LONDON — It was one of those quintessential moments that fix a time and place forever in the mind.
Just before twilight at the Ritz's Sunday afternoon tea dance the society jazz band struck up "Puttin' On the Ritz," and the well-dressed Londoners, some of them old enough to remember the Blitz, some of them born after the Beatles came to fame, stepped out onto the floor while a Tatler photographer discreetly snapped pictures of London's latest proof that everything old is new again.
Outside, in the chill of a gray afternoon, the lights of the city were beginning to illuminate. Pedestrians who hurried along Piccadilly wore gloves and mufflers, and a pudgy woman feeding pigeons in Green Park was bundled up in a balding fur coat the shade of a strawberry roan.
But inside, the restored Ritz dining room glowed like Versailles, the chandeliers festooned with gilded swags, and garlands of roses twinkled in duplicate in a mirrored wall. Above, on the oval painted ceiling, a sort of Fragonard pastel garden with puffy little clouds and pink roses twining on garden walls echoed the whipped-cream fantasies being served on silver trays by waiters in black tails.
The scene is grand, almost preposterous.
Male patrons of the Palm Court's regular afternoon tea--a relatively modest 8.50 ($14 U.S.); available by reservation only--are required to be attired in jacket and tie, and casually clad people wandering through are politely but firmly dissuaded from taking flash photographs of each other in the Palm Court.
Even actress Farrah Fawcett, in residence at the Ritz while filming the biography of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, attracted less notice than the fashionable tea dance patrons in flirtatious black cocktail hats with veils and narrow feathers.
Hutton spent a great deal of time at the Ritz. Noel Coward watched the heiress one day in the dining room waving her newly manicured fingertips in front of a dish of quails, and dashed off lyrics for "Children of the Ritz," which ends, "We know just how we want our quails done, and then we go and have our nails done."
On the table against the pink linen cloth are slender, crustless sandwiches of cucumber, egg salad, salmon and pate, sprinkled with cress. A choice of India or China tea is served in a shiny and very heavy silver pot, followed by a procession of little treats--hot buttered and toasted English muffins, fat scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream, the famous Ritz strawberry tarts, the chef's special almond slice with marzipan filling, and glazed kiwi-and-grape pastries.
To the strains of "A Foggy Day in London Town," a pale, languid blonde danced with detached precision and the polish of an Arthur Murray graduate, her eyes turned up, her face immobile with an utterly bored expression, while her escort, who looked like an earnest young architect in his wire-rimmed glasses, tattersall shirt and knit tie, propelled her around the floor with solemn dedication.
The word was already out that the Yanks were coming back. Unlike last year, when terrorism kept the big groups away, 1987 looks promising in spite of the puny dollar.
The charters are beginning to arrive; our flight from Los Angeles set down at Gatwick Airport about the same time as two wide-bodies, one from New York and the other from Dallas-Fort Worth, both of them chockablock with students and teachers, parents and tourists, who formed long, rambling lines at immigration stations and chattered eagerly about what they planned to do and see.
On Saturday afternoon three ebullient young American women were taking turns photographing each other with a smiling London bobby. Another woman, asking a Savile Row passer-by the way to "Burk-ley" Square, was gently told that " Bark -ley" Square lay in that direction.
The famous foods emporium of Fortnum & Mason was mobbed with people buying tins of special blend teas, and Penhaligon's tiny shop in the Burlington Arcade was fragrant with rose petals and essence of bluebells. "People still prefer the traditional scents and Victorian Blends," a salesgirl said.
Burberry's was busy with people buying $500 trench coats or $70 cashmere mufflers in the company's distinctive beige plaid. On the entrance doors the hours of business operation were spelled out in Arabic, Japanese and English. A "Bespoke" (made-to-order) shirt from Turnbull & Asser, where Prince Charles has his shirts made, ranges from $96 in Oxford cloth to $200 and up in silk.
The newest sports craze is carriage driving, a favorite of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Michael of Kent and Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. The sport bears some resemblance to handling a four-up team in American Western-style stagecoach driving, but the horses are much better groomed. Horses are matched and in best harness, grooms are in livery, and drivers in top hats and long coats.