A Tale of a Library Catalog

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

Ellsworth
M. Statler (1863–1928), whose portrait is on the right here,
came from humble beginnings to build, own and manage a well-known
chain of large luxury hotels in America.

In
the year 1927 he opened his flagship hotel in the city of Boston,
Massachusetts — the Boston Statler Hotel. It had 1,300 rooms, each
equipped with a radio, an expensive innovation at the time. He also
fitted it out with a library containing 3,000 books.

Unlike
some of the other hotels in the original Statler chain, the Boston
Statler is still there, and it is still grand. It is today called
the Boston Park Plaza.
Statler's library, however, is no longer: it has become a meeting
room and private dining room (pictured below).

All
this I discovered and pondered when chance recently put into my
hands a booklet entitled  “A Helpful Catalog of the Library
of Hotel Statler, Boston
,” published in that same year of 1927
by the Statler Press in Buffalo, NY, the in-house printing arm of
the Statler organization, and led me on an expedition into another
age, and to the land of pure nostalgia.

After
more than 75 years the hotel must surely resonate with the memories
of all those, the famous, the infamous and the not so famous, who
have passed through its doors. The magnificent chandeliers and arches
persist, alongside the ghosts of countless special occasions and
other, almost permanent, fixtures, such as the doormen with forty
years or more of service whose recent obituary notices populate
the World Wide Web. How many speeches have been given in its meeting
rooms, how many feet have danced the night away to the sound of
the big bands in its ballroom, how many princes and princesses have
wined and dined in its restaurants, how many men and women have
slept and loved in its luxurious bedrooms or stolen a surreptitious
kiss in some endless corridor?

Statler
would no doubt be proud, and possibly a little amazed, at what his
successor hoteliers provide to guests today — "in-room pay
movies" and "data ports," to name just two things.
Like most innovators, he would surely have grasped at new technology
with enthusiasm.

Potted
versions of his life, which is notable because he is a classic example
of someone coming from nowhere to rise to the top, are widely available
on the Internet, and there is also a biography by Floyd Miller,
originally published in 1968, now out of print. From a poor background
and a very early start in working life, hauling coal at the age
of 9 in a glass factory, followed by a spell as a bell-boy in a
hotel near his home, Statler became an innovating and resourceful
entrepreneur who reached the top of a profession – the hotel
business — which he seems to have set his sights on at the age of
13.

Even
more intriguing than the life-story itself are the philosophy and
the sense of purpose which guided Statler. His underlying principle
was "service with a smile" — commonplace and even overdone
today, but seemingly all too rare in the early part of the 20th
century. In his instructions to managers about what sort of people
to hire for hotel service, he wrote in 1917:

"From
this date you are instructed to employ only good-natured people,
cheerful and pleasant, who smile easily and often. This ought
to go for every job in the house, but at present I’ll insist on
it only for people that come in contact with guests… If it’s necessary
to clean house, do it. Don’t protest. Get rid of the grouches,
and the people that can’t keep their tempers, and the people who
act as if they were always under a burden of trouble and feeling
sorry for themselves. You can’t make that sort of a person over;
you can’t do anything with them profitably, but get rid of him.
Let the other fellow have him and you hire a man that can be taught."

Latter-day
champions of workers' rights, who might jump in at this point to
object that Statler had "no right" to sack people on account
of their temperament, could usefully be reminded that he was also
among the first to give hotel employees better conditions –
a six-day week, paid holidays and free health cover – and is
said to have devised a profit-sharing plan which gave employees
one free share for each one they themselves purchased. If they held
on to these shares long enough, they should have done well when
the Statler chain was eventually purchased by the Hilton hotels,
in 1954, for the sum of $111 million — at the time the largest real
estate transaction in history.

Statler
believed that you had to reach just that little bit further in order
to establish the difference which represents the competitive edge
in the service industry. He wrote, "Life is service. The
one who progresses is the one who gives his fellow human beings
a little more, a little better service." The provision
of a library of books in his hotels, while clearly part of the basic
philosophy, was also something more: it sought to console and to
comfort, providing company to those who might be feeling lonely.
Leading on from an inside cover which described the catalog as being
"For the use and pleasure of the hotel's guests," the
almost poetic preface started out thus:

“BOOKS
– at your service – The
books listed and described in this Catalog are here for your use
and pleasure. Few things in the Statler Hotels have afforded more
satisfaction to their guests than the libraries. For books can always
offer something to make up for the absence of familiar faces, in
a strange city, and can turn to pleasure and profit many an evening
or Sunday which would otherwise be lost or lonesome…."

And
it concluded with these words, an appeal to his guests to retain
something deeper than the memory of a mere visit to a hotel:

"May
we hope that the Library will be a source of pleasure to you during
your stay with us, that you will feel free to use it — and even,
that you may number among the pleasant acquaintances made under
this roof some book to which your memory will recur at times with
a kindly thought for the day on which the acquaintance was made.
It is in the hope of just such happenings that the Library is made
a part of Hotel Statler's service to you."

