The Eccentric Empress of Victoria
This ivy-screened castle goes gently mad each Christmas with jesters, Yule logs and pealing trumpets. For the rest of the year it tries hard to be a hotel but never quite emerges from the serene unreality of its own legends
PRECISELY at 9 a.m. on Christmas Day 700 people from all states of the Union and a few from Canada will awaken to the sound
of carols in the corridors of the Empress Hotel, Victoria, B.C. Peering out their doors, the startled guests will behold a procession of singing Elizabethans—seneschal, heralds, stewards, waits, silken maidens and a jingling court jester. Canada’s oddest folk festival will be under way.
Toward evening the jester will prance into the holly-smothered lounge with a company of wights dragging the massive Yule log which, annointed with wine and oil, will be lighted with a splinter kept from last year’s log, according to the ceremonial acquired by early Christianity from the pagan Norsemen. As the flames leap up the chimney the peal of trumpets and the voices of the carolers will float across the rose gardens, the causeway, the harbor and the lawns of the Parliament Buildings, where a giant redwood, Canada’s largest Christmas tree, waves its white star against the sky. Then Victoria will know that it’s really Christmas.
When the hotel guests are beginning to attack their 100 turkeys and 300 pounds of plum pudding (flavored with two gallons of rum) the Elizabethans will burst into the tapestried dining room with a roasted boar’s head, weighing 30 pounds, garnished with holly, a lemon in its mouth and “sweet rosemary and bays around it spread.” After such a dinner and a Christmas ball the most energetic American will be ready to call it a day. But he usually makes a reservation, a year ahead, for next Christmas.
Anyone who has not seen these goings-on will regard them as another advertising stunt dreamed up at the head offices of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the hotel’s owner. The celebrations began as a mere tourist attraction but the hotel staff, from the chef to the youngest bus boy, have taken them so seriously for so many years, like kids trimming a Christmas tree, that they have long since become a genuine solstitial rite. The head office probably doesn’t know and should never be informed that in the Empress it has a household of elves on its hands.
It is a hotel which isn’t a hotel by any commercial standard but a combination of country home,
roost for crumpet-consuming dowagers, gallery of innocent freaks, honeymooners’ nirvana, haunt for tired movie stars, flower-spangled retreat from the winter of the Prairies and eastern Canada, Americans’ refuge from reality and well-worn crossroads of the world.
The CPR advertising department pours out gushing, nervous hlurhs about the Empress cradled in its eight acres of garden . . wrapped in ivy in front of the tumbled Sooke Hills lapped by the temperate waters of Juan de Fuca’s Straits etc., etc. Though this is all true, pay
no attention to it.
The Empress is not to be explained by scenery, by climate nor by the feat of architecture which in 1908 filled up a stinking tidal swamp and, on wooden piles because bed rock was never reached, reared up a sprawling chateau.
The Empress isn’t a hotel. It’s a state of mind. A state of mind in the staff, to begin with. Most of them are Victorians who start work in the Empress as boys and girls and never leave until they are pensioned. Their life is happily bounded by the hotel grounds.
Jimmy Phillips, with a horse and cart, brought the first baggage into the Empress on the day it opened; recently he greeted the first guest to arrive by helicopter. He retired as head porter last year as an intimate of perhaps more celebrities than any man in Canada.
Caspar Anderegg, the Swiss chef, a twinkling old gentleman who rightly regards himself as an artist, joined the staff in 1910. The vast kitchens are world enough for him.
Billy Tickle has been fiddling with his string trio in the lounge, afternoon and evening, for a quarter of a century, and, miraculously transforming himself into the leader of Tickle’s Tantalizing Toe Ticklers, provides a rousing Saturday supper dance for the young bloods of the town. His talented pianist, Malcolm Moore, has played nowhere else since boyhood. Though he sometimes grows tired
of Victor Herbert, the dowagers’ ideal, and insists on a few heavy classical pieces now and then for his own pleasure, Moore would never play anywhere else.
Fred Sanders spent his life turning the original swamp into a billow of bloom.
To all of them, even to the old Chinese houseboys, the Empress has been not only a job but a miniature universe.
Princes, Spies, Kings, Athletes
No semblance of business creeps in here. The drummer with his samples is safely isolated in a distant wing with a separate entrance. Haunted men like Paul Muni, Nigel Bruce, Eddie Cantor, Joe E. Brown, Pat O’Brien and many others could wander about here without a second glance from the staff or other guests, without a single request for an autograph. The Empress, godlike, is above excitement or adulation. It lapsed just once, when a crowd of bobbysoxers, to the chagrin of the management, drove Ginger Rogers clear through the lounge and into the kitchens, where the embattled chefs effected her rescue.
