Review: ‘Hotel Splendide’ by Ludwig Bemelmans

Hotel Splendide

Hotel Splendide, first published in 1941, is a series of anecdotes that recall Bemelmans’ uproarious years as a busboy and a lower-level manager in an unnamed, lavish hotel in 1920s New York. 

Written with great levity and humor, the tale solidifies into a snapshot of a bygone era; one in which class stratification was acutely felt and segregationist language more freely employed. The first and last stories encase Bemelmans’ recollections in a rhythmic cycle. And with Mespoulets, an older waiter, appearing as the author’s mentor at the onset and a manic subordinate at the end, a painful poignancy is reached.

Their initial dynamic, presented from the absurdist angle that makes Hotel Splendide so thrilling, brings to mind Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). In fact, there’s more than the age-defying camaraderie that seems parallel.

The very obscenity of the building structure, though ironically lacking grandness in the case of Anderson’s creation, immediately brings to mind “an unequal struggle with economics,” as well as the friction brought on by colliding dispositions.

Hotel Splendide focuses on the peculiar guests that frequented the hotel, as well as the even more peculiar staff members that tended to their appetites. Throughout, the same delightful absurdism permeates the setting, “he kicked Victor hard with a bad foot, and ran with surprising agility — humpty dump — out of the dining-room towards the ballroom. Monsieur Victor ran after him.”

And yet, the intricate dynamics and duties within the hotel are something from which we are removed as contemporary readers, and therefore can’t help but find elusive as the pivotal subject matter. That is, until the names become distinguishable, and their interweaving trails form a labyrinth of helpless preoccupation.

More and more, these figures circle the core of Bemelmans’ intriguing assertion: “The tender plant that is morality does not thrive in a grand hotel, and withers altogether in its private rooms.”

The unlikely marriage of the stock market and the muted monetary aspirations of the hotel staff incites tempers and bares the dispensability of the working class man. Destitution walks hand in hand with diligence. Kalakobé, an African man, is assigned the most physically punishing tasks, all the while being repeatedly denied his dream position of a doorman.

What blunts the hard edge of this reality is Bemelmans’ empathetic treatment of every man, forever acknowledged and valued on an individual level. Through his eyes, we hone in on Kalakobé’s beauty and grace, “As he lifted the largest of the casseroles, a play of muscles started on his back, cords pulled, ridges rose, like oxen dragging a weight. It was a lesson in anatomy.”

His ambition and drive are equally applauded, and even nurtured, by the narrator every step of the way, “He said that was all right (…), anything so he could be a doorman, any job where he could wear a uniform and advance himself in the world.”

In the same spirit, Kalakobé’s chilling story about a cluster of animals feasting on their King is given ample space on the page, conveying the tonality of the man’s voice, the echo of verbal tradition.

Fritzl, a homesick childhood friend and fellow employee of the hotel, is carefully immortalized, both through the scope of his perseverance and his aching vulnerability, “He was sitting in the corner weeping. It seemed as if some invisible person continually kicked him.” Bemelmans’ valet, Joseph Lustgarten, is accorded equal treatment, though with a sharpness of perception that rings endlessly satiric.

Meanwhile, heft and levity bump against each other, dominate and submit contrarily. Lyricism imbues Bemelmans’ words with meaning, beauty scratches away at frivolity, “His thoughts crept around like rainworms, plain and with both ends the same — you could see where they were going and where they came from.”

Certain images shuck off the veil of connotation to inundate the senses instead, “The teller of each story swayed and danced with hands, shoulders, and face. Every word was illustrated (…).” Combined with the intoxicating ludicrousness of both spirit and circumstance, Hotel Splendide emerges as a timeless romp; one that can be relished and revisited at length,

“Confetti [a dog] answered with a nod of the head for ‘Yes’ and shook his head for ‘No.’ The Professor explained that he was trying to teach him to shrug his shoulders in answer to the more delicate questions.”


Publication date: September 29, 2022 (Pushkin Press)

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