on a train.
He was fascinated by the difference between the class system in the UK and the way life was lived Down Under. Some of his host families were heads of large corporations or had their own substantial businesses though they had started at the bottom. When Alan Knight, who owned the largest confectionery company in Australia said ‘So what’re you going to do when you get back to Blighty, Ron?’ he crossed his fingers behind his back and said ‘I’m going to be a hotel manager!’
He knew that companies were obliged to keep returning servicemen’s jobs open after the war. Not necessarily the job you left, just a job. He still was not accepted as an official management trainee. Instead he went to night school three times a week. An hour on a bus, a tram and a ferry, two hours at night school, another hour-plus back. So tired he often slept through his tram stop to the terminus half a mile further on, woke up at the terminus clutching whatever he had cooked and was bringing back for his mother. Only once did he drop it coming downstairs on the tram – the very time it was a Gateau St. Honore, choux pastry, oodles of cream and toffee icing on top. Ruined.
He swept up the available qualifications, even learned French, showed them to his general manager who told him ‘They’re not worth the paper they’re written on.’ He asked then if he could work, for no extra pay, whatever shifts he was given, in each hotel department for six months to gain experience in housekeeping, pantry, reception and the kitchen.
This became the department he admired most in almost every hotel. His respect for chefs never waned. Rationing was still very strict in 1946. Even smart hotels were short of food, very short of the gourmet ingredients expected by the sophisticated clientele. He marveled at what the kitchen brigade managed to turn out on very little. ‘The sauce cook in particular’ he said, ‘used to conjure the most exquisite sauces I’ve ever known before or since, with no butter, no cream, practically nothing.
‘You couldn’t get luxury meats like veal but there were plenty of rabbits. In the hands of those wonderful cooks the rabbits, flattened, egged and breadcrumbed were transformed into ‘Escalope de Veau’. And not one of our discerning guests ever questioned the origin of the ‘veau’! Goat was plentiful, too, and again, the skill of those chefs was wonderful to watch as they turned out the most succulent, spicy, herby casseroles and ‘daubes’ and exotic curries. First, though, when the goats arrived in the kitchen (you could tell by the smelling when they did!) the cooks placed fierce bets to see who would get to keep the skin, which they could sell for a substantial sum!’
The training paid off and his first promotion made him the youngest manager in the history of British Transport Hotels, aged twenty-nine, at Dornoch Hotel in the Scottish Highlands. In BTH at that time, a manager was given three years to turn a hotel whose profits were failing, into a profitable one. Then they’d be moved to another hotel in poor shape to perform the same miracle there.
One of his favourite postings was as General Manager at Turnberry Hotel (now ‘Trump Turnberry’) on the Ayrshire coast, where he was told ‘You have the usual three years to turn this one from loss-making to profitable. Difference is, if you don’t then it will be sold to Butlins to become a holiday camp.’ There followed the Royal Station Hotel, Hull, Queens Hotel, Leeds, Central Hotel in Glasgow (which was my hometown and I used to be taken there once a year for tea when I was little more than a child and he was manager. I never knew, of course, as I didn’t know when I stayed one night every month for work at the Queens in Leeds and he was GM there all that time!)
Erin – Gosh, so your paths would have crossed all those years before you actually met?
Eve – Mmmm, there’s much to be said for Fate! From Glasgow he was head- hunted away from BTH to manage the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, then the reconstruction of the Atheneum Hotel in Piccadilly, formerly used mainly to accommodate airline personnel. Three years in re-construction, it emerged as without doubt the happiest hotel he ever managed. He described It as ‘just the right size at one hundred and twenty rooms, in just the right place overlooking Green Park in the heart of Mayfair, and full of just the right people. All of Hollywood made it their ‘home away from home’ (a phrase he coined) and that was where we – at last – met.
Erin – He appears to have had so much drive and that much momentum throughout his whole career, no peaks no troughs.
Eve – Oh there were peaks and troughs. His late wife Jean, to whom he was devoted, was an invalid who died in her 40s after being a wheelchair user for ten years. They had two sons who were only in their teens when their mother died. So, Ron was looking after his wife and raising two sons, with the help of his parents-in-law, all of the time he was pursuing the career he loved.
Erin – it sounds that you spent your best years together, so for that you must be extremely grateful. So, let’s hear more about you. What was Claridge’s like?
Eve – Claridge’s was a very different challenge – a hotel institution, really, part of the Savoy Company along with The Connaught, Savoy and Berkeley. The Athenaeum had been informal and relaxed and Claridge’s was a huge transition for me. I had been a considerable part of the hotel life at the Athenaeum, we entertained a lot there, the staff all knew me (although I was never allowed to issue an order). Claridge’s was like going back to the Adelphi in Liverpool or the Midland in Manchester in their heydays, so for Ron it was not unexpected to sport full morning dress every day, tuxedo every night and white tie and tails when royalty was present (and it often was!). We did entertain guests together and made some wonderful and still close friends from the US and around the world. We ‘lived above the shop’ for ten years which was a huge privilege and an occasional constraint, and I did accompany Ron on most of his overseas marketing trips. He hadn’t been there long when he was made a Director.
