Occasional Blog

This is where I say things that I need to say that I haven’t said elsewhere.

Brown’s Hotel does right by Alexander Graham Bell

It took only a few hours before someone from the the illustrious Brown’s Hotel read my admiring post about its Kipling Suite. How’s that for attentive service? A rep wrote me today to fill me in on the latest:

…Since Sir Rocco Forte and Olga Polizzi refurbished the hotel in 2008, we have dedicated one of our private dining rooms to Alexander Graham Bell and it now includes illustrations of telephones from over the years, a plaque, a photo of him in his study and even an antique telephone…

Hooray! Well done. That’s a lot better than the decorative equivalent of a dial tone that was previously accorded to the communications pioneer.

The rep also apologized for my “visit” by that attentive spirit, which amused me to read. Apologized! Isn’t that just the essence of British hospitality? It’s like they’re saying, So sorry you were visited by a ghost. We so hope to welcome you back again soon.

Did I mention that I love Brown’s?

For the record, I would stay again because of the ghost.

Here’s the new Graham Bell room:

Graham Bell Room, Brown's Hotel

Graham Bell Room, Brown's Hotel, London

A favorite hotel room: The Kipling Suite

Kipling Suite, Brown’s Hotel, London

Brown’s Hotel is one of London’s most grande dames. It’s been open since 1837, gradually expanding into 11 townhouses as it collected esteem and high custom, and there’s no way to underestimate the important role it has played through the ages.

For one, it’s where the first successful telephone call in the United Kingdom was demonstrated by Alexander Graham Bell. When I stayed at Brown’s, I asked to see the room where it happened, and I had to be passed from staffer to staffer before someone could bring me to it. When it got there, I found not a plaque or even an antique phone, but a mundane meeting room. That’s how many important things have happened at Brown’s: The cradle of modern communication itself doesn’t rank as worthy of marking.

The Kipling Suite (and straw hat lamp), Brown's Hotel, London

Mark Twain stayed here. In one of his most famous episodes, in 1907, he scandalized the British press (and made the New York Times) by appearing in the lobby in his blue bathrobe and pajamas (‘scuse me — pyjamas) and taking questions with three inches of bare leg in plain view. “Mark Twain exhibited himself as an eccentric to-day,” tittered the Times on its front page, “and every staid Londoner who witnessed the exhibition fairly gasped.”

Stephen King, sleepless during a stay there, began writing Misery on a typewriter that was then in a stairwell. Lord Kelvin reached the decision to harness the power of the Niagara there. Kings and Queens of various countries have lived here while in exile from their own war-torn lands. And Rudyard Kipling spent many of his final days living at Brown’s. He finished writing The Jungle Book in a suite there. In 1936, he was found slumped over his desk there, stricken by a perforated ulcer that soon killed him.

That is now The Kipling Suite, and a few years ago I was lucky enough to stay there. I furnish now for you some delicious hotel porn. I only regret that I failed to capture any images of the bathroom, which has a huge flat-screen TV with speakers over the tub. Not taking a bath in the Kipling Suite is like pushing your plate of Thanksgiving dinner away after having a single forkful of beans.

In keeping with its past literary guests, the rooms at Brown’s are stocked with classic titles as well as art. Considering rooms can cost £450 a night, I wonder if they charge you for “accidentally” slipping a copy of The Jungle Book into your luggage on the way out.

The Kipling Suite, Brown's Hotel, London

Having a room of this size and sweep is physically exhausting, because there’s not enough me to go around. I want to enjoy the tub, the chaise, the windows. I want to sit momentarily at every desk, admire every objet d’art, soak up every thread of gratitude for being there. The irony is while you’re concentrating on cherishing something, you find it pretty much impossible to truly enjoy in it. How can you sit in a room with that marvelous wooden lamp, the one shaped like an Edwardian straw hat, and not let your thoughts wander, reminding yourself not to daydream and miss anything?

Luxury is most deeply enjoyed when you learn to take it for granted, and by that time, it won’t do you any good anyway.

An incredible thing happened to me in this room, and it occurred during one of the few moments when I had no choice but to let my mind wander. I was asleep. It was about 6 a.m., and I stirred awake with the feeling that someone was standing at the foot of the bed. It wasn’t scared. It wasn’t a scary feeling. I simply tried forcing my eyes open as a figure materialized.

It was a middle-aged woman in a modest black-and-white French maid’s outfit. She was a chambermaid, slightly pudgy and benign. She had a white towel folded over her left arm, and she leaned slightly over my feet as if she was in the act of placing it or taking it up. She was attending to me as I slept. She didn’t say a thing. I forced my eyes open all the way, and that’s when she melted away.

The bed where It happened, Kipling Suite, Brown's Hotel, London

Like I said, I wasn’t frightened. In fact, it seemed (in that hazy nighttime logic that seems bizarre but in fact is probably the clearest of the day) as if she was in the proper place and it was me who was in the wrong place. Feeling oddly comforted, I went back to sleep.

Hours later, I was leaving the Kipling Suite for a day of research. As I walked down the hall, I passed a maid — a real one this time — in a French chambermaid’s outfit. Her clothes were identical to my visitor’s except hers were grey and white. She had a white towel over her left arm. She wished me good morning.

When I told the desk staff at Brown’s that I had seen a ghost, they didn’t seem amused. In fact, they didn’t press me for a single detail. I must have seemed like a nut, or else they’ve heard similar stories before. I tried warming them up by reassuring them that this spectral staff member was spotted in the act of delivering superlative attention. But they were immoveable. At Brown’s, we mustn’t gossip too loudly about the past.

Brown’s Hotel is on Albemarle Street in Mayfair, London