A Many-Storied Inn

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By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 31, 2007

In its final days, the Hotel Washington clings to its passing beauty like a fading movie star -- with painted pink lips and a little too much rouge. Sitting for one last interview.

Dim the houselights and her face softens, and you no longer notice her advancing age. Instead, you follow the lines across her face, seeking what she knows. Her personality becomes more intriguing. The chipped polish, more enticing than when perfect. The age spots, more tempting than younger flesh. The stories the star wants to tell you more attractive than her temporal beauty. So you sit awhile, sinking into an old peach sofa to listen to what she has seen and heard.

As you sit here in the lobby of the Hotel Washington, with its faded mosaic tile, you realize hotels hold onto memories just as people do, memories left behind in the unmade beds, the towels left on the floor, the room service trays, the remnants of last meals left out in the halls. Closed, heavy curtains. The "Do Not Disturb" signs hanging until late afternoon.

Hotels watch and listen just like people. Absorbing the harried footsteps around midnight, the pomp of presidents in ballrooms, the phone calls from secret lovers, whispers overheard by telephone operators, the despair of jazz singers, the morning cheer of country legends, the black socks left under the bed. And the people who work in hotels, trained to provide quiet comfort to their guests, who hear and see when you do not even know they are hearing or seeing.

The Hotel Washington is famous for its proximity to the White House and its rooftop terrace with fabulous views that provided backdrops for such movies as "The Godfather: Part II" and "No Way Out." What secrets this relic must hold!

The hotel's last day is set for today. It will host 10 final, fabulous parties. Then the Hotel Washington, which has stood across the street from the White House since it became a hotel in 1917, is closing. Closing for a year to undergo renovation. Another company, Istithmar Hotels, which bought the hotel in 2006, plans to transform it into a sleeker, luxury hotel under a new name. It will be called simply W.

Until then, the staff is preparing for the closure. Uncertainty hangs here, with employees bustling about, wondering where they might find jobs. Many have worked here longer than the Me Generation has been alive. (One woman, who is still working part time in human resources, has worked here 72 years.)

"This is my home," says Abel Anane, the food and beverage manager, who has lived in the hotel 14 years. "I know every corner, every inch."

Anane recounts a list of the famous who have checked in: John Wayne, Duke Ellington, Will Rogers, George Burns, Gracie Allen, some members of the Ziegfeld Follies cast, Casey Kasem, Jodie Foster, Willie Nelson, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Cruise. A number of Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress have lived in the hotel, including former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill and former speaker of the house John McCormack.

Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy lived here when he was on the court. John Nance Garner lived here nine years when he was vice president, staying close to the president he worked for, Franklin Roosevelt. The hotel is the official home of the Hillary Clinton Fan Club. And home to the turkeys brought to Washington each year to be pardoned. The turkeys stay here the night before they go to the White House. And return with their freedom.

Of the many famous people who have spent the night here, few beat the fascination of Elvis. He stayed in Room 506 for about a week in 1970. It is said that this is where he had an affair with a Washington woman, raven-haired beauty Joyce Bova. Bova later wrote a book, "Don't Ask Forever: My Love Affair With Elvis," about the relationship, which reportedly began in 1969 when she was 25.

They say Elvis came to this hotel for another, less discreet meeting, to bend the ear of a president he admired, Richard Nixon.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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