Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cotton, Lewy (1894–1972)

by Suzanne Edgar

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Lewy Cotton (1894-1972), waiter, was born on 6 November 1894 at Odessa, Russia, and named Loca, son of Joseph Andreus Cotton (Xotton), and his wife Mary. After three years in France, Loca arrived in England. In London he attended a school for waiters in 1907 and two years later became a dummy waiter, fetching and carrying at the Hotel Russell. In 1914, as a ship's steward, he joined a Russian four-master bound for Australia, jumped ship at Fremantle and became known as Lewy Cotton. He worked as a logger before taking a job at the Palace Hotel, Perth. Lewy claimed to have gained experience at the Savoy restaurant, Melbourne, and the Pier Hotel, Glenelg, Adelaide. In Perth on 8 June 1916 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force; he was 5 ft 8 ins (173 cm) tall, with a fresh complexion, brown eyes and dark hair. Posted to the 16th Battalion, he saw action in France in 1917-18.

After being discharged on 21 March 1920, Cotton was engaged by Adelaide's leading hotel, the South Australian, a three-storeyed, bluestone building with broad balconies, on North Terrace, opposite the railway station. A grand cedar staircase rose from the foyer with its plush furnishings and crystal chandeliers. The establishment was patronized by snobs, the rich and the famous. As head waiter from 1928, Cotton found an autocratic niche and continued in it when Mrs Louisa O'Brien acquired the premises. Despite his marriage to a machinist Ivy Gertrude Jenkins on 15 September 1924 at the Catholic presbytery, Goodwood, and the birth of a son, Lewy only spent Sundays at his Westbourne Park house. The hotel 'is my home and my life', he remarked. His day began by overseeing breakfast and ended late at night; but he took an afternoon nap in a room he rented across the lane from the hotel.

The major-domo enforced correct dress, even at breakfast (eventually a cravat was permitted) and luncheon. Incomplete gentlemen were asked, 'Have we a tie, sir?' and persuaded to leave if they had not. Cotton went to an excellent tailor and wore a morning suit, then white tie and tails at night. Patrons savoured his European background and counted his smile or nod an accolade. Lewy's manner was discreet, his bearing lofty; he reputedly gained substantial tips, though was apparently never wealthy. His supervision of the gilded dining-room, where drunks never disturbed his aplomb, ensured that his and the hotel's reputation remained untarnished. This 'Prince of Head Waiters' relished meeting the great, among them Pavlova. While he claimed to treat everyone equally, whether high or low, some less well-born or well-heeled guests found him disdainful. His staff, however, he managed kindly.

Lewy grew stout, his hair thinned and receded, but his memory remained infallible and his smile enigmatic. Although suffering from emphysema, and hospitalized in 1968, he did not resign from his hotel until 31 December 1970. Next year 'The South' was demolished. Perhaps its destruction broke his spirit: survived by his wife and son, he died on 27 December 1972 in the Repatriation Hospital, Daw Park, and was buried in Centennial Park cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Hotel Gazette of South Australia, Jan 1970, Jan 1971, Jan 1973
  • News (Adelaide), 31 Jan 1958
  • Sunday Mail (Adelaide), 23 May 1959
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 1 Jan 1971, 12 Jan 1973.

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'Cotton, Lewy (1894–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cotton-lewy-9835/text17395, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Cotton, Loca
Birth

6 November 1894
Odessa, Ukraine

Death

27 December 1972
Daw Park, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Occupation