Christopher Heard on the magic of luxury hotels and the stories told behind closed doors.
Christopher Heard has published biographies of Kiefer Sutherland, Britney Spears, and Johnny Depp, among others, during more than a dozen years as a TV interviewer and film reviewer for the shows Gilmour on the Arts and Reel to Real. Heard currently co-hosts the radio travel show Planes, Trains and Automobiles and contributes weekly pop culture commentary to Bynon's Toronto Weekend. He lives in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter at @AuthorCHeard.
I studied film and television in university, then production in college, before returning again to college to complete a post graduate certificate in Creative Book Publishing. I like stories, more so the storied people who tell them. So it was a personal thrill to interview Christopher Heard — biographer, reviewer, interviewer — about his latest book The Suite Life: The Magic and Mystery of Hotel Living (Dundurn Press), which is chock full of personal and celebrity anecdotes about the endearing appeal of hotel life.
Julie Wilson: "With each new hotel experience I lived and each new hotel story I was told, another fibre was added to the fabric of my desire and dream to live in a hotel."
You've conducted film and TV interviews in over 700 hotels and cite Howard Hughes' predication for hotel living (and hotel buying) as one of the reasons you decided to move home into Toronto's Royal York. In Hughes' case, it was a desire to live in a place that offered convenience, control and seclusion, a sentiment repeated throughout your book by actors/directors such as Warren Beatty, James Woods and Keanu Reeves. Does the same appeal hold true for you? What areas of your daily life are satisfied for living in a hotel?
Christopher Heard: Because I was literally conceived in the Royal York — and because my grandparents worked there, as well — my earliest hotel memories are of the Royal York. So when the desire to live in a hotel began to creep into my dreamscape, the Royal York was the only hotel I could imagine actually having that experience in. The most satisfying thing about living in a hotel for me is the realization that it was always a dream of mine, and I was able to make that dream come true. Beyond that, for an author/writer, living in a hotel is the perfect kind of life in many ways: all the minutiae of daily life is removed from your concern when you live in a hotel. You don't worry about making the bed, taking out garbage, laundry, because everything is taken care of for you, which leaves you an open avenue of time and energy to concentrate on your work. The interesting and satisfying things about long term hotel living is that you get into this groove of living exactly in the moment: your living space is always pretty much exactly the same, but everything around you — your neighbors — changes constantly. So while you are content and comfortable in the sameness of your suite day-to-day, outside your door is a completely new adventure, every day.
JW: Like a writer who wants to inhabit a place for research, when writing The Suite Life, how did the Royal York begin to appear to you as something other than just walls, a maid, room service and a pool? How did the hotel become familiar to you?
CH: I was already familiar with the Royal York, and had been so my whole life, but with the experience of living there the energy of the place became quite tangible, a real thing that was almost like another character in the book. The history of the place also became more important to me because, all of a sudden, I was a part of that history; I was living within the walls that had seen the things I was researching and recording, alongside my own experiences, for a book; I was literally placed within the ongoing, unfolding history of the Royal York Hotel. That was enormously exciting to me, and very humbling. The pool actually became a safe haven for me. Because I grew very close to the people there (especially Josh Stone and Jeannie Gallant), it was a place I could go to try out material on trusted friends before putting it in the book, as well as a place I could relax and recharge. (It still is!)
JW: There's a Twilight Zone episode in which a man realizes his empty town is actually fake. The trees aren't real. The cupboards are just glued on doors. The train he takes to escape just leads back to the same station. At the end, a large child's hand reaches in from above and we learn that the man is part of an "alien" play set; he's just a figurine. For all the hotels you've been in, do you ever have that experience, that when you enter a new lobby you're perhaps picking up from where you left off last? Not to say that hotel living is routine; it's something more existential.
CH: Your reference to the Twilight Zone episode is perfect for a couple of reasons. One, I am a huge fan of the show and I know the episode you are talking about quite well, so I know exactly what you are asking. And your reference to existentialism and surrealism is exactly appropriate. When you live in a hotel and spend as much time in them as I do — and I don't just mean big fancy luxury hotels; if I am comfortable and at ease and can work and relax, then that qualifies as a great hotel to me. The Days Inn in Windsor, for instance, is a place I can find those things, just like the Royal York is a place I can find those things. So because I have been living in and working in hotels for so long, it no longer becomes an extraordinary experience. It remains a fun and adventurous experience, for sure; that's what makes it so alluring and rewarding for me. But it has become my normal. Just like for most sports fans playing for the New York Rangers would be a surreal fantasy, to Brad Richards, it's his daily reality. So while he can still be in awe of the fact he gets to play for the New York Rangers, he has to reckon with the awe and get down to business. I marvel all the time at the luxury hotel living I've done, all the time. I smile inwardly (and often outwardly) when I consider how cool it is, but ultimately it is my normal, and was my profession when it came to chronicling the experience for the book.
