Will there always be an England in the Empress of Victoria, the Windsor Arms of Toronto and the Ritz-Carlton of Montreal?

BRET TAYLOR June 1 1974


Will there always be an England in the Empress of Victoria, the Windsor Arms of Toronto and the Ritz-Carlton of Montreal?

BRET TAYLOR June 1 1974


Will there always be an England in the Empress of Victoria, the Windsor Arms of Toronto and the Ritz-Carlton of Montreal?


It is three o’clock on a fall afternoon in Victoria, British Columbia, time for Victoria’s particular ritual to begin: high tea at the Empress Hotel. Tea begins precisely at three and ends by five and has been keeping these hours each day since the hotel opened in 1908.

Mrs. MacMillan, who has lived in the hotel for 28 years, appears as if on cue in the hotel lobby and moves sedately to her favorite armchair, where Elsie Connon, a waitress at the Empress for 20 years, has already poured a china cup of orange pekoe. It is -time to begin the ritual.

The Empress with its tea habit is one of Canada’s Grand Hotels. It’s true Canada has any number of good, efficient hotels geared to the modern business of fast accommodation. But grandes dames with a history like the Empress are rare. The Empress is to Victoria what the Windsor Arms is to Toronto and what the Ritz-Carlton is to Montreal, all grandes dames alike, synonymous with the grace and finer traditions of the cities they help distinguish. For those who have taken rooms over the space of a lifetime, these hotels come closer to livery than to service, closer to charm than convenience, closer to home than to hostelry, closer to the past than to the future.

High tea at the Empress has not appreciably changed, but the hotel itself has made changes for the


times. Operation Teacup, the hotel’s renovation program, has put seven million dollars into a facelift that seems never quite finished. The rooms vary from $25 to $200 a day but still retain a feeling of elegant sufficiency, contentment, retirement, of good books and tea.

The history of the Empress Hotel is the history of British colonialist style. It became an early 20th-century port-of-call residence, a must layover for the more discriminating luxury liners and their then version of jet-set travelers. Winston Churchill stayed at the Empress, as did Edward Prince of Wales, an endless procession of European nobility, prima ballerinas, Rudyard Kipling, hoi polloi of the theatre, portly industrialists, Shirley Temple, Queen Elizabeth, and Colonel Blimps on set incomes who used to live in Surrey.

But gone are the days of the wealthy Edwardian widows who lived in rooms whose decor someone once described as “early parsonage parlor.” Each evening they would dine in long gowns and lace dinner mittens over fingers holding lorgnettes.

The Depression depleted the bank books if not the spirit of the dowagers and they continued to be ornaments of the lobby and to keep stiff upper lips through bad times. Gradually, when all but a few had stopped taking meals in the dining room, it was discovered that they had covertly converted their suites into housekeeping conveniences. One lady had to be asked, for the comfort of other guests, not to cook liver and onions in her room. Another was discovered searching the bushes in front of the hotel for a plucked chicken that had fallen from her window ledge where it was being kept cold.

Most of them are gone, all gone.

“Fact is we almost have to go out and hire old biddies to sit in the lobby at high tea. High tea has become a time for young biddies, families, passing tourists with only a few of the old regulars about.”

The new general manager of


the Empress, William Gray, is talking. He is staring through large windows with a view of the inner harbor from his large apartment at the top of the hotel. The apartment is furnished with some antiques, including a mint condition pipe organ and a collection of wooden pipe-organ flues gathered in small Prairie towns during hispostingyears earlier as the general manager of the Saskatche -wan Hotel in Regina.

“Ten years ago this hotel had 75 permanent residents all of whom had been here for years and years. Now we have two,” he says.

The Empress regulars are now only a legend but the hotel itself is still a classic edifice. Perhaps the highlight of the design is the conservatory, an arboretum, kept in bloom by a team of five gardeners in concert with head gardener Stig Karlsson, who treats every plant as delicately as a black rose hybrid. And the hotel’s Victorian Christmas Day is still an experience close to Dickens; the boar’s head, suckling pig, caroling boys in the lobby, trifle, plum tart, the spirit of Father Christmas and the comforting notion that tomorrow is not just tomorrow but Boxing Day.

Now, 10 travel tours a day book into the Empress Hotel. More often than not it is peopled by conventions, seminars and other mass events. One wonders how long the Empress can retain a semblance of its former Wasp style, reminiscent of the Raj. It is the English characters with their odd British habits that kept the Empress image intact. Sow an act and you reap a habit, sow a habit and you reap a character, sow a character and you reap a destiny. The Empress changes are its destiny and one wonders, out here in Victoria, British Columbia, of the other Wasp bastions to the east. What about them?

