A Many-Storied Inn
The Hotel Washington, Full of History and Secrets, Gets a Makeover

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.

Before his arrival, Presley scrawled a letter on American Airlines stationery to Nixon, requesting a meeting. Presley told Nixon he was concerned about the direction of the country. He wanted to help. "The drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc. do not consider me as their enemy or as they call it the establishment," Presley wrote. He told Nixon he could help the country by becoming a "Federal Agent at Large" and communicating with "people of all ages."

Presley told Nixon where the president could reach him. "Sir," he wrote, "I am staying at the Washington Hotel, Room 505-506-507. . . . I am registered under the name of Jon Burrows. I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a Federal Agent." Indeed, Presley met Nixon on Dec. 21, 1970. They talked about the drug scene, how Presley could help. Presley gave the president a commemorative World War II Colt .45 pistol. One of Nixon's aides noted later in a memo that Nixon was suspicious of Presley's credibility. We came to know, later, that Elvis knew quite a lot about drugs, firsthand.

Perhaps history should be written by hotel staff. Although they are silent and courteous, they see and hear everything. The hotel's history is in the details. History is in what gets left behind, lost under the hotel bed.

Mary Allen's mother worked at the Hotel Washington then. "She told me Elvis was staying in the hotel. I said, 'Can you get something?' She knew the maid attending the room. She got me a pair of socks," said Allen, who was 18 years old at the time and would later get a job at the hotel as a telephone operator.

The socks were black. "The story was, he had a brand-new pair of socks every day. He changed and threw the other ones away," says Mary Allen, 63, who lives in Bowie. "I was tickled to death. I just kept them in my drawer with my nightgown. Silly girl. I had some pictures of him in there." She kept the socks for 37 years "because they belonged to Elvis."

Following her mother, Allen began working as a telephone operator when operators connected calls with plugs and a switchboard. Operators wielded silent power, for they could listen in on calls. For the paranoid, it was true there was a third ear listening -- sometimes. Oh, the people she connected calls for over the years, the rich, the famous. Calls from the White House.

One morning several years ago, she rang a room to give a wake-up call. "I said, 'Good morning, Mr. Pride, it's 7 a.m." She did not know it was the Mr. Pride.

A voice on the other end asked: "Can I kiss an angel good morning?"

And Allen recognized that the man she'd awakened in that room was country music legend Charley Pride.

Later, Pride came all the way down to the hotel's lower level and kissed Allen and another operator on the cheek. "He said he was going to the White House with Willie Nelson," Allen said. Pride had come to town to donate his boots to the Smithsonian. Nelson was to donate a leather jacket.

The switchboard room was in the basement. There, Allen met members of the group Alabama. She also met Aretha Franklin. The Pointer Sisters. "Ernest Borgnine stayed there all the time," Allen says. There was Jack Palance. Toby Keith, the country singer. Richard Gere. Gloria Estefan.

"I saw Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan going to parties in the ballroom," Allen said. "The telephone department was right next to the ballroom. I would open the door. Nosy me. Ronald Reagan was very nice. He shook our hands. . . . Bill Clinton was really nice. We saw Strom Thurmond and his children."

The staff grew accustomed to their rich and famous clientele, accustomed to their needs.

"People like privacy," says Anane, the food and beverage manager. "We respect privacy. We don't interfere." His passion, he says, is to make people comfortable.

Anane remembers Gladys Knight. She stayed here the night before performing at the White House, he says. "She had a very special soup. She stayed here about four to five days. I was making that soup on a daily basis. A vegetarian soup. It was a thing she must have on a daily basis."

Anane recalls when President Clinton came to speak. "It was his second term. When it came time for him to give his speech, the spotlights went out. I went back to turn them on. Thirty seconds later, they came down again. He looked at me and said, 'Young man, I'm okay. Just leave the spotlights alone.' He continued speaking."

Jose Garcia, a sous-chef who has worked at the hotel for 26 years, remembers Clinton and the lamb chop. "One day, when the Bill Clinton was over here, I had a tray of lamb chops," Garcia says. "I come out with a tray of lamb chops. And Bill Clinton was close to the door. He came to me and took a lamb chop and tapped me on the back" to signal his thanks.

And they continue with the lists of the famous who have walked through this lobby.

Jack Palance gave autographs. Harrison Ford came to the Sky Terrace and bought drinks for everybody. The Rotary Club had weekly lunches here. This was home to the Masons for 50 years.

Then there were the ordinary celebrities who came back year after year, who always wanted to stay in the same room. Who invited the hotel staff into their lives, into their private despair, to sit down and talk a while. Then tipped them when they left.

"Susan Lucci of 'All My Children,' she stayed in one of my rooms," says Anne Speight, housekeeping supervisor, whose mother also worked at the hotel. "Ernest Borgnine. He stayed on the fourth floor, my mom's side. She worked the fourth floor. We had B.B. King. Nell Carter in 802. Phyllis Hyman. This was the last place she was before she passed." Hyman later died of a drug overdose in her New York apartment on June 30, 1995.

Speight pauses.

"I had lunch with her that Monday," Anane adds. "We were just talking about her life. 'How is life being famous?' She said, 'I am like everybody. I wake up. I take it one day at a time.' "

"When she was here, she didn't seem depressed," Speight says. "I was down there peeking in on her concert." She was fabulous, and the next day she walked out of the Hotel Washington. And she was gone. In the hotel industry, the workers become accustomed to people leaving. And now they are leaving, too.

There is a bit of sadness that hangs over the fading beauty. Where will the staff go? Speight, who has worked here 27 years, says, "I raised my children on this one job. I guess I'll just have to look for another job at another hotel."

Soon the renovation will begin and you wonder whether it will wipe away the memories of 90 years. You ride the elevator up to the famous rooftop, maybe one last time. From this roof in this city, once upon a time, you could pretend to be anything you wanted to be.

From this roof, you could watch airplanes land. And look at how the moon sometimes hangs low over the monuments. You could stoke illusions of grandeur as you looked down on people scurrying to and fro, chased by their shadows or pulled by ambition.

If you waited long enough, waited up here even during winter -- when the rooftop was officially closed but the staff let you up because you begged them -- you could stand on the terrace as blasts of cold wind whipped the plastic window coverings that hang from a balcony. The open-aired balcony gives you unfettered access to Washington. They say the new owners plan to enclose this porch behind glass. What a pity, you think. Behind glass, Washington from this rooftop will not look the same.

It is dark now. Evening over Washington. From the rooftop of the Hotel Washington, you see the sun sinking over the White House.

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