How to solve the problem of an unlucky 13 people at dinner? Developing a rational mind is the obvious answer, but let’s pretend to be superstitious for a moment, because there’s fun to be had. And indeed money: in 19th-century Paris men known as quatorzièmes sat around in full evening dress, waiting for last-minute gigs as the 14th guest at a meal.
Some people say a pregnant woman counts as two guests, while a press story from several years ago claimed that when David Cameron and friends realised their party comprised 13, the restaurant owner fetched his Paddington Bear and sat it down with them. Cameron himself can’t remember this, though he does confirm his father was a stickler for the rule: ‘He’d always put an extra chair out, and sit a cuddly toy on it.’
The Savoy has its own solution: Kaspar the cat. In 1898 Woolf Joel, a South African mining magnate, hosted a dinner at the hotel, but a last-minute cancellation brought the group down to 13. Joel scoffed at talk of the first person to leave the table encountering bad luck, and to prove guests were talking nonsense he left first. On his return to Johannesburg he was promptly shot dead.
The Savoy decided that from then on they would never allow 13 diners to sit down again. For a while their solution was to seat a waiter with the party. But neither side was very happy with this arrangement: the hotel was a member of staff short, while the diners had to put up with a complete stranger in their midst. Not very relaxing, and useless if you wanted to talk confidentially.
Then in 1927 Basil Ionides came to the rescue. He was the designer who gave Hounslow West tube station its pink-and-cream ticket hall, but more relevantly he’d been commissioned by the Savoy to redecorate Pinafore, one of its private dining rooms. As well as completing this task, Ionides provided a solution to the ‘13’ problem: a black cat he’d sculpted out of a block of wood from a London plane tree. From then on, Kaspar — as the animal was christened — occupied the 14th chair, a napkin tied round his neck.
Winston Churchill became so fond of Kaspar that he had him at his table no matter how many guests were present. The cat briefly left the hotel during the second world war, courtesy of officers from the RAF’s 609 Squadron, who — having dined rather too liquidly — managed to smuggle him away. Kaspar lived for a while at their HQ in Lincolnshire, only returning to the Savoy after the intervention of an air commodore.
Parties of 13 can dine with the cat to this day, and he’s become something of a hotel mascot. Huge topiary versions of him stand outside the entrance, the River Restaurant has been renamed in his honour and even the Savoy’s cappuccinos are topped with his outline in chocolate.
He’s also had a book written about him by the hotel’s erstwhile writer-in-residence Michael Morpurgo. In this, we learn that Kaspar was the only cat to survive the sinking of the Titanic. Lucky boy.