In the spring of this year Franklin Johnson acquired Iwan (Hedman/) Morelius’s impressive collection of signed Dennis Wheatley first editions, and very generously offered to make them available for inspection by members of our group.
Thus it came to pass that on 13th June a select group of enthusiasts made their way to Franklin’s flat in the West End to pore over the collection and the additional items that Franklin has added to augment it*.
DW’s biographer Phil Baker and veteran conventioneer John Runter (who interviewed DW as a journalist in the 1950s) came early in the afternoon to pore through the various volumes, and the Gs came down especially from Scotland to join the Becks in looking at the collection and to join Franklin and his wife Lydia for dinner afterwards.
All other members of the group were invited but regrettably for one reason or another the others couldn’t make it. And what a treat they missed !
It turned out that not only is Franklin a considerable expert in this field and many others, but his wife is also (although she denied it !) a significant authority. Having been hooked on ‘The Devil Rides Out’ as a teenager, she knew ‘The Second Seal’ almost by heart !
After eating various treats laid on by Lydia at the viewing, we made our way to the Connaught, where Franklin had laid on a private room for our dinner.
We later found out via Franklin that this was an inspired choice. At the beginning of ‘The Second Seal’, the Duke de Richleau tells Sir Pellinore Gwaine-Cust that he is staying at the Coburg Hotel. We were in fact dining in the very same hotel – the ‘Coburg’ was renamed the ‘Connaught’ in 1917 !
Mary G has written the following account of what happened next :
“A delightful evening at the Connaught”
Clockwise from the right : Franklin Johnson, Lydia Johnson, Nat Beck, Charles Beck, Mary G and Ken G
Click on the images to enlarge
Our party of six were ushered in to a very elegant side room away from the bustle of the restaurant. The cruet sets and silver cutlery were the only objects decorating the pristine white tablecloth. We found our place-markers and were gently settled into our seats by the quiet and respectful waiters and waitress. An atmosphere of expectation and sophistication was all around.
Champagne and still or sparkling water continually filled our glasses by the staff who danced on our attendance. The strains of classical music could be heard at a volume allowing conversation across the spacious circular table without any problem. Franklin showed himself to be a very interesting and humorous gentleman and Lydia enchanting with her tinkling laugh and sprightly personality.
Each course of the meal surpassed the previous. First came the brightly-toned and delicately flavoured English pea soup accompanied by a variety of bread rolls, next, after a well-timed interval came Lobster Cardinal. This was a succulent, fragrant and mouth-watering dish.
From the alcove the waiter poured us all a distinguished claret which Franklin had organised the Sommelier to chat to us about as we sampled it. Accompanying this glorious wine we enjoyed the exquisitely prepared Lamb from the same region of France.
The claret was sumptuous, dark and with hints of smoky fruit slipped down our throats; each mouthful memorable.
A desert of fine strawberries, coconut sorbet and meringue arrive soon after and, to our surprise and immense pleasure, Kummel generously poured into the receiving glasses. This we enjoyed in true DW style savouring every mouthful.
Coffees and speciality tea with platefuls of scrumptious petit fours completed our dining experience. The attentive Sommelier sent individual wallets containing interesting information about the claret around the table for each of us and photos to record our Epicurian delights were snapped by Nat for posterity.
Franklin had gone to levels never seen before to create an evening celebrating DW. The courses were created especially for the group by the Connaught’s internationally acclaimed kitchen on Franklin’s direction, with a gastronic theme based on a meal that The Duke de Richleau and has friends ate in ‘The Devil Rides Out’. This meal took place after Mocatta had kidnapped Fleur, and when the ‘modern musketeers’ made their way to France to track her down. There, in a quintessentially mysterious part of the book (Chapter 30: Out into the Fog), the friends try, despite having no appetite, to eat a meal especially chosen for them by the Duke.
Thus after a mouth watering pea and ravioli soup (not in the novel), we came to be regaled with Lobster Cardinal, these days a very rare dish, named after its red colour which resembles the red of a cardinal’s robes. Not only does Lobster Cardinal feature in ‘The Devil Rides Out’, but in several other of DW’s books, including ‘The Second Seal’, where it is eaten just before the Duke’s tiff in Lansdown Passage (see below).
This was accompanied by Veuve Cliquot, vintage 2004.
This was followed by Pauillac lamb (and yes, Franklin did arrange for the lamb to be sourced from Pauillac in south western France !), accompanied by a fabulous first growth claret from the same region – Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1989. As the sommelier explained to us while he carefully opened a bottle , there were only four first growth clarets, which were classified as such in 1855, but exceptionally Chateau Mouton Rothschild was added to the list in 1973. Franklin had obtained the wine from Justerini & Brooks, DW’s favourite wine merchant – another DW connection ! And what a fabulous wine it was – we were savouring its unique bouquet all evening !
The lamb was followed by a stunning meringue (see Mary’s description), followed by Kummel (Mentzendorff, of course; Gregory Sallust and Sir Pellinore Gwaine-Cust's favourite, first sampled courtesy of Ken G at the 2010 Convention), teas, coffees and petit fours.
On the way back to our hotels /transport, Franklin pointed out a building in Berkeley Square that has links to the Occult, and then took us past the entrance to what was once Lansdown Passage.
Lansdown(e) Passage as it would have appeared in the Duke’s day
On the left, looking down the passage from Berkeley Street, and
on the right from the Curzon Street end, showing where the Duke
would have hidden to ambush his opponent.
For Duke de Richleau aficionados, this is where in ‘The Second Seal’ (Chapter 5), one night in May 1914, the Duke is followed by someone (actually working for German Intelligence), turns the tables on him and interrogates him before letting the miscreant flee into the night.
The original iron gate (installed to foil highwaymen) remains, but I suspect none but us six (and now readers of this article !) will realise that where there is now just a set of stairs leading to a seeming nothing, there was once a passage between two stately homes** where one of Britain’s best loved fictional characters did battle with an Enemy of the State.
All in all, the evening had something of the hypnotic quality of the meal it was intended to re-create, although unlike de Richleau and his friends, our appetites were immense, and we thank Franklin and his wife Lydia for giving us memories to last a lifetime.
* The collection includes amongst other things a complete run of the Library of the Occult, and first editions of a number of the volumes published in that series.
** In a rare error, in the first edition, DW reversed the locations of the two stately homes – the Marquis of Lansdowne’s mansion was on the north side of the passage and the Duke of Devonshire’s mansion was on the south; DW mixed them up but corrected this in the second edition – this courtesy of FJ.
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