Transcript / SSoP Podcast Episode 35 — Hotels: The Liminal Space with M&Ms in the Mini-Bar

Transcript / SSoP Podcast Episode 35 — Hotels: The Liminal Space with M&Ms in the Mini-Bar

Monday, 23 May, 2022

This is a transcription of Episode 35 — Hotels.

David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.

Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.

David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.

Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.

David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.

[cheerful theme music]

David: Welcome to Season Four, Episode 35 of Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about hotels.

[audio clip: Good morning, Claridge’s. How may I help you? For the taxi?]

Melissa: What’s your favorite thing about staying in a hotel?

David: I think it’s the novelty. Honestly, most of the time that I go to a hotel, I haven’t been there before. Frequently I haven’t been in that city before. And so I’m sort of excited to explore the neighborhood and see what’s going on and all of that. And then maybe a tight second would be breakfast. I really like having breakfast, maybe not even in the hotel, but maybe at that nice cafe across the street.

Melissa: I am a big fan of the hotel breakfast.

David: But now I’m wondering if whether I just like cafes.

Melissa: The thing that I really like about hotel breakfast and this may be specific to me, is that at home when I get up in the morning, I have to feed the cat, I have to clean the litter box, I have to give the cat water. I have to do my workout. There are usually chores associated with first thing in the morning for me. In a hotel, none of that. I wake up, I get dressed, I walk out the door and I walk into a breakfast room where someone brings me coffee and food and I don’t have to do anything except show up.

David: There is an extraordinary lack of responsibility in a hotel.

Melissa: And it is delightful.

David: Are you ready for the 101?

Melissa: Yeah, let’s talk about some more reasons why hotels are awesome. First, a little bit of history. The idea of a place to sleep that’s not your home has actually been around for millennia. When the Greeks and Romans developed thermal baths that people would travel to, they also built accommodations for visitors to spend the night after they had their recuperating soak.

David: So spa towns are thousands of years old?

Melissa: Yes. Smart. In the Middle East, starting around the seventh century, caravanserai were placed along trade routes like the ancient Silk Road for merchants to rest during their travels.

David: Oh, you dropped in a new word like it was nothing. What was that?

Melissa: Caravanserai. I will put a picture in show notes. These were inns placed about one day’s journey apart so that merchants could spend the night. That was needed not just as a place to sleep, but for protection from bandits who targeted caravans of silk and spices. You do not want to be out on the Silk Road after dark. What we would recognize as an inn became more common in Europe in the Middle Ages. These were house-like structures that provided lodging, food, and stables for horses. So now we’re going to fast forward a few hundred years to the Industrial Revolution. The idea of hotels was now spread throughout Europe and Asia and had leapt across the ocean to America. Now we get into some really exciting firsts. The first hotel in the United States was, of course, in Manhattan, and it was called very creatively the City Hotel.

David: Nice.

Melissa: The Tremont House in Boston was the first hotel with indoor toilets and baths.

David: A welcome relief. See what they did there?

Melissa: That hotel also had the revolutionary idea of providing free soap.

David: Oh, wow. You don’t really think about hotels before soap.

Melissa: But yeah. There you go.

David: It makes sense.

Melissa: The 19th century gave us iconic hotels that are still revered. You can still stay in these places today. The Savoy in London, the Ritz in Paris, the Waldorf Astoria and the Plaza in New York.

David: Yeah, I’ll be talking about the Plaza quite a bit in a little while.

Melissa: I’m excited to hear about that. These are grand hotels associated with five-star service, romance, and glamour. The purpose of the grand hotel was to give the wealthy a home away from home that took care of their every need. This is the 19th century we’re talking about robber barons and spoiled rich guys. They want to be waited on. So there were luxurious rooms for sleeping and entertaining. The restaurant served fine food, laundry and secretary services were provided. The significant characteristic was that the hotel would actively serve guests and cater to their whims rather than merely accepting them into the building.

David: Yeah. And my research suggests that it was common for people to stay there for weeks, months, years. It’s kind of what we think of as a furnished condo almost.

Melissa: Yeah, it was really comfortable and really easy to just let someone else take care of you.

David: Sure, it still is.

Melissa: Salvador Dali often enjoyed extended stays at the Le Meurice in Paris. According to lore, he asked room service to bring a flock of sheep to his room so he could aim a pistol at them and shoot them with blanks.

David: What do you think it was like being a concierge when you got that call?

Melissa: I can’t imagine being anyone who waited on Dali. Creative, surrealistic artist or just a jerk? Hard to tell sometimes.

David: It’s true.

Melissa: The bon vivant Oscar Wilde lived at the Cadogan in London and L’Hotel in Paris, where he died. His last words were reported to be, This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.

David: Yeah. To the end.

Melissa: To the end. Bless him. So if we could somehow access a time machine. By the way, listeners, we are waiting for one of you to develop a time machine so we can go visit all of these places we talk about. If we could somehow access a time machine, there are many grand hotels that would be worth a visit.

Melissa: But today, I thought I would take us on an imaginary trip to 1930 and the El Minzah in Tangier, Morocco.

David: Oh, that’s fun. All right.

Melissa: Tangier on the tip of North Africa. It’s just a short ferry ride away from Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar. All of these words sound romantic. [laughter] From 1923 until the mid fifties, Tangier was an international zone that was controlled by nine different countries. It was very glamorous and cosmopolitan, and it was a city where it felt like anything could happen. This otherworldliness attracted all manner of interesting people: diplomats and spies, businessmen and gangsters, smugglers, adventurers, and celebrities.

David: The whole movie cast.

Melissa: I can see them all in my imagination. Lots of gowns with sparkly things on them and hair flips. When Paul Bowles, the author of The Sheltering Sky, first visited in 1931, he said, It did not take me long to come to the conclusion that Tangier must be the place I wanted to be more than anywhere else.

