Hotel Splendide by Ludwig Bemelmans  

The Austrian-born writer and illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans is perhaps best known for the Madeline series, a much-loved collection of children’s picture books, mostly from the 1950s. But before he made his name as an artist and writer, Bemelmans spent several years in the New York hotel industry, working his way through the ranks from lowly bus boy to assistant manager of the private banqueting suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

Hotel Splendide is an affectionate series of vignettes recounting Bemelmans time at the Ritz-Carlton during the decadent 1920s – an utterly charming book that reflects the author’s eye for an amusing anecdote or observation while still maintaining a genuine sense of humanity. It’s a delightful collection of sketches, perfectly capturing the rituals and idiosyncrasies of a bygone age, perfect for dipping into during the dark days of winter.

Hotels frequently have a culture all of their own, and Bemelmans captures the Splendide’s to a T. Inside the mirrored dining room and banqueting suites, the rich and powerful indulge in champagne and caviar, attended to by a vast array of staff who must satisfy their guests’ every desire. When Bemelmans joins as a busboy, he is assigned to the section managed by an eccentric waiter named Mespoulets, hidden away near the rear balcony. It’s the least desirable area of the dining room, a sort of outpost where the maître d’, Monsieur Victor, seats the lowest of the low, including those who have proved troublesome in the past.

Monsieur Victor used our tables as a kind of penal colony, to which he sent guests who were notorious cranks, people who had forgotten to tip him over a long period of time and needed a reminder, undesirables who looked out of place in better sections of the dining-room, and guests who were known to linger for hours over an order of hors d’œuvres and a glass of milk, while well-paying guests had to stand at the door waiting for a table. (pp. 11–12)

Mespoulets quickly reveals himself to be a candidate for ‘the worst waiter in the world’. While the best servers are alert, attentive and speedy, Mespoulets is the exact opposite, frequently delivering the wrong orders and spilling food on the guests. Only his calligraphy skills keep him in a job – invaluable for writing menus with an elegant flourish worthy of the Splendide’s standing. Nevertheless, Bemelmans soon learns the ropes by observing the inner workings of the hotel, progressing rapidly through the ranks to the upper echelons of private banqueting.

The book is punctuated by several pen portraits (and, in some instances, accompanying pen-and-ink illustrations!) of the hotel’s most eccentric and demanding clients. Nowhere is this more evident than within the walls of the private dining suite, where the rich and powerful quickly slide from dignity to drunkenness and debauchery.

Sometimes they fell on their faces and sang into the carpet. Leaders of the nation, savants, and unhappy millionaires suffered fits of laughter, babbled nonsense, and spilled ashes and wine down their shirt-fronts. Some of them became ill. Others swam in a happy haze and loved all the world. (p. 47)

If anything, the behind-the-scenes views are even more fascinating than the guests, and Bemelmans does a fabulous job of drawing back the curtain to reveal the inner workings of the hotel, a place where hierarchies and unwritten rules must be understood and respected. Take Monsieur Victor as an example. This powerful maître d’ is a stickler for discipline, firing a waiter or busboy every six months or so, sometimes for no particular reason, just to keep the remaining staff on their toes. Meanwhile, the savviest waiters can pick up stock market tips from their Wall Street diners, enabling them to play the markets to supplement their wages – a practice that sometimes interferes with the smooth running of service.

Naturally, the stock market interfered with the service of the Hotel Splendide. Waiters stood in line trying to get at a telephone to call their brokers. In the restaurant they collected in groups, where they discussed, trends, exchanged market tips and advice, and shouted quotations at each other. They calculated profits on the backs of menus and they disappeared for long stretches of time, during which they sat in some out-of-the-way corner of the hotel, dreaming and planning what to do with their profits. (p. 53)

Bemelmans is equally good on the Splendide’s traditions and institutions, the little touches that set it apart from other leading hotels in the city. I particularly love this passage about the six elderly ladies who write the diners’ bills in longhand, a practice that has slipped out of use in most other establishments.

