Chapters In My Life: Olga Polizzi

Hotelier and interior designer Olga Polizzi CBE grew up in the world of hotels – her father was the late Lord Forte whose eponymous conglomerate was once the biggest catering and hotel group in the world. Following the death of her first husband in 1980, Olga worked in Forte’s design department until the group’s takeover in 1995. She and her older brother then created Rocco Forte Hotels, where she is deputy chairman and director of design for its 14 hotels worldwide. She also has three hotels of her own in the UK – Tresanton in Cornwall, Endsleigh in Devon and the soon-to-be-opened Star in Sussex. Here, she shares some of the key moments in her life…
Chapters In My Life: Olga Polizzi

Chapter One: Growing Up

“I had very strict parents and who can blame them when we were six children? Rocco, ‘the little prince’, was the eldest; I was next and then came my four younger sisters. We lived in Hampstead in what at the time seemed a huge house. My maternal grandmother lived with us and my father’s parents lived in the house next door, so it really was a little family enclave. Most days, my mother chucked us out into the garden and we were only allowed back in for meals. She never worried about us unless we were brought in bleeding. We all survived!
 
“My first school was St Mary’s in Hampstead and for senior school I boarded at what was then St Mary’s Convent in Ascot. It was a good school, but I didn’t really enjoy it – but then I don’t think I would have enjoyed any school. The nuns were pretty decent but they all had their idiosyncrasies. Sister Bridget is one I remember well; she was a brilliant English teacher and what she taught me has remained with me ever since – my love of Shakespeare, the Romantics, that all came from her. She was tough but good.
 
“As children, going on holiday was memorable – we were a huge crowd, plus our nanny and my grandfather and his helper. None of us were allowed to carry a bag or anything in case we left it behind somewhere. My father ran the restaurants at the airport, and he liked to see how things were going, so we always had to get there early in time for lunch. We’d sit at the table and look at the menu and ask whether we could have chicken, steak, fish, and my father would just say ‘chicken for everyone’ – we all had to have the same thing, as he knew that otherwise we’d be discussing the menu for an hour. On the other hand, once we got to Portugal ­ – we went there a lot as we had three hotels in the Algarve – we were given tennis lessons, water-skiing lessons, golf lessons, and we always had a lovely long holiday. My father stayed in one of the hotels and would rent a villa for the rest of us. He’d come over for breakfast and then go off to play golf, and then we’d meet again for dinner, usually at the hotel.”
 

Olga with her daughter Alex at Hotel Endsleigh
Olga with her daughters, Alex and Charlie

Chapter Two: Memories Of My Father

“I was particularly fond of my father and very close to him. He was a brilliant and very interesting man in many ways and, even at my age, I still quote him. I always remember him coming home from work in the evening: he’d press the doorbell and wouldn’t stop until we all ran down to say hello. Funnily enough, I now seem to do the same to my poor husband! However, he was very opiniated and didn’t like us voicing a different opinion from his. But he was incredibly kind and, when the chips were down, he was always onside. I had a couple of things happen to me that I was terrified to tell him, but he supported me. He always gave back to people who had been kind and decent to him – for instance, the owner of publishing house Sidgwick & Jackson once helped my father at a time when he was in trouble and, some years later, when he ran into difficulties my father bought the company off him, even though we knew nothing about publishing, and the company never made any money. And so it was with lots of other people, as I heard first hand many times when I went round the country talking to our shareholders. One woman told me that when her husband died, she wrote to my father, and he’d sent her and her daughters on holiday.
 
“At Christmas time he always sent a hamper to every single person in the village between Rome and Naples where he grew up; he used to say that when the doorbell goes there it’s always bad news and he wanted them to open the door to good news and something nice.”

Chapter Three: My First Marriage And Children

“I got married at 19, shortly after my A-levels. I had, in fact, met my husband-to-be [Count Alessandro Polizzi] when I was 16 and still at school. He was semi-related to one my aunts on my father’s side and she introduced us when he came over from Italy after he’d finished university. He was about ten years older than me and a good and lovely man. We lived in Rome where I went to art school and I had my daughters [Alexandra and Charlotte] early on. It was a mistake getting married so young, but they were different times then, and we didn’t end up getting on that well. He very sadly died in a car crash which was disastrous for the girls – and for me too, of course.”