The Empress is almost a sovereign principality with its own laws, ritual and code of manners, where most travelers have stopped at least once in a lifetime—statesmen, tycoons, show people,
athletes, refugees from the Russian Revolution, Chinese merchants, Indian princes, deposed kings, Japanese spies. As in Grand Central Station, if you sit long enough in the Empress lounge you will finally see everybody.
John Rowlands, a retired gentleman and old soldier, has done little else but sit and look. As long as anyone remembers this genial philosopher has occupied the same chair beside the great clock, observing everything and everybody with sagacious old eyes and occasionally imparting wisdom, in a low growl, to the passerby. Since he has become an essential piece of furniture and a permanent attraction, the CPR will have to replace him some day with a wax replica.
The Empress was designed as a resort for strangers. Its chief product, unforeseen by the designers, is purely Victorian. By its complex chemistry of men, scenery, architecture, horticulture and illusion it has distilled, bottled and preserved the inner essence of Victoria.
Here all Victoria’s changing moods and seasons are faithfully proclaimed and articulated with suitable rites.
As it has captured the Dickensian Christmas of Victoria for foreigners, it has captured the still larger festival of spring for the natives. The spring party takes gardeners, both native and alien, into
all the famous gardens
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of Victoria in annual pilgrimage and then collects at its flower show the choicest exhibits of horticulture, before which the entire town goes gently mad in Maytime.
As even Victorians let themselves go on New Year’s Eve the hotel, in sudden lapse from the English dignities of Christmas, lifts its curfew for one night and patiently mops up the wreckage before the stately New Year’s dinner.
Once the Victoria Press Club, to enliven its annual ball, hired a broken actor to make a Communist speech and if possible create a mild diversion. He succeeded so well that the ballroom witnessed its first riot, in which gentlemen broke one another’s noses and women’s gowns were torn off.
Widows Mourn at Teatime
While all phases of Canadian life move through the Empress, they fall into pretty distinct categories which a veteran like John Rowlands can identify at a glance.
There are the Americans who provide more than 80% of the peak summer travel movement—their careless summer clothes, so shocking a few years ago, being now acceptedand the Canadians who flee from the Prairies and the East about the end of January to the comparative warmth of the Japan Current until by February the whole of Winnipeg seems to have denned up before the wood fires of the lounge.
There are the politicians of British Columbia, the lobbyists, contractors and the usual army of hangers-on who haunt a political capital when a legislature is in session. More politics are made in the bedrooms of the Empress than in the cabinet chamber of the Parliament Buildings a few yards off.
In their moments of relaxation, however, the statesmen have conducted some interesting jests which might scandalize the voter in the home
constituency, as when a Speaker of the Legislature, having drunk deep, awakened with a shriek on the slab of an undertaker’s parlor where his friends had whimsically dispatched him; or when a politician of note was playfully chucked out an upper-story window hut fortunately landed on a handy roof and rested there comfortably till morning.
There is that immortal clique of wealthy widows from all over Canada who lament the succession duties on their husbands’ estates over the tea tables.
Then come the recurring conventions, about 30 a year, from Canada and the U. S., with the customary jocular amenities of men away from home. The corridors of the Empress are the widest in the country, a useful arrangement. Down them have reeled some of America’s most distinguished drunks. And when the Varsity rugby i team used to make its annual pilgrimage from Vancouver these corridors provided ample space for kicking, tackling, scrimmages and touchdowns.
The final and largest group, townspeople of Victoria, spend little money in the hotel but they own it, even if the C.P.R. holds the title deeds. Every Victorian, one way or another, passes through the hotel’s revolving doors in the course of his education. The full course takes a lifetime.
The Trout Was Imported
The youngster first sees the Empress at some children’s party or he will learn to swim in the huge seawater tank , of the glass-covered Crystal Garden adjoining the hotel—20,000 swimmers a month. The same kids, grown into their teens, will go to the Saturday supper dance. Then in middle age the Victorian male turns up once a week at his service-club luncheon or spends his summer evenings on the bowling greens. His housewife repairs to the hotel for afternoon club meetings and invariably stays to tea—300 strong every day.
Though the Empress is thus established after 42 years as the central fact of Victoria and its most successful
myth, still some of the old hands look back wistfully to the hotel’s brash youth.
The blue Swiss eyes of Chef Anderegg light up as he thumbs through the menus and wine lists of the days before the first war when millionaires of the original coast boom drank champagne like water and ordered every dish specially cooked: when the economical table d'hôte was unknown: when the gay premier of British Columbia, Sir Richard McBride, and his cronies thought nothing of a $2.50 check for lunch, plus the price of drinks—at that time twice a workingman’s wages.
It’s a strange economic fact, Anderegg says, that meals in a good hotel cost less today than in 1910 even though every other price has doubled or tripled. The reason? Ah, he sighs, the great age of gastronomy has died. In earlier times people appreciated the finer points of cooking and were ready to pay for them. Now a meal is only a meal.
