Thursday, March 7, 2013

Beyond The Book: Arthur Hailey's Hotel

This post covers collecting, a crazy old book, hotel design, Disney World, and urban legends. Hang in there!

I've mentioned my parents enjoyed antiqueing when I was a kid, and I quickly realized developing my own collections would make our weekend jaunts a whole lot more exciting. Something to look for! And since I was quite the little bookworm, collecting books was a natural fit.

This fact helps explain why my reading habits closely resemble those of your average AARP member.

So today I thought I'd write about one of my favorite old books, Arthur Hailey's Hotel.

Arthur Hailey was the James Patterson of the sixties and seventies. Instead of murder mysteries, Hailey turned out potboilers centered around a crisis in different professional settings- hospitals, government, airports, public utilities, the automobile industries, banks, news broadcasts, and police departments.

The plot themselves are of the white-collar, middle-aged man career in trouble finds love in the workplace variety. If Jacqueline Susann pioneered the Sex and Shopping novel, then Arthur Hailey pioneered the Sex and Work Crisis novel.

Let's talk Hotel. An independent New Orleans hotel, owned by the exactly as racist as you'd expect for his generation and class Warren Trent, is teetering on the edge of financial disaster. Curtis O'keefe, a thinly veiled Conrad Hilton-esque character, arrives in town to take the hotel over. Hotel manager and Bright Young Thing Peter McDermott is only at the the St Gregory because of a scandal involving sexing up a married woman at a New York hotel which has so marred his name he can't get a job anywhere else (this is weak tea. Even Hailey seems to think this is super dumb. He should've tarnished Peter with a better scandal). Meanwhile he's falling in love with tragedy plagued hotel secretary Christine even as the trouble plagued teenage heiress Marsha Prescott pursues him.

Filling out the secondary characters are a bad tempered French chef, an on the make bell captain, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's evil alternate universe twins, a Canadian miner with a secret, a dentist with a crisis of social conscious, and a thief. The secondary plots revolve around drunken hit and runs, drunken frat boy debacles, trophy girlfriends, mechanical failures, and race relations in New Orleans.


The BEST part of Arthur Hailey's novels is the insane amount of research he did on the setting. Hailey's plots might be soap opera-y but the amount of detail he reveals about the setting (in this case, the running of the a hotel in the mid 1960s) is astounding.

Honestly, read this book and you'll understand how hotels went from this...

Photo of Claridge's from New York Social Diary

to this...
Hotel Valley Ho from Historic Hotels
There was such a giant seismic shift in public buildings and service post-World War II. The amount of change, social and structural, that occurred was simply phenomenal. I don't think the world of 2013 and 1993 look all the different; but a huge change occurred between 1945 and 1965 (when Hotel was published).

Perhaps even more fascinating than the changes that did occur were the ones that didn't. Hailey studied up on cutting edge ideas for each of the fields he took on in his books. Many of these ideas didn't come to fruition.

There's a scene where O'keefe (the Hilton avatar) surveys the lobby and thinks about the all the ways he's going to modernize the St Gregory. Some ideas are super familiar to us today. He was going to cut down on less profitable tenants like florists and drugstores on the main floor; do away with lobby seating, so that people have to pay to sit in a restaurant or bar; and commercialize every square inch of space possible. He tells Warren Trent that you can sum up what the public wants from a hotel in three words "an efficient, economic package." Hailey's tracing the veer from old world individual service into the mass produced every hotel the same experience. (Wonder what O'keefe would make of the boutique hotel trend?)

Some other very basic ideas that were apparently revolutionary at the time are common place now. These include things like motor lobbies, key cards, and computerized systems.

Most of his other ideas I don't believe were ever commonly used in real hotels. These include helicopter pick-up at local airports; escalators dedicated to specific rooms (???); automated delivery systems for room service and purchases (using dumb waiters, I think); beds that recessed into walls were a machine would change the linen and make them up; and floors made of steel mesh that could be vacuumed from underneath. The ideas put forth by Hailey called for hotels to be built in completely new ways.

Oddly enough I think the real life hotel that best encompasses these ideas is Disney's Contemporary Resort.

Photo From Kingdom Travel
The contemporary opened in 1972 and this picture of the lobby shows the monorail cutting through the lobby (reminiscent of O'keefe's transportation schemes).

Photo From Yesterland
It's the construction of the Contemporary that really veers toward the modern hotel Hailey verbally sketched. The frame of the Disney World Contemporary is made of steel and concrete.

Photo From Yesterland
 Here's where it gets interesting (finally, the three of you still reading this post think!). The hotel rooms were built off site, lifted by crane, and set into place amidst the steel girders and welded in.

Photo From Yesterland

These modules contained EVERYTHING. These sliding glass doors lead out to the balcony; inside was the entire, decorated hotel room and bathroom. The front of the module even contains the hallway floor directly outside the guest's door.

Here's where the urban legend comes in. Many people swear that the hotel was designed so that the modules could be taken out for repairs and redecoration.

Think about that for a moment. For the room to be repaired or redecorated the module would have to be cut out from the steel girders, disconnected from the electrical/plumbing/communication systems, lifted out by a crane and then trucked out for refurbishment. OR you could just send in a plumber, painter, and curtain hanger. Which sounds more economically feasible?

So what books are you'll obsessing over? And what's your favorite kind of hotel? Personally, I love both super modern and super old-fashioned. Anything but B&Bs are good for me!


  1. Tracie, I loved that book. Thanks for reminding me of it. Thanks for joining the fun over at Carole's Chatter with Books You Loved. Cheers

  2. Sounds quite interesting. GREAT BLOG...NEW FOLLOWER.

    THANKS for sharing this book....terrific post. Love the photos you included.

    Stopping by from Carole's Books You Loved Marcdh Edition I am in that list as #15.

    Silver's Reviews
    My Book Entry


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