My thanks to Pushkin Press and Edelweiss for a review copy of this book.
First published in 1941, Hotel Splendide is a slightly fictionalized memoir of the time author and illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans spent working at the Ritz in New York, which in the book becomes the Hotel Splendide. Written in the form of short but connected episodes or sketches, these take us into hotel life as it was at the time, from the eccentrics in the staff and amongst the guests, to the hotel’s inner workings and guests’ extravagances. Keenly observed, much of the time humorous but also with a touch of pathos, these anecdotes and portraits are also illustrated by Bemelmans with pen and ink drawings, one of the initial stories telling one how he got interested in and acquired this skill (and soon after, the first customers for his cartoons). Bemelmans is of course best known for his Madeline books but has written a number of other volumes including autobiographical stories like this one.
Born in Austria, Bemelmans was for a time apprenticed to his uncle at a hotel there before emigrating to the United States where he eventually worked at the Ritz Carlton, progressing along the hotel hierarchy. As the book opens, we see him on the lowest rung, not only working at busboy but to a waiter Mespoulets, in charge of the worst tables in the restaurant, ‘in a noisy draughty corner of the balcony’, ‘a kind of penal colony’ where only undesirable guests are seated, and only those staff who are being punished for mistakes (like out author who ‘fell down the stairs into the main part of the dining room with eight pheasants à la Souvaroff’) or like Mespoulets, simply ‘the worst waiter in the world’. Bemelmans works his way up, to commis, then waiter and eventually assistant manager of banquets, along the way acquiring a Hispano Suiza in an interesting, though somewhat unsettling episode.
The hotel is peopled by some rather interesting characters, from Mespoulets who manages to bungle any job assigned him (serving guests food they hadn’t ordered and often cold, and then handing them someone else’s check; giving guests wrong directions and passing cigars to ladies instead of the gentlemen, and such), loves animals, but shows himself to have rather questionable morals as well; to the maître d’hôtel, M Victor, ruling his staff with an iron hand, yet not safe when one of them decides to take revenge; Fritzl, the busboy from Regensburg, Bemelmans’ hometown, who dreams of impressing his family by coming back to town in an exquisite suit, to Professor Gorylscu, the magician–medium who acquires a fun little dog, Confetti to assist him in his performances, and is also a ladies man perpetually out of funds, to among the guests Mr Tannenbaum who lives on a strange diet and is rather idiosyncratic to the Drespools, the ‘terror of maîtres d’hôtel all over the world’.
We see the workings of the hotel, from the service of meals, and upkeep of staff uniforms (several of which are gone through every day), to the hosting of lavish banquets, and work that lasts endless hours but also the waiters and other staff getting tips from financiers who dine there and playing the markets for a little extra, picking up information they aren’t supposed to be privy to (sometimes surreptitiously) which becomes gossip (perhaps more), but also enjoying little treats and tips and also brief stays in some of the more lavish suites in the hotel.
Bemelmans’ portraits and stories are told with a great deal of humour; yet each is also tinged with pathos whether it is a look at M Victor recovering in his home after he suffers an accident a disgruntled employee led him to have, or Fritzl, the busboy, at first terribly lost and homesick, and then keen to get his revenge on the schoolmaster back home who did badly by him when he was a student; or even the bittersweet tale of Confetti making friends Mr Houlberg, their landlady’s husband.
The book takes us back to a time gone by, treated by Bemelmans with both fondness and fun while at the same time preserving its authenticity and reality with both his pictures of hotel life and the ups and downs that define everyday life.
A lovely read and which makes me certainly want to explore more of his writings. Pushkin Press luckily has another in the pipeline!
Cover image via Goodreads; illustrations by Ludwig Bemelmans via Edelweiss
Jacqui from Jacqui Wine’s Journal, who also enjoyed the book very much, has reviewed it here