In October 1977 Jim Sherwood bought two shabby prewar sleeping carriages at a Sotheby’s sale held in a freight yard of Monte Carlo’s railway station. They were not any old carriages, however: they were all that remained of the fabled 1920s Orient Express train and had featured in the film Murder on the Orient Express. He paid $72,800 for the first one and $41,000 for the second.
Sherwood’s plan was to use them to recreate the Orient Express train and operate it between Paris and Venice, where he had bought the Cipriani hotel the year before. He had budgeted $5 million for the project that he reckoned would take two years; in fact it cost $30 million and took five years.
He and his wife Shirley tracked down another 23 carriages, sad, decommissioned hulks of LX (super-luxury) sleeping and restaurant cars, their windows smashed and their beautiful marquetry covered by linoleum, ignominiously pensioned off when they could no longer meet the rigorous requirements of the high-speed French railways. The train, when it was finished, was half a kilometre long.
The original prewar route of the Orient Express actually started in London, where British-built Pullman cars ran to Folkestone and passengers continued by ferry, joining the Dutch-built Wagon-Lits cars in Boulogne. Halfway through the project, Sherwood decided to recreate the entire London-Venice journey. That involved acquiring authentic carriages, built in the 1920s or 1930s, which he located in the most unlikely places, including one that was being used as a high-class brothel in Germany and another being lived in by a master at Eton. He even tracked down the private car used by General de Gaulle in Britain during the war and two cars from the special Pullman train that carried the body of Winston Churchill from Waterloo Station to Oxfordshire in 1965. He bought the original baggage car in the north of England from a pigeon fancier who had fitted it out to transport his racing birds.
In May 1982, Sherwood finally launched the new Orient Express service from platform 8 in Victoria Station, 99 years after its first journey, and over the next two decades it became the centrepiece for a five-star luxury hotel chain that would eventually include some of the best-known properties in the world. The Cipriani, acquired by Sherwood for a mere $1.1 million from the Guinness family in 1976 (its value today is in the hundreds of millions), remained the flagship. It had the distinction of being the only hotel in Venice to have a swimming pool; Sherwood rescued it from genteel dilapidation and turned it into the playground for the jet set. He added another 43 hotels, including the Splendido in Portofino, the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro, the Grand Hotel Europe in St Petersburg, the Ritz in Madrid, and the Mount Nelson in Cape Town, where he spent his last summer.
He even tracked down the private car used by General de Gaulle in Britain during the war and two cars from the special Pullman train that carried the body of Winston Churchill from Waterloo Station to Oxfordshire in 1965.
A multimillionaire by the time he was 36, Sherwood favoured a robust exchange of views in the boardroom and liked to go through every document meticulously, but he was also a jovial man who was always laughing and never boastful. Stout of build and ruddy of complexion, he was a bon viveur who over the years acquired or opened three of the most highly rated restaurants in the world: the Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire, created by the chef Raymond Blanc, the 21 Club in Manhattan and Harry’s Bar in Mayfair, co-owned with Mark Birley. Birley was best known for his clubs including Annabel’s in Berkeley Square. When Mark died Sherwood fell out with his son Robin over the ownership and eventually sold Birley junior his share for $12.3 million. The row split London’s high society into two camps; Sir Evelyn de Rothschild attempted to mediate and Taki wrote a furious defence of Birley’s case in his Spectator column. Vanity Fair meanwhile devoted seven pages to the spat.
Sherwood was something of a food critic and in the mid-1960s he became so frustrated with the quality and price of food and wine in London restaurants that he set up his own Discriminating Guide to London and engaged a group of men-about-town including Sir Simon Jenkins and Anthony Sampson to sample the more expensive restaurants. The guide included a category “Not For Us”, which he described as “a list of places whose fame might lead you to their tables but you will get a god-awful meal”. He shocked the culinary establishment by including some of the most highly rated restaurants of the day, among them Bentley’s, the Ritz, the Ivy, J Sheekey and even Wiltons. “My intention was to create a guide for busy, well-off people who did not want their time and money wasted,” he said. The first edition sold 10,000 copies, the second 50,000.