Hotel Endlsleigh, Dartmoor, Devon
The Star, Alfriston, Sussex

Chapter Four: The Start Of My Career

“Although we’d all had jobs during school holidays – Rocco and I both worked at the airport making sandwiches and I also worked in the Café Royal kitchens – after Alessandro’s death, my father said I should work for him; it was something that had never really been thought of before, as only Rocco had been brought up to join the company. Anyway, I joined Forte Hotels and I’ve been working ever since.
 
“They had a big design department, with architects, designers, project managers, so it was quite interesting for me, as I’d always been arty and keen on design and, bit by bit, I learnt all about that side of the business. We had all sorts of different hotels – from the Forte Grand hotels, five-stars like the Grosvenor House in London and the George V in Paris, as well as Posthouse hotels and Heritage Inns. Everything was done much more cheaply in those days – we couldn’t spend more than £8 on a metre of fabric, whereas now we’re spending £60, £100 and sometimes more. I learnt how to stick to budget, how to design a bathroom, make sure the air conditioning grilles were in the right place and so on. Even though I was the boss’s daughter, no-one made me feel awkward – they saw I worked hard and tried to fit in. Of course, I progressed very quickly, quicker than most.
 
“My father retired in 1993 and Rocco was running the company when we were taken over in a hostile bid by the Granada Group in 1996. It was a really difficult time – my brother fought the bid really hard and managed to push up the price three times, while I went round the country, from north to south, speaking to all our small shareholders trying to persuade them to stick with us. Anything between 60 to 200-300 shareholders came to these meetings and most voted with us because they loved us. But the City institutions believed in Gerry Robinson and they went with him, and in the end we lost the company. Rocco and I were asked to leave immediately and we set up an office together, with my PA Judy. I didn’t really want to stay in the hotel business as I was so upset by the whole thing – the fact my father had come from a small village up in the hills in Italy and had worked so hard to build this company of 800 hotels and a catering business, probably one of the biggest in the world at the time, was soul destroying.”

Pinuccia, Tresanton's classic yacht, built in 1938 to race for Italy
A room at Endsleigh

Chapter Five: Launching Our New Hotels

“Later that year, Rocco launched the Rocco Forte Hotels brand, and I hung on to his coat tails. The first hotel we bought was The Balmoral in Edinburgh. He wasn’t really into design at the time and didn’t realise how important it was going to be. None of us did, of course. In those days, if you told people that their house looks like the hotel round the corner, they would have punched you. But now hotels are so innovative and often start trends and are more like homes, even nicer than homes sometimes – well that is what I try to do, give people that little bit more.
 
“My main job is still working on the design side of Rocco Forte Hotels – we have 14 now. We opened Masseria Torre Maizza in Puglia last year and it did really well, and hopefully will do so again this year. It’s a lovely hotel and I worked very hard on it doing all the design myself, whereas often I take on designers for the bigger hotels. But this one was a small, with just 40 rooms. This month, we’re opening Villa Igiea in Palermo which has been a huge project and really nerve-wracking, especially with Covid when things just haven’t arrived on time. Of course, I haven’t been able to go there for ages, so it’s all been done via endless Zooms.
 
“I’m fond of all our hotels, but I do love The Balmoral…it’s a big Victorian pile and I adore Edinburgh. I’m also fond of Brown’s as it’s just round the corner from our office. Our cash cow is our hotel in Rome, the Hotel de Russie, and I think Villa Igiea is stunning, as it looks out to sea and is just so beautiful. Palermo is such an interesting city and it’s getting better and better known.”

Chapter Six: Meeting My Second Husband

“William [Shawcross] and I have been married for nearly 30 years. I actually met him on a blind date set up by Carla Powell whose husband Charles was Mrs Thatcher’s private secretary and advisor on foreign affairs and defence. Carla used to say to me, ‘Don’t you know William?’ and to William, ‘Don’t you know Olga?’ – she was determined to get us together but somehow or other something always came up and she never managed to get us to meet. Then, finally, we were due to all have dinner together but one of their sons broke his arm, so poor old Charles had to take us on his own to Montpeliano in Knightsbridge – and that is how we met roughly 35 years ago.”

Tresanton
Tresanton

Chapter Seven: Opening Tresanton

“William had a house in St Mawes in Cornwall. William’s father was a great sailor and they used to spend their summers on their boat which they moored there. They always went to the nearby Tresanton which was a well-known and rather good hotel in the 60s – in fact, the Queen Mother used to stay there. But then it fell on rather hard times and everywhere was constantly flooded. William would say to me, ‘Why don’t you buy it?’ and I’d reply, ‘Why the hell do I want a small hotel in Cornwall?’. In the end I went to see it – it’s in a stunning position and, strangely, no one had put in an offer and it was incredibly cheap. I looked at it for two years before buying it...
 