The Windsor Arms Hotel in Toronto is the least grand of the Grand Hotels. It is a four-story, 47-year-old brick-and-ivy cloister with only 88 rooms and suites. This compares with 416 at the Empress and 267 at the Ritz-Carlton in

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HOTELS from page 36

Montreal. Still it is the most superb

small hotel in Canada.

It was originally a resident hotel —all guests were both particular and permanent. But now only seven permanent guests remain.

One of them, a former head of the orthopedic department of the Hospital for Sick Children, is off for his noon stroll to the York Club where he will take lunch. Mr. Lindsay Laird, a retired banker who has lived in the hotel for 34 years, bids him good day, but the doctor is hard of hearing and passes by.

Mr. Laird continues to sit on a period bench under paintings by the Canadian Gerald Scott. Each morning, exactly at eight-fifteen, Mr. Laird arrives at the Grill of the Three Small Rooms, the hotel’s widely acclaimed restaurant. Breakfast is waiting at his private table. Fruit juice, dry cereal and tea. This amidst a cornucopia of the finest foods. His breakfast diet never changes.

He lived in Room 105 for 31 years and was in the habit each Saturday night of visiting his friend Alfred Jones in 404. They’d listen to (and later watch) the hockey game and talk about what was worthwhile that had been printed in the Globe and Mail that morning. Mr. Jones was 96 years old when a nurse phoned 105 one evening and told Lindsay that Alfred “had quietly slipped away.”

By this time Lindsay Laird notices that Miss Irene Lane has entered the lobby. He approaches her to say how wonderful was his night at the opera (Wagner’s Twilight Of The Gods). Rex Harrison steps out of the elevator as does Sir John Gielgud, as years before, so had Katharine Hepburn, Gloria Swanson, Christopher Plummer, Carol Channing, the Earl of Harewood and any number of celebrities of a certain order. It is the policy of the hotel however never to release the names of its guests. Privacy is a sacred thing. Once when Katharine Hepburn stepped out of a limousine and entered the hotel followed by endless luggage, a gentleman approached the desk and asked if that was really she, Katharine Hepburn.

“We have no such information, sir,” the man was told politely but firmly.

The man capable of such tact is desk manager Tony Silverthorn. He’s the man who faces the fragile business of answering requests and making each guest feel at home. He is the sort of manager who understands that for some guests the only way to deal with temptation is to yield to it. That is, he is understanding of the sometimes foolish demands of successful individuals.

The Windsor Arms has an ambience comparable to only one other hotel in Canada; the larger Ritz-Carlton of Montreal. They both contain hallways so quiet you can hear a tea bag being

immersed. One suspects that in the rooms of elderly guests rouge stains the pillowcases.

This ambience, rare enough in this Conrad Hilton world, is not created by the elderly couple discussing Twilight Of The Gods in the lobby but by two quite different men who have arrived at a state of grace from other directions.

George Minden, 37, is a hotelier who gradually came to his profession. He was born in Toronto and once studied philosophy and English in pursuit of an academic career. As a young man his interests became esoteric and time was spent, as he says, among friends who knew when to laugh at the bassoon joke in Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. But it was just after university, when he toured Burgundy under the tutelage of a wine master, that the notion of a hotel with fine wines and excellent restaurants took hold.

Later, at the request of his father who had an interest in the hotel, he took on a summer job as a food buyer. Gradu-

ally he became fascinated with the operation of the place, discovered a chef who was pilfering funds, had him sacked and decided to stay on. Today George Minden owns the Windsor Arms Hotel and drives a classic R-Type Bentley Sports Saloon (postwar) with coachwork by H. J. Mulliner, of which only 193 ever existed.

When he first took over the direction of the hotel it was known, he will tell you, for “a long restaurant called the Burgundy Room that looked like a bowling alley and like most hotel dining rooms of the period was synonymous with chicken à la king.” In the early Sixties, therefore, he began trying out the greatest restaurants in the western world — “to find out what it was about them that made them magical.”

The lesson he learned was one of essence rather than fact. He could see that each restaurant, no matter where it was, was excellent because it was authentic.

A decision was made to rid himself of the bowling alley downstairs and create restaurants authentic to the experience and needs of Toronto. As he says, “to reinterpret classical dining in contemporary terms.”