Sherwood made his first fortune from containers, building his world-wide Sea Containers group, which specialised in leasing containers to other shipping companies, into one of the most successful in the shipping and transport world. In the late 1970s he moved his head office into Sea Containers House at Blackfriars Bridge, which he bought as an unfinished building from a bankrupt developer.
He added another 43 hotels, including the Splendido in Portofino, the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro, the Grand Hotel Europe in St Petersburg, the Ritz in Madrid, and the Mount Nelson in Cape Town, where he spent his last summer.
One of his favourite stories was the appearance in his office, soon after he had finished the property, of a hulking Australian who introduced himself as Kerry Packer. “You know Mr Sherwood, the way I spend my weekends is I walk around London and look at buildings. I like yours. I’m offering you $104 million for it.”
When Sherwood responded that he rather liked his new accommodation himself, Packer became threatening. “Mr Sherwood, when I make an offer and you don’t accept it, my next offer is always going to be lower. I think you should accept it.”
He did not and it later became the headquarters of the Orient Express group. Renamed Belmond after Sherwood’s retirement, it was bought last year by LVMH, the French luxury goods company, for $3.2 billion. Sea Containers fared less well, running into stiff competition in the 1990s and eventually, after some bitter board-room battles, Sherwood left in 2006 and the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
In 1984 he had paid $61 million to acquire Sealink, which operated ferries across the Channel, and also became a train operator, but in the last years of his business life Orient Express became his all-consuming passion.
He was a bon viveur who over the years acquired or opened three of the most highly rated restaurants in the world: the Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire, created by the chef Raymond Blanc, the 21 Club in Manhattan and Harry’s Bar in Mayfair.
James Blair Sherwood was born in Kentucky in 1933 into a family that had farmed tobacco for nearly 300 years. His father, William (Bill), inherited tobacco farms but never farmed them and practised as a patent lawyer in New York, where Jim, an only child, grew up. His mother, Florence, was a pianist.
Sherwood went to Bronxville Senior School and then Yale, where he studied, but did not enjoy, economics and developed a lifelong passion for bridge, which he played for money.
Under the influence of his favourite uncle, a rear-admiral, he served as a naval cadet while still at college, allowing him to do his national service as a commissioned officer. In the summer of 1955 he graduated with a BA and served four years in the navy, mostly in the Far East, and was often drafted by his superior officers as a fourth at bridge. One day his squadron of landing craft was assigned to spend the Christmas of 1956 in the “godforsaken” island of postwar Okinawa, only to be mysteriously rerouted to the much more agreeable Sasebo, where the admiral of the fleet summoned Sherwood aboard the flagship to play bridge.
His naval experience proved invaluable when he left to work for United States Lines, a US government-sponsored shipping company that owned what were claimed to be the two largest and fastest passenger ships in the world, the America and the United States. He then set up his own container company, based in Paris, in 1965, taking advantage of a huge boom in container traffic, where he was seen as one of the pioneers. Five years later, he listed it on the New York stock exchange, realising enough cash to live in comfort for the rest of his life.
In 1977 he married Shirley Cross, a widow whose husband had died in an aircraft crash. She was a botanist and scientist who worked on the Nobel prizewinning team that developed the drug Tagamet. It was she who oversaw most of the work on the Orient Express train and was heavily involved in building up the hotel group, travelling everywhere with him.
He is survived by Shirley and her two sons: Simon, who took over as president of Orient Express in 1994, leaving to chair Elegant Hotels, based in the Bahamas, in 2007, and is now retired, and Charles, a partner in the Permira private equity company.
In latter years, Sherwood had his own vineyard, Capannelle, in Chianti. He also, sybarite to the end, retained two private suites in the Cipriani.
James Sherwood, businessman, was born on August 8, 1933. He died of complications after abdominal surgery on May 18, 2020, aged 86