HAITI LIFESTYLES HOTELS: Hotel Oloffson

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HAITI LIFESTYLES HOTELS: Hotel Oloffson

Post by admin » Wed Apr 20, 2005 1:43 pm

HAITI LIFESTYLES HOTELS
By Carol J. Williams, Times Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — If the walls of the Hotel Oloffson could talk, they would have to be silenced.

Reputations could be ruined with disclosures of hedonistic excess. In its heyday, the rich and powerful flocked to the gingerbread mansion on this raucous capital's outskirts to escape 1950s Communist witch hunts and to indulge appetites for rum cocktails, cocaine and trysts with minors.

The Oloffson was a stage for political intrigue in fact and fiction. The hotel's John Barrymore suite cloistered a friend of Lee Harvey Oswald and two strangers just a few months before President Kennedy's assassination. The hotel's pool was the dumping ground for a government official who came to a bad end in Graham Greene's novel "The Comedians."

"This house has always been at the center of things," said Max Sam, the hotel's 92-year-old owner and son of the man who built the mansion as a family home in 1896. Sam has owned the place throughout its myriad manifestations, from family home to conscripted military quarters to hot-destination hotel.

Sam sees the three-story clapboard home of his birth as a canvas on which history has painted the changing fortunes that have defined his country. Throughout the tumultuous decades of coups, insurrections, dictatorship and ecological disaster, the Oloffson was an oasis of art and intellectual banter, a gathering place with a whisper of intrigue and danger, a place from which to spy and be spied on.

Today, the hotel is as replete with mildew as it is with mystery. Mirroring a country lost in political turmoil and violence, the Oloffson is almost abandoned, its spacious suites a dilapidated shadow of their heyday.

Fretwork above the pillars is clogged with dust and grit. Chunks of the stone steps have broken off, forcing visitors to ascend with caution. Electricity is spotty, and chickens that have apparently escaped from nearby yards strut among the wicker furnishings of the lobby. Those who still come to dine on the veranda have to rap on the kitchen door to summon a waiter, and guests often must bestir the languid bartender from her TV shows to check in.

In the once-glamorous suites, not inexpensive today at $117 a night, tap water that smells of decay runs into stained sinks. Painted wooden floors are covered with matted, soiled carpet remnants. Mosquito nets draped around king-size beds on outdoor sleeping porches are torn and misshapen, leaving guests vulnerable to nocturnal insect invasions.

The hotel, now in the pulsating heart of a violent city, exposed to gang rampages and stray gunfire, was originally set in an orange grove. During the 1915-1934 U.S. occupation, it was used as an American military barracks and hospital. It became a hotel just before World War II.

"After the Americans left, it was too big to use as a private residence, and a lady from Scandinavia came and had the idea to create a hotel," Sam recalled of the first of many hoteliers to lease his mansion.

The mysterious Madame Oloffson — no one recalls her first name or ever meeting her seafaring husband — transformed the military quarters into a grand accommodation, decorating the whitewashed walls with paintings and embroidering linens with the initials of the hostelry she named for that absent husband.

A crocodile-keeping Dutchman, Maurice de Young, ruled Sam's residence during the war years, when Allied troops patrolling the Atlantic would put into port for the occasional respite and European surrealists began taking an interest in Haitians for their involvement in voodoo and the occult.

In the late 1940s, a Russian French photographer and art collector named Roger Coster acquired the Oloffson's lease and began attracting a Hollywood clientele keen on escaping the McCarthy-era cultural witch hunts. Errol Flynn, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote were among the first wave of glitterati to frequent the little-known oasis of 1950s Haiti, enraptured by the vibrant dance rhythms and verdant surroundings.

Meanwhile, assassinations and violent overthrows escalated to the point at which the rise of dictatorship stirred little worry. But Haiti's exotic image began to tarnish soon after Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier came to power in 1957, the start of a 29-year family tyranny during which suspected regime opponents turned up dead in odd places, rather like the fictional secretary for social welfare in Greene's 1966 novel whose body is discovered in the drained swimming pool of the "Trianon Hotel."

Oloffson history is often difficult to separate from literary flourish. In Greene's story and in reality, the mysterious woman who founded the hotel lived out her days in seclusion in an upstairs bedroom. Both the fictional Trianon and the Oloffson were frequented by a white-tuxedoed bon vivant alleged to have informed on foreign visitors to Haiti's father-and-son dictators.

"The hotel can't be separated from the personality of Aubelin Jolicoeur," said Port-au-Prince historian George Corvington, referring to the gadfly columnist who was the inspiration for Greene's character Petit Pierre. "He animated the place. He cultivated a lot of acquaintances and was the center of the hotel. Foreign artists and celebrities came to see him. He was a celebrity in his own right."

Jolicoeur, who died on Valentine's Day this year at age 80, patronized the Oloffson for 40 years, sporting a gold-tipped cane, tickling the ivories with such legends as Bobby Short and enlivening the jet-set clientele the Oloffson drew during its second era of chic, still referred to as "La Belle Epoque Creole," of the 1970s.

