History Prof Uncovers Hotel Secrets

19th-century guest books reveal illicit activities

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Prof. Kevin James

In 1911, Irish dentist Shenstone Bishop petitioned for divorce from his wife, Ethel. He cited adultery – or, as he had stated in a petition filed two years earlier, his wife’s “doings with a gentleman.”

When the jury failed to agree on a verdict, the Bishops wrote a deed of separation. Ethel then took rooms in several venues: Dublin’s Imperial Hotel, the North British Hotel in Glasgow and a Belfast railway hotel.

In each place, staff members saw her accompanied by a man named Harry Raphael. Indeed, the guest book at the Belfast hotel recorded them as husband and wife – even as Mr. and Mrs. Bishop.

Far from trying to keep the affair quiet, they had intended to be seen.

They were hardly the first lovers to have selected grand hotels for a not-so-clandestine tryst, says U of G history professor Kevin James.

In a blog entry about the Bishop affair for a major exhibit on grand hotels this summer at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG), James writes:

“This was frequently the purpose of such hotel visits: under the law (which in Ireland was especially restrictive), proof of adultery was often the surest way to obtain a divorce.

“Hotels were places where every flourish of the guest’s pen and every dining room foray might corroborate the facts of an illicit assignation, produce incontrovertible evidence for the courts, and free husband and wife from the shackles of a loveless marriage.”

The ploy worked for both parties. Ethel got out of the marriage and Shenstone Bishop got his divorce decree.

Besides writing for the exhibition blog, James penned a chapter in a book published this year about the grand hotel exhibition.

The exhibit opened this spring and continues until Sept. 15 (http://projects.vanartgallery.bc.ca/publications/Hotel/home/).

The Guelph professor got involved after the exhibit curators came across his work last fall. An expert in hotel history, James studies visitors’ books from hotels and inns of the 19th century.

Referring to the exhibit, he says, “It’s aligned so perfectly with my own developing interests.”

Bruce Grenville, senior curator of the VAG and co-curator of the exhibition, says the Guelph professor’s work is “addressing an area we hadn’t been able to cover – the emergence of the grand hotel and the transition from a national vision to a larger global vision from the perspective of the guest.

“One of the great strengths is that he has taken on an analysis of guest books and how they represent a notion of space and people’s interaction within that space as well as a cultural moment.”

James’s exhibit book chapter looks at grand hotels and discusses the voices echoing in hotel visitor books.

Those hotels include the Ritzes and Waldorf Astorias and Royal Yorks of the world, with their size, opulence, tradition and status. To know a grand hotel, he says, know its lobby. A Waldorf foyer is a “centre of intense circulation, sociability, anonymity. That, to me, is the signal place of the hotel and articulates the identity of the grand hotel.”

Hotel studies often mean hotel stays for James – and sometimes for his family.

This summer, he stayed for three nights in the Palazzo Victoria in Verona, Italy. The 70-room hotel is built around a 14th-century home and archeological site. Recent restorations incorporate touches of antiquity, including ruins visible under a glass floor and wall frescoes.

James always studies up on a hotel’s history and heritage – and price ($300 a night at the Palazzo Victoria) – including consulting TripAdvisor. “I’m always looking for a deal, that’s part of the enjoyment for me.”

He had done his homework this year for the San Cassiano Ca’Favretto on Venice’s Grand Canal. He’d booked eight months ahead, but only realized when he arrived that he had cancelled his reservation earlier. Still, the hotel found him a room just along the canal at Palazzo Giovanelli.

He doesn’t often take along his kids – ages seven and five – to grand hotels. But the family stayed in early July at Cincinnati’s Hilton Netherland Plaza – “less than $200 for a family of four, with breakfast.”

And it’s not always about grandeur anyway. In June, he attended a conference in Michigan and stayed at the hotel and conference centre at the University of Michigan. “It was no Verona, but it was handy to the conference.”

He’s a fan of Guelph’s Albion Hotel, one of the oldest establishments in Ontario. A tavern was first built on the site in 1856; the Albion Hotel was listed by 1867.

This summer, his family is moving house from Guelph to Toronto, where his wife, Monica Rieck, practises law. By mid-July, they were spending a long weekend – complete with their standard poodle – in Staybridge Suites in Guelph.

“It’s a very different experience of hotel life for us,” says James. “There are hotel stays made for pure leisure and hotel stays made out of necessity.”