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The story goes that in 1898 a South African diamond magnate by the name of Woolf Joel was visiting London and held a banquet at the famous Savoy Hotel before returning home. At the last minute one of his guests had to cancel, leaving thirteen to sit at table, which one guest said was unlucky. After a successful dinner, Joel said his goodbyes and rose to leave; the same guest then said that the first person to leave would also be unlucky and would be the first to die. Joel was not superstitious and thought this remark very amusing but a few weeks later he was shot dead in his Johannesburg office.
For some years after those events, anxious to avoid a similar incident that could damage their reputation, the Savoy provided a member of the hotel staff to sit at tables of thirteen, to avoid the unlucky number, but the idea proved unpopular with guests wanting to talk about personal or private matters; so in 1926 a new solution was found. British architect and sculptor Basil Ionides was commissioned to design and carve a two-foot-high model of a black cat, which he produced from a single piece of London plane.Named Kaspar, for many years the cat resided in his own display case in the hotel foyer, except when needed for 'dinner duty' (see below). Following an extensive and expensive restoration costing £220 million, or about 350 million US dollars at the time that took almost three years, the Savoy Hotel reopened on 10-10-2010 and Kaspar returned to a place in the foyer from where he greets arriving guests. He has resumed his duties as a fourteenth guest when requested, in particular in the famous Savoy Grill restaurant.
Whenever a party of thirteen requests an extra guest to avoid the unlucky thirteen, he is brought to sit at table, has a napkin tied around his neck and is served every course, just like any other guest. Winston Churchill became very fond of Kaspar, to the extent that he insisted the cat should be present at every meeting of The Other Club, a political dining club he had founded in 1911, and so Kaspar has been at all the fortnightly meetings always held at the Savoy since 1927. (When, during World War 2, Kaspar was catnapped on one occasion by some mischievous Royal Air Force personnel and flown to Singapore, it was Churchill himself who demanded the cat's immediate return!)
Kaspar has an understudy!
On 2 May 2013 the Savoy relaunched one of its restaurants as Kaspar's Seafood Bar & Grill, said to offer guests a more casual dining experience than the earlier River Restaurant. Kaspar's image is used as the restaurant's logo (left). To honour Kaspar and pay tribute to his 86 years of service, a new anamorphic sculpture was commissioned from South African artist Jonty Hurwitz, and this sculpture presides over the new venue.
There are two theories as to the origin of the number thirteen being unlucky. One derives from Norse mythology, in which twelve Gods sat down to a banquet in Valhalla. The evil spirit Loki gatecrashed the party as thirteenth member of the party and killed the Gods' favourite, Balder. Thirteen also has significance to Christians, as there were thirteen people at the Last Supper, and the traitor Judas Iscariot was the thirteenth and last to arrive. As to why a cat the animals have held an important role in mythology and superstition over the centuries, and black cats in particular are considered by many cultures to be lucky.
The Savoy Hotel's cat was the inspiration for Michael Morpurgo's children's story Kaspar, Prince of Cats. MM was resident writer at the Savoy for a period during 2007.
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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is now no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.
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