"Graham Greene made Aubelin more famous than he was," said Michel Beaulieu, a radiologist and erstwhile playboy who was a confidant of Greene's during the nine weeks the author spent in the coveted turreted corner suite.

Beaulieu attributes the Oloffson's renaissance after the death of Papa Doc in 1971 to the notoriety bequeathed by "The Comedians," which Greene researched and wrote in the early 1960s when Papa Doc's murderous tontons macoutes security agents had chased away even the most adventurous clientele.

During the pleasure-seeking years after Papa Doc's death and his son's ascension, Chicagoan Al Seitz and later his widow, Suzanne, renovated the hotel and recovered its postwar image as an exotic destination on the East Coast's doorstep.

Mick Jagger, Richard Burton, Liza Minnelli and Jackie Onassis visited. So did newly married Bill and Hillary Clinton. Bungalows and suites bear the names of artists, entertainers and journalists who stayed there: Jimmy Buffett, Jonathan Demme, Irving Stone, Ed Bradley.

Suzanne Seitz fondly remembers the Casablanca-like blend of allure and danger that pervaded the hotel during the 15-year reign of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.

"I dont know how we got away with what we did, even though we never did anything openly anti-political," Seitz said of the years that her hotel was a gathering place for figures later influential in the resistance that drove out Baby Doc in 1986. "I think the regime knew we were good PR for the country. If you stayed out of politics, they left you alone. It wasn't free, but it now seems like the good old days."

Some contend, though, that the guests fiddled while Haiti burned.

"I used to see how the tontons macoutes tortured people and threw their bodies in the streets," guide and driver Alex Toio said. While his countrymen were being hounded and killed, celebrities and sun-seekers sipped Barbancourt rum and danced until dawn, recalled Toio, who told of ferrying underage girls to the rooms of men staying at the hotel.

After her husband's death in 1982, Seitz ran the hotel for four years before falling out with Sam and handing it over to Richard Morse, whom the aging owner regarded as a stepson. Morse's mother, dancer Emerante de Pradines, had been involved with Sam four decades earlier, and they had a son together years before Morse was born.

Morse is now the guiding force behind the Oloffson and its signature entertainment, the African roots band RAM. Former patrons criticize him for focusing on the band to the hotel's detriment, and failing to invest in the Oloffson's upkeep.

"I wanted to take the Haitian voodoo rhythms I'd heard as a child and make dance music," the hotel's current manager said. Now in his 18th year at the Oloffson, Morse recounts the dark chapters that followed his arrival soon after the fall and exile of Baby Doc and continue amid the violent struggles for power that have yet to end.

"I figured if we had democracy, we'd have tourists, and if we had chaos, we'd have journalists. But when they started shooting journalists, I had nothing," said Morse, a Princeton graduate who recently had his long, graying hair plaited into cornrows.

Three months after arriving here, Morse married a Haitian singer. Together, they formed RAM, named for Morse's initials but also employing the zodiac symbolism of Aries. The band emerged in 1990, when the rise of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a radical priest who was soon elected president, was inspiring Haitians to take pride in their African heritage.

With its fevered rhythms, RAM quickly became the most popular entertainment in Haiti, breathing new life into the hotel as hundreds flocked to weekly concerts that quickly drew official suspicion.

"Politicians in Haiti think anyone going after an audience is a threat, and musicians need audiences," Morse said of his run-ins with police and gangsters over songs of subtle protest. His band represented resistance to the junta that ruled Haiti during the three years Aristide was forced into exile in the early 1990s, and it became a target of Aristide attacks years later when the musicians refused to use their popularity to promote him and his Lavalas Party.

The interim leadership in power since Aristide was flown into African exile in February 2004 differs little from its predecessors, Morse says, recalling a Nov. 4 police raid that picked up three of his musicians without a warrant.

These days, the hotel is sometimes full on Thursdays, when RAM plays. But encroaching security risks from the nearby slums and indifferent service have chased away all but a few tourists.

"Our tours are intended to open people's eyes to the reality of Haiti," said Elizabeth Marhone, a Canadian who recently spent the night at the hotel with 10 colleagues of the Friends of Haiti relief group to take in the RAM performance. The only guests the previous night included a journalist exploring the hotel's history and an Israeli photographer given a break on the rates for a monthlong stay.

Sam has lived at the more upscale Villa Creole for 25 years. At the end of a rare visit to the Oloffson, he cast disapproving looks at the cobwebbed ceilings, stained linens, bare light bulbs and power cords affixed to the walls with staples.

He has given up on his family home and wants to sell the Oloffson and leave the proceeds to a handful of nieces and nephews who are his last remaining family. "It's time," he said.

In Haiti's current circumstances, though, there are no takers.

Hyppolite
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Joined: Wed Mar 17, 2004 12:39 pm

Post by Hyppolite » Fri May 06, 2005 10:33 am

Guy, is this the article that had caused so much dismay on the Corbett list? I found little negativity in it, except that the writer posted the facts of the Oloffson hotel today, as is.

If it's the same article, then why was so much outcry on the Corbett list? Can anyone help understand?

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