However, the chef admits, perhaps people are more sensible now than they were. Certainly the Empress maintains as good a table as any in the country. Anderegg is famous for his crab Louie, made of Vancouver Island’s unequaled Crustacea, the only authentic culinary invention of the Pacific coast and now a password among travelers.
As his crowning triumph the chef remembers the state luncheon which he cooked for King George in 1939 (trout from Washington State because
B. C. laws bar them from commerce) and breast of pheasant (domestic birds, alas, because the wild ones were out of season ). The King, a man of gustatory discrimination, liked the meal so well that he presented its creator with a cigar 12 inches long, still lovingly preserved in a sacred humidor.
Lost: A Queen’s Wine Glass
Jimmy Phillips, head porter from 1908 to 1949, was an artist, too. His medium was human nature and he modeled it as a master. Through four decades this knowing little bantam of a man was the living link between the
C. P.R. and every VIP who passed through Victoria. He undertook some queer chores in his time.
Once he lifted the Duke of Connaught from under the eyes of his vigilant secret service men and smuggled him out a basement door for a solitary walk along the waterfront.
Jimmy was the pal of the King of Siam, who brought 50 retainers and 556 trunks and lost none of them.
When a Hollywood production, “Commandos Strike At Dawn,” was stalled for lack of silver powder to whiten Paul Muni’s hair, Jimmy found the essential ingredient in a secondhand store up town. For reward the make-up experts dressed him as an old woman and his wife as a baby to win the prize at a charity ball.
Jimmy handles the drunks and disturbers merely by looking at them with steely eyes from his elevation of five feet seven inches and telling them to behave. Those eyes never failed, even with the quaint character who once a month donned a cowboy outfit and yip-yipped noisily up and down the lounge.
Jimmy says today that at the Empress he learned one profound trutli the bigger the traveler the less style and deference he expects. “There’s never any trouble with a big fellow,” says Jimmy. "It’s only the little ones that put on the dog. Jellieoe, Allenby, Currie, JofTre, Laurier, Mackenzie King and the Prince they were all just nice guys trying not to bother
l-eaning on his shovel in his trim
back yard, Jimmy admits that his era has gone. Rooms in his first days were $1.75, the best Scotch $1.25 a quart and a head porter’s wages $25 a month. The hotel was less than half its present size before the two additions, the billiard room clicked and clattered day and night, the lounge was upholstered in solemn green with a royal crown on every chair and under the glass dome of the palm room a whisper could be clearly heard at 50 feet. (An eavesdropper there, overhearing the talk of two mining promoters, forestalled their deal and made a fortune. His name, like so many others, is safe with Jimmy.)
Even the great days of tips, toward the end of World War II. have passed Travelers, Jimmy says, have started to cut down since the cost of hotel living
There is one gnawing little regret in Jimmy’s life. W’hen Queen Elizabeth left her wine glass, clearly marked with lipstick, a bungling assistant porter forgot to preserve this priceless heirloom. English-born Jimmy would have handed it down unblemished to his posterity.
Men like Jimmy Phillips have combined to create a Canadian legend hut behind it, well muffled and disguised, stands a pretty complex machine.
At its controls is Kirk Hodges, a tanned, compact and athletic man with bushy eyebrows and a poker face whom nobody would take for a hotel manager in charge of a $10-million investment. His method is to leave his guests alone, to supervise his staff of 450 without raising his voice and thus to leave the impression that the machine works itself. The Empress was reported to have netted $200,000 last year.
Fourteen separate departments, from housekeeping, through horticulture, each a business in itself, are required to maintain between 700 and 800 guests and to service 573 guest rooms, the royal and semi-royal suites, the six lounges, six dining rooms, a ballroom and about eight acres of garden.
The housekeeping department of 60 persons, under Mrs. Mollie Robertson, a calm and comely woman who has seen everything in her time and repeats nothing, makes up 1,000 beds a day, sweeps three miles of corridors arfd collects lost articles ranging from dental plates to a bag of beach pebbles.
Three painters are perpetually employed in redecorating, mending broken windows and replacing the glass tops of tables, which are broken at the rate of one a day.
Elves Loose at Christmas
The hotel carpenter has made, among other things, a snowball and a bird cage to hold dancing girls, sleighs, rickshaws and an animated skeleton for a doctors’ convention.
A scientific young horticulturist, James Marlow, and his eight gardeners manicure the lawns, perennial beds, rockeries and lily ponds, produce in three greenhouses enough plants to keep the borders constantly aflame and six times a year install 500 potted plants in the huge conservatory.
Such statistics interest only head offices. Victoria has never heard of them, never seen the machine la-hind tinillusion and never suspected its existence. This is as it should la-. In any society the myth is more potent than the machine and in the gentle, scented and half-mad society of Victoria the Empress myth is anchored to the island rock beyond danger of dislodgment.
Anyone who doubts its hold on this queer town should look in here Christmas morning when the hotel turns loose its .-Ives *