Statler
would turn in his grave at the thought of what the word "happenings"
later came to represent, but there is no doubt that he too was working,
whether consciously or not, on the psyche, on the cultivation of
deeper memories. So he did not stop at just putting the books into
the library at the Boston Statler: he also provided his guests with
annotations to each of the books. In what reads almost as a secret
and ever-so-discreet compact with the reader, he or his anonymous
author wrote, in A Word About the Notes:

"The
note appended to each title is intended to give some general idea
of the book further than that conveyed by its name merely. These
notes venture, sometimes, the expression of an opinion — when
it seems that it might be helpful, to one who does not know the
book, to have it characterized in one way or another by an opinion
which he can take as seriously (or otherwise) as he may wish."

A
brief glance through the “helpful Catalog” reveals singular, fascinating
and enduring tastes.  Alongside things like The Practical
Book of Oriental Rugs (5th edition 1920) and Mrs. Emily Post
on Etiquette, (look where she's got today, with an institute
named after her and her
own website
), the hotel library had H. L. Mencken’s A Book
of Burlesque and Prejudices
(5 volumes), a collection of "Little Essays" by George
Santayana
, Henry
Hazlitt
‘s first book, Thinking
as a Science
, Walt Whitman’s Leaves
of Grass
, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The
Conduct of Life
, Whistler on The
Gentle Art of Making Enemies
, and many others. This was
just in the category of "General Literature, Essays, etc.,"
or what used to be called "belles-lettres and criticism."
In fiction, you could have found works by Charles Dickens, Gogol,
Thomas Hardy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sinclair Lewis, and Joseph Conrad,
but not yet Erskine
Caldwell
, Ernest
Hemingway
, or John
Dos Passos
, because their most famous and successful works had
as yet barely been written, let alone published.

Superficially
at least, hindsight is easy. Think of what else had not happened
in 1927. The Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. The New Deal.
Hitler's rise to power in Germany. The Second World War. The atom
bomb. The partition of India. The state of Israel. The Korean War.
The Vietnam war. Saddam. Space exploration. Personal computers.
Mobile cellular phones. Video games. People spending hours of their
lives in front of cathode ray tubes and liquid crystal displays,
alone. What spiritual comforts might Statler have dreamed up for
today's lonesome laptop warriors and late-night channel zappers?

And
yet, even as "Mona Lisas and mad hatters, sons of bankers,
sons of lawyers, said good morning to the night" under the
magnificent chandeliers, the seeds of all or nearly all of these
happenings, not to mention personal alienation, had already been
sown. The First World War
and its aftermath had produced the Treaty of Versailles and the
short-sighted humiliation of Germany, out of which came Hitler's
rise to power and the Second World War; the equally short-sighted
carve-up
of the Ottoman empire
, and the craven ambiguity of the Balfour
declaration
. In India, the Amritsar
massacre
had taken place in 1919, and in 1920 Ghandi had launched
his first truth campaign, which would eventually lead to independence
from a declining imperial Britain and bloody partition in 1947.
We still live today with the overlapping consequences of all these
things — India, Israel and Pakistan armed with nuclear weapons,
for example – and with the fear that any one of those consequences
may bring on our own extinction.

In
the midst of all this sadness and nostalgia, a journey back in time
such as this also yields some startling surprises. Emerson, in his
chapter on culture, wrote:

"Let
us make our education brave and preventive. Politics is an after-work,
a poor patching. We are always a little late. The evil is done,
the law is passed, and we begin the up-hill agitation for repeal
of that of which we ought to have prevented the enacting."

~
Ralph Waldo Emerson, The
Conduct of Life
, chapter 4

He
could have been talking about the
repeal of Congress' Iraq war resolution
or the infamous USA
PATRIOT Act, but no, he was writing in 1860.

Likewise
in 1917, long before Marshall McLuhan, Statler himself had a good
angle on the significance of form over substance when he concluded
his instructions to managers with the words: "I
believe that a majority of the complaints in a hotel are due more
to the guest’s state of mind than to the importance of the thing
about which he complains."

Finally,
who after 1974 would have believed that in a speech at the
Boston Statler delivered on November 13th, 1951, a certain
American politician, who had just become a US Senator, had once
made the following remarks:

"A
new class of royalty has been created in the United States, and
its princes of privileges and payoffs include the racketeers who
get concessions on their income tax cases, the insiders who get
favored treatment on government contracts, the influence peddlers
with keys to the White House, the government employee who uses
his position to feather his nest. The great tragedy, however,
is not that corruption exists but that it is defended and condoned
by the president and other high administration officials. We have
had corruption defended by those in high places. If they won’t
recognize or admit that corruption exists, how can we expect them
to clean it up?”

The
politician was none other than Richard M. Nixon. No doubt he spoke
these evergreen words in his idealistic period, before real politics,
a.k.a. corruption, had had a chance to catch up with him.

Notes

Some
further Internet links relating to E. M. Statler and his hotels:

February
6, 2003

Richard
Wall (send him mail) is a freelance
translator, specializing in the social sciences, who lives in Estoril,
Portugal.


     

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare
  • LRC Blog

  • LRC Podcasts