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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Rosa Lewis, the Old Cavendish, and Taking the Fifth

From Washington Lawyer, February 2002

By Jacob A. Stein

spectatorAccompanying a client who must assert Fifth Amendment rights before a grand jury is not an occasion conducive to good conversation. Both the lawyer and the client are concerned as to just how things will go. The client will be under oath and warned that perjury is a felony. This, itself, is unpleasant. Add that the client may be a respectable businessman who is embarrassed by having to refuse to answer on the grounds that his answers may tend to incriminate.

I try to avoid those hours of stilted conversation when traveling with a client to out-of-town federal courts. Therefore if the client and I are in different cities, I suggest each finds his own method of travel to the courthouse.

Some years ago I thought I had arranged I would take the Metroliner alone and do some uninterrupted reading. But then plans changed and we agreed to meet in Washington and take the train up together. Thus he and I would be together for several hours with little to say. He was a dignified southern gentleman who was not talkative under the best of conditions, and these were not the best conditions.

I decided to make no effort at small talk during the train ride. I brought with me a book about Rosa Lewis (1867–1952), who ran the notorious old Cavendish hotel on Jermyn Street in London. Masterpiece Theatre dramatized the goings-on at the hotel in a TV series focusing on Rosa Lewis, and the way she ran the Cavendish as an upper-class honey pot.

She was a former kitchen maid who climbed the ladder of good fortune that led her to the ownership of her own hotel. Lord Ribblesdale and other toffs became semipermanent guests until things quieted down in their home life.

One of her upper-class clients was the subject of a notorious breach-of-promise suit. He refused to settle. His love letters were read out in court and printed in newspapers. He met with his cheerleaders every evening at the Cavendish. He won. Such suits were a danger to Rosa’s clientele. The boys got together and used their influence to get a statutory nullification of such claims. It is blackmail, nothing but blackmail.

As we settled into our Metroliner seats I saw that my client had a book. This meant it would not be discourteous for me to read my book. After he read a few pages—it was a best-seller mystery—he put it down.

I read a few pages of my book and then my mind wandered to episodes before grand juries where things did not go as planned. I closed the book and put it on the tray. Then to my surprise this reserved gentleman reached right over and picked up my book. He opened it and looked carefully at the pictures of Rosa Lewis, the lobby of the Cavendish hotel, and the picture of Evelyn Waugh, who in his novel Vile Bodies gave an unflattering portrait of Lewis. Why would a businessman from a small southern town take such an interest in a long-ago disreputable London hotel? When he replaced the book I could see a change in his mood. Some of the tension had left his face.

He asked if I had ever stayed at the Cavendish. I said I had but that was years after the old hotel had been bombed out during the war. When I was there it was just another commercial hotel. I asked if he ever stayed at the Cavendish. He said he had. He was stationed in London during the war and the Cavendish was his home away from home until it was hit by a bomb during the blitz. He said he knew Rosa Lewis quite well. He even had letters from her.

The next few hours on the train were very pleasant. I learned things about Rosa Lewis that were not in the book. As we talked we momentarily forgot we were on our way to an appointment with a grand jury.

At the courthouse we reported as the subpoena directed to room 2021. We gave our names and within a half hour my client was behind the closed doors of the grand jury room. His instructions were to plead the Fifth as soon as the questions touched on his business dealings. My estimate of time was he would be out in 10 minutes. My estimate was wrong.

As the time passed I worried. Did he decide to answer any question that was asked? Did he wait too long to refuse to answer and did the prosecutor advise him that he had waived the privilege? What was going on in there that was taking so much time?

When the door opened 45 minutes later, he walked out looking pretty good. I asked the Department of Justice man if my client had to return. He said with a smile, only if he was granted immunity.

We cleared out, and as soon as we were on the street I asked what took so long. He said everything went well. He gave his name and address. Then a woman on the grand jury asked a lot of questions about his home town and the high school and people who lived in the town.

"We had a long chat about changes on Main Street and whether Joe’s coffee shop is still there. That was all fine, but I was worried that word of my grand jury appearance would find its way back home. That would be embarrassing. So after we concluded our talk about the locals, I asked the prosecutor whether what took place in the grand jury room was secret. He was emphatic in saying that the only person who had a right to disclose what took place was me.

"After that we got around to the Fifth and all went smoothly."

He took his flight back to his home and I boarded the Metroliner, and as Samuel Pepys commented in his diary, things have a way of working themselves out.

Jacob A. Stein may be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.