A Tale of a Library Catalog

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.


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.


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