|By Trevor Jensen, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 7, 2008 --Roy Cowdrey, a teenager on his own in war-ravaged London, got into hotel work after seeing a Laurel and Hardy movie that made it look like clean and elegant employment.
Trained in his hometown's finest hostelries, Mr. Cowdrey came to the United States in 1957 and was the maitre d' at the venerable Cape Cod Room in the Drake Hotel for many years.
Mr. Cowdrey, 76, died Thursday, Nov. 20, of pancreatic cancer in his Dearborn Park home, said his wife, Jeri Burch Cowdrey.
He left London in 1957 bound for Australia by way of the United States. A friend from Chicago had sent him a postcard that offered a stunning view of the stately Drake, and he paid a visit to the hotel during a stop there, his wife said.
He wound up taking a job in the Cape Cod Room, figuring he would try out Chicago for a year before continuing to Australia. He quickly was doing so well at the Drake and its seafood house that he stayed.
Outfitted in a blue commander's uniform, Mr. Cowdrey "ran that room like it was his own," his wife said. He got to know many of Chicago's movers and shakers, as well as celebrities such as boxer Rocky Marciano and mobster Sam Giancana.
He was on hand when Joe DiMaggio carved Marilyn Monroe's initials into the Cape Cod Room's bar and helped the Drake play host to Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1959.
"He knew everybody; he would remember names and faces," said Georges "Kiki" Cuisance, owner of Kiki's Bistro and a longtime friend of Mr. Cowdrey. "He was very passionate at the door."
It was heady stuff for a kid from a working-class London family. His father was a handyman and his mother sold flowers and other goods out of a barrel in Covent Garden and other public spaces, his wife said.
As London prepared for the German blitz, Mr. Cowdrey was among many children sent to live with families in the countryside. Separated from his brother and sister, he lived with a couple on a farm in northern England.
After the war, he returned to London. His parents had separated, and he was basically on his own. A Laurel and Hardy short that took place in a hotel intrigued him because there was plenty of food and the men were dressed in tuxedos, his wife said. He set out for the Mayfair and landed a job as an apprentice waiter.
At the Mayfair, and later the Picadilly and the Grosvenor, Mr. Cowdrey received an education in upscale lodging. His hotel work was interrupted by two years in the Royal Air Force, where he was assigned as a butler to an officer.
He was married by the time he came to Chicago. He and his wife divorced in the early 1970s, about the time he left the Drake. His second wife, Elaine, died in 1986.
The Drake always held a special place for Mr. Cowdrey, but he put his skills to use at a succession of restaurants -- Flaming Sally's at the Blackstone Hotel, the Pump Room and for many years the private Skyline Club in the Old Republic Building on Michigan Avenue, before retiring in the 1990s.
He met his third wife while walking his dog, one of several Yorkshire terriers he had owned over the years, in a park near his South Loop home. The couple were married in 1999.
Mr. Cowdrey is also survived by a stepson, John Dudas; a stepdaughter, Jennifer Heaton; and a brother, Maurice.Services have been held.
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