Joined: 29 Mar 2012
|Posted: Mon Dec 12, 2016 8:14 am Post subject: Charles Sassi
|Victor Vincent (Charles) Sassi (1915-1999), restaurateur, was born at 73 West Bank, Cwmtillery, Monmouthshire, on 28 August 1915, the youngest son of Louis Sassi, a colliery carpenter, and his wife, Linda Mambriani. His family later moved to Barrow in Furness, where his Italian-born father worked in the shipyards. After basic schooling, Sassie travelled in Europe working in a range of jobs before settling into the restaurant business; he learned about Hungarian food in Budapest and Vienna before the Second World War, most notably at the Three Hussars. After his return to Britain he worked first as a grocer's assistant. On 05 May 1948 he married Elizabeth Varadi, with whom he had a daughter. Sassie opened an Hungarian restaurant in Soho that operated under a number of names and a number of locations before becoming the Gay Hussar in Greek Street in 1953. The Labour MP Tom Driberg adopted the restaurant and its owner and made it synonymous with the group of left-wing politicians allied to Aneurin Bevan and known as the Bevanites - though Bevan himself did not become a regular.
It was this association that transformed the Gay Hussar from an eating place into an institution. The food was a once-fashionable representation of mittel European cooking, centred on a version of Hungarian food still served in tourist restaurants in Budapest, but in few other locations. The menu remained virtually unchanged from the beginning of the operation and was oblivious to culinary fashion.. But the food was not really the point of the atmosphere Sassie created in the Gay Hussar. The Bevanites' presence as regular eaters brought in trade unionists and journalists. The Daily Mirror began to use the Gay Hussar for leaving parties, encouraged by the fact that Robert Maxwell, the paper's owner for much of the restaurant's heyday, was banned by Sassi for failing to pay his bills.
The upstairs room became the scene of regular conspiratorial dinners. By the 1980's the Gay Hussar was the foremost political restaurant in London. In addition to the old Bevanites such as Michael Foot, a new generation of Labour politicians, not necessarily of the left, adopted the place, including Roy Hattersley. Sassie created an atmosphere in which political gossip, intrigue, and discussion could flourish. Personally, he was part showman and in part father confessor and friend to many of his regulars.
Roy Hattersley recalled: "My first book, a biography of Horatio Nelson, was savagely reviewed in the Daily Telegraph and my publisher suggested a consoling lunch at the Gay Hussar. Victor Sassie was out when we telephoned to book a table, and when I later complained that he was absent from his post, he said: I was out buying your book. I told him that I could only assume that he had not read the Daily Telegraph. That's all I have read, he replied, It seemed a good day for your friends to buy a copy. I believed then - and I believe now - that he was telling the exact truth". (The Guardian)
Sassie played the front-of-the-house role with such skill and personality that he became as much a part of the experience of eating at the Gay Hussar as the food or the wine. One foundation of the restaurant's success was the idea that it was in some sense a safe and neutral ground where different elements in the political process could mix. The restaurant suffered a temporary decline when the confidentiality of what happened at these dinners was once breached. The shop workers' union hosted a Soviet distributive workers' delegation to a substantial dinner. The Daily Mail acquired the bill and put it on the front page. The political clientele deserted Sassie and he was forced to hire a Gypsy fiddler. But gradually, and at the urging of some of some of his most loyal customers, the politicians returned.
By the 1980's the golden age of the Gay Hussar, like the golden age of the left, had passed. A good measure of a restaurant's evolution from being genuinely a significant cultural entity to being a tourist attraction is the appearance of framed photographs of famous clientele. Though the Gay Hussar retained a close association with the left, the London that it served, with Fleet Street and Transport House near by, disappeared during the 1980's. Sassie retired in 1988, sold the business, and never returned. He died on 07 June 1999, at University College Hospital, Camden.
Sassie's lasting significance is as one of the great restaurateurs of the twentieth century: he created an eating place in the Gay Hussar that transcended its confines as a business to sell food and became a national institution.
I use to be a schizophrenic but we're OK now.