Stompin’ at the Savoy

The Marquee of the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem
Marquee of the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Photo from the Harlem Swing Dance Society

Jazz aficionados associate the Savoy with the ballroom in Harlem made famous by Benny Goodman’s rendition of the Edgar Sampson tune.

For Herbert and Lou Hoover, the Savoy Hotel was the favorite meeting place for most Americans in London in 1914. When World War I began, the Hoovers noticed long lines outside of the American Embassy. They quickly learned that these were Americans seeking assistance in an effort to find transport back home as well as other immediate needs such as cash, food, clothing and shelter. Both Herbert and Lou Hoover helped create the American Citizen’s Relief Committee, a group that sought to provide emergency assistance to Americans stranded in Europe due to the war. The Savoy seemed the logical place to set up headquarters and provide assistance.

The entire operation of the American Citizen’s Relief Committee was improvised and
lasted less than four months. The immediate effect of the committee was to assist stranded
Americans with whatever their immediate needs might be. For most, it was getting immediate financial assistance and passage back to the United States. The necessities of war had governments enlisting commercial ships to serve military needs. Individuals with reservations on luxury liners found themselves bumped from their passage home. British banks closed during the initial days of the war and letters of credit from United States banks were not honored because of the financial uncertainty. The American Citizen’s Relief Committee helped to find available passage back to the United States and even paid for the tickets if individuals were short of funds. It is estimated that several hundreds of thousands of dollars was loaned to Americans with a simple understanding that they would repay the committee when they returned home and had access to their money. All but a few hundred dollars was repaid through this honors system. The committee also served as a conduit for communications for individuals in the United States trying to locate family and friends trapped overseas. Other services provided clothing for tourists whose luggage was lost during the initial weeks of the war, temporary housing, and funds for food.

A free newspaper containing helpful information on lodging, passports, and
available passage back to America was underwritten by Henry Gordon Selfridge, an American born owner of Selfridge & Company, one of London’s leading department stores. (This is the same Selfridge of the current PBS Masterpiece series, Mr. Selfridge.)

White Room (= River Room) c1906
c1906, White Room at the Savoy Hotel. Photo from Fairmont Hotels and Resorts.
Old Ball Room (= Abe Lincoln Rm) c1906
c1906, Mirror Room now the Abraham Lincoln Room at the Savoy Hotel. Photo: Fairmont Hotels and Resorts

Two spaces in the Savoy were primarily used by the relief committee. Lou Henry Hoover used the White Room for her relief efforts involving women and children. Herbert Hoover set up his operations in the Mirror Room, now called the Abraham Lincoln Room. Once the crisis of repatriation was complete, Hoover continued to use the Mirror Room to run the operations for the Commission for Relief in Belgium, a private organization he created to feed and provide assistance to 9 million civilians in German occupied Belgium and Northern France. On October 29, 1923, the Mirror Room was rededicated as the Abraham Lincoln Room as an act of appreciation for past American assistance extended to the British people. A bronze bust of Lincoln made by G. D. Macdougald was unveiled and the Savoy published a small pamphlet, A New Pilgrimage, providing a brief history of the room and Hoover’s activities. When Herbert Hoover took the oath of office on March 4, 1929, a group of twenty individuals gathered in the Abraham Lincoln Room at the Savoy to hear the radio broadcast of the event. All of the attendees were given a copy of A New Pilgrimage as a memento of the occasion.

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