Besson, Kenneth George (1915–81), hotelier, was born 25 July 1915 in Dublin, youngest of three children of Paul George Besson (born in London to a Swiss father and a French mother), hotelier, and Joan Besson (née McLean Stewart). Having served his time in London hotels, Paul Besson came to Dublin as manager of the Royal Hibernian Hotel, Dawson St., working for Walter Stuart Tighe, who was the owner at the time. He married the housekeeper in 1906. Joan was Scottish and had been a junior housekeeper at the Shelbourne Hotel prior to joining the Royal Hibernian. The hotel was losing money; when its creditors threatened to foreclose, Besson convinced them to let it stay open under his management, promising that he would repay their trust. The couple worked hard and built up a successful business. They bought shares in the hotel and as part of the expansion they bought Evans's chemist shop, demolished it, and replaced it with the Hibernian Restaurant. The Royal Hibernian was described to a London journal in 1914 as ‘the most fashionable first-class hotel in Dublin’ (quoted in Corr, Hotels in Ireland) and its ballroom was the venue for a succession of elaborate balls and banquets. The management boasted an ‘orchestra daily, free garage and electric elevator’. In 1918 Besson bought the Salthill Hotel in Monkstown, and by 1939 he had acquired a controlling interest in the Royal Hibernian. In 1924 the adjoining building at 49 Dawson St. was added to the hotel, and no. 50 was added c.1970. In 1945 he sold the Salthill Hotel and two years later opened the new Russell Hotel on the corner of St Stephen's Green and Harcourt St. under the management of Hector Fabron. Paul Besson died c.1950 and his wife Joan, who had been the driving force behind the Royal Hibernian, died c.1952.
The Bessons’ son Ken lived in the hotel with his two sisters, Pauline and Beatrice. Educated in Alexandra College and Earlsfort House in Dublin, and Rossall School in Lancashire, Ken then went to Lausanne and Grenoble University (Corr, Hotels in Ireland, 112). He completed a tough apprenticeship in Swiss hotels, followed by periods at the Savoy and Claridge's in London before returning to become junior assistant manager of the Royal Hibernian Hotel. He was unhappy with the standard at the hotel and sought to bring in French chefs and waiters. He convinced the objecting union delegates of the need to improve standards in Ireland by inviting them to join him on a fact-finding tour to Europe. The officials were so impressed that they agreed to have the French come over, on condition that Irish boys would be indentured and trained in the relevant disciplines. Ken is remembered by his trainees as being firm but fair. He paired commis chefs with commis waiters and put a small amount of their wages aside for them all during their training so that they would have enough to set up a small business when they qualified. Although few, if any, followed the plan, it showed his forward thinking. He used to bring the young trainees on educational excursions once a week, to the museums, art galleries, and the public gallery in Dáil Éireann. He was passionate about football and was extremely generous to his teams if they were successful in the Hotels’ Football League, which was very competitive at the time. Gastronomically his greatest contribution was the introduction to the Russell Hotel of Pierre Rolland (qv) as head chef in 1949. The Russell under Rolland was considered to be one of the best restaurants in the world.
In 1950, having become managing director of the Royal Hibernian, Ken Besson married Delphine Peard; they had one daughter, Caroline. They lived first in Baltyboys House, Blessington, Co. Wicklow (1950–54), then at Jersey Farm, Castleknock, Dublin, where they kept a prize-winning herd of Jersey cattle. In 1964 they moved to Castlesize, Sallins, Co. Kildare until Delphine's death around 1976. The house was sold and Ken moved to Sandymount in Dublin.
Ken is described by his friend Cathal O'Shannon as ‘an almost Edwardian figure, who will be remembered as much for his mild eccentricities as for his contribution to hotels and catering in the country’. He conceived and financed the ‘Festival of Dublin’ in the 1950s – a food festival with free shellfish in Moore St., fireworks, and water-skiing on the River Liffey. He founded the Society for the Preservation of Watering Troughs, and helped with the refurbishment of horse-drawn carriages in Dublin. An innovator who served for many years on the board of Bord Fáilte and various tourist bodies, including Dublin Zoo and the Great Southern Hotels, he chaired the working group whose report resulted in the foundation of CERT, the Council for Education, Recruitment and Training, within the Irish hotel industry in 1963.
He suffered from bi-polar disorder, a condition he inherited from his father, and was a committee member of St Patrick's Psychiatric Hospital, for which he did a lot of fundraising activity. Following the sale of the Royal Hibernian and the Russell Hotels in the early 1970s, he lost much of his spirit. He purchased the American ambassador's helicopter and later founded Irish Helicopters Ltd., which was subsequently acquired by Aer Lingus. Very wealthy, he was determined to spend as much as he could before he died. He had an almost obsessive plan to introduce casinos to Ireland, either on land or floating offshore. Ken Besson died suddenly 28 August 1981.