For this ambitious task he began to build his staff of 60 to more than 130. In an attempt to create an effective creative team behind him, he hired David Barrette, a professional hotelier who had apprenticed at the Ritz, Savoy and Claridge’s in London. David Barrette today is general manager of the Windsor Arms. He is a key figure in the operation of the hotel and a man whose decisions are enormously respected by George Minden. So closely together does Minden’s creative team work that the head chef, Herbert Sonzogni, is considered part of the management team.

When the Three Small Rooms came to be created, Minden and his team turned their backs on designers who said the rooms should be “Tudoresque” or “Henry VIII.” Minden stuck to his mandate to find an idiom pertinent to Toronto and hired a bright young architect by the name of Janis Kravis to do just that. Every point of design, piece of furniture and ashtray is authentic. Customers came by droves.

“The decision to create an external rather than internal direction of the hotel worked. Guests just don’t eat in hotel restaurants the way they used to,” he says. “The restaurants, the hotel and the bar all have different atmospheres and that is a calculated thing to bring in separate clienteles.”

It is this authenticity that makes the Windsor Arms Hotel unique. George Minden’s wife, Pamela, helped decorate each room emphasizing Canadiana decor, pine cabinets, brass beds — she explored the small towns of Ontario to find them — supplemented by antiques from Europe.

The hotel’s Three Small Rooms have become so popular that Minden has opened up two other Toronto cafés. His pièce de résistance, however, will open this month and will be a winter garden with a glass dome called the Courtyard Restaurant and Café. (Minden says it’s the “largest steel sculpture in the world.”) It will be directly at the centre of the hotel and in the afternoons string quartets will play early Beethoven and late Mozart.

Doubtless Mr. Lindsay Laird will be there, sipping Twinings Earl Grey’s tea and requesting the overture from Wagner’s Twilight Of The Gods.

Fred Laubi, 50, manager of the RitzCarlton Hotel in Montreal, is from a background of great European hoteliers. He is the hotelier’s hotelier, one of the top five anywhere. At the moment he is sipping Campari sitting on a satin couch in his apartment at the top of the Ritz.

Before taking over the Ritz in 1970 Fred Laubi was manager of both the Gritti Palace and Lido’s Excelsior Palace in Venice. The very hotels where

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Visconti filmed Death In Venice. The Gritti, during Laubi’s tenure, had been called the finest small hotel in the world. Laubi’s penthouse at the Ritz has this Venetian integrity of Tintoretto hues, damask, Fortuny fabrics, with oil miniatures, packed with warm, rich furnishings.

If Minden of the Windsor Arms grew up a nice Toronto boy with no genuine notion of entering the hotel business, Laubi of the Ritz hardly ever believed he would do anything else. Born a Swiss, he grew up in France, attended school in Paris and graduated from L’Ecole Flotelière in Lausanne. He started at the bottom shining shoes and tending the garden, and gradually learned every aspect of hotel business.

“The most important thing about running a hotel is craft,” Fred Laubi is saying. “Since cooking is my great love it is a real advantage, for example, to be able to walk into a kitchen and tell the chef exactly what the sauce needs to make it better. I taste in the kitchen three times a day.”

At the Gritti, Laubi was known for keeping a secret file for his staffs eyes only. Special guests were rated VIP, WIP, and VVVIP. The belle gent (top people) rating three Vs were such people as Princess Grace, Marcello Mastroianni, Charles de Gaulle and Giovanni Agnelli. The card system included written instructions to desk clerks on how the ottimi clienti (best clients) be handled, their idiosyncrasies and preferences detailed. For instance, the card on high fashion designer Valentina, widow of George Schlee, still reads “arriva sempre de mattina treno Paris,” because Madame Schlee always arrives every July 1 on the eight-thirtyfive morning train from Paris. The concierge is also reminded that though she is in her seventies she prefers to walk the stairs to her room and forsake the elevator. At the Ritz, Laubi instructs his staff to handle each regular guest selectively in much the same way. Important whims of the loyal guests are noted.

The Ritz, not unlike the Empress, has undergone millions of dollars worth of face-lifting over the past few years. Laubi is always careful to make refinements. For instance, a vast 18th-century oil hangs in the newly appointed lobby. He bought it personally from a French count while visiting his castle.

But the Maritime Bar, with its extraordinary bouillabaisse, and the Café de Paris, with its reputable cellar and always dependable cuisine, have been changed only slightly. Both are Montreal institutions and Laubi has enough good judgment not to tamper with that kind of perfection. The ballroom and the courtyard, which once had taken on a kind of seedy gentility, have been restored and amended in the best possible

way. The refurbished rooms vary from $35 to $200 a day and manage to bridge the elusive gap between contemporary comforts and traditional grace.

