Liz McGrath... Death Of A Doyen
There are people in this world whose passing is a beacon in the lives of more than those in their immediate family, personalities whose mark on the disciplines they engaged in, changed the way people thought as well as the way things are done, whose legacies outlast their own 'sell-by' dates by decades, perhaps even into the next century. 'David Rawdon (who introduced my parents), defined the previous era in hospitality with Rawdons, Lanzerac and Matjiesfontein, among others. The next generation of heritage hoteliers belonged to a grand old dame who passed on this weekend, aged 92.
That woman was Liz McGrath, a widowed lady for much of her productive life, who single-mindedly and single-handedly harnessed a fresh monopoly of the British pound and all that it could buy in the way of travel experience in South Africa. Her first hotel venture involved the acquisition (with her late husband) of Plettenberg Bay’s rather scruffy (at the time) Lookout Hotel, which she unrecognisably transformed. Imbued with the verve of this metamorphosis, she next set about a complete make-over of Constantia’s Cellars, an establishment with just nine rooms, of little but quality repute, this time flying solo. She quickly followed with the purchase of the adjoining Hohenhort, once something of a Cape Town landmark, but which had latterly become a bit of a boarding joint for eccentric pensioners. With the aid of my 'second mother', Jean Almon, she not only rearranged the bricks and mortar, but built a garden of magnetic proportions around Jean’s ingenuity and green fingers.
A weekend impulse set her and Jean on a 'jolly' to Hermanus to watch whales, where she announced her intention to relieve Mr. Rawdon of The Marine, a glorious throwback to the best days of the Empire. The Plettenberg was the third jewel in the crown, providing travellers with a Garden Route option for their Southern African safaris. How satisfied she must have felt, knowing she’d sent so many happy people to bed most nights.
As if to exhibit that her hotel act was no one-trick accommodation pony, with Peter Tempelhoff they brought renown to the restaurant at the Cellars Hohenhort, The Greenhouse, a perennial member of the national 'Top Ten'. Undeterred by her many years, her final assault was a miraculous revamp of Rawdon’s Matjiesfontein, site of all places in the arid Karoo, of the first cricket test between England and South Africa. Which begs the question, was there any limit to the enterprise and the energy of this remarkably full life?
Known as 'Mrs M' to the staff at her hotels, Liz McGrath ranked with the world’s great hoteliers, says Andrew Moth, a former editor of Hotel & Restaurant, who met her many times over the past 25-odd years.
"I have to confess I found her quite intimidating at first – sometimes feeling there was a resemblance to Margaret Thatcher, as she had such a clear vision of what she wanted to achieve as a hotelier and restaurateur. But she was much more than a visionary; she had a keen eye for detail and style and knew – rather than just understanding – that staff were the key to success. She set high standards for the staff, but always inspired them with her unique brand of support and training."
Like most people who met her, Moth marveled at her stamina and the fact that she never seemed to age or tire. "She was always immaculately dressed and genuinely interested in what staff, guests and other people in the global hospitality industry said, did and thought."
Mrs McGrath had the grace when visiting places like Hartford House, to acknowledge their virtues, and by sheer power of her intuitions, to remove any doubts from doubting minds about some of the innovations we were on the point of embracing. In her capacity as chairperson of the local Relais and Chateaux movement, she more than once encouraged us to take up membership of that august union, an acknowledgement if ever you needed it, that this doyen of the hotel trade thought you were something special. That’s all she needed to say.