The nostalgia that warms the lacquered lobbies of the world’s surviving grand hotels is potent: as inviting as cognac on a cold night. These hotels came to life circa the mid-19th and early-20th centuries, the likes of The Cecil, London and The Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, standing as well chiselled epitomes of modernity. A century later, and they still maintain a voguish quality, although the appeal is now a sentimental one, anchored in the legacies of the modernist writers that once flocked to these lavish institutions; for instance, if you want to stay in a suite named after Ernest Hemingway, you’ll have to choose between the Ritz Paris, Istanbul’s Pera Palace, Old Havana’s Hotel Ambos Mundos, and many more.
These hotels became such a big part of some authors’ lives, it’s difficult to talk of their work extensively without referencing the hotels they called home—some for days, others for years. Hemingway once said of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald that “[W]e can take your liver out and give it to the Princeton Museum, your heart to the Plaza Hotel.” To understand how these love affairs came to be, one must travel back to the first industrial revolution, to a time before widespread travel was considered grand.
The early 19th century brought increasing modern luxury to the hotels in North America: Boston’s Tremont House (1829) was the first hotel in the world to provide indoor toilets and room locks, New York City’s Holt’s Hotel (1832) was the first to install a steam-powered elevator, and Chicago’s Palmer House (1870) was the first to provide telephones in all its rooms.
Similarly, in Europe, the rise of the hotel was in full swing. The-then largest hotel in Europe was created, Le Grand Hôtel Paris (1862), and Vienna’s The Palais Württemberg (a real palace) was turned into Hotel Imperial (1873). The Paris landmark, now The InterContinental Paris Le Grand, was inaugurated by Empress Eugenie, wife of Napeolean III. Impressed by its grandeur, she remarked, “This reminds me of home!” These hotels became more than lodging, they were miniature fiefdoms within cities, hosting battalions of cooks, bell boys, and tailors.
America and England’s publishing field also changed lucratively during this time. Pressmen went from printing a few hundred high-cost sheets an hour to several thousand affordable ones with the invention of the rotary press.
Reading was no longer a pastime for the gentility. Scullery maids and butlers now read some of the same literary material as their affluent employers. Just as railroads and steamships began to take over the Western landscape, they ferried the likes of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Frank L. Baum—allowing them to tour the world, giving lectures and writing in hotels that were rapidly becoming de rigueur.
Charles Dickens best incarnates the dawn of hotel-adoring literati. While his childhood was impoverished, once successful, he adopted fine hotels as provisional clubhouses. On his American tour, Boston’s Omni Parker House became Dickens’ favoured haunt, where he enjoyed gin punch with peers such as Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow, and Hawthorne. These meetings came to be known as the Saturday Club, and on one such occasion, Dickens first performed A Christmas Carol. The comingling of a grand hotel and literary figures stirred up much fanfare, to the extent Dickens’ room had to be regularly guarded from overzealous fans.
Decades later, Frank L. Baum was one of the first writers to complete a significant chunk of a major work in a hotel. As Baum clacked away on his Smith Premier No. 2 typewriter, he found the grandeur of California’s Hotel del Coronado (now operated by Hilton) so captivating, it inspired the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. The enchanting aura surrounding grand hotels had begun to cement itself in literary history, for they were now being characterised.
By 1893, the Swiss founded the first school for hoteliers, Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, just as the much-awaited Waldorf Astoria hit the streets of Manhattan, the first hotel to offer room service. The palatial hotels of the early 20th century spread to cities like Starbucks in the early 21st century—The Savoy in London, La Mamounia in Morocco, Hotel Metropole in Brussels, and The Taj Mahal Palace in Bombay. While the industrial revolution shows how modernist writers were positioned to be the illustrious patrons of these hotels, an Irish playwright best demonstrates why they were so attached to these haute havens: a dalliance with excess, that sometimes bordered on infatuation.
