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Bund Week: “Sir Victor Sassoon Comes Home”

Two portraits of Sir Edward Victor Elias Sassoon and Lady Sassoon were donated to the Fairmont Peace Hotel during a ceremony in the Sassoon Suite on Tuesday, 31 May. The portraits were personally delivered to the hotel by Sir Victor’s nephew, Roy Barnes, one of the legendary Shanghai financier’s closest surviving relatives.

Scribes was honoured to attend the intimate gathering on Sir Victor’s private rooftop terrace of the Fairmont Peace Hotel, directly beneath the iconic green copper pyramid that tops this remarkable building. Over drinks with Shanghai’s leading historians and society doyens, Roy Barnes and his two older sisters – each now in their sixties – shared memories of their “fun-loving” uncle. They also told of the life he led in Dallas, and finally the Bahamas, after escaping the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in 1941.

“Sir Victor’s days in Shanghai were among the happiest of his life and it’s very emotional for us to bring him home,” said Barnes at the unveiling. Painted in London in 1960, the oil-on-canvas portraits were previously displayed in the Sassoon family home in Dallas. They were later kept at his home in Nassau, where the family still lives and runs the Sassoon Group and Sir Victor Sassoon Heart Foundation, set up by Lady Sassoon after her husband’s death.

The donation of the two paintings marked the official opening of the Fairmont Peace Hotel’s Nine Nations Suites. The hotel reopened under the Fairmont brand after three years of renovations in late 2010. The 10th-floor Sassoon penthouse suite affords sweeping vistas of the Bund and Huangpu River – a view that Sir Victor referred to as “his muse.”

Originally named Sassoon House, incorporating the Cathay Hotel, the building was designed by Palmer & Turner. Construction began in spring 1926, and only in 1928 did Sassoon order for the upper part to be redesigned as a luxury hotel. It formally opened on 1 August 1929 – claiming to be the ‘Claridges of the Far East’.

The Cathay stood apart from other luxury hotels of the day in Shanghai for being more modern in its sense of luxury and in its desire to be a fashionable centre of society life. Over the years, numerous celebrity guests have checked in, including Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Noel Coward, who finished the play Private Lives while staying here.

“Everything about the Cathay was not only legendary, but visionary,” said Roy Barnes. “Even the methods for building it were truly ground-breaking.”

Sassoon also financed the development of a swathe of inventive buildings across Shanghai, including Hamilton House, Metropole Hotel and Embankment House – all of which stand proud today.

One of Sassoon’s favoured Shanghai pastimes, horse racing (the city’s oval-shaped racecourse is today’s People’s Square), would endure following his departure. After settling in Nassau, his horses won the English Derby four times in eight years: Pinza (1953), Crepello (1956), Hard Ridden (1958) and St. Paddy (1960).

Sassoon married Evelyn Barnes, a nurse who treated him after he suffered a heart attack in New York, in 1959. He died, aged 79, on 12 August 1961 of heart disease. He is buried, with Lady Sassoon, in Nassau. His spirit, and his magnificent architectural legacy, lives on in the city he made his own in the 1920s.

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