Dawson’s Hotel in Johannesburg was once an establishment of importance in the life of the city and remains one filled with wonderful memories for me. In its heyday, it was one of the city’s best hotels, with perhaps only the Carlton and Langham Hotels being grander. In 1956 the British singing duo, Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, moved to South Africa. They spent their first three months in Johannesburg living at Dawson’s Hotel while they looked around for suitable permanent accommodation.
It was in April 1963 that I first acted as Webster’s accompanist in their singing studio on the eighth floor of Polliack’s Building at the corner of Eloff and Pritchard Streets.
At the time, Anne was away on a trip with broadcaster Leslie Green and I had been delighted and honoured when they asked me to take her place as studio accompanist. During some free time in the studio, Webster asked me if I would like to have lunch with him at Dawson’s. In turn, he accepted my invitation for him to have dinner with me and my parents at our home after we finished our work in the evening.
Tuesday was the red-letter day when Webster took me to lunch at Dawson’s Hotel. After the final morning student’s lesson was over, Webster announced for the world to hear that “Jean and I are going to blow the family savings today. I’m taking her to Dawson’s.” The poor student looked envious and said, “Oh, I wish I was coming with you. I have to go back to the office on an apple!”
As Dawson’s Hotel, at the corner of Von Brandis and President Streets, was just around the corner from the studio, we walked there. On our walk to the hotel, Webster seemed oblivious of the curious glances of the lunchtime throng doing double-takes as they recognised his famous face. We were ushered into the sumptuous Edwardian dining room, called the Gold Room Restaurant, on the first floor as though we were royalty. We were greeted by the head waiter who hovered around Webster and then directed us to the best table at the window.
Naturally Webster was at home in this setting. After all, he had frequented the grandest hotels of Europe, the Antipodes, and Britain and was used to being fussed over where ever he went. I, on the other hand, a teenager in a bottle green velvet dress, felt gauche and young, as indeed I was at that time. After studying the menu, Webster ordered grilled trout and I ordered a fish dish also. He had a gin before lunch and was quite disappointed when I refused anything alcoholic. At that stage of my life, the only time I had drunk an aperitif was when my father poured me a thimbleful of sherry on very special occasions.
During our meal Webster told me how he and Anne had lived at Dawson’s until they found their flat at Waverley, Highland’s North. Sadly, he also told about several members of the hotel management, who had theatrical connections, who for unknown reasons had seemingly turned against them.
I enjoyed my fish dish very much and felt very much the grand lady having lunch with a world famous singer in that wonderful dining room. Later, over coffee, we had petits fours. Webster insisted I should eat as many as I wanted. I found out later that they were soaked in brandy, so I did not go entirely without alcohol that day.
I remember coming out of that wonderful hotel into the afternoon sunshine and sauntering back to the studio. Fortunately, there was only one pupil due that afternoon. As we waited, Webster soon fell asleep on the couch while I sat in a chair a fair distance away reading Duet, their autobiography, which he had brought in for me to read the week before.
When Webster woke up, he put on one of the reel-to-reel tapes containing his sacred and oratorio recordings. I remember listening to How Lovely Art Thy Dwellings, The Lost Chord, Abide With Me, and Sound an Alarm. I was entranced and sometimes near to tears by the beauty of his singing.
Recently I heard from Nick Thompson-Wood, who was the manager of Dawson’s Hotel from 1964 – 1969. He is now living in Canada. He sent me a photograph of the staff of Dawson’s taken in the Gold Room Restaurant in 1966. Nick, as general manager, is seated in the middle of the front row.
Over the years, whenever I went back to Dawson’s Hotel with others, I could not help but recall my first visit with Webster and remember our lunch. Unfortunately, because of the high crime rate in central Johannesburg today, I have avoided going into the city for the past ten years or more. Imagine my sadness when I found Dawson’s hotel on a Google Street map recently and learned that it is no longer occupied. The building is now but a shadow of its former self. It was abandoned and in a state of abject decay. I suspect that it has now become home to squatters and serves merely as a place of shelter from the elements. What a sad end to an elegant hotel, which I will always remember for the happy time I spent there with Webster as a teenager.
Updated 17 May 2017.