In Mayfair, The Long Half-Life Of Notoriety

By Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 2, 2006

LONDON, Dec. 1 -- A chauffeur-driven gold Rolls-Royce rolled past the jam-packed Cipriani restaurant, where the menu lists a Russian caviar appetizer for just under $500. A few doors down at an Elizabeth Arden spa, the Peaceful Pampering Package costs about $530 for a clientele of coiffed women arriving in Jaguars for stress relief. It was just another weekday lunchtime in Mayfair -- except for all of the police in the neighborhood looking for radiation, and that nasty business about the dead Russian spy.

"We are a bit shocked," said Lycra-clad Leslie Driscoll, 58, stretching for her lunchtime jog next to a black Bentley. "We're not used to this kind of intrigue."

Since last week's death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, felled by a mysterious radiation poisoning, the storied neighborhood of Mayfair has become the backdrop for England's most sensational spy case since the end of the Cold War.

Litvinenko, 43, an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, fell ill after visiting at least four locations in Mayfair on Nov. 1. In each of them -- the Millennium Hotel just yards from the U.S. Embassy, a popular sushi restaurant, and the offices of an enigmatic Russian billionaire and of an international security firm -- police have found traces of radioactive polonium-210. One week after his death, theories about how a fit man who ran five miles a day yet suddenly lost all of his hair and "died cell by cell," according to a doctor who examined him, are sloshing around posh Mayfair like vodka in a martini glass. Murder or suicide? Was the killer someone he thought was a friend, or his most famous foe?

And how did a material like polonium-210 arrive in Britain? Police may have some clues to that following discovery of traces of radiation on two British Airways jetliners that recently traveled between London and Moscow, among other destinations. Authorities have also shown interest in another British Airways jet and two Russian planes.

But while the polonium trail, as some here are calling it, winds ever farther away, it still runs largely through the heart of Mayfair, just north of Buckingham Palace and bounded roughly by some of the city's most fabled names: Hyde Park, Oxford Street, Regent Street and Green Park.

Wealthy men come from around the world to buy custom-fitted suits on Savile Row and to bid on luxury trophies at Christie's or Sotheby's auction houses. The owners of Thomas Goode boutique are hoping that some impossibly rich Russian or Saudi -- and there are many here -- will take a shine to the pair of seven-foot elephant statues in their window, selling for just under $12 million.

The neighborhood is a mix of elegant mansions and lovely tree-lined parks, such as Berkeley Square, as well as private clubs frequented by the royal and well-heeled, and marked, if at all, with discreet little brass signs.

"It's a glamorous part of the city," said Hilary Kneale, who was having coffee with her 23-year-old daughter, Tilly, at a Starbucks four doors down from Itsu, the Japanese restaurant where Litvinenko had lunch on the day police believe he was poisoned.

Kneale said the police's sealing off of Itsu and other buildings adds to the drama of the case. So does the method of death. As she pointed out, if someone had pushed Litvinenko in front of a subway car, it would have "caused less intrigue."

But "the twisted way he died, so slow and painful," has rattled people, her daughter said.

It has so worried them, in fact, that more than 2,600 people have called a hotline set up by the National Health Service. That line is for those concerned about being contaminated because they were in the same restaurant or bar or office as Litvinenko on Nov. 1, or in one of the two London hospitals where he was treated after becoming ill.

In the last 48 hours, thousands of people have called a hotline set up by British Airways, said airline spokesman Richard Goodfellow. The airline announced Wednesday night that as many as 33,000 passengers traveled in the past month on the three planes being investigated. Officials said the risk to public health is extremely low but urged passengers to call with any questions or concerns.

As the ripples of Litvinenko's death widen, politicians from London to Moscow to Rome have been discussing it in their parliaments. In Moscow, the talk has largely been about how preposterous it is to blame Russia -- that the poisoning was likely the handiwork of Kremlin detractors. In Rome, the foreign minister wanted to make clear that Mario Scaramella, an Italian who met Litvinenko at the sushi restaurant, was not working for Italian secret services. And in Britain, officials have frothed with outrage at a possible assassination carried out in public -- in Mayfair, no less.

British officials on Friday said that Scaramella had tested positive for polonium-210 radiation, as had Litvinenko's wife, Marina. Officials said both had been contaminated with far lower levels than Litvinenko and were showing no signs of radiation poisoning.

On busy Piccadilly Street, Itsu was still boarded up this week and two police officers stood outside, as passersby wondered whether the polonium was slipped into Litvinenko's soup there. Nearby, the Pine Bar at the Millennium Hotel was shut, a police officer guarding its white door, not far from the lobby Christmas tree. Friends of Litvinenko's said that he met with three Russians at the bar, and that one or more may have stayed at the Sheraton Park Lane Hotel around the corner. Police have also found traces of radiation there.

Litvinenko then went to at least two more places in Mayfair on Nov. 1: an office of an international security company at 25 Grosvenor Square, and 7 Down St., where Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, a friend of Litvinenko's, keeps his office. Berezovsky is easily recognized as he travels around Mayfair because of his many bodyguards, said a man selling flowers near Harry's Bar, a private club frequented by the rich and the royals.

"There are so many Russian millionaires and billionaires living here now," said a British woman standing in line at the Mayfair post office. "It had been going well. They are putting money in our economy."

But this case, she said, may make people feel differently about the Russian presence, which has grown in recent years to the point that some people jokingly call the city Moscow on the Thames.

"A lot more goes on in this neighborhood than you know," said Paul Gammon, who sells security equipment at his Mayfair shop. Gammon said everyone is interested in the spy case, but he, for one, doesn't want to ask too many questions.

"It's safer not to know," he said.

Special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company