David: And he’d been to Paris in the ’20s.

Melissa: Exactly. There were plenty of hotels to accommodate foreigners in Tangier, but none was as luxurious as the El Minzah, built in 1930 by a British aristocrat. It combined the comfort of an English gentleman’s club with Morocco’s distinctive Spanish Moorish style. Outside it’s all white stucco, curving arches, and palm trees. Inside it blends opulent details with art deco design.

David: So the sense I get is like Bogart’s bar in Casablanca. Rick’s American, I think, is what they called it bamboo and white and guys with fezzes and lots of different nationalities and spies and that kind of thing.

Melissa: You are 100% correct. In fact, the look and feel of Rick’s was based on the El Minzah.

David: Oh, really? Yeah. All right.

Melissa: So on our imaginary trip, we’ve been vacationing in Spain and have taken the ferry from Tarifa to spend a few days in the infamous city. As we approach the port, we see the El Minzah sitting atop a hill overlooking the beach. At the hotel, we stroll through the airy lobby our heels, clicking on the tile floor and are shown to our rooms. The furniture is dark wood softened by jewel-toned fabrics with pillows and bolsters piled on every surface. A soft breeze drifts in through the doors to our private balcony, carrying the scent of orange blossoms and eucalyptus from the garden. As dusk begins to fall, we make our way to the ballroom. [swing music] An orchestra plays while couples in gowns and tuxedos swirl on the dance floor. Waiters circulate with trays of champagne. And as we’re taking our first sip, an acquaintance joins our group with two men in tow. Before we can catch our breath, we’re introduced to Paul Bowles and his friend, the composer Aaron Copeland. It seems they’ve had a devil of a day. Their piano fell off the donkey during its transport up the hill to their rented home.

David: That sounds awful.

Melissa: And wouldn’t you know, the darn thing was out of tune when they finally got it in place.

David: Why do you think that was like when Bowles and Copeland were just sitting around the piano monkey around?

Melissa: Pretty awesome. During our second glass of champagne, we asked the author what brought him to Tangier. He tells us that he’d intended to go to the Riviera. But when he was chatting with Gertrude Stein in Paris, she mocked him, saying, ‘Anybody can go to the Riviera. You ought to go somewhere better than that. Why don’t you go to Tangier?’ We all raise our glasses for a toast to our sophistication in choosing this unusual destination.

Melissa: When we’ve danced the night away, we retire to our rooms and slip into a deep, dreamless sleep. The next morning, late morning, after mint tea in bed, we slip on our sunglasses and head to the veranda for a traditional Moroccan breakfast of fresh bread, honey, soft cheese, and olives. On the agenda for the day is a visit to the souk to find the perfect handmade carpet for our library back home and an excursion to the caves of Hercules, a grotto with openings to both the sea and the land, where, according to legend, Hercules rested before performing the 11th of his 12 labors. After sightseeing, we’ll enjoy a French dinner at the hotel. And now that we’re properly settled in, we’ll probably accidentally get caught up in a heist or an espionage caper. [spy music] Who knows? Anything can happen in Tangier.

David: That was nice.

Melissa: Let’s go.

David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?

Melissa: I’ll do my best.

David: I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel doesn’t know which one is the lie. Statement number one: famous inventor, Nikola Tesla, once paid a hotel bill with a prototype for one of his inventions.

Melissa: Okay.

David: Statement Two: one of the last things Martin Luther King Jr ever did was he had a pillow fight in a hotel room. And statement three: Charlie Watts, the drummer for the Rolling Stones, once did $70,000 of damage to a hotel room. So let’s let’s go and order.

David: First one, Nikola Tesla once paid a hotel bill with a prototype for one of his inventions.

Melissa: True.

David: That is true. Nikola Tesla was a brilliant inventor who lived at the turn of the last century. He invented the Tesla coil, made famous in the Frankenstein movie and electric oscillators. He developed technologies that we use in X-rays and radio and remote controls. Wireless power was one of his ideas. Tesla also had financial problems most of his life. By the 1920s, he developed a coping habit. He would move to a different hotel in New York City every few years and skip out on the bill.

Melissa: Oh, no. [laughter]

David: Yeah. In 1923 was evicted from the St Regis. In 1930, the Hotel Pennsylvania. By 1934, he’d been in a new place for a while, The Hotel Governor Clinton, which is right across the street from Grand Central. The management there started to get impatient with him. He’d run up a bill of about $10,000. Which is equivalent to over $200,000 today.

Melissa: Oh, my gosh. Was he just stressed out, like, all the time?

David: I suspect not. But at some point in my imagination, he said, ‘Listen, I’ve been working on something, something big. It has military applications that could change the face of the earth. It’s a death beam.’

Melissa: A death beam?

David: Yep. It’s hazardous, but I’m willing to trade it to level my debt. Tesla was known for his showmanship, and the management went for it.

Melissa: Wow.

David: Yeah. He presented them with a very fancy box full of common electric parts that did nothing.

Melissa: It was fake? That’s amazing.

David: Yeah. Nobody dared open the box until after his death in 1943.

Melissa: Sure, because it was a death beam. I will say that I also read that Dali used to give, in lieu of tips, little pieces of his art and drawings.

David: Yeah, I read that Dali would take a bunch of people out to lunch and pay for the lunch with a check, knowing that the restaurateur would recognize that his signature was more valuable than the check. And so he would never cash the check.

Melissa: Clever. Yeah.

David: Statement number two: One of the last things Martin Luther King ever did was have a pillow fight in a hotel room.

Melissa: Please let that be true. That is so sweet.

