When Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells turned down an invitation to the first of the Foyles Literary Luncheons in London, they missed the birth of a great tradition. The invitation came from Christina Foyle, 19-year-old daughter of William Alfred Foyle, founder and head of the world's biggest bookshop.
Since then the list of famous speakers at the luncheons reads like a Who's Who of English letters, and Almanac de Gotha of kings, emperors and prime ministers and a drawing room of social and theatrical celebrities from overseas. Arnold Bennett and Rudyard Kipling, Harold Macmillan and John Gielgud, Kenneth Clark, Anthony Blunt, Prince Philip, Lauren Bacall, Anita Loose and three generations of Churchills have all been guest speakers. . . Foyles celebrated its 50th year of Literary Luncheons last month with Malcolm Muggeridge as the chief guest.
The first luncheon was in 1930. The guest of honor was Lord Darling, one of Britain's most distinguished judges, whom Christina Foyle enlisted after she had been refused by Shaw and Wells. (A supercilious note from Shaw said it was useless to start anything new in England. Wells declared that the letters he received from readers gave him no desire to meet them in the flesh.) Darling felt that the revival of soirees as a London social feature was long overdue and agreed to be the first guest.
Darling refused to talk about his own subject. Instead he attacked the inelegant English of some writers, particularly their confusion between "will" and "shall" and their use of "hello" as a greeting. "That people in England should be supposed to use such an expression passes my comprehension," said the learned judge.
In persuading distinguished or busy persons to speak, Christina often found it the wrong approach to ask them to talk on the subjects for which they were famous, as they had usually come to find them tedious. Anthony Eden refused to speak on politics but would talk with pleasure about Oriental procelain. A. A. Milne would not speak on children's books, but gave a brilliant address on cricket.
Shaw was a difficult fish to hook. When Christina asked him to preside at a later lunch for H. G. Wells, Shaw replied on a postcard, "Never waste two celebrities on one lecture. If you can get Shaw and Well, get a lecture apiece out of 'em with a couple of tongue-tied nobodies thrown in as chairmen. What you propose is criminal extravagance to which I will not be a party."
Undaunted, Christian then asked Shaw to a luncheon she was giving for Dr. Frank Buchman's Oxford Group. Telling him there would be 2,000 people present, she enclosed the special vegetarian menu designed for him. Shaw replied that he was forced to decline because he could not bear the sound of 2,000 people eating celery.
When she finally did get G.B.S. to speak, Christian committed an oversight. Since Shaw refused to discuss the theater, she persuaded him to speak at a luncheon to promote the protection of wild birds and in honor of Dr. Axel Munthe, physician and author. "We have wild bird sanctuaries in this country," Shaw told the assembled guests, "and that does us as human beings a great deal of credit because there are not sanctuaries for human beings at present. Although the arrangements for shooting them have been brought to perfection, nobody has started a society for the protection of human beings or the institution of sanctuaries where they cannot be shot." Only after the luncheon was over did Christina realize that the principal dish on the menu was pheasant.
Foyles literary luncheons have become a thriving instituion. They are usually held every month except August in the blue and silver banquet room of London's Dorchester Hotel and attract an eager audience of flower-hatted ladies in fox furs and pearls, who like to be exposed to the ambiance of literature.
Christina presides.A witty litterateur, she likes to hold court for authors she admires and over the past 50 years has played host to such diverse characters, as Eleanor Roosevelt and Gracie Fields, Cecil Beaton and Charles de Gaulle, Sophie Tucker, Ogden Nash and Haile Selassie. Once she surrounded "Look Younger, Live Longer" Gaylord Hauser with leaders of church, stage and business aged 80 and over. At a lunch to introduce a book on beards, Sir Compton Mackenzie described his fellow guests as "a veritable hedge of whiskers galore" -- 50 of Britian's most beautiful beards. For a lunch honoring a new crime novel, the wax figure of a famous murderer was borrowed from Madame Tussaud's and seated at the head table. After lunch an old lady was found trying to shake hands with it under the impression that is was the chief metropolitan magistrate.When a book on ex-convicts was published, Christina invited a number of reformed jailbirds to the launching lunch ceremony. One of them admitted that he had enjoyed her hospitality before -- for years he had stolen books from her shop and subsequentyly sold them.
The luncheons continue throughout World War II and remained what Christina had originally envisioned: affairs at which the public could see and hear authors. But with the present shortage of great writers (and the surfeit of memoirs by generals and politicians) they tend to be built abound book-writing celebrities from other fields. One of these was the architect Sir Basil Spence, who confessed that when he won the commission to design Coventry Cathedral, he thought his practice would increase. As it turned out, he did not get another commission for several years. "People were divided," he noted, "into those who said, 'Don't go to him, he's doing his cathedral,' and others who said, 'Don't go to him, have you seen his cathedral?"
The luncheons have occasionally been the scene of piquant encounters between people who are surprised to find themselves under the same roof. At that first lunch Lord Darling found himself having to make conversation with Lord Alfred Douglas, whom he had previously met under embarrassing circumstances at the trial of Oscar Wilde. Some years later several titled ladies were taken aback to find themselves at a table with Maurice Giodias, the Frenchman whose publishing record included such literary scandals as William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" and the works of Henry Miller.
The most successful luncheon topics are those concerned with the stage. At a luncheon for Jimmy Durante, the guest list read like Debrett. Jimmy rose from his seat, pointed his nose at the microphone and rasped, "Asking me to speak at a literary tea like this is like asking one of you gentlemen to sing 'Inka Dinka Doo.'" He then leaped to the piano, called out his old friend Eddie Jackson and they began to sing. Perched sidesaddle on the piano bench, the comedian banged away for more than an hour, singing such favorites as "The Last Chord" and of course "Inka Dinka Doo," "our national emblem." At one point he seized a photographer and said, "Go on, touch da nose, and I'll sue da joint for every penny -- I'll turn dis place into a bowling allery!" Finally he tore the piano apart and hurled it piece by piece to the floor. The audience was enraptured. The waiters, rarely empressed by the famous, stood watching in doorways, captivated.
Not since Shaw have so many people turned up as at the luncheon held in honor of John Lennon, the Beatle turned writer. Osbert Lancaster, a cartoonist, presided, and the guests included the German ambassador and Yehudi Menuhin, V. S. Pritchett and Colin Wilson. But Lennon suffered an attack of stage fright and almost didn't turn up. When he did, he spoke all of seven words: "Thank you very much -- God bless you." One distinguished guest called out "Shame!" but Lancaster saved the day by observing that in a hundred years, Harvard professors would be scouring the second-hand bookshops for the other works of the Beatles.
And the audience forgave Lennon. Dowagers and duchesses stampeded, lost their shoes and spilled coffee all over copies of his book as they clamored for his autograph.