In the 1960’s, Al Seitz struggled to maintain at least one guest in residence at Port-au-Prince’s Hotel Olaffson to ward off Papa Doc Duvalier from appropriating the most famous watering hole in the Caribbean. That still didn’t curb the Brooklyn native from giving random tourists a quick once over and banishing any in white shoes and matching belts with a curt, “You wouldn’t like it here”. He managed to host enough misfits in the turn of the century mansion – originally built to house one of Haiti’s revolving door presidents – to evade the dictator. Several of his hearty guests populate Graham Greene’s hysterically inappropriate novel, The Comedians, which extracts humor from Papa Doc’s terror as well as the dead bodies floating in the hotel’s swimming pool.
In better days John Barrymore lounged on the bric-a-brac veranda sipping rum punch and enjoying the upstairs corner room so often that Captain Olaffson, the Norwegian who bought the hotel from the departing US Marines in 1934, named the best room after him. The marines had used the plantation style mansion as a hospital, but Olaffason recrafted their pool table into a bar and welcomed expat artists, intellectuals, and eclectics throughout the mid-twentieth century. Why a military hospital was furnished with such a lavish pool table to begin with is not clear, but like all mysteries of Haiti, its charm trumps its rationale.
The Duvalier’s never appropriated the unique property, but their regime eventually ground Hotel Olaffson to destitution, as it did everything in Haