This book was recommended by a colleague. Reading about it, I was decidedly unimpressed. Bemmelmans was born in the Austrian Tyrol in 1898 and, having failed at school he went to work for an uncle who owned a hotel; his grandfather owned a brewery. Continuing problems led to him being packed off to America where he worked in large hotels and restaurants. In 1936, he wrote his first children's book, to be followed by many more and soon he was also writing quirky books for adults.
A book by a bon viveur about life in restaurants and hotels is not something I would normally buy or borrow from the library. However, I can honestly say that I found the book, illustrated by the author, a joy to read, bringing smiles rather than open chuckles or out- loud laughter. This is due to Bemmelmans' ability to sketch a character just as well in words as he does with his pen. One senses, too, that he could do this in a number of different languages.
We meet characters from all levels of hotel/restaurant society, and the class system within the hotel is every bit as rigid as in New York society at the time. Such is the quality of the hotels that the author writes about that his view of the clientele is exclusively focused on the super-rich and super-super-rich.
Madame George Washington Kelly, very difficult and exacting had "a desperate countenance, partly concealed by a veil; behind this, her shone the colour of indigo. Her skin had the texture of volcanic rock seen from the air with dirty snow swept into the crevices" - Italian waiters called her "bestia", French "canaille" and Germans "die alte Sau". Again, Madame Garrard was "elderly and asthmatic with the breakable face of a porcelain puppet that can neither risk to laugh nor to frown, the kind of face that one observes frequently in the shop windows of opticians, a lithographic reproduction of an oil portrait whereon it is evident that the artist has been instructed to stress refinement and culture".
Bemmelmans has a genius for naming his characters, perhaps my favourite being Hamilton Drawbridge III, which conjures up a picture without using any adjectives.
Early on, seeking a post at the Hotel Splendide, and how 1930s/1940s the final "e" makes the hotel sound, through a letter of introduction from his uncle, he is sent to Mr Serafini, "a thin foreign-looking man who looked like a high-placed Jesuit. To me he looked like St Francis in a tail coat". Otto Brandeis, the manager of the hotel, is "a stern executive and strict disciplinarian he could not conceal his kindness. He liked to laugh with guests and employees alike, and the result was that his countenance was the scene of an unending emotional contest. Two expressions occurred in his speech like commas ; without them he almost seemed unable to speak `Cheeses Greisd' and `Gotdemn it'". A mere 250-300 male staff are needed at "coming out" debutante parties, 20-30 being held each winter, catering for "in the neighbourhood" of 2000 guests.
Confetti, a dog bought by Gorylescu, a magician who was often commissioned for banquets, "had a loose coat somewhat like the plumage of a grouse and his four legs were stuck into him without much care for design. He walked sideways with a kind of hop. He looked a hundred years old, and a hundred years of worry were in the misery of his lips and eyes".
On a different level, the book provides a very sharp sociological analysis of life and work in the most exclusive American hotels and restaurants of the time, these organisations being like Atlantic liners almost entirely removed from contact with the outside world. It was a very cosmopolitan environment with staff having many languages and interests, including exploiting stock market tips passed on by guests.
In an interesting short introduction, Anthony Bourdain acknowledges the basic truthfulness of the stories and likens Bemmelmans to George Orwell in his "Down and Out in Paris and London". When I read this introduction before starting the book I doubted this statement but, now having finished the book, I would agree. This is book is well worth while reading, but I would suggest doing this at home rather than whilst on holiday in a hotel.