Rosa Lewis was a real person, and a rather incredible one at that. She was born in 1867 in London and rose from somewhat a somewhat humble background
After leaving school at 12 and becoming a general servant,she worked her way up through the hierarchy of domestic service eventually running the kitchens of the Duc d’Orleans at Sandhurst.
And she became rather famous for her cooking skills.
There is more
It was through her cooking that Rosa was linked to Edward VII. He so adored her food that tactful society hostesses employed her when entertaining him for over 20 years, making her services the height of fashion.
She married and in 1902 purchased the Cavendish Hotel, a focal point for aristocratic dalliances and partying. Rosa became known as the Duchess of Jermyn Street.
Ah, the Edwardian period!
With the outbreak of WW1, society entertaining came to an end and Rosa turned her attentions to welcoming impoverished military officers to the Cavendish. Her kind and tolerant nature never allowed them to pay and with her tactics of allowing rich guests to cover the costs of the poor, she managed to continue these charitable efforts until her death.
The Edwardian Period may have been over, but Louisa never left its values and routines behind. She remained for years and years, the grand lady of Jermyn Street.Indeed, the father of an American friend of mine told me his story of how he was lucky enough to have a short conversation with her. This painting of her might give you a hint why
Paradoxically, Rosa herself had a hand in the creation of the false identity. No innocent to the process of publicity, her idiosyncrasies, bad language, extrovert behavior, ‘Cockney sparrow’ approach were all a deliberate device of hers to invent a personality. They constituted a recipe that almost, but not quite, eclipsed the real Rosa.
In other words, Rosa was quite the character! She passed on in 1952, and her life story became a thing of legend.
The legend was picked up by able story tellers(including the renowned John Hawksworth) who fashioned it into a TV series called “The Duchess of Duke Street”. Rosa — not exactly the historical Rosa but loosely based on her l— became Louisa Trotter, played by Gemma Jones. The show ran in the 1970’s became a hit in the US in the PBS Masterpiece Theater series.
What was so special about it? Like Upstairs Downstairs (another Hawksworth effort). each episode of the show captures a slightly different dimension of the mood of the times in London at a period just before what we would call “modern”. And as in Upstairs Downstairs, the first World War proves to be a major pivot.
This nice video montage profiles the various escapades that Louisa Trotter finds herself in and I think capture some of the spirit of the thing. Enjoy!