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Not tonight, Rita

Published 7 January 1996
Style Magazine
131st article

Time was: Michael Winner and singer Beverley Chettoa in the Grill Room at the Mount Nelson (Vanessa Perry)

I'm not actually saying Rita Hayworth tried to seduce me, but I think she did. This came to mind as I sat recently in the Grill Room of the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. It's very 1950s, with banquettes of black and red-striped cloth, with jockey-and-horse prints on the wall and the plates. It was the girl singer warbling with a pianist and guitarist who reminded me of Rita. She wasn't much like her really, but in the dim lighting and with her old-fashioned attitude, it made me recall a night at Chasen's restaurant in Beverly Hills many years ago. Chasen's was the famous red couched habitat of the heavyweights of Los Angeles. They were famous for their chilli con carne and their New York cut steak. One night I was there with Rita, sadly well on the decline. The phones had stopped ringing for her. People gave her a left-handed handshake and looked over her shoulder to see if there was anyone more important in the room. For my goddess when I was young, this was hard to take and Rita had gone somewhat to the bottle.

With us was my agent, who was considering representing her, and his wife. They were very old, conservative Angelenos. Rita was a bit drunk. She kept insulting my agent's wife, so the atmosphere was chilly. Eventually we got up to leave. I had found her frail but charming. Nobody else had. As we waited outside for the valet parker to bring the car, Rita stood momentarily under a street light. She wore a belted raincoat. It is a moment I shall never forget. For that brief flash of time, she was the girl I ogled in the local Palace cinema in Letchworth. The light hit her goldish hair, the stance was film star, she was still thin and in the night atmosphere she was really Rita Hayworth. We drove her home in stony silence, my agent's wife fuming. We got to her house. "Will you come in for a coffee, Michael?" she asked seductively. It was late. "Not tonight, Rita," I said. And I kissed her goodbye.

That was the last time I saw her. Me, the poor boy from Willesden turned down a nightcap, maybe more, with Rita Hayworth! Later she came to London and started a film, but couldn't cope and was replaced. Russell Harty flew her in for a TV talk show and she was totally incoherent. Thus does the wonder of show business destroy its heroines. The not-so-Rita lookalike was now singing "killing me softly with his love". I was about to have another memorable moment, but of a very different kind. The jovial, bearded chef-in-chief of the Mount Nelson had prepared bobotie for me and Vanessa. I'd asked him what was a typical South African dish and here it came. Javanese-style minced lamb, bay leaves, cumin, spices, washed with egg on top and baked in the oven. A butternut and pumpkin bobotie for Vanessa. It was totally sensational. A tiny bit like cottage pie, but better. And I love cottage pie. Garth Stroebel, the head chef, gets my award for one of the best dishes ever. The Grill Room is a time warp, with some customers in formal dress, others in open-necked shirts. The restaurant manager, Arthur Claasen, was exemplary. On another night, Vanessa even gave their chicken second-best only to Claridge's, and she is the chief chicken critic of the world.

The Mount Nelson is a pink, white-balconied hotel of the old school. It is owned by the Orient Express Group and that's about as good a recommendation as you can get. It looks out on to Table Mountain and villas. Soon the villas will be highrises and Cape Town will be destroyed. But now it's beautiful. Only trouble is the phone message service! When the message light flashes, an automated voice says: "Replace your receiver, dial 761 and you will get your message." You replace the receiver, but you can't get this awful recorded man off the line. Eventually you realise you have to dial 761 while he's talking. Then you get a lady's recorded voice saying: "This is your message service, replace the receiver and you will get your message." Then the phone rings and you pick it up and another recorded voice says, "This is your new message" and there follows an endless bleep! Then you phone the switchboard and they say: "You haven't got a message!" Oh well, even great hotels are entitled to one misdemeanour.


Although Michael Winner donned a tie to comply with Wiltons' rule, what a pity he was photographed in a shirt that he was unable to button up underneath it (December 17). Is that due to too much good living? One meal less at even the less expensive restaurants he recommends could replace the shirt, even at Jermyn Street prices!
Rosemary Irving, London SW11

Recently four of us reserved a table for 8.30pm at a restaurant called Rascasse in Leeds and arrived at 8.20pm. By 8.50pm we had managed to see menus and were finally able to give our order at 9.10pm. At 9.50pm, after three requests for at least a bread roll, we were told that the chef was very busy, but our order would be processed next and would be about 10 minutes. At 10.05pm we were told our order had been misplaced and that two of our four starters were no longer available, and asked to re-order. At no time during the evening were more than six tables occupied. As you can imagine, we left. As we did, we were asked to return another evening and "try again", a request unlikely to be taken up.
Mrs R Silver, Leeds, W Yorks