During the 1920s, Ludwig Bemelmans worked in the Ritz-Carlton hotel, and this memoir is an amusing record of the years spent there. In Hotel Splendide, our narrator begins his hotel career as a busboy and works his way up, finally becoming a waiter. The hotel, not as ‘splendide’ as it was once, has a range of guests and has its own hierarchy and culture. Monsieur Victor is the eagle-eyed maître d’hôtel and Mespoulets is a waiter. Mespoulets and the narrator, Ludwig, are co-conspirators assigned to war against the hotel’s worst guests who are seated a “draughty corner” between two doors.
Monsieur Victor used our tables as a sort of penal colony to which he sent guests who were notorious cranks, people who had forgotten to tip him over a long period of time and needed a reminder, undesirables who looked out of place in better sections of the dining room, and guests who were known to linger for hours over an order of hors d’oeuvres and a glass of milk while well-paying guests had to stand at the door waiting for a table.
In this restaurant version of Siberia, these ‘special guests’ are given the Mespoulets Treatment:
Rarely did any guest who was seated at one of our tables leave the hotel with a desire to come back again. If there was any broken glass around the dining-room, it was always in our spinach. The occupants of Tables Nos. 81, 82, and 86 shifted in their chairs, stared at the pantry door, looked around and made signs of distress at other waiters and captains while they waited for their food. When the food finally came, it was cold and was often not what had been ordered. While Mespoulets explained what the unordered food was, telling in detail how it was made and what the ingredients were, and offered hollow excuses, he dribbled mayonnaise, soup and mint sauce over the guests, upset the coffee, and sometime even managed to break a plate or two. I helped him as best I could.
Exactly how the staff treate the guests makes for very funny reading. In addition a variety of guests, some very hard to please, appear on these pages, including the “very rich” morbidly obese Madame Lawrance Potter Dreyspool and her equally large husband who “traveled with her as a sort of companion-butler.” But not all guests are obnoxious. There’s the beautiful, gracious Mrs Prideau, a great favourite with the staff. In her presence, Mr. Victor always “did a small ballet–he backed away from her table, making three deep bows.” One waiter, Fenile, is in love with Mrs Prideaux and always gets under her table with a footstool.
After a “waiters’ mutiny” the narrator is promoted from lowly busy boy and finds himself waiting on his own set of Undesirable Tables. Mespoluets cautions his protegee: “don’t be an actor or a waiter. It’s the most awful occupation in the world. The abuse I have taken,” and he recommends that Ludwig become a cartoonist. As it so happens, there is a cartoonist staying at the hotel…
This is an amusing memoir, but there is one moment of animal cruelty so I caution readers against that.