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Violet Smith, confidante of many celebrities, was the eccentric grande dame of the Fairlawn Hotel in Kolkata.The 200-year-old building on Sudder Street in the city centre, which she owned and ran for more than half a century, was, to thousands who stayed there, a green-painted refuge of calm from the noise and dust, fringed in its front courtyard by palms, and offering old-fashioned pleasures such as gin-and-tonic taken at sundown on the verandah.She would tell other guests how he had spent his honeymoon at the Fairlawn.Kapoor married Jennifer Kendal, daughter of the travelling actor-manager Geoffrey Kendal, who in the 1950s toured India staging Shakespeare plays.But Violet longed for India, and they went back, Major Smith having found a job with a British company in Bombay.There they lived for 10 years; he worked in the jute trade, and later, as a sales director, travelled all over the subcontinent.Major Smith, after a long illness through which Violet nursed him, died in 2002. Under Violet’s stewardship Fairlawn became de rigueur as a stopover for Western artists and performers.Visitors whose presence caused Violet to swell with pride included the actress Julie Christie, the travel writer Eric Newby and the playwright Tom Stoppard.
Her birthday parties held at the hotel were gatherings to be seen at, and to write home about.
“I loved it here,” she wrote in 2012, “and it is from this hotel that I left, aged 17, to try my luck in England, my father’s disapproval ringing in my ears.” Fascinated former guests recount the thickness of Violet Smith’s make-up, the formality of her dress, and her determination, even in her nineties, to descend two flights of stairs each day in order to hold court in the hotel’s green foyer.
There, looking up from the magnifying glass with which she would peruse the day’s newspapers, she personally greeted every arrival.
She first lived in Calcutta as a teenager in 1936, when her mother bought Fairlawn from two English spinsters.
The house had been in the hands of a string of British owners ever since William Ford bought the land from a local Indian aristocrat.