Midnight. In a dimly lit room of an oceanfront hotel, a guest vainly seeks sleep. Each time he nods off, something disquieting tugs him back to wide-eyed wakefulness. Is it the blood-red bed covers? Is it the stuffed raven staring with beady, unblinking eyes? Or the withered rose, its musty odor redolent of long-sealed crypts? Perhaps it is the sharpened pendulum overhead, slowly swinging back and forth.
Yes, the imagination can run wild for anyone staying the night in the Edgar Allen Poe room of a uniquely offbeat hostelry atop a sandy bluff in Newport, Ore. At the Sylvia Beach Hotel, reality is allusion, and each of the 20 guest rooms is decorated to evoke the lives and works of famous authors.
For $50 to $90 per day, breakfast included, guests may choose, for example, the Agatha Christie room, with its pair of men’s shoes peeking menacingly from beneath a curtain, a bottle marked “Poison” in the medicine cabinet and bullet casings embedded in the walls. The sun also rises on the Ernest Hemingway room, complete with battered Underwood typewriter and a gazelle’s head. The Herman Melville room faces seaward and contains a whale of a bed, nautical prints and a captain’s sea chest. And the Oscar Wilde room boasts, among other atmospheric touches, tacky Victorian wallpaper, an allusion to the writer’s purported last words—”Either this wallpaper goes or I do”—as he lay dying in a Parisian hotel.
The Sylvia Beach Hotel is meant as a refuge for serious bibliophiles. “You could hardly call it a fun atmosphere,” co-owner Gudrun (“Goody”) Cable, 42, warns. “There’s no swimming pool, no bar, no casino, no swing sets, no televisions in the rooms, no gym, no tennis courts. The only company will be people who like to read, think, talk and humor one another—nary a picayunish quidnunc in the lot.” Picayunish quidnunc? That’s a “petty busybody,” she explains.
The hotel opened on March 14, 1987, which would have been the 100th birthday of the woman for whom it is named. The original Sylvia Beach was the American-born owner of Shakespeare & Co., the Paris bookshop where so many of the Lost Generation writers of the ’20s found a home. She was a friend to Hemingway and Fitzgerald and published James Joyce’s Ulysses when no one else would.
Cable, the wife of a Portland building-supplies supervisor, and her partner, Sally Ford, 43, whose husband is a lumber company executive, started the hotel because they yearned “for dialogue with intelligent, sensitive people,” says Cable. “We wanted to create a place where interesting people are the rule, not the exception.” She got her feet wet with the Rimsky-Korsakoffee House, a dessert-and-classical-music café she started in Portland in 1980. Her real dream, though, was of a hotel “with the wind howling and the fireplace crackling and people sitting around in overstuffed chairs talking into the night.”
In 1984 the pair found the Gilmore, a ramshackle three-story hotel with a transient clientele. The Gilmore’s best days had been in the ’20s, when it was a honeymoon haven. By the time the two entrepreneurs bought it for $144,000, it was, says Ford, “the only flophouse in Oregon with a view and a waiting list. I fell in love with it.”
Cable and Ford, who have been best friends since childhood, spent two years and $500,000 refurbishing the place. Each of the women has three children, and the kids pitched in. Decoration of the guest rooms was turned over to literary-minded friends. Some donated family heirlooms; others scoured the flea markets. Eric Meyer and Mark Humpal, both makers of musical instruments, took on the Poe assignment. “When I was designing that room,” says Meyer, “I felt Poe’s presence urging me on. I know one couple who spent their honeymoon there. I imagine Edgar would’ve gotten a kick out of it.”
The favorite of most honeymooners, though, is the Colette room, named for the French novelist. A red velvet divan is tucked in one corner; a ceramic cat sits by the fireplace. By contrast the Gertrude Stein room-is-a-room-is-a-room is dark and art-filled, a place for profound pondering. One guest thought a while and admitted, “I had Gertrude Stein mixed up with Gloria Steinem—apologies all around.” And truth to tell, not all guests have books and authors foremost on their minds. Goody Cable says that she was once trapped out on the Mark Twain balcony when a couple checked into the Twain room and jumped into bed. “Before I could say ‘excuse me,’ they had their clothes off,” she recalls. Always discreet, as well as thoughtful, the proprietor crawled back in through a nearby window—and never the twain did meet.
—By Michael Neill, with Maria Wilhelm in Newport, Ore.