Saturday, June 13, 2009

BTO: Celebrity hangout

Business Times - 13 Jun 2009

Celebrity hangout

Dali kept a flock of sheep in its rooms, Ginger Rogers danced in its hallways and the Shah of Iran was deposed during his stay there. At Paris's Le Meurice hotel, the guests are illustrious, and the ghosts are everywhere

IT seemed to be a routine Franco-American culture clash - serving Coca-Cola at Le Meurice - until US Ambassador David Bruce and two Coca-Cola Co executives were besieged during a 1949 meal at the Paris hotel by protesters brandishing wine bottles and decrying 'La Coca - Colonisation de la France'.

'It's a clear case of discrimination,' Mr Bruce wrote of the postwar trade contretemps in his diary and, as Le Meurice's chief barman William Oliveri recounts the tale today, his predecessor sensed that the trans-Atlantic tempest wasn't going to blow over.

To soothe future hostilities, the bartender baptised the drink Beaujolais Americain. 'That's what we've always called it,' says Mr Oliveri, who over the past 30 years has swapped yarns with Yul Brynner, sipped fresh-peach Bellinis with Sophia Loren and mixed his fiendish vodka martini doused with paprika for Hungarian royals.

Even by the stylish standards of Paris, where luxury hotels such as the Ritz and the George V cultivate their image to lure a fresh generation of guests, there's something special about the almost 200- year-old Le Meurice. The hotel's logo remains the stray greyhound that wandered in off the Rue de Rivoli in 1905.

Frequent guest Salvador Dali kept a flock of sheep in his suite and paid chambermaids five francs for each live fly they could capture across the street at the Tuileries gardens. Pablo Picasso and his first wife, ballerina Olga Koklova, had their wedding dinner here and William Makepeace Thackeray poured praise on the hotel's cognac.

The Shah of Iran was dethroned while a guest at Le Meurice and, in the 1930s, Coco Chanel staged whimsical fashion shows in the hotel's 18th-century salons.

The folks who run the Brunei Investment Agency (BIA), the US$30 billion sovereign wealth fund of the oil-rich Sultanate of Brunei, were so smitten by the seven-story hotel literary Nobel Prize-winner Rudyard Kipling called his Paris home that it bought the place in 1996 for an undisclosed amount through the SWF's London-based property-management company Dorchester Group Ltd.

The group's roster of luxury hotels is now dubbed the Dorchester Collection. In 2007, BIA tapped French designer Philippe Starck to fine tune Le Meurice's Belle Epoque architecture with lobster-claw telephones.

Orson Welles puffed cigars in the lobby; Ginger Rogers danced in the hallways; Dali's two pet ocelots slept in the linen closet on the first floor and Richard Burton romped through the rooms with Elizabeth Taylor.

'Burton liked his whiskey and was always half-bombed,' Mr Oliveri says. 'But what a beautiful and intelligent man.' Written records of events were never kept. 'Unlike other grand Parisian hotels, we don't have an archive,' says media manager Emilie Pichon, who's in the early throes of assembling a memoir to mark Le Meurice's 200th birthday in 2015. 'The history of Le Meurice is an oral history that's passed down.' And the ghosts are everywhere.

'Some come for my food, many come for the spirits,' says Yannick Alleno, the 40-year-old chef who runs Le Meurice's three-star Michelin restaurant and over the past two years has translated the lobby's more relaxed Le Dali eatery into the Parisian power version of Manhattan's Four Seasons lunchroom.

On a recent spring afternoon, the walls in rap artist Eminem's 14,000 euros-a-night Belle Etoile penthouse suite pulsated with music and perhaps the memory that Le Meurice served as the German army headquarters during the Nazi occupation.

General Dietrich Von Choltitz, seemingly dissatisfied with the accommodations at the nearby Hotel de Crillon, moved his command to Le Meurice in August 1944 after he was appointed military governor. He famously defied Hitler's order to ensure Paris not fall into Allied hands without lying in complete debris.

Outside on the curb, an idling motorcade of four Mercedes-Benz limovans with smoked windows waits for Eminem's expedition into Paris. The rapper appraises the hotel where the German army was based with a 'yeah, right'.

'Guests today are rushed and much younger,' says Joseph Gardon, Le Meurice client-relations director, who has catered to their needs for 35 years. 'Before, they had plenty of time. We still host kings, and now we host Eminem and Kanye West.'

And there is no request they cannot meet. 'Perhaps our most remarkable guest now is a person who demands the 2,960-sq-ft wrap-around terrace in the Belle Epoque suite be carpeted with real grass to accommodate her dogs,' Mr Gardon says. 'We erect a series of tiny Swiss chalets for them and put a sign with each dog's name above the entry.'

Upstairs at the front desk, 48-year-old chief concierge Leonard Creplat says a keen knowledge of Paris's 14,000 restaurants is nowadays the easy part of the position he's held since 1985.

'I once rented the Louvre Museum for a guest,' Mr Creplat says. 'Fifteen thousand euros a night. Everything is possible with money.

'Le Meurice offers guests rooms,' Mr Creplat says. 'It's my job to deliver their dreams.' He says he's now arranging an evening lease on the entire Eiffel Tower.

'Only a few of us know how to rent the Eiffel Tower,' the concierge says with a grin and a crystal tumbler of Beaujolais Americain on the table. 'As for how we do it,' Mr Creplat adds, 'you will never hear the answer.' -- Bloomberg

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