The romance of old hotels

24 Oct|Duncan Fallowell

Duncan Fallowell goes to Rome in search of a lost staircase

FINE old hotels, when their heyday has passed, exert an extraordinary fascination. Their magic is distilled from the simple fact that the fashionable world has moved on to brighter, brasher establishments, leaving an eerie dreamworld behind. I wrote about such a place in my book How To Disappear: a memoir for misfits. This was the Duke of Edinburgh Hotel in Victoria, the capital of Gozo island adjacent to Malta. Its rooms and corridors murmured with ghosts to an alarming degree and this may explain why the owners not long ago decided to turn it into a ghost itself, by pulling it down.

Around that time, I became almost as obsessed with another romantic hotel, one I’d seen in Peter Bogdanovich’s film of the Henry James story Daisy Miller. In the film’s Rome episode, Daisy is staying in a perfect hotel with her mother and brother; and one day we see her ineffectual American admirer, Mr Winterbourne, enter its enchanting portico. After passing the polished wood of the reception desk, he pauses at the bottom of a staircase which though grand was not pompous. Its balustrades of flecked, grey marble carried lanterns on slim posts and rose up through elegant angles to a semi-hidden landing. But its most arresting feature was a lion at its base, life-size, sliding down on massive marble haunches and placing a paw on the penultimate step, as though about to rush the nearest guest in the foyer.

Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller is that very rare thing, a period film which isn’t kitsch; and everything it showed of this hotel – which was clearly not a film-set – bewitched me; its pillared hallways, gilded rooms, intimate plush corners. In the film it is called the Grande Albergo Bristol – which never existed in Rome, although the Bernini Bristol does (with an entirely different building). One of the maddening things about cinema is how few films give you precise locations. I spend a great deal of time fishing around on the internet trying to find out where exactly this or that scene was shot in such and such a film, usually fruitlessly. Not quite fruitlessly on this occasion though. The exterior at least seemed quite similar to that of the Savoy Hotel near the via Veneto. But among the Savoy’s illustrated interiors there was alas no lion staircase, nor any of the other features. Perhaps it had been gutted, and rebuilt behind a tidied-up façade, since Daisy Miller was made in 1974.

So I decided to write to Peter Bogdanovich for enlightenment. He didn’t reply – and indeed he too seems to have disappeared. Then I wrote to the manager of the Savoy in Rome. No reply either. But there are other films set in the Eternal City, and watching Fellini’s 8 1/2 soon after, behold! – there, in a hotel sequence, was a lion staircase! I’d seen Fellini’s film many times before but was only now struck by this potent detail. The glamorous, ectoplasmic figure of ‘la donna misteriosa’ ripples down the stairs, drifts past the lion, and vanishes across the foyer. Marcello Mastroianni, spellbound, follows her with his eyes. The only problem was – it was obviously a set. Fellini liked the theatricality of sets. But his sets were never arbitrary. If Fellini wanted a lion staircase on his hotel-set, it was almost certainly because a real staircase of this kind was important to him. Incidentally ‘la donna misteriosa’ was played by Caterina Borato, a charismatic but obscure actress from Turin, disinterred from mothballs for the occasion by her daughter who was Fellini’s secretary. Caterina looks far more beautiful than any other woman in the film, which raises another mystery: why was she so little-known? Among other things, How To Disappear is about people who are so tantalisingly elusive that, though real, they take on the quality of phantoms; and Caterina Borato certainly fits that bill.

Soon after this Fellini moment, I received a reply at last from the manager of the Savoy Hotel in Rome, Mario Rastelli. He apologised for the delay, explaining that he’d been away; and he said the Savoy had not been used for Daisy Miller but that he thought the hotel I was looking for might be the Grand Hotel Plaza in the Corso.

In the spring of 2013 I had to be in Rome for, let us say, less spectral reasons; but one thing I knew I had to do was make a visit to the Grand Hotel Plaza and find out if it had played the part of the hotel of my dreams in Daisy Miller. It was raining as I walked down the Corso and espied its fawn façade. My hope fell. The exterior was of the period but different from the one in the film, so they certainly hadn’t used the outside. Still, I crossed the busy traffic and entered though the doors, heart beating. Would it be a wild goose chase . . .

No. There it was. The fabulous lion staircase. The atmosphere round about was no longer quite so grand; some features had been removed or degraded since Bogdanovich filmed there. Guests with backpacks checking in. Impersonal. Straight ahead, in a colossal and ornate salone, beneath giant chandeliers and a ceiling of coloured glass, metal chairs were being stacked after some banal corporate event. The staircase had lost its lanterns – but it still looked wonderful, and the lion’s shaggy pale head was as high as a man.

I stood awhile, courteously ignored by the staff, daydreaming in a sumptuous yet slightly melancholy mood. Daisy Miller had died from Roman fever in a room up there beyond the landing. But I didn’t want to end on that sombre note, so I asked a doorman about Fellini. ‘Oh Maestro Fellini,’ he replied, ‘this was his favourite hotel, he was very often here.’ I knew it. Double success. While the omens were good I thought I’d push it – try to track down the ever-lovely Caterina Borato and request a meeting. She’d have many a tale to tell. Back at my own Roman hotel – remarkable for other reasons, for another story perhaps – I rang a local friend who rooted around on my behalf. He duly informed me that Caterina had died in Rome in September 2010, at the age of 95.

As for the old Duke of Edinburgh Hotel on Gozo, with its own simpler, yet still majestic staircase, with its ceiling fans and floors of flowered tiles and art deco ballroom, and where one rainy Eastertide I found myself the only resident among its arched spaces, that has disappeared entirely. Not a vestige remains. Its replacement is a shopping mall called The Duke.

Duncan Fallowell’s Three Romes is published as a Kindle Single on Amazon

How To Disappear: a memoir for misfits won the PEN Ackerley Prize in 2012. It has been published in the USA in hardback by the University of Wisconsin Press, and in the UK in paperback by Union Books.

Here is a wonderful short film where Duncan Fallowell talks about his books. It is called The Library and was made by Sergey Stefanovich.