I embraced the change, cut back on some of my freelance work, was accepted to train as a Magistrate, and went back to school to do two years of wine studies. Three exams later I was lecturing to the next generation of wine students, organizing tastings and articles. The next stage would have been MW (Master of Wine). Are you doing that, Erin?
Erin – Not yet. I might do. I’m thinking of applying next year…
Eve – I hope you will, I would have loved it but it would have been a five year commitment, which was too much for me at the time. But I loved lecturing at Wine and Spirit Education Trust and teaching the wine courses at Marlborough College Summer School and later on cruise ships.
Ron oversaw a massive renovation at Claridge’s and he turned around the profits as the Board had hoped. The rooms and suites were refurbished by top designers and were the most beautiful in London. After he left it started all over again and now they’ve dug down five levels below the hotel, but he was the first. Nothing substantial had been done to the hotel for decades. It was a formidable challenge and one he embraced with his customary verve and foresight plus the essential diplomatic skills of the consummate hotelier when dealing with people as diverse as staff, guests who demanded the best, temperamental designers often best described as ‘intransigent’ and directors who took it in turn to visit every day!
Erin – It seems wherever he went he seems to not just to have done his job but gone above and beyond. You don’t often see that, especially today.
Eve – But it’s a very different world today. You could do things then which you wouldn’t be allowed to do now. You had some free rein then which you wouldn’t have today because the bottom line is King (and Queen and Princes.. ) Back then the hotel had to be profitable, but owners were not as desperate for the massive profits needed today. Many if not most hotels are owned by giant multi-national corporations, A General Manager of a large hotel today seems far less hands-on with both guests and staff and more of a Chief Executive.
And don’t forget he had some amazing staff. He never lost that drive to succeed and improve, but this man drew love to him like a magnet, I’ve never known it in anybody else. He had this huge smile, and I know it’s a bit of a cliche, but when he looked at you, you were the only person in the room. He truly liked and respected his staff and they repaid that handsomely. The send-off they gave him when he retired was mind-blowing. I can’t look at the albums or play the video of the concert they arranged for us without shedding tears (though they might not have felt the same about the duet we sang to thank them!)
Erin – I believe you, I can see that from just looking at photographs of him. There’s something very charming, very warm about him. And what an incredibly hard worker, it’s hard not to have so much respect for someone who took their career so seriously. When did he actually stop and wind down?
Eve – Stop? He never really stopped! He retired just before he was seventy, then did some consulting in the UK and the US and was involved with a few universities here and in Malta. When it was time to wind down a little we were able to take up a few of the invitations to lecture occasionally on cruise ships. Then when he was 90 we just cruised for fun!
Erin – He must have made such an impact on so many people.
Eve – The love and the tributes which came from the letters I received after he died and from the published Obituaries and on-line messages completely took my breath away. Many from colleague hoteliers and former mentees and young people he’d encouraged who are now running some of the foremost hotels in the world.
Erin – It’s been amazing learning more about a man who made such an impact on the industry, but it’s also been great having a bit of a nose around a different part of the Barbican! When did you move here?
Eve – We moved in in November 1994, straight from Claridge’s. I remember wandering around Wallside after a concert or a play and saying how wonderful it must be to live here. In spring of 94 we decided to look seriously. We looked at sixteen different flats (can you imagine that nowadays?) and this was number sixteen. It was a bit of a mess but we walked in, saw the view, looked at each other and said this is it.
Erin – It’s a really beautiful flat with one of the best views I’ve seen! Is it your plan to stay here?
Eve – I always thought when I was left on my own I would either rent a flat in Marylebone or go back to Richmond. But now the thought of moving from the Barbican is something I can’t even think about. It would be so hard. We have the best neighbours and it’s a special community. We have a whole mix of people from every background, every age and it’s a joy. You can be totally absorbed in the house groups, the politics and everything about it or you can not be.
And of course the idea that we can go to the Barbican Centre for films and concerts without getting our shoulders wet is a huge bonus. One of the last happy memories I have with Ron just before he died was the Barbican Centre, when we were able to go to the first Sunday matinee of ‘Anything Goes’, an old favourite of his which I was afraid he might not get to see. He was almost completely blind and quite ill by this time and it was a military operation to get him there but the staff were so helpful and kind, they made it happen. It was just wonderful, the happiest day. But that’s what the Barbican Centre staff are like
Erin – What a fond memory and one that reminds us how lovely it is to live within such a great community.
After our chat, Eve showed me her beautiful collection of photographs and memories of Ronald – with Her Majesty, with the Nixons, with Princess Diana and other Royals from all over, movie stars and astronauts, and with his staff from the 1950s to Claridge’s.
It was amazing to get even more of a glimpse into this talented man’s life. Their flat has paintings and pieces of sculpture by Ron. I came away inspired and proud to be part of what has to be one of the most rewarding careers.
A special thankyou to Eve who let me into her and Ron’s world, it was really a unique experience.
A limited number of their books are available direct from email@example.com (20% discount for Barbican Residents) and from amazon UK.
*’Grand Hotelier; Behind the Scenes in Britain’s Best Hotels’
‘The World on a Plate’ (When Retirement Ruled the Waves)
‘Gastromania’ (a fun quiz booklet set)