In a corner of the main dining-room of the Splendide, behind an arrangement of screens and large palms that were bedded in antique Chinese vases, six ladies of uncertain age used to sit making out luncheon and dinner checks. When a guest at the Splendide called for the bill, it was brought to him in longhand – contrary to the practice in most other hotels in New York City – in purple link, on fine paper decorated with the hotel crest. The six ladies, seated at a long desk near the exit to the kitchens, attended to that. (pp. 82–83)

Several of the vignettes feature Professor Gorylescu, a magician with a sideline in palmistry, who is frequently engaged as an entertainer during the Splendide’s private dinner parties. With his characteristic blend of wit and humanity, Bemelmans reveals how Gorylescu memorises the forthcoming engagements in the private banqueting diary with the aim of offering his services to the organisers. In truth, this practice is strictly forbidden, but Bemelmans turns a blind eye to the Professor’s antics out of friendship and generosity. We also learn of the Professor’s attempts to incorporate a dog into his act – not to mention his exploits with the ladies, including a party of glamorous dancers in town with the Russian ballet. Despite his age and appearance, Gorylescu is something of a ladykiller, giving rise to some of the most delightful anecdotes in the book.

Alongside these amusing vignettes, there’s a discernible note of poignancy in some of Bemelmans’ reflections – most notably in the stories featuring Fritzl, a homesick busboy who hails from the author’s home town of Regensburg. When Fritzl makes a catastrophic error, dropping a rack of lamb in full view of the diners, Bemelmans takes the boy under his wing, finding him a role where he can flourish and thrive. In time, Fritzl saves enough money to buy a smart suit, and he dreams of making a big splash on his return to Regensburg, keen to show friends and family that his new life is a success. Nevertheless, on their return home, the pair find their home town much diminished, and their former tutor – a man who taunted Fritzl as a boy for his shabby clothes and appearance – is now reduced to wearing threadbare trousers of his own. Consequently, Fritzl shelves his plans to lord it over the Professor, sympathising with his plight and the reversal of fortunes.

In summary then, Hotel Splendide is a delightful collection of vignettes, capturing the splendour of a bygone age with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies. What makes this book such a joy to read is Bemelmans’ blend of warmth, charm and humanity, his exquisite eye for an amusing observation without ever tipping into cruelty. The reflections – rich in period detail and atmosphere – are exquisitely conveyed, ably revealing the inner workings of this prestigious hotel. A must read for anyone interested in 1920s New York in all its decadence and glamour, particularly those readers with a fondness for hotels!

Hotel Splendide is published by Pushkin Press; my thanks to the publisher and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

36 thoughts on “Hotel Splendide by Ludwig Bemelmans  

  1. mallikabooks15

    I just finished this myself and agree with you on how he gets the humour just right. The touch of pathos that one sees in most of the stories/portraits was not something I’d expected but it does add to rather than take away from the stories. The illustrations were sadly absent from the advance kindle copy but I did get to see many of them on the Edelweiss page.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely. That blend of humour and poignancy feels just right, doesn’t it? We never get the feeling that Bemelmans is making fun of the guests or his hotel colleagues in a cruel or unwarranted way as his sense of humanity really comes through. I thought the vignette about their former teacher in Regensburg was so poignant, especially when the Professor wrapped up the asparagus to take some home to his wife. Such a touching thing to do…

      Reply
      1. mallikabooks15

        Oh, that was rather heartbreaking; and yet I also felt a tad bad for Fritzl though I suppose he got his ‘revenge’ with the meal alone. The friendship between Mr Houlberg and Confetti the dog I thought similarly had the ‘right’ blend of humour and sadness.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, agreed. Another very touching story. I think I’ll probably go back to this book at some point, partly because quite a few of the vignettes could be read as standalones.

          Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    I might not be able to resist this. I used to own several Bemelmans books as a child (not just the Madeline ones) – but I seem to have lost them, or maybe my parents gave them away, sadly.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’d say it’s a must for you, Marina! I only came across the Madeline books as an adult, but they look so beautiful that I may have to indulge… :)

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, two excellent films! It’s been a while since I last saw Grand Hotel, so a rewatch is probably well overdue. Vicki Baum’s source novel is one of my favourite hotel-based books, so it’s a lovely one to mention here – especially as it’s set in broadly the same era as the Bemelmans!

          Reply
  3. jenniferbeworr

    This looks pretty delightful, Jacqui. I haven’t read many from Pushkin Press, but always love their covers. I did read the Madeleine Bourdouxhe that everyone was talking about for a while, in translation, and found it so interesting. What a neat range they seem to have!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, their covers are wonderful. They’ve done a really lovely job with this book as each chapter starts with a pen-and-ink sketch by Bemelmans, reproduced from the original text…and of course, they match the stories perfectly!

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    So pleased to see your review of this Jacqui, and it sounds an absolute treat (and right up your street with your love of hotel and boarding house lit!). My Middle Child adored the Madeline books (which I think we still have in the house) so I’m pre-disposed to like this anyway, and the quotes you pull out make it very appealing (as do the illustrations…) Onto the wishlist it goes!!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Fabulous! I think you’d really enjoy it, Karen. As you say, it ticked so many boxes for me, especially given my fondness for anything to do with hotels. I couldn’t help but think of Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel as I was reading it, especially as the era and settings were broadly similar.
      So, another gem from Pushkin Press, who seem to be publishing some fascinating books at the moment. (It’s also an interesting contrast to the Felix Hartlaub we both read recently, especially in terms of tone.)

      Reply
  5. gertloveday

    Delightful How many times have I read aloud at bedtime:
    In an old house in Paris all covered with vines
    Lived twelve little girls in teo straight lines.
    My daughter loved the Madeline books.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How wonderful! I feel I’ve missed out by not having read the Madeline books in my youth. Something to remedy in the furure, especially as they’re still in print!

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    Oh this does sound delightful. Like you I love hotels in books, and though this isn’t a novel, it still sounds brilliantly packed with entertaining characters and events. Love reading about the 1920s too, so this should be going right on my wishlist.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely! There’s a vast array of eccentric / idiosyncratic characters here, from the terrible Mespoulets to the delightful Professor Gorylescu, and Bemelmans’ perceptive vignettes and sketches really brings them to life. I would have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending this one to you, Ali, especially given the setting!

      Reply
  7. Julé Cunningham

    With all of my childhood memories of Ludwig Bemelmans’s wonderful Madeline books, this one would catch my eye, and it looks like it’s one that would be really interesting, especially with all the peeks into 1920s NYC. A worthy addition to your collection of boardinghouse and hotel books!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely. It’s so far up my street that it’s practically knocking on my front door and inviting itself in for afternoon tea!
      I really must get hold of some of the Madeline books in the future, especially as they’re still in print. Everyone seems to love them, and the illustrations look delightful…no wonder they’ve been so popular over the years.

      Reply
      1. Julé Cunningham

        Yes, you do! Especially since you enjoyed the illustrations in this book. I still remember lines from the Madeline books, probably because I made my mother read them over and over before I could read them to myself.

        Reply
  8. Pingback: Book Review: Hotel Splendide by Ludwig Bemelmans – Literary Potpourri

  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. Max Cairnduff

    Agh! I’ve not even got to your end of year picks and you’re adding to my tbr pile! It does sound nice though and I’m a sucker for illustrations. Shame I didn’t read your review in time to suggest this for a Christmas present. It seems somehow well suited.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! I think you’d like it, and it would indeed make a lovely present. Maybe you could treat yourself after Christmas, especially if you receive any book tokens as gifts!

      Reply

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