In 1882, six years before his flurry of major works, Oscar Wilde received an all-expenses-paid tour of the U.S.A. He was meant to promote an operetta (Patience)—in which he had been satirised— across America, while playing a caricature of himself. Wilde got a taste of luxury at the Grand Hotel in N.Y.C., and soon realised to fully capture this moment for a lifetime he had to popularise himself above the play he was meant to promote. His wit, velvet smoke jackets fitted with a green carnation, and long cavalier locks won over the American public, and he returned home with fame he was keen to turn into fortune.
Wilde would go on to pen extraordinary popular works, and earned handsomely during Britain’s Decadence Era. He became a regular at The Savoy, and soon became intimately acquainted with young Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. The pair took adjoining rooms on the third floor, only interrupting their festivities for champagne room service.
His life would soon be a cautionary tale: hotels did not ensure one’s privacy like a home, and just as one’s triumphs were lauded, one’s ‘falls’ were equally, if not more, celebrated. In 1895, when Wilde was charged for committing acts of ‘gross indecency’, many of the key witnesses were employees of his beloved Savoy. The Cadogan Hotel, where Wilde soon after resided, was raided, and he was shackled in room 118.
After two years in jail, a depleted Wilde moved to Paris. He had lost everything except his penchant for grand hotels, and housed in Hôtel d’Alsace (now L’Hotel), a 5-star establishment, following his credo, “I have the simplest taste. I am always satisfied with the best.” He died there at 46,20,000 francs in debt. When he had been previously faced with his bill, Wilde wrote to the hotel manager, maintaining his waggish voice: “I am dying as I have lived: beyond my means.”
The bill now lies framed in L’Hotel’s Oscar Wilde Suite.
After WWI, modernist writers took over the literary stratosphere, making many of them the new celebrity custodians of the grand hotel. New York was the throbbing heart of this attraction and The Algonquin Hotel was its epicentre. The hotel hosted eminent figures like Gertrude Stein and Maya Angelou, and by 1919 it hosted almost daily lunches by a group known as The Round Table, featuring Robert E. Sherwood, Dorothy Parker, and Edna Ferber, among others. These writers personally referred to their meetings as the Vicious Circle, no doubt referencing the acerbic wit that was hurled across the table with alacrity.
Much of the post-WWI literary themes that influenced Hemingway and Fitzgerald were born around this table, which can still be reserved by the general public at the namesake Round Table restaurant. Guests at the hotel particularly liked to eavesdrop on Dorothy Parker, the playwright and poet frequently spouting wry odes of excess, which often mentioned the beverage that was currently balanced in her graceful grip. A champagne flute would inspire “Three be the things I shall never attain: envy, content, and sufficient champagne,” and a Martini glass could spur, “I like to have a Martini, two at the very most. After three I’m under the table, after four I’m under my host.”
She defined the apex of The Algonquin, and even got to witness Harold Ross—for whom she would later write—take such a large poker pot, that he was able to found The New Yorker magazine with his winnings. Today, guests at the hotel receive a complementary copy of the magazine, but the best tribute is paid at the Blue Bar, in the form of the Dorothy Parker: a brilliant gin cocktail of St. Germain, honey, lemon juice, and basil leaves—strong enough to slap you awake, and smooth enough to send you to sleep.
Much like Parker, Hemingway was a lifelong patron of several posh hotels. He sipped on cocktails at Istanbul’s Pera Palace, which would cameo in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, wrote significant portions of Across the River and Into the Trees at Venice’s Gritti Palace, as well as For Whom The Bell Tolls in room 551 of Hotel Ambos Mundos, where he lived for seven years in Old Havana. Hemingway was particularly smitten with the Ritz Paris, saying, “When I dream of afterlife in heaven, the action always takes place in the Paris Ritz.” Here was a man who had the idea of weaponising jai alai players in an elaborate plan to sink German U-Boats, lapping up luxury like a spoilt kitten. Apparently, he adored grand hotels almost as much as he hated fascists.