“Each bedroom had its own bathroom, but across the corridor. William, who can sleep anywhere, on anyone’s sofa, kept saying that it was fine and all I needed were some good towelling dressing gowns and guests could then cross the corridor. Of course, I knew that if you want a decent hotel, people want a bathroom ensuite, but no one could work out how to do this. In the end, we put a corridor outside and brought the original corridor into the bedrooms which made the rooms really big with wonderful views out to sea. It was the first designer hotel in Cornwall – I was very lucky, I just caught the moment, and it was fun. I don’t know how we got it opened but I really enjoyed doing it up. I bought 30 chests of drawers, 30 desks, 30 bedside tables and put them all in store and, when the hotel was ready, we moved them around to work out how to put them together. We bought masses of linen fabric and sewed a different colour stripe down the middle of each curtain, so we had blue rooms, green rooms, yellow rooms. It was done quite simply.  I also got into Cornish art and bought a lot of local art, as well as lots of books as I always like having them in my hotels. I had a lot of mosaic floors done – they cost an absolute fortune now, but they were reasonable then. We opened Tresanton in 1998 and it has done very well since. It got so much publicity from the start: we’d get so excited when the papers wrote about it and when we were featured on the Holiday Programme. Now, I’ve got a bit jaded and it’s not such fun anymore, but at the time it really was.
 
“A couple of years ago, I bought the garden in front of Tresanton – it came with a house which I also had to buy; I really didn’t want the house but neither did I want it to go to anyone else. It was all rather expensive, as house prices in Cornwall have gone bananas! But I’m so pleased with it now: I’ve done it up and it’s my little house right on the sea.
 
“My second hotel in what is now the Polizzi Collection is the Endsleigh in the Tamar Valley in Devon, but that followed quite a long time after. I should have bought it before, but the truth is I was working very hard for Rocco Forte Hotels and didn’t really have the energy. It’s an old 1800s building, a cottage orné, built for the Duchess of Bedford, Georgiana Russell. It’s really beautiful and rather special with a wonderful Repton garden.
 
“This month, we are also due to open The Star in Alfriston, in East Sussex. My daughter Alex convinced me to buy it – it’s an old inn with a 16th-century frontage and totally different to my other properties, as it’s in the high street right in the middle of the village. Funnily enough, it used to be owned by Trusthouse (which became Trusthouse Forte) and they’d put on this really hideous 60s block at the back. I’ve had to completely rebuild it, so it’s been a huge amount of work and probably three times over budget. There are always masses of problems…it’s a bit like having a baby, but once it’s open you forget!”

A room at Tresanton

Chapter Eight: My Love Of Sussex

“I’ve been going to Sussex for many years because William’s father had a house there very near The Star. It’s a lovely, partly Elizabethan house which we bought off his brother and sister when his father died. I have a lovely garden which I’ve worked really hard on and which we open for the hospice and the local hospital every year. That’s been my real love doing up the garden and it really feels like mine, whereas the house feels like William’s. I’ve loved being in Sussex during the lockdowns – I’ve seen the garden develop through all the seasons and seen things I didn’t normally notice: a particular fruit tree in blossom, new leaves coming out, the birds, the nests. It’s been lovely and there are amazing walks around us. And William and I have been lucky to see our children and grandchildren.”

Chapter Nine: The Last Year…

“The last year has been an exhausting period in many ways, and a very worrying time for Rocco Forte Hotels, as we’ve had to close most of them. My brother and I had envisaged having bad years but never having no money coming in whatsoever. We’ve had to borrow a lot, but Rocco is an eternal optimist, thank God, whereas I’m a complete Eeyore, a terrible pessimist. It’s a good balance I suppose, but I do wish I was a bit more like him. Generally, Covid has been a terrible time for hoteliers and the Government furlough scheme has been a huge help – without it, I think we’d all have gone bust, or we would have had to get rid of all the staff which would have been terrible.
 
“Right now, I can’t see anything beyond The Star and Villa Igiea. At some point this year, I’d love to have a holiday, but I’m not sure if I’ll manage it. I’d like to go to Verdura in Sicily and the family would quite like that too. I must book it!”

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