What is a hotel? As Caroline Field Levander and Matthew Pratt Guterl show us in this thought-provoking book, even though hotels are everywhere around us, we rarely consider their essential role in our modern existence and how they help frame our sense of who and what we are. They are, in fact, as centrally important as other powerful places like prisons, hospitals, or universities. Guiding readers through the story of hotels as places of troublesome possibility, as mazelike physical buildings, as inspirational touchstones for art and literature, and as unsettling, even disturbing, backdrops for the drama of everyday life, Levander and Guterl ensure that we will never think about this seemingly ordinary place in the same way again.
In the following excerpt from Hotel Life: The Story of a Place Where Anything Can Happen (pp. 39-42), Levander and Guterl explore the world of Eloise, the six-year-old heroine from Kay Thompson’s book series for children, to show how a hotel can resemble a home.
The hotel’s ability to foster trust and nurture people who are otherwise temporarily homeless and dependent has been a long-standing feature of the modern landscape, and this functionality makes the hotel an irresistible magnet for those across the entire socioeconomic spectrum. Kay Thompson famously captured the hotel’s imaginative allure for the vulnerable wealthy in her 1955 fabulously popular Eloise stories, and the resulting marketing of these stories as a distinguishing feature of the hotel she—and her creator—called home attests to the hotel’s ability to incubate new kinds of identity and self-making even for those guests who seem to have it all. A ward of New York City’s Plaza Hotel, the six-year-old Eloise roams the hallways of one of the world’s finest hotels, her mother perennially absent. Without the protecting spaces provided by the hotel’s public and private venues, Eloise would be alone in a dangerous and unprotecting world, but in the generative habitus of the hotel she invents a world rich with play at self-making. If her room is depicted as messy and boring, filled with toys and books, each a discarded substitute for the missing affections of her mother, it is still filled with sunshine and with “Nanny,” her aged British minder. Leaving the suite, Eloise endlessly wanders the floors of the hotel, plays with guests and the staff, and explores, through the hotel, how to exist as a solitary self in a larger world. Long a favorite of young girls, Thompson’s Eloise demystifies the labyrinth of the hotel and suggests, instead, that the indomitable spirit of one particular six-year-old can triumphantly make a happy home even in the least sincerely domestic spaces of the world, and even in the absence of her mother.
The Plaza, as Thompson describes it through Eloise, is a home, a family, and a neighborhood—a microcosm of the larger world that Eloise will ultimately inhabit when an adult and thus a testing ground for a modern subject in formation. But Eloise has help with her self-fashioning—the hotel offers a series of surrogates and stand-in communities that enable and enliven her progress. She and Nanny routinely enjoy room service, and never cook for themselves. During the day, when Nanny is apparently otherwise occupied, Eloise tours the entire hotel. She attends weddings. She plays with the busboys. She boasts that she has been to “56 affairs including Halloween.” She is the unofficial charge of legions of stewards, bellhops, concierges, and guests. Instead of the proverbial neighborhood block, she has an endless supply of hallways, each door a gateway to another temporary “home” at the hotel. When young Eloise playfully scoots down the hall, rapping a stick against the woodwork or stomping her roller skates, a row of doors opens, and the proto-neighborhood awakens to watch, to instruct, to “parent” collectively. We see a man with a mixed-drink and striped pants, a comely woman behind him, and another man, wearing a bathrobe, shaving cream still on his face, and a third man, fastidiously dressed for business, with a small dog. Behind closed doors, the Plaza is full of discrete domestic spheres. Once the doors open—in this case, to make it possible to attend to a playful young girl—an alternative public emerges, a neighborhood constructed not through sidewalks and the front stoop, but through the privately owned and temporarily contracted corridors, lobbies, and elevators of the hotel.
This homelike community of nurturing transients and the kind of self-making they encourage in the story’s child heroine are both what inspire the book’s authors and what the Plaza Hotel’s subsequent marketing plans exploited mercilessly. Thompson and her illustrator, Hilary Knight “holed up at the Plaza” in 1955 where they described their collaboration as one in which they “wrote, edited, laughed, outlined, cut, pasted, laughed again, read out loud, laughed, and suddenly had a book.” Immersed in the world that is the Plaza Hotel, Thompson literally mimicked the words and intonations of a little girl wandering the hotel halls until she perfected her story. Forty years later the hotel was designated a literary landmark—the official “Home of Eloise”—which enabled the hotel to develop a marketing strategy that fully exploited the seductive allure of the hotel’s surprisingly nurturing intimacy gradients and the opportunities they promised to provide guests to reimagine themselves. The literary landmark plaque that still graces the Plaza’s entrance declares that “Kay Thompson lived at the Plaza while writing Eloise,” and it is her own firm position within the comforting arms of the hotel that enabled her to bring “this fictitious charmer to life” with such effectiveness and to sketch with unerring accuracy and power how “a six year old who lived on the top floor of the hotel” might consequently see the world anew. A painting of Eloise by the illustrator was immediately hung in the hotel lobby after the book’s initial publication and quickly became a pilgrimage site for mothers and their young girls, Princess Grace reputedly being dismayed at the painting’s temporary absence when she toured the hotel with her young children.
But it was with Donald Trump’s purchase of the hotel in the 1980s that the story of the hotel’s attempts to cash in on the Eloise narrative became something of a cliffhanger. Trump hired the original illustrator, Hilary Knight, to design a children’s suite based on the Eloise drawings and thus to create a kind of three-dimensional literary arena where guests could inhabit and potentially reenact the hotel’s healing habitus. But it was Trump’s refusal to provide Kay Thompson continued rent-free shelter within the hotel—something the previous owner had done for years—that provoked her to block Trump’s plans to use Eloise to promote the hotel and so the work was not completed. Though the hotel had an Eloise Room where visitors could sit and imagine themselves in the story and an ice cream parlor named after the character, it was only after Thompson’s death that the Plaza fully monetized the text, building it robustly into the hotel’s marketing as well as architectural plans. In late 2009, the Eloise marketing campaign caught national attention, with stories on Good Morning, America and headlines in the national press about the hotel’s new Eloise store and special packages like the Eloise Pajama Party Brunch, The Essential Eloise Birthday Party, and the Most Wonderful Platinum Eloise Party, in honor of her fifty-year birthday. Executives traded in the incipient logic of homelike privacy that Thompson’s stories depicted as a hotel trademark by saying that after all these years “Eloise deserved a home.” Executive vice president of retail admitted to having “high hopes for Eloise”: “She’s such a character and a personality, a lot like the Plaza,” that the Eloise store, she predicted, would give the publicly traded American Girl stores a run for their money. These days, Eloise is a brand, with her own flag—a gesture to the stateless geopolitics of the Plaza’s interior—hanging over the main entrance to the hotel.
From Hotel Life: The Story of a Place Where Anything Can Happen by Caroline Field Levander and Matthew Pratt Guterl. Copyright © 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press.
Caroline Field Levander is the Carlson Professor in the Humanities and professor of English at Rice University, and Matthew Pratt Guterl is professor of Africana Studies and American Studies at Brown University. Their book Hotel Life: The Story of a Place Where Anything Can Happen is now available.