Before Fred Laubi came along to breathe fresh winds into the sometimes arid conservatism of the Ritz, the hotel had taken on a legend of stuffy eccentricity. It was a second home for the Anglo-Westmount rich; a fortress against growing French-Canadian selfawareness. It might have been a hotel in Boston.

The King of Siam, Anthony Eden, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Douglas Fairbanks, the Crown Prince of Japan, Lord Baldwin, Lady Duveen, President William Howard Taft, Queen Marie of Romania, God knows how many others, all had a swell time there. The hotel, though now owned by a Montreal syndicate, had been touched after all, by the style of César Ritz, the man Edward VII called the “hotelkeeper to kings and the king of hotelkeepers.”

Back in the Forties and Fifties, C. B. Thorn, a pulp and paper magnate of Norwegian descent, was regarded by Charles of the Ritz (the famous headwaiter who retired his service after 42 years) as the paragon all guests should emulate. Charles would say of the connoisseur: “Mr. Thorn’s dinner usually lasted from seven to ten. First he would talk over the menu with the chef, arranging every detail. Then he would start with a cocktail, follow it with hors d’oeuvres, aquavit or beer. With his consommé he’d take a sherry. Then he would pause for a smoke. A fish course came next. With it he drank red wine, a Norwegian custom. Then he would pause for another smoke. A meat course followed. One of his favorite dishes was a mixture of lamb and goose livers with sauce Périgueux. This he ate with red wine, of course, and he would pause after it for a third smoke. Often he ordered a Nesselrode pudding with chestnuts and a vanilla sauce. With the dessert he would drink a dry champagne. Then came coffee, a good cigar and a fine liqueur. After that Mr. Thorn would always call for his usual Scotch and soda.”

Although these are the days of the American urge to rush lunch, the Ritz still encourages the Mr. Thorns of this world. The Ritz, you see, has had a reputation of only tolerating certain kinds of excess. Consider this story:

“Probably the most idle of Canada’s idle rich in the Forties was Elwood Hosmer, the son of Charles Rudolph Hosmer, president of Ogilvie Flour Mills. Elwood spent most of his days drinking gin and smoking cigars in one of the lobby lounge chairs at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, often answering nature’s calls in the pot of a nearby palm tree. His man-

ner of living was climaxed daily at 6 p.m. when Elwood — his chair surrounded by the accumulated droppings of his day’s smoking — would pass out, half covered by the funny papers which were his favorite reading. Bellboys would then carry him outside where a chauffeur would transfer him to his limousine for the two-block drive home.”

Despite his bad bladder Elwood’s was a safe excess. He was, after all, a true Montrealer. Years later, however, an out-of-town millionaire walked into the stiffly correct Palm Court (doubtless after a few drinks) and confronted the dowagers of Montreal society dressed in silver fox stoles.

“Pussycats!” shouted the out-of-town millionaire, “look at the pussycats!”

Lorgnettes, if not eyebrows, were raised but the interloper was ignored. “Pussycats!” he yelled again running from table to table snatching the fox stoles from outraged shoulders only to disappear upstairs. The manager was summoned and called the police immediately. The furs were returned at once. The millionaire left before the police arrived. Shortly afterward he returned to Montreal, sent 36 trunks ahead and entered the Ritz passing tips like the Aga Khan. He was told no rooms were, or ever would be, available to him.

At the time of the silver fox caper, at least one third of Ritz guests were permanent residents. Now, and the tolling of familiar statistics rings in the ears, only three remain. One is a certain Captain Gordon H. Murray, who checked in for one night 31 years ago and has not made check-out time since. The captain’s habits have in them the protocol of a Mr. Thorn. At dinner he reads the papers and his letters. He sits in fastidiously tailored British suits with a military posture and is as permanent a fixture of the Café de Paris as the blue velvet directoire chairs.

Fred Laubi has left the couch in his apartment and is returning from the bar with more Campari (a dash of soda added this time) and talking about Captain Murray’s studied example:

“1 love that man, you know, and those like him, but the fact is they are all but an extinct breed. People can no longer afford to spend a lifetime in a hotel and hotels can no longer afford to have them.”

George Minden might have said the same thing. The day of the permanent hotel resident is all but over, and the smaller, intimate hotels are having to face the grosser realities of the jumbo jet and expense account mentalities.

In Canada, predictably, the caravansaries are busting out all over. Home in such places is where you hang your hat. The Empress, the Windsor Arms, and the Ritz-Carlton are, for the moment, a little warmth in a cold landscape.