James Sherwood, who revived the Orient Express, dies at 86

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James Sherwood, who revived the Orient Express, dies at 86
This picture taken on May 13, 2019 shows a dining car of a restored Orient Express train displayed at the Gare de l'Est train station in Paris. Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP.

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Over his long, colorful life, the peripatetic James Sherwood seeded many businesses — container leasing, a London guidebook, ferries and riverboats, hotels and restaurants (like the “21” Club in New York and Harry’s Bar in London), an ice cream company, a magazine, fruit farms and a vineyard.

But what made his name was his revival of the once glamorous Orient Express.

Sherwood died on May 18 at a hospital in London. He was 86. His son Charles said the cause was complications of gallbladder surgery.

Sherwood bought his first train in 1977: two battered first-class sleeping carriages that had been part of the Orient Express in its heyday.

For more than half a century, the Orient Express ran from Paris to Istanbul, among other routes, its luxurious cars fitted out with Lalique glass reliefs, mahogany paneling and rosewood marquetry. Mata Hari was a regular traveler, as was a Bulgarian king, who liked to play engineer when the train ran through his kingdom. Agatha Christie made it the scene of a clever murder, solved by Hercule Poirot. But inexpensive air travel killed it off.

Sherwood, who was based in London but born in America, had been a multimillionaire since he was 36, when the container leasing business that he and a college buddy started in 1965 with $100,000 (his investment was $25,000 for a half interest) went public.

He had just bought the Hotel Cipriani in Venice when the two carriages came up for auction. On an impulse, he bid on them as a way to connect to his new property, and he won them for just over $113,000. It would take five years and $31 million to round up 23 more of the original carriages, which were scattered in yards across Europe; he restored 18 of them and cannibalized the rest for parts.

The revived Orient Express, which ran from London to Venice (and in those days involved a ferry ride from Dover to Calais), rolled out of Victoria Station in the spring of 1982. And it became the centerpiece and branding engine for a portfolio of grand hotels, under the hyphenated name Orient-Express, that Sherwood rescued and rehabilitated all around the world.

James Blair Sherwood was born on Aug. 8, 1933, in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, the only child of Florence (Balph) Sherwood, a pianist, and William Sherwood, a patent lawyer. He grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, where his father’s family was from, as well as in Berkeley, California, and Bronxville, New York, when his father began working for the Atomic Energy Commission.

He studied economics at Yale, where he was in his own estimation an indifferent student but an enthusiastic bridge player. Still, his winnings did not cover his tailor’s debts or his club dues. It took a year of Navy pay to do that.

When he had made his fortune, he sent his parents a Cadillac. His father, although he came from a prosperous tobacco family, disdained displays of wealth and refused the gift, telling his son that lawyers could be seen in Buicks but not Cadillacs.

In the 1960s, Sherwood met Shirley Cross, an Oxford-educated botanist. A widow with two young sons, Charles and Simon, she was working for Smith, Kline & French, the pharmaceutical company (now GlaxoSmithKline), on the development of Tagamet, the wildly successful beta blocker that soothes stomach ulcers.

They married on New Year’s Eve 1977. Charles gave his mother away, and Simon was best man. Afterward, the boys changed their last name by deed poll to Sherwood, as a gift to their parents. But they weren’t formally adopted until two years ago — at ages 58 and 57 — when Sherwood discovered that the adoption of adults was legal under Kentucky law. Although he was a devoted Anglophile, Sherwood never became a British citizen.

The Sherwoods spent the better part of each year traveling, scouting hotels for Sherwood’s company and amassing a collection of 50 properties that spanned Brazil, Laos, Russia and South Africa.

It was Sherwood’s practice to type up lengthy reviews after each stay on a manual typewriter he brought with him for that purpose. Among his pet peeves were soap wrapped in plastic, which he found difficult to open with wet hands, and room safes below eye level.

He did not always succeed in his bids. He was thwarted in an attempt to buy the Carlyle in New York. His overture to Mohamed al-Fayed, the owner of the Ritz in Paris, was met with laughter.

As a consolation prize, al-Fayed gave him Turnbull & Asser ties (al-Fayed owned the company) and frozen stag’s testicles from his estate in Scotland, which he said would improve his sex life. That story is recounted in Sherwood’s 2012 memoir, “Orient-Express: A Personal Journey,” written with Ivan Fallon, a British journalist.

Sherwood had many battles over the years, including one with the heirs of Mark Birley, his former partner at Harry’s Bar, and one with the Cipriani family over their name. The former chairman of the P & O shipping line, Jeffrey Sterling, called Sherwood “as subtle as a boatload of bricks,” according to The Telegraph.

In the mid-2000s Sea Containers, the parent company of Sherwood’s holdings and the owner of 25% of Orient-Express Hotels, restructured itself and sold off the hotel business. Sherwood resigned from the parent company but stayed on at the hotel business until stepping down in 2011, though he remained chairman emeritus until his death.

Suspended by the pandemic, the Orient Express plans to resume service in August. An overnight passage from London to Venice in the grande suite, a rosewood and damask sleeping carriage with its own living room, costs about $18,000, and includes complimentary Champagne. A dozen roses or a small sponge cake are extra.

Last year, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton bought the hotel business, since renamed Belmond, for a reported $2.6 billion. As was his habit, Sherwood wrote a 25-page memo offering his views on what to do with the properties, although he was told that Bernard Arnault, the chief executive of LVMH, would read only one page.

Arnault not only read the entire memo; he invited Sherwood to meet with him.

“Jim was really chuffed,” Fallon said.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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