Elisabeth Kehoe, Queen of the Savoy

Elisabeth Kehoe, Queen of the Savoy

1. She’s a total boss. The most famous CEO you’ve never heard of, over a century ago Helen D’Oyly Carte (HDC) was running one of Britain’s – and the world’s – most famous hotel and entertainment businesses. Known as the true founder of the Gilbert & Sullivan franchise, she was responsible for running the Savoy, Claridge’s, Simpson-in-the Strand as well as five touring companies and the famous Savoy theatre and Gilbert & Sullivan multi-million pound brand, from 1890 to 1912;

2. She had the courage of a lion. At a time when transatlantic sea voyages were perilous and terrifying – passengers who could afford to do so took out additional life insurance – HDC made the crossing 30 times in the 1880s, often as a young woman in her twenties travelling alone;

3. Who says women shouldn’t study? Despite not being able to take a degree, HDC sat and aced the entrance exams to the University of London in 1871, taking top honours in logic and mathematics. At a university opened with great fanfare by a woman - QV - in 1870, women, ironically, were not welcome. HDC travelled to London to sit special exams which she knew would not get her a degree;

4. HDC succeeded in a man’s world, in a business dominated by men. Despite a reputation as a fierce negotiator and a no-nonsense boss, she was universally admired and, indeed, loved – proving that power does not need to be aggressive to be impactful;

5. People first: her actors, musicians, crew, and hundreds of staff, and the thousands and thousands of avid fans were her priority – before profits. Taking care of business meant taking care of people, which was HDC’s way of working. In a business fraught with uncertainty, being employed by the Savoy Group was considered a plum ticket;

6. From Wigtown to the West End: long before millennials, she curated her own life and re-invented herself. From a small coastal town in Scotland, she studied, trained as an actress and talked herself into running first Richard D’Oyly Carte’s office – and then his theatre companies – and lived among artists, writers and celebrities. The artists Whistler and Sickert were close personal friends, and she worked with Oscar Wilde, J.M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame as well as the greatest singers and actors of her time;

7. At a time when women were expected to follow convention, she was splendidly and unapologetically unconventional. Shunning a ‘boring’ teaching career, she trained as an actress – a middle-class no-no. When her mother and siblings emigrated to a new life in Australia, she claimed she would follow out on the next ship. Two months later, her family discovered that 24-year-old Helen had decided to live alone in London, after finding a job helping D’Oyly Carte’s fledging business. With no family and no secure income, she followed a path entirely untrodden, with nothing but her brains and determination to work hard to sustain her. It is one of the most dramatic success stories, a tale of true grit, and independence of spirit.