Peter Dorelli and Terry O’Neill: the stories behind the American Bar photos

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Other: People

An iconic bar requires iconic decor, and the American Bar at the Savoy found the answer to this demand in the eye-catching monochrome photographs of famous faces that line its walls.

All taken by celebrity photographer Terry O’Neill, everyone from David Bowie to Paul McCartney is up on the walls of the American Bar; a place that they have all frequented in the past for a Martini or glass of champagne.

The team at the American Bar recently announced that they’ll be bringing these photos to life in their next cocktail menu, and while they were busily working on it, they invited O’Neill in to tell them the stories behind some of the photographs, along with former head bartender Peter Dorelli, who was at the bar’s helm when the photographs were purchased.

Imbibe was invited along to the intimate gathering, and listening to Dorelli and O’Neill talk was like stepping back in time to another era…


Imbibe: How did your photographs end up on the walls?

O’Neill: Willy [Bauer, then general manager of the Savoy] came to my show at Hamiltons Gallery and picked out all the pictures that he wanted. It started out he only wanted people who had actually stayed in the Savoy, but then again everyone has stayed in the Savoy at one time or another, it was the place. It was thanks to Willy that all these pictures are here, and they’ve lasted all this time.

Peter Dorelli and Terry O'Neill

Peter Dorelli and Terry O’Neill

Dorelli: They were amazing days, and these pictures were very avant garde. They were the pictures of the day, so when we decided to choose them, there are so many great pictures. For me, this is related to my past. It’s nice to actually still be alive here to tell the tales.

O’Neill: You told me that Frank Sinatra got stolen?

Dorelli: Yes, it was on that wall there, and one morning I came and there was a big hole, and the photograph was stolen. We never actually found out who did it. It was a shame, because it was the prime position. He always sat there [at a table by a window near to the bar]because he loved that view, with a dry Martini.

O’Neill: Of all the people I worked with he was a huge, y’know, when he came to London it all belonged to him. He was the man about town. He was an incredible man. They just don’t make artists like that any more. There’s no great movie stars, they’re just Spiderman and Bat Man, Superman, it’s all rubbish.

Imbibe: Where did it all start for you, Terry?

O’Neill: I was a jazz drummer who wanted to go to America, so I read somewhere that BA was flying to New York. I applied for a job as an air steward, and got taken on. They said if I took a job now, I’d stand a better chance of becoming an air steward. So I just took a job, and slowly I took an interest in it, and they used to give me homework at the weekends, so I went across to the airport, and I accidentally took a shot of a guy who was Rab Butler, it turned out to be. A politician in a pinstripe suit who’d fallen asleep amongst a load of African chieftains who were all flying to South Africa.

I took this picture and a reporter said: “Oh my picture editor would like to see this,” so I gave him the film and the picture editor loved the pictures on the roll of film, and suddenly I had another job on a Saturday working for the Sunday Dispatch.

One thing led to another, and I teamed up with another guy at the airport, and then he died in a plane crash, and I got offered his job, and there I was, 21 years of age, and I said to this man, there was a paper called the Daily Sketch that’s not around any more, “I don’t really know what I’m doing,” and this guy said: “Don’t worry, I’ll look after you. You’re the youngest photographer in Fleet Street by 11 years.”

It was the 60s, and he said: “We think that pop music is going to be big, and we need somebody who can talk to all these groups about music and get on with it.” He said: “I want you to go down to Abbey Road, there’s a group there called The Beatles recording something called Please Please Me,” and I did, and it was the first pop picture in a newspaper.

A couple of days later the phone rings and it’s Andrew Oldham asking if I can do for the Stones what I did for the Beatles. So I was off and running, I started at the top and never looked back! Madness. One thing led to another, I met people like Ava Gardner, she wrote a letter of introduction to Frank Sinatra… it was a wonderful time, the 60s.

Everyone you see on these walls was great. Judy Garland was a great woman, you read about her sad side, but she was really, truly a fabulous, funny woman, really lovely.

Imbibe: In colour?

O’Neill: I’d just started working for the Sunday Times colour supplement, so I had to shoot colour. It was just me in those days, that picture has been copied so many times, but that was just me and her at 6.30 in the morning.

Declan McGurk: After she’d won her Oscar?

O’Neill: Yes, she didn’t get to bed until 3 o’clock! And she was totally drunk, but we did it anyway.

American Bar team: What about the funny photo of Dustin Hoffman?

Declan McGurk and Terry ONeill

Declan McGurk and Terry ONeill

O’Neill: I worked on a film called John and Mary, and I wanted to take some pictures of him. He was a funny character, and he always did funny things. That was on the street outside his house, and he kept begging, even after we did the picture. He had a great sense of humour. They don’t make movie stars like that anymore.

Dorelli: When I served him it was one gag after the other, you managed to get [shoot]exactly what I remember with him, it was one joke after the other. He never stopped.

American Bar team: And that photo of David Bowie and Elizabeth Taylor – how did that come about?

O’Neill: I was working with Bowie in LA, and Liz Taylor rang me up, I’d got to know her in an earlier film, and she said: “I’d love to meet David, would you bring him over to lunch?” So I talked to David, and told him she wanted him to go to lunch at a famous director’s house, because she wanted to put him in a film she was going to do in Russia, Bluebird I think it was.

He shows up four hours late, and we had about 10 minutes to do some pictures, of which she totally took hold of him. To be honest I think he was coked out of his head at the time, because he didn’t really know what he was doing! And she just whisked him around, it was all over, and he never got the part in the movie. So don’t be late for Liz Taylor!

McGurk: What’s going on with Peter Sellers?

O’Neill: He just did such silly things, I don’t know what he was doing.

Dorelli: He was very good at imitating accents. He would always sit at the table there, and he would imitate my accent, and everybody would burst out laughing. It was exactly my voice, it was so weird to hear.

Looking at Sophia Loren – she used to come here. She looked gorgeous. And Jerry Hall, it was amazing when she used to stay here with Mick Jagger. She’s the only lady that I was amazed what the changes makeup can make. She’d have a Bloody Mary in the morning in a tracksuit, very casual because she’d sometimes run, and then you’d see her in the evening when she was dressed to kill walking down the steps there… wow. It’s amazing the way she walked, being a model, and it was amazing the transformation between the morning and night!

McGurk: What do you think about the fact that your photos are going to be used in a cocktail menu?

O’Neill: I love it! It’s fabulous. My only problem is I stopped drinking a couple of years ago, so I won’t be able to enjoy it. I like all the photos, they all bring back great memories. My whole life’s on these walls, so I’m really thrilled to have the pictures here. We’ve got some more to bring them up to date though, we’ll get a new Sinatra and all that.

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Laura Foster

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