The country is falling apart. Unemployment is rising. Manufacturing plants are fleeing across the border. The GST drives us wild. The Kurds make us weep. Gorbachev seems doomed. John Crow doesn’t know what he’s doing. Neither does the Prime Minister. Presto Manning wants a showdown with Quebec. George Bush proves he’s a wimp after all. There seems no hope for any of us.
Out of the gloom comes one piece of good news. Donald Trump is in serious financial trouble. For a world that has so little to cheer, this is tremendously heartening. If the most dislikable man on the public scene has a case of the shorts, there may be hope for the rest of us after all.
Trump, so full of himself just three years ago when he bought the famous Plaza Hotel for $390 million, now wants to convert it into condominium units to get some badly needed cash. The Plaza! Turned into condo city! It’s somewhat like converting Buckingham Palace into a hostel, filled with itinerants in sleeping bags.
These thoughts come while in Montreal contemplating the ailing state of another great inn of similar dignity and tradition. The RitzCarlton, one of the symbols of the city, seems to have come down with the wheeze. The snap, crackle and spark has gone out of it. There is a morose air to the staff and guests.
Just as the Plaza, sitting at Fifth Avenue and Central Park, commands the best site in Manhattan, the Ritz-Carlton on elegant Sherbrooke Street has been a landmark for those who like a hotel with old-fashioned style that does not feature 200 perfectly matched Japanese suitcases parked in the lobby.
The Westmount anglophones who once ruled the town walked down the slope of Mount Royal for cocktails and had the wedding receptions of all their daughters staged there. The doorman knew more people who counted than the mayor. The room keys weigh more than a pound of butter.
The famed Maritime Bar in the basement, home of some of the most romantic trysts of
our time, is closed. The light restaurant on the same level is closed. Even worse, the Ritz Garden is closed.
The Ritz Garden, once the spring snow had cleared, used to be the best place in Canada. The finest feature was the pond in the middle where, early each season, a momma duck paddled about with her half-dozen or so ducklings. Patrons under the striped marquee, sipping their wine and exchanging Montreal gossip, fondly watched the growing youngsters all summer. At the end of the summer, they were taken into the kitchen and the diners ate them.
The Plaza, only 19 storeys tall, opened in 1907 and has ever since prided itself as being the playground of the rich and frivolous. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt was the first guest to sign the hotel register. Jay Gould kept an opulent suite. Today, its most expensive standard suite goes for $1,400 a night. Though there is the Presidential Suite, which rents for $15,000 a
night and comes equipped with a butler, a maid, a chef, catered dinner for up to 12 and a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce limousine.
The Ritz, in its salad days, didn’t have Vanderbilt and Gould, but it did have Brian Mulroney and Mordecai Richler in the Maritime Bar. This was when the present Prime Minister was in his drinking days, a man who made an art out of the three-hour lunch.
Richler’s city residence is just across the street in a Sherbrooke apartment building the same size and shape as the Chateau Laurier, and boy Brian, then president of the Iron Ore Co. of Canada and plotting the death of Joe Clark, had his office a mere skip away. On their better afternoons, they created many a legend in the cozy atmosphere of the justifiably legendary Maritime Bar. For all we know, their long absence may be the reason the joint is currently darkened.
Now the word around is that the Ritz owners would like to convert it into condominiums—which as any Newfie can tell you is a real estate birth-control system. Condos. Just like Trump and the Plaza. The same disease has just closed the Windsor Arms, the most elegant little hotel in Toronto, which used to have the best restaurants in that self-absorbed diningout city.
The Ritz, only nine storeys, was (the past tense keeps creeping in) the anchor of Sherbrooke, the best strolling and peoplewatching street in the country, with the Montreal pedestrians who do not so much dress as display themselves.
Art galleries abound. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, at the moment displaying Pierre Cardin, is just up the street. Holt Renfrew is next door. The restaurant-and-bistro strip of Crescent Street is just around the corner. Everything is walkable. The most elegant and convenient residential section of Canada is on the slope of the mountain, able to ankle it to work.
We do not know if the troubles of the Ritz signify the changing personality of Montreal and the fleeing of the resigned anglophones who do not like the look of the new pouffed hairstyle of Jacques Parizeau, his handlers convincing him to abandon the 1939 Brilliantine look.
We simply do not know. We do not know a lot of things these days, days when Presto Manning appears as irrational as Lucien Bouchard. We only know that when the Plaza goes and the Windsor Arms goes and the Ritz goes, there will be a weeping in some quarters.
We know that Mordecai will raise a glass. And Brian will raise a Perrier. The only people happy will be the ducks.
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