Hemingway was particularly fond of telling the story of how he “liberated the Ritz” in 1944, driving a jeep on the property with a rifle in tow, after which “he took command” of the bar and wine cellar. In the hotel basement lay a trunk full of manuscripts and notes, containing the beginnings of The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast.
These hotels also became a grave indulgence for those long-suffocating under the plush pillow of booze and glamour. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s hotel-filled life often mirrored the tragic stories he wrote: his wife Zelda Fitzgerald would spend much of her later life in psychiatric wards, and he would die at 44 due to hard living.
Fitzgerald was briefly stationed in Louisville, Kentucky, during his stint in the U.S. army. On weekends he visited The Seelbach’s USO: a grand hotel bar that entertained officers. While The Plaza features centrally in Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, it was The Seelbach that first inspired Fitzgerald to capture the essence of a grand hotel in a novel. The characters Tom Buchanan and Daisy get married in the hotel ballroom, and the property is characterised as a magical and modern place: “There was a ripe mystery about it…radiant activities taking place through its corridors and of romances that were not musty …but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor cars…” In real life, he was thrown out of Seelbach three out of the four weekends he visited for drunken behaviour.
In 1921, the newlyweds started getting kicked out of hotels together, beginning with The Saint James Albany in Paris. The couple achieved some remarkable engineering by attaching a belt to the elevator cord on their floor so they no longer had to wait for the hotel lift. Still, lavish hotels inspired more than just shenanigans in Scott; while he was writing Gatsby, they stayed at Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo, a place that reminded him of, “a palace in a detective story.” 1930 marked a significant decline in Zelda’s mental health. Scott stayed in nearby hotels during her long-term hospitalisations, but no view of the alps at Lake Geneva’s Hôtel de la Paix, nor vista of the ocean at the ‘Pink Palace’ (The Don CeSar, Florida) could stop him from drinking himself into an early grave.
In his anthology of posthumously published personal essays, My Lost City, Fitzgerald admits his world view was shaped by the vantage point of the grand hotel, writing, “it had been tradition of mine to climb to the Plaza roof…the beautiful city extending as far as the eyes could see.” However, when he visits the new Empire State Building, he discovers a “crowning error” that contradicts his fantasy world. Atop the skyscraper Fitzgerald realises the real world is vaster than the limited, metropolitan circle of glamour he shelters himself in, and “the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his mind came crashing down.”
The theme of alienation was strong with modernists, but through their prose and kinship to hotels their memory never walks alone. However, it took the marquee name from a completely different oeuvre—Agatha Christie, not a modernist— in reimagining the hotel’s place in the world. Christie was a leading figure in the Golden Era of detective writing. This literary wave featured the same dystopian plot elements (war, technological advancements, and consumption) like most of modernism, and Christie also patronised, characterised, and wrote in grand hotels. She penned segments of The Murder on The Orient Express at Istanbul’s Pera Palace and at Baron’s Hotel, Allepo, completed and featured Death on the Nile at Aswan’s Old Cataract Hotel, and based the setting of At Bertram’s Hotel (1965) on London’s Brown’s Hotel.
In terms of implication, however, most modernists saw the world as hopelessly crumbling, and while Agatha didn’t shy away from societal evils, she used her protagonists to make the world a reassuring place—some refer to this style as reverse modernism. In her books, the grand hotel became a place to vindicate the downtrodden and catch the greedy, who were most often murderous.
She sucked the anxiety out of grand hotels, paving the way for the likes of Ian Fleming—who thought up the line “shaken, not stirred” at London’s Dukes Hotel—to also use them as exciting locales where justice would always prevail. Christie’s and Fleming’s work would inspire a mountain of movie and TV adaptations, keeping the grand hotels fresh in the eyes and hearts of the public. Recently,
J. K. Rowling, John le Carré, and Pico Iyer, have all written in grand hotels. After all, what would Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby say? “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” Perhaps, that’s why couples who take up the Plaza’s Fitzgerald suite receive monogrammed ‘his and her’ flasks.
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.