JW: Do you have a favourite hotel?
CH: I spent a lot of time in the Hotel Bel Air and the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, because I am also a movie historian and often write about and speak on movies as they appear in these iconic places, where so much Hollywood history has unfolded, and how many Hollywood legends have shared the same space in which I was living. That was a constant state of head-shaking awe for me. I also quite enjoyed spending a lot of time in the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City because of its rich and regal history.
JW: I'm curious, can you spot another hotel dweller at ten paces? Is it something that comes up in casual conversation? Verbal or visual tells? Something perhaps as subtle as a recognizable scent: shampoo or body lotion?
CH: This is a very interesting question. I don't think I could recognize another hotel lover outside of a hotel, but within a hotel I can easily tell those who know how to live in a hotel and those who only find themselves in hotels on special occasions. People who spend a lot of time in hotels can quickly feel the rhythm of a hotel, they have a respect for the hotel. For instance, even though there are maids and housemen to pick up after them and take care of them, they tend not indulge themselves too extravagantly because you know the maids and housemen and don't want to cause them extra or unnecessary work. Hotel livers also carry a different kind of energy. They are seen to be enjoying the surroundings in a special, subtle way, not in an "Oh, wow!" way. It's more of an appreciation for everything, all around you and available to you.
JW: You've seen your fair share of nudity and "adult situations" in hotels, to include Ryan Gosling and Sandra Bullock deep in lip lock, back when Gosling was just a pup at 23 years old. What is it about hotels that even recognizable faces feel as if they've become anonymous?
CH: I think it all comes down to the fact that people just seem to feel generally less inhibited when they are in hotels: that goes for celebrities as well as regular people. Hotels are warm and comfortable and, yes, anonymous. They are safe and come with their own security, and, most important, there's no judgment of behavior in a hotel: you can pretty much do whatever you want, and provided you aren't damaging property, you will be left completely alone.
JW: What were your rules of conduct while writing this book? Did you out yourself as a writer?
CH: I tend to set my own boundaries when it comes to writing about my subjects. I never seek to write negatively about anyone, and, where this book was concerned, I made sure everyone I was speaking to knew that I was writing on my experience and that their stories might find a way into the book. If they preferred to have their names altered, I respected that in every case. Where celebrities were concerned, they live a public life and make a living off of being in the public eye. Since they knew me as a writer/journalist, it was up to them to share only what they were comfortable reading in a book or article or hearing in a TV segment.
JW: Do you have any desire to immortalize The Royal York into a piece of fiction? Or is hotel living a matter of truth being stranger than fiction?
CH: Interesting, and I am wondering what prompted you to ask!
JW: I'd imagine that you can only amass so much research before you begin to wonder if you couldn't take a shot at threading it all together. I'm probably also thinking about Stephen King's 1408 and The Shining, which both feature writers living in hotels, both mentioned in The Suite Life.
CH: Indeed, I am planning on writing a fictional piece, a novel, about life inside the Royal York. It would be funnier and have many of the things that happened to me there that didn't really fit into The Suite Life as a part of the final narrative. I would of course fictionalize most of it, but every story and every character would be based on real people and events.
The Suite Life was, in essence, a very personal book for me, a book that was the realization of a dream, not only to live in the Royal York but to write about it. It's a celebration of grand hotels and the magical things that happen when you check in to a big, grand, classic hotel with the intention of never leaving! A novel would be a different kind of look at hotel living.
JW: What are the simplest pleasures of hotel-living, for you?
CH: Those moments of walking the halls, the lobby, the ballrooms, when no one else, or not many people, are around, just taking it in at my own pace, thinking about all that has gone on before me. Watching people check in. Riding in the elevator with people from all over the world, and sharing the odd Royal York story with them to make their stays a little more interesting. Outside the Royal York, the simple pleasure is returning, of walking back from Harbourfront or St. Lawrence Market and seeing the hotel's majestic form — a structure that once dominated our skyline — and thinking to myself, "I live there. I live in that magnificent place."