About three years ago, the Missouri Bar Board of Governors met at the President Hotel in Kansas City. I had just returned from Afghanistan, and Max and I spent a couple of days at that lovely hotel because Max is a member of the board. While sleek, new, modern hotels are nice, there is something we love about the high ceilings, intricate scroll work, leaded glass, and classic design of old, elegant, historic hotels. The President is one of those, as is the Capital Hotel in Little Rock, which opened in 1870 and where we stayed once when we were visiting Emily. Now we have stayed in another Beaux-Art hotel, The Blackstone, in Chicago, where we fell in love with yet another old hotel.
Max and I went to Chicago this past weekend with six of my William Jewell friends to see Terry Teachout’s play, “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” Yes, you remember correctly; we saw that play in California last summer, and I bragged on Terry and his accomplishment in this space. But this time, Terry was going to be in Chicago for opening night, and we decided that we wanted to talk to him. Shannon, the concierge of The Blackstone, is a friend of one of our group, and so we decided to stay there. We made a good decision.
We all stayed on the 19th floor, where we overlooked either the city or Grant Park and Lake Michigan. Our room had huge windows and lots of light; we even had a “valet” – something like a small dresser with an attached hanger, so that a gentleman can hang his suit coat. One of the valet’s drawers was small so as to hold things such as cuff links. We didn’t use it, but it added to the ambience.
The entry to our room was white marble, and the shower floor in the very large bathroom was black marble. Part of the shower floor had been textured somehow, probably because wet marble and soap might be extremely slippery. The bed was fluffy; we had a leather chair with a matching ottoman and a white leather desk chair. It was one of the most comfortable and elegant rooms I have ever stayed in.
The lobby and other common areas were beautiful, too. The lobby ceiling must be three stories up, and it is outlined in scroll work design. The floor-to-ceiling columns are also intricately decorated with bas relief. Elevator floors are covered in old-fashioned teeny-tiny white marble squares, and the initial “B,” created with teeny-tiny black marble squares, sits in the middle of each elevator floor. But the history of the hotel doesn’t stop with its design and décor.
Shannon gave us a tour and lots of information about the hotel’s story. Enrico Caruso sang at The Blackstone’s opening in 1910, and twelve presidents have stayed there, including John F. Kennedy, although he didn’t stay long. He was at The Blackstone when he was notified about the Cuban missile crisis; he headed back to Washington pretty quickly. Rudolph Valentino and Truman Capote, among other notables, also stayed there. “The Smoke Filled Room” is where, in 1920, GOP power brokers decided that they wanted Warren G. Harding to be their nominee for President.
Not all the hotel’s patrons were quite so respectable, however. Al Capone and his cohorts were frequent visitors, and the story is that Capone secreted some of his Prohibition stash – Templeton Rye, from Templeton, Iowa – in a hidey-hole in the hotel’s barber shop. Capone himself even hid there to avoid capture by the police.
As much fun as we had in the hotel, we also had a great time outside, visiting with Terry over lunch, being driven by a cabbie who got directions to the theater from Joel, who read them aloud from his phone’s GPS, finding a sports bar where we watched the Chiefs implode, and generally just being friends and remembering our times together nearly, impossibly, 40 years ago.
While we were there, Terry told us that he will be the next director of “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” that production coming in May in West Palm Beach. Maybe we can find yet another old, lovely hotel. Road trip!
Deborah Mitchell is a a local attorney and a Municipal Court Judge.