James Sherwood: Shipping executive who revived the Orient Express

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  • July 13, 2020
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James Sherwood was a brash, outspoken American who spent much of his life travelling in high style while building a London-based business empire that included maritime companies and landmark hotels and whose crown jewel was the revived Orient Express.

He died on 18 May at a London hospital. He was 86. He died from complications of gallbladder surgery.

Sherwood was a wheeler-dealer who brought a blunt American style to the bargaining table, leading a rival British shipping executive to pronounce him “as subtle as a boatload of bricks”.

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He made his fortune in the shipping-container business, transporting cargo around the world by sea. He was a multimillionaire by his mid-thirties.

In the 1970s, he began to branch out into another of his consuming interests: the life of luxury. He had been staying at grand hotels since the 1950s, when he was a US navy officer based in Asia, often taking detailed notes on each hotel’s amenities and services.

He bought his first hotel, the Cipriani in Venice, in 1976. He restored the faded hotel to its former grandeur and, within two years, was earning a tidy profit.

Sherwood followed the same practice as he bought and refurbished more than 50 storied hotels around the world, including the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro, the Windsor Court in New Orleans, the Grand Hotel Europe in St Petersburg, the Ritz in Madrid and the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town.

“If you can get properties that have a unique personality,” Sherwood said in 1983, “and if you provide special service, people will come and are prepared to pay a premium. And that makes these properties very profitable.”

He came up with a list of 10 inviolable rules for any top-notch hotel, including a swimming pool at least 6ft 2in deep, absolute silence in the rooms, a safe at eye level – and soap in a paper wrapper, never plastic. He also said a good hotel should have extra cash on hand for guests who have lost their wallets or credit cards.

“The first manager of the Cipriani did this for guests who got into trouble and never once was the hotel not repaid,” Sherwood told The Telegraph in 2012. “You have won a customer for life. And that customer tells others.”

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Something of a bon vivant, Sherwood settled in London in the late 1960s and was critical of the restaurants he found there. When he couldn’t find a reliable dining guide, he wrote his own, the Discriminating Guide to London, with advice on where to impress business clients or where to have a clandestine meal with a lover.

The guide sold thousands of copies, but Sherwood’s restaurant critiques could be so withering that some banned him from entering. He later became partners in a private dining club in London, Harry’s Bar, and in 1995 bought the 21 Club restaurant in New York.

In 1977, the year the old Orient Express made its final run, Sherwood bought two of the train’s railway cars at auction in Monaco. In its heyday, from the 1880s to about 1940, the Orient Express ran, on various routes, from Paris to Venice and then on to Constantinople (later called Istanbul). It was perhaps the most glamorous form of travel in the world.

Musicians entertained passengers, who often included celebrities and world leaders. The ornate furnishings and views from the windows – the Alps, the Danube, the palaces of Venice – could not be surpassed. The train was featured in several films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) and the James Bond movie From Russia With Love (1963), and provided the setting for Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express, and a number of subsequent films and TV productions of the same name.

After buying his first two train cars, Sherwood spent more than $30m to track down about 35 original Orient Express cars around Europe. He found some at museums and others at salvage yards. One retired car had been used to transport racing pigeons; another had been a brothel in France.

Fabrics, lamps and marquetry were made to exacting standards to match the originals. In one instance, wooden veneer panels were placed in hot sand to acquire the proper shading.

By 1982, the fabled train was ready to be relaunched. Passengers boarded in London, then, after a ferry ride to France, climbed into the restored cars, which carried them to Venice.

For Sherwood, it proved to be more than an exercise in nostalgia. Well-heeled travellers and train buffs have continued to come from all over the world for a chance to be part of an elegant journey into the past. The Orient Express – officially called the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express – has been rolling across Europe for 38 years, before recently being sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic.

“When I bought those two old carriages in Monte Carlo, people thought I was slightly crazy,” Sherwood told The Telegraph. “They said it was a fun idea but it wouldn’t work. The common wisdom was that luxury rail travel was dead. Now it’s fully booked every year and the carriages, every one different, are in better condition than they have ever been. Concorde has come and gone and the Orient Express is still here.”

James Blair Sherwood was born 8 August 1933, in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Lexington, Kentucky; Berkeley, California; and Bronxville, New York, where he completed high school.

His mother was trained as a concert pianist, and his father was a patent lawyer and engineer who worked for the old Atomic Energy Commission.

Sherwood graduated from Yale University in 1955, then served for almost five years in the US navy, primarily arranging cargo transportation in Asia. He worked for commercial shipping firms before forming his company, Sea Containers, with two business partners in 1965. At its height in the 1980s, the company was valued at more than $3bn.

Known for his directness, Sherwood was an anomaly in the gentlemanly boardrooms of Britain. A dispute with a partner in Harry’s Bar in London reached the tabloids and prompted Taki Theodoracopulos, a columnist for The Spectator, to describe Sherwood as “a man I’ve never met and, as things are going, hope never to”.

In addition to shipping, Sherwood’s company owned ferry services all over the world and a railway line in Britain. Parts of the business were sold off over the years, and Sherwood resigned his leadership post in 2006, when the company entered bankruptcy.

By then, he had long been focused on his hotels and luxury trains, which had been spun off into a separate business, called Orient-Express. He retired in 2011. Now known as Belmond, the business was bought last year by a French company for a reported $2.6bn.

Sherwood, who never became a British citizen, published a memoir in 2012. He served on many cultural and historical preservation committees and had a home in London and a moat-surrounded manor in Oxfordshire.

For many years, Sherwood spent about seven months of the year travelling.

“Can’t you tire of the good life?” he was once asked.

“No, you cannot,” he replied.

James Sherwood, shipping executive, born 8 August 1933​, died 18 May​ 2020

© The Washington Post