David: Yeah, it’s true. On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King and a bunch of his guys were in Memphis. They wanted to march with the sanitation workers there. But a judge had put a restraining order on the march. So King had one of his guys, Andrew Young, go to court and fight the order. Andrew Young would later go on to be a congressman and the mayor of Atlanta, but at the time, he was a young lawyer. Years later, Young would talk about returning to the Lorraine Hotel that afternoon. Young walks into King’s Room. There are a couple of other guys there. King says, Where have you been? You haven’t called me all day. And Young says, I’ve been in court. And King says, Well, you need to find a way to get me a message. And Young says, I was on the witness stand trying to get you the right to march and keep you out of jail. And King said, Oh, who’s getting smart with me? [laughter] And King picked up a pillow and threw it at Young’s face. Young threw the pillow back, and the other two guys in the room picked up pillows and started smacking him. Young would later say it was like being 12 all over again.

Melissa: Oh, that’s so sweet. I love that.

David: Yeah. Which leaves us with the final one, which is false. Charlie Watts, the drummer for the Rolling Stones, once did $70,000 worth of damage to a hotel room.

Melissa: Was it more? It was not.

David: So rock stars have a deep relationship with hotel rooms for, I think, obvious reasons. Spend a lot of time there. Sometimes they’re wound up. It is sometimes contentious, this relationship. The drummer for The Who, Keith Moon, was once banned from all Holiday Inns.

Melissa: Not to be rude, but I wouldn’t be that sad about being banned from a Holiday Inn.

David: And to celebrate his 20th birthday after a long day of enjoying himself, he got naked and drove a Lincoln Continental into a pool at one of their hotels.

Melissa: Who thinks, you know, be really fun? Let’s ruin a car and a pool.

David: I don’t think there was a lot of thinking going on at the time. Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine set a New York hotel on fire.

Melissa: On purpose?

David: Well, she’d been drinking with Kanye West, came back to her room, lit a tea light and passed out. And then when she came around, she realized that somebody had come into the room and doused the fire.

Melissa: That’d be really weird.

David: And Billy Idol was once removed from a Bangkok hotel by members of the Thai Army. According to Mr. Idol, they sedated him and shipped him back to the United States in the cargo hold of a plane.

Melissa: Oh, come on. Although we do know from our Thailand episode, you should not mess with the Thai police.

David: Yeah, but Charlie Watts was more of a gentleman than that. He has never wrecked a hotel room, as far as I can tell. His habit regarding hotel rooms was to sketch them.

Melissa: That is really nice. And I take back the mean things I said about how I thought it was more than $70,000.

David: You would get into the room and he would draw it. He started doing that in 1968, and he kept doing it until his death last year.

Melissa: That’s awesome.

David: He’s filled dozens of journals with sketches of hotel room furniture. According to most people, Charlie was a jazz loving, soft spoken man who may have been slumming a little bit when he joined the Rolling Stones. He had already met his future wife when he became a member of that band, and he was committed to the success of that relationship for the rest of his life. She was with him when he died. There is one story of Charlie and hotel room violence. So in 1984, the Rolling Stones were staying at a hotel in Amsterdam. It’s apparently a tough time for the Stones. They weren’t as popular as they had been. Mick is striking out on his own, and that’s kind of rough on the band.

Melissa: Dancing in the Streets with David Bowie.

David: Exactly that time. The story is that Keith and Mick had been out all night, got a little lit. It’s about 5 a.m. when they get back to the room and Mick gets an idea and Keith says, I don’t think we should do this, but Mick does it anyway. Mick picks up the phone, he calls Charlie’s room, and he says, Where is my drummer? Charlie gets up, takes a shower, puts on a Savile Row suit and tie, dabs on a pit of cologne. Walks down to Mick’s room and knocks. Keith opens the door. Charlie walks past him and stands in front of Mick. He grabs one of the world’s most famous men by the lapels, and he says, Never call me your drummer again. And then he punches him hard enough that Mick goes flying.

Melissa: Whoa.

David: A writer who wrote a book about Charlie Watts would later write that it was nothing less than you would expect from a guy whose right hand had been carrying the weight of the greatest rock and roll band in the world for 20 years.

Melissa: That’s an awesome story.

David: Are you ready to talk about books?

Melissa: I am ready to talk about books, but I also want to preface my book Talk by saying it was very difficult for me to narrow down my choices for this episode.

David: It’s true. It’s been days of conversation about how you’re going to handle this.

Melissa: And the way we’re handling it is to just shove them all in.

David: Yeah. So this may or may not run a little bit longer than we usually go, but we’ve got a bunch of really good reads for you.

Melissa: My first pick is A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny. I chose this because it’s set in a beautiful, historic hotel overlooking a lake in Quebec, Canada. So it’s got a very strong hotel vibe, and it’s a mystery with all of the tropes of a manor house murder. So it’s the bookish equivalent of a peanut butter cup: two excellent things made even better together. This is the fourth book in the Inspector Gamache series. The later books kind of require that you read them in order, but this one functions really well as a standalone.

David: You read most of the books.

Melissa: I have read all of the books. And I’ve actually gotten some very sternly worded emails from people who said they must be read in order. And I agree that the later books work better when you kind of see the evolution of the characters. This is the fourth book in the series. It’s very early, and it does work as a standalone. Okay, let’s talk about the star of this series, Armand Gamache. He’s the chief inspector of the Sûreté du Québec. He’s known for his compassion and his calming sense of decorum. He’s very patient. He’s measured in his speech and generous with praise. My favorite detectives are usually the ones who are rumpled and maybe drink too much and definitely have issues.

David: Sure.

Melissa: Gamache is the polar opposite of that and he is really wonderful. He is not a pushover. He’s just a good, intelligent adult who cares deeply about people in his job. Everyone talks about how he smells like sandalwood. My impression is that if you were in his presence, you would breathe deeply and calmly. He and his much adored wife, Reine-Marie, live in a village called Three Pines. And most of the books are set in Three Pines. But in this one, they’re celebrating their anniversary at the Manoir Bellechasse, a luxurious and very isolated mansion hotel on a lake surrounded by forest.

Melissa: The fictional hotel in this story is based on the real life Manoir Hovey. It sits on the shore of Lake Massawippi, in Quebec. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the lake was a popular summer getaway for wealthy people. So, Upton Sinclair went there, and the Baron family from Barron’s Magazine summered there swimming, fishing and boating on the lake. The fictional version of the hotel, the Bellechasse, is steeped in the real life history. So the prologue of the book says, There was something unnatural about the Manoir Bellechasse from the very beginning. It was staggeringly beautiful. The stripped logs golden and glowing. It was made of wood and wattle and sat at the water’s edge. It commanded Lac Massawippi, as the Robber Barons commanded everything.’

David: That’s a nice description.

Melissa: Yeah. So this is one of those 19th century mansions —

David: That dominates an area.

Melissa: Yes. And out of necessity was turned into a hotel. Because who can afford that kind of mansion in modern times. Gamache and his wife have celebrated their anniversary at this hotel every year for decades. Unfortunately for them, this year, the Morrow family has also gathered at the Inn for a family reunion. The Morrows are very rich, super snobby and absolutely horrible to the staff and to each other. In the first third of the book, Louise Penny takes her time, creating a tense atmosphere. The weather is stifling hot and humid. Wasps from a nest in the nearby forest are on the attack. There’s a mysterious block of white marble in the garden that puts everyone in mind of a tombstone.

David: Really?

Melissa: Yes. She also invests in introducing us to the people who populate the story. We’re treated to loving moments between Gamache and his wife and really juicy scenes of the Morrow family sniping at each other. And we also get to know the hotel staff. They all sleep and eat at the hotel. They are basically living amongst the guests in the staff quarters. There’s a nurturing maitre’d. There’s a comforting gourmet chef. There’s a hot headed waiter. It’s all very upstairs, downstairs, Downton Abbey kind of vibe. Then one night, there’s a raging storm that literally rattles the windows. The next morning, when the sky is calm, someone screams, and a body is found in the garden. One of the Morrows is dead and everyone at the hotel is a suspect. These are my favorite things. I say that, but can you imagine how I would react if there was actually a murder at a hotel where we were staying? I would be a puddle. I would be a mess.

David: That’s true. I was staying at a hotel and a guy died there.

Melissa: I remember that.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: That khotel that was rumored to be haunted.

David: Yes, it was.

Melissa: And it’s a little bit creepy.

David: It is. It’s a creepy little hotel. I was sitting there in the lobby and the cops came along and they tried to clear a bunch of us out. We moved away and then realized that what they were doing was taking a gurney down the stairs.

Melissa: Was it murder?

David: I don’t think so. But maybe that’s because I’m not a good enough detective.

Melissa: Or he died of fright from a ghost.

David: That story got passed around.

Melissa: I mean, that’s probably what happened. Anyway, back to this story. Yeah. What elevates this series above the usual whodunit is that through Gamache, the author, Louise Penny, really gets into the psychology of the suspects and the why of the murder. Everybody has back story. Everybody has good reason to maybe have murdered this person.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: Digging into other people’s secrets also brings up emotional issues for Gamache. So the dark stuff going on with the Morrow family is interwoven with revelations from the inspector’s past. The other thing that works really well is the hotel setting. The hotel is well-appointed with attentive white glove service, but it’s isolated, so it’s equally posh and dangerous.

David: Right.

Melissa: There are lavish descriptions of food and the guests never want for anything. Even after the murder. Even after there’s been this murder, there’s still beautiful gourmet food. Service continues. The investigation is hampered by being out in the wilderness. There’s not enough juice to power their computers and there’s no cell service. So they’re completely old school with paper, pens, and driving back and forth to convey information, which really ratchets up the tension. Meanwhile, the family members are all on their very worst behavior. They stab each other with words and with withering glances. This is a terrible family, and through it all, the sun is beating down on them mercilessly, and black flies are biting everyone.

David: Oh.

Melissa: And then because it’s Louise Penny, she nails the ending with a shocking discovery of who committed the murder and the heartbreaking reason why. That is A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny.

David: For this episode, I went deep into New York’s Plaza Hotel. I read a couple of books. I’m going to talk about a few.

Melissa: We’re both cheating now. It’s a free for all.

David: It’s a free for all. There’s no structure. Chaos is loose. No one can be trusted. So the Plaza Hotel is on the corner of Fifth Avenue on Central Park South in Manhattan. You can walk out the plaza across the street and you’re in Central Park.

Melissa: Nice.

David: It is probably one of the most desirable addresses in the world. And the Plaza has been there since 1907. It’s 21 stories tall, so big but not enormous. It is a luxury hotel. It is a grand hotel. When it opened, 1500 people were required to run that place, including two guys whose job it was to dust the 1600 chandeliers. That’s all they did. An entire career. Dusting chandeliers.

Melissa: Think how intimately they knew every facet of those chandeliers.

David: Yeah. The hotel has seen some things. Many of those things involve the rich and famous. And I’m going to run through a list here, just to give you an idea. Enrico Caruso, the famous opera singer live there [clip of caruso singing], F. Scott Fitzgerald, is said to have bathed it in its fountain. And he said part of The Great Gatsby there.

Melissa: Was he renting a room at the time or just availing himself of the fountain?

David: I believe he was just availing himself of the fountain, but maybe he was staying there. FDR had his birthday lunch there in 1935. [clip of FDR speaking: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.] Frank Lloyd Wright stayed there when he was designing the Guggenheim Museum.

David: Yeah. Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday played there together in 1958. [music clip]

Melissa: Time Machine.

David: Yeah, there is an album from that night. Truman Capote held a masquerade ball there. Moby lived there. [clip of Moby singing] So did Tommy Hilfiger. Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones got married at the Plaza. Donald Trump owned it for a while and then bankrupted it. And for five nights back in 1964, the Beatles stayed there. [clip of the Beatles singing] I want to back up for a second. It’s worth sharing some details about Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. This was not just any shindig. First, the ball had several earlier parties. The invited were invited to meet with one another at organized dinner parties before the ball happened. No one would be there without having spent time with a bunch of other people who were also attending. This strikes me is just outrageously civil. You know.

__Melissa:__Make a friend before you go to the big party.

David: Yeah. Second invitations to this event were so coveted that people who were not invited made plans to be out of town.

Melissa: So they wouldn’t have FOMO?

David: ‘Truman’s ball here. I couldn’t make it. I was in San Francisco.’

Melissa: Interesting.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: To save face.

David: Yes. Finally, the ball was so famous that there were two recreations of it. One in 1991 and another in 2006, the 25th and 40th anniversaries of the original.

Melissa: Like a high school reunion?

David: Like a recreation. The last one had the same food, the same rules for getting dressed. The same orchestra played.

Melissa: Cool.

David: Yeah. The night of Truman’s party back in 1966, guests in attendance included Ladybird Johnson, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Andy Warhol, and a 20 year old Candice Bergen. Frank Sinatra danced with Mia Farrow at that party. The Plaza has inspired a small library’s worth of books. And I’m going to, like we said, cheat and mention three of them. And these three books intertwine really nicely. There’s a sort of fantastic little mini book project for the right person here. Their first book is The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel by Julie Satow. This is a general history of the Plaza. It came out recently in 2019. Satow was a journalist. She’s a regular for The New York Times, but she’s also done work for NPR and The New York Post. This book starts before the hotel was built. In fact, the first chapter describes a murder that happened at the plaza when it was going up.

Melissa: Whoa.

David: There was some tension between the hotel’s owners and the ironworkers union, and things got out of hand. And from there she goes decade by decade through the history of the hotel ending just a few years ago with the Plaza a bit of a shell of its former self but hoping for better things. The book does an impressive job of shifting with the ages. The stories change as the decades go by, and to some extent, the story of the Plaza is the story of New York City. This book gives us a little bit of a ringside seat to the changes that made New York what it is now.

David: The second book I want to mention is The Hotel: A Week in the Life of the Plaza by Sonny Kleinfeld. This book is the book you want to read if you’re curious about how luxury hotel works. Kleinfeld uses the framing device of one week to talk about who toasts the luggage and who cleans the rooms and who watches the front desks, that sort of thing.

Melissa: That sounds really cool.

David: Yeah, it’s an older book. It came out in 1988, but that also means that it was looking at the Plaza when it was near its height. Publishers Weekly called it at least as enjoyable as staying at the Plaza, which was not my experience, but I still enjoyed it.

Melissa: What if you read it while you were at the Plaza? That would be pretty good.

David: There you go. Take a week, stay at the Plaza, read this.

Melissa: Build a time machine, travel back to the heyday, read it while you’re at the Plaza.

David: And then finally there’s At the _Plaza: An Illustrated History of the World’s Most Famous Hotel by Curtis Gathje. This is a pictorial record, a picture book for adults. This book has loads of photos and menus and album covers and posters and invitations. I love visuals and being able to flip through this while I was learning about the history of the Great Hotel, added a lot of depth for me. That book seems to be out of print, but it’s available, used and currently pretty cheap. But if you’re only going to read one, I’d recommend the first. That’s The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel by Julie Satow.

Melissa: I’m going to cheat a little bit now, too. I read a book called Rooms with a View: The Secret Life of Grand Hotels by Adrian Moorby. The author is a hotel historian and travel writer. He visited 50 grand hotels that are still operating, and this book is the result. Each hotel gets its own little section, two or three pages tops, with a photo and stories of things that happened in the good old days. This is not a book you want to read in one go because it would get a little tedious. There’s not a narrative thread holding things together. It’s more like almost a directory, but it’s a good book to dip in and out of when you’re reading a novel or another book set in a hotel just to kind of fill in some of your gaps.

David: Are there photos?

Melissa: There is one photo of each hotel in its little write up.

David: Okay.

Melissa: And they’re black and white.

David: Google images.

Melissa: Google images is the way to go. Yeah, that’s Rooms with a View by Adrian Moorby.

David: That sounds good.

Melissa: My next recommendation is. Estoril by Dejan Tiago-Stanković and translated from Serbian by Christina Pribichevich-Zoric. That is quite a mouthful.

David: That did a nice job of navigating that.

Melissa: This is a historical novel set in the luxurious Hotel Palacio Estoril in Portugal during World War Two. Before I get into my description of the book, I have to talk about the town of Estoril and the iconic hotel. The Hotel Palacio was built in 1930. And it’s exactly what you want in a glamorous hotel. It looks like a wedding cake. The entire facade is gleaming white under the Portuguese sunshine, and it’s surrounded by a lush green lawn and swaying palm trees. And it’s just a few minutes walk from the sea. During World War Two, Portugal claimed neutrality, but it continued to trade with both the allies and Nazi Germany.

David: Oh.

Melissa: That made it a playground for anyone hoping to ride out the war without too much disruption to their lives. The area became known as the Coast of Kings because the royal families from Spain, Italy, France, Bulgaria and Romania all went into exile there.

David: Wow.

Melissa: Yes.

David: That must have made for some interesting dinner parties.

Melissa: It also attracted war refugees fleeing Jewish families and spies. British and German agents drank cocktails and traded secrets in the hotel lobby, the bar, and the casino next door. Ships off the coast would send messages by blinking lights after nightfall, and when the Germans ordered the best champagne at the bar, the Allies knew that a battle had been lost in Africa. The bartenders had more of a scoop on what was happening in the war than the reporters.

David: Wow.

Melissa: In 1941, this is all real — in 1941, Ian Fleming stayed at the hotel and met the Serbian double agent, Duško Popov, who spied for Britain’s MI6 and the German Abwehr. Popoff was known as the tricycle because he always had women occupying both arms and he was the inspiration for James Bond.

David: That’s amazing.

Melissa: There is no proof of whether or not he was overheard ordering a martini shaken, not stirred. In 1968, the James Bond movie on Her Majesty’s Secret Service was filmed at the hotel and the stars George Lazenby and Diana Rigg stayed in rooms there.

Melissa: So back to this novel. Estoril. When the story opens, we meet a ten year old Belgian boy named Gaby. He’s appeared at the hotel in a sober black suit with a white shirt and a broad brimmed black hat and two blonde side locks framing his face. He is a Hasidic Jew, and he’s been sent to the hotel by his parents in an attempt to put him out of the reach of the Nazis. He has a suitcase full of cash and diamonds sewn into the hem of his coat. The very decorous hotelier, Mr. Black, is about to send Gaby away, when for some reason his heart softens. He breaks all the rules of propriety, and he lets this serious little boy stay at the hotel.

David: Okay.

Melissa: Soon Gaby is adopted by the hotel staff and guests as they ride out the war together. So the book is about his adventures in the hotel and all of the people he meets. It’s got a really brisk pace. It’s kind of like sitting in a hotel lobby, watching the comings and goings of the guests and the staff. You get little vignettes of what everyone is up to. The fictional characters who become Gaby’s found family share the hotel with real-life historical figures who are hiding out at the Hotel Palacio during World War Two. So of course, Ian Fleming and the spy Popov are in the story. There’s a concert from Jan Paderewski, who was a famous pianist and former prime minister of Poland. The French author and pilot, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is there.

David: Oh, sure. They read The Little Prince.

Melissa: Who wrote the Little Prince. And the conceit in this story is that the Little prince is based on Gaby, and all of them are watched over by the Portuguese secret police. Interspersed between the chapters of the book, there are official communiques from the secret police reporting on different people who have arrived in town and who has left town. Kind of helps you move the story forward.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: These whimsical touches are really doing double duty. They’re a break from the bleak reality of living through a war. They also highlight how bad things were getting outside the hotel. This story is like a mashup of the movie Casablanca, where wealthy people are desperately trying to forget the war with cocktails and evening gowns. And it has a little bit of the Grand Budapest Hotel in it, because there are quirky characters that make you smile and also break your heart a little bit. This would make a very satisfying book pairing with A Gentleman in Moscow, which is another escapist read that takes you behind the scenes at a hotel during World War Two.

Melissa: It would also pair nicely with The Ventriloquists, which I talked about in our newsroom episode, because that’s another kind of unusual story of World War Two with brave characters and a warm found family. This book very charming, very moving. It’s called Estoril by Dejan Tiago-Stanković.

David: My next book is The Hitman’s Daughter by Carolyne Topdjian. This is a really fun, gothic horror that came out in just in February of this year.

Melissa: Oh, a new book.

David: Yeah. For your entertainment, I will read you the first three paragraphs of this book. I can guarantee you that you will know whether you want to read it from this. This is the introduction.

Melissa: I’m ready.

David: ‘Though the hotel was constructed in 1921, the haunting didn’t occur until seventy years later. On the fourth of August, 1991 at half past three in the morning, every television set in each of the four-hundred and thirty-nine guestrooms of the Château du Ciel switched on preternaturally. By this time, the hotel’s revenue was already suffering from the market crash four years prior. Fortunately, not many guests were checked in to experience it. But those few who were—seeking a nostalgic rendezvous or unparalleled privacy—would tell you the same story. They awoke to the sounds of their televisions blaring and an infant crying.

The former nuisance they would shut off with a click of a remote, but the latter would prove difficult to pin down or drown out. Was it coming from next door? Upstairs? The corridor? After a few noise complaints to the front desk, the guests would eventually drift back into a troubled sleep. And with bags under their eyes and a sour taste on their tongues, all would check out hours later.

Some would moan they felt ill from acute heartburn or intense migraines. Others would claim they rose in the morning with streaks of white in their hair or spiders crawling in their bed sheets. They’d blame the Château: its poor wiring, its dusty vents and acidic wine selection. A handful would demand refunds and threaten never to step foot inside the hotel again.

And for a little while, that was the case. The Château in all its grandeur fell into ruin. The era was forgotten. So was the mysterious baby. Until the invitations arrived in the post.’

Melissa: ‘Until the invitations arrived in the post’ is like someone beckoning, ‘Come. come with me.

David: In the book, there’s a printed invitation on the next page for your review. The story revolves around a rundown luxury hotel in the mountains of Colorado. This place had once been a playground for the wealthy, but that was decades ago. It’s still limping along, but parts of the hotel have been shut down for years. It mostly gets by as a hunters lodge these days. Our hero is Maeve Michael. She is the hitman’s daughter of the title. Her dad has been convicted and he’s in jail. She is on the run from her past. She’s changed her name and settled into a position as a sales clerk in the hotel’s store. And then on New Year’s Eve. The hotel is having a party. The band is playing a bossa nova tune. Drinks are being poured. People are dressed up. A blizzard sets in.

Melissa: I love when a blizzard comes.

David: Maeve’s gotten a note from the elderly eccentric artist who lives on the top floor of the hotel. New Life Goal: Be an elderly, eccentric artist who lives on the top floor of a spooky hotel.

Melissa: Agreed.

David: She gets the note. She takes the rickety elevator up to the 23rd floor to visit the old lady. Her name’s Birdie. She walks down the hall. The electricity is cycling, so the wall sconces are going on and off. Mave knocks on Birdie’s door. She hears something. She enters in the room. The wind from the blizzard is smacking the balcony doors open and closed. Maeve goes to close the balcony doors and she trips over the old lady dead on the floor.

Melissa: Strong start.

David: And that’s the first chapter. And of course, who’s better to blame for a murder than the hitman’s daughter? And we’re off. There are so many gothic tropes in this book that I wondered if the writer had made a game of including as many as she could in a story and writing from there. There’s a powerful and wealthy family with dark secrets. There are ghosts and people who might be ghosts. There are elaborate maze like structures. There are decades old crime scenes. There’s a huge library that some people refuse to enter.

Melissa: How have I not read this book?

David: It really does have you all over it. There’s a damsel in distress who turns out to also be the hero. There’s a powerful storm that turns the whole thing into a locked room mystery. Maeve has a supernatural power that is unexplained. There’s a moody and secretive love interest. There’s melodrama. There’s also cell phones and strong women characters in the Internet. So it’s not completely moored in the in the twenties or whatever. For me, it was all a great fun. I blew through this book. The author Carolyne Topdjian is a professor at the Humber College in Toronto. Her bio says she lives in 112-year-old haunted house. This is her first novel and I hope she writes more. That’s The Hitman’s Daughter by Carolyne Topdjian.

Melissa: That sounds amazing and I can’t wait to read it.

David: Yeah, absolutely your kind of book.

Melissa: I’m going to piggyback on that.

David: Okay.

Melissa: I also read a hotel ghost story that I want to mention just quickly. It’s The Sun Down Motel by Simone Saint James. And this has a completely different vibe than the books we’ve talked about so far, because it’s set in a broken down roadside motel, not a fancy hotel, a motel that you drive up to park your car in the space in front of the door and walk in. It’s set in 1982 and 2017 and is a mashup of a true crime investigation, a fictional true crime investigation, and a ghost story with two heroines with a lot of moxie. They’re loners and relentlessly curious, which gets them into all kinds of dangerous scrapes. The descriptions of the hauntings at the motel are fantastic. There’s a lingering smell of cigarettes where no one is smoking. The lights go on and off in sequence, and everyone, when confronted with the idea of the ghosts, accepts it. They don’t waste any time trying to convince skeptical people that these are ghosts. I loved it. It’s suspenseful and super spooky in a way that I found really fun. That is _The Sun Down Motel by Simone Saint James.

Melissa: My final recommendation sort of, because we’re going to talk about more books after this — this recommendation is one of my all time favorite books. I love it so much that it felt like cheating to include it in the show, but I decided to do it anyway. It’s The Inn at Lake Devine by Eleanor Lipman.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: I always have a hard time describing her books. Technically, I guess you would call them romcoms. But Eleanor Lipman has a real gift for writing stories that are frothy and sparkly on the surface while tackling challenging issues underneath. But it’s so stealthy that you don’t even really notice at first. And then you’re like, Oh, I see what she’s doing here.

David: Yeah. So rom com with a little bit of depth to it.

Melissa: Yeah, I’ve read all of her novels, but I’m kind of that annoying person who likes a band’s first few albums the best. My heart belongs to her books from the early nineties, The Way Men Act, Isabelle’s Bed, and this one: The Inn at Lake Devine.

David: So you’re an Eleanor Lipman hipster?

Melissa: I am. This story begins in 1962, when our heroine, Natalie Marx, is 12 years old. Her mom has written to the Inn to ask for prices for their family’s traditional summer getaway. And this is the response they receive: ‘The Inn at Lake Devine is a family owned resort, which has been in continuous operation since 1922. Our guests who feel most comfortable here and return year after year are gentile’s. Very truly yours, Mrs. Ingrid Berry, Reservations Manager.

David: Yikes.

Melissa: Yes. These too weirdly formal and very anti-Semitic sentences set Natalie on a course that changes her entire life. She becomes kind of obsessed with Mrs. Ingrid Berry and her inn by the lake. She wonders if the berries are Nazis.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: She anonymously mails Mrs. Berry a copy of the Civil Rights Act, along with a quote from Anne Frank’s diary, ‘In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.’ She calls her from payphones. She’s all over it, this 12 year old little girl.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: And then she finagled an invitation to join her friend Robin and Robin’s family, non-Jewish family, on their trip to the Inn at Lake Devine. Oh, the girls swim the lake, they sun themselves on the shore. They get to know the adult Berrys and their teenage sons. And it’s all way less dramatic than Natalie expected it to be. And eventually that summer is nearly forgotten. But a decade later, Natalie is a talented, if not super successful chef in Boston, and she runs into her old pal Robin and learns that Robin is about to marry the Berry’s eldest son.

David: Oh.

Melissa: And then she invites Natalie to the wedding. This is where I like to say hijinks ensue. I cannot tell you anything else about the plot without ruining the fun. So I’m going to tell you some things I love about the book.

David: Okay.

Melissa: First, Natalie, she is one of the all-time great heroines. She is equal parts fight and vulnerability, and that 12-year-old version of her is filled with fire. But when we catch up with the adult Natalie, she’s lost some of that fight. It is such a joy as you go through the rest of the book to see her coming into her own again and getting her confidence back.

Melissa: Second, there’s not one but two hotels as characters in this story. There’s the Inn at Lake Devine, which is the quintessential 1960s lakeside inn. And then there’s a kosher hotel in the Catskills called The Halcyon, which is Dirty Dancing right there on the page.

David: Okay.

Melissa: Third, all of the characters feel like real people. Eleanor Lipman is really good at this. They are messy, they’re unpredictable, they’re lovable, they’re difficult. They go through stuff, and they change. But there are no magical, unreal transformations. Mrs. Berry is a pill from the beginning, and she’s still a pill at the end. She’s just a little bit softened. Finally, Eleanor Lippman is not afraid to sucker punch you with her plot. There are laugh out loud moments in this book. Some of the lines that come out of Natalie’s mouth made me whoop out loud.

Melissa: Still. I’ve read this book like six times. I just reread it still makes me laugh. But then there are also moments that made me gasp out loud and shed a few tears. It is an emotional journey and it is really well done. That’s The Inn at Lake Devine by Eleanor Lippman. But I also need to mention another book. I almost recommended this novel instead of the end at Lake Devine because it’s one that I just read for the first time this year, but I couldn’t quite give up the Devine. This would make an excellent pairing with that book. It’s called Last Summer at the Golden Hotel by Alissa Friedland. It’s set at the hotel of that name in the Catskills. The hotel is owned by the Goldman and Weingold Families. They’ve been friends for decades and have run the hotel together the entire time. But the golden age of hotels in the Catskills is waning, and both of the families have returned to the hotel for a reunion to discuss potentially selling it. This is truly like if Dirty Dancing was a novel, but instead of being set in the sixties, it was set now. That is Last Summer at the Golden Hotel by Alissa Friedland.

David: So this is normally where we wrap up the show, but and.

Melissa: We say there’s five books we love.

David: We went overboard a little bit and we’re going to keep going overboard.

Melissa: We are. We’ve got a few more books we want to mention just briefly, I think. And then we’ll wrap up. So this is your extra book special.

Melissa: The Maid by Nita Prose is a new book. It just came out at the beginning of this year and it got a lot of attention. Yeah, it’s all about Molly, a maid at a posh hotel who finds a lot of solace and comfort in the order of her work. When a guest is found dead in his bed, Molly becomes the prime suspect.

David: Oh!

Melissa: And to find the real culprit, she has to forge alliances with friends at the hotel that she didn’t realize she had. This would make a great pairing with convenience store women, which I recommend in our Japan episode. There is a lot in common between Molly and Keiko and Convenience Store Woman. Dave, I think you should talk about the next one.

David: I love A Gentleman in Moscow.

Melissa: I do too. We could have just done an hour show about A Gentleman in Moscow.

David: We could! A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I talked about that in our episode about Russia. I’m so enthusiastic about that book that we recorded me talking about that book, and then I listened to it and I was like, That’s not good enough. And we recorded it again a couple of days later because I was like, People need to know. This story is set at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. It starts out in 1922. The Bolsheviks have risen to power. That’s not a good time to be wealthy in Russia. Our hero Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to house arrest at the Metropol at the hotel there. He proceeds then to make a found family and live an expansive life within the hotel’s walls during the next 30 years. It’s such a good book. He’s such a lovely character.

Melissa: Be right back. Got to go read it right now.

Melissa: The Paradox Hotel by Rob Heart is also a new book that just came out this year. That’s set in a fancy hotel where the super wealthy wait for their departures and a nearby time travel machine. This is my dream come true. This is a thrill ride. It has fantastic world-building, a heroine to root for, lots of humor, and genuine punch you in the face feelings. It’s a murder mystery, but it explores the things that haunt us. Ghosts or not ghosts, doesn’t matter, we’re haunted by things from our past. It’s also a cautionary tale about where our collective pride and entitlement might be taking us in the not too distant future.

David: Is it a good place?

Melissa: Not really. Yeah, I was afraid. If you don’t like rich, rich, rich people, this is a fun read. That’s The Paradox Hotel by Rob Heart.

David: Okay, that is maybe 18 books we love?

Melissa: Was that all the books we love set in hotels?

David: Visit our show notes at for links and details and a whole big list of great books.

Melissa: I know I say this every episode, but truly, the show notes for this episode are epic. Many of the grand hotels we’ve talked about can be found in some really yummy websites about historic hotels. There are tons of vintage pictures. There are stories about the outrageous things the guests did. You do not want to miss the show notes.

David: So let’s talk about the newsletter a little bit because you’ve been doing something new with that.

Melissa: A little bit, yeah. My Friday newsletter that goes out to all of our subscribers has always included what’s been happening on the website and whatever happens to be on my mind that week. But on Fridays, we post our Endnotes on the website and that is a collection of our favorite book- and travel-related things that we have seen throughout the previous week. And at the top is always a beautiful photo of something that caught our attention. And I give it a little mention in the Endnotes. What I’ve been doing in the newsletter is diving deeper into whatever it is that’s in that photo. Sometimes it’s a travel destination, sometimes it’s a shop, sometimes it’s a library, sometimes it’s a holiday from a foreign country. But I go a little bit deeper in the newsletter to give our subscribers more context for the beautiful image that they’re seeing on the website.

David: That’s nice.

Melissa: You can sign up for our newsletter at It is free newsletter and it comes out every Friday. You can also sign up to receive notification when we update our blog, which is a shorter email from me that again gives a little bit more detail, exclusive details, bonus content that you don’t get on the website. I always try to throw something new into the newsletters for our subscribers.

David: Can you tell us where we’re headed next episode?

Melissa: We are going way, way, way south to Tasmania, off the coast of Australia.

David: Thanks so much for listening and we’ll talk to you soon.

[cheerful music]

Top image courtesy of redcharlie/Unsplash.

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