This month we published Histories, Meanings and Representations of the Modern Hotel by Kevin J. James. In this post Kevin explains what first sparked his interest in hotel history.
Until I read the report in the pages of an 1833 newspaper, the story seemed to belong only to the madcap antics in one of the most memorable episodes of the John Cleese television classic ‘Fawlty Towers’. A German baron, ‘about 35 or 36 years of age, of slender make, with light hair, and sandy moustachios’, speaking imperfect English, arrived in a hotel near Berkeley Square. The baron impressed the management with impeccable credentials, including letters of introduction to Foreign Ministers, and ‘one of the principal embassies’. He declared that he was undertaking crucial diplomatic business. In the conduct of those important affairs, he hired ‘a dashing cabriolet and livery servants’, ordered a number of luxurious hand-crafted goods, and entertained lavishly. Only when the keeper of a hotel at which he had previously stayed paid a visit to the keeper of the smart establishment was the swindler – and the extent of his fraud – revealed. The single trunk with which he travelled was discovered to be completely empty, and the names under which he had commissioned expensive craft work were false!
This story played out many times, and drew my interest: yes, these cases were especially sensational (and the press knew that). But they also raised profound questions about personal identity, social relationships, and hotel space. Under what pretences could people identify themselves as guests? What systems of surveillance operated in the public and private spaces of the hotel? How were agents of the law involved in hotels? How, in an age before credit card authorisations, when people still travelled long distances for business and pleasure, was risk addressed by keepers of grand hotels keen to fill their rooms with the best sort of guest, and thereby accrue prestige? No place seemed immune from the designs of the figure who became known as the ‘hotel rat’ – a man or woman who appeared well dressed and respectable, and insinuated themselves into the spaces of, and exploited, the hotels which accepted them, and their credit, at face value. No place was immune from the seductions of high rank: The Evening Telegraph in 1883 reported that a ‘spurious Duke of Richmond’ travelling in New York had ‘traded rather unscrupulously on the veneration which many people in that democratic capital feel for a title’. In a world in which the petty nobility of the continent boasted a range of lofty-sounding titles almost unfathomable in number, the ease with which a swindler could claim aristocratic birth and a swift place in the high society of a foreign city, including access to its finest hotels, is sometimes shocking to the modern reader.
Thus began my quest to understand more about the nature of ‘modern hotel life’, and how other historians have handled it. In researching and writing about hotels, I have encountered cases of adultery, and of thefts of hotel articles as mundane as towels monogrammed with the initials of a railway hotel. I have also discovered reports of spies operating under the cloak of anonymity in restaurants and lobbies of an institution – the hotel – so complex and compelling that it demands as close attention from today’s readers as the press accorded the most notorious imposters who savoured the hotel’s splendour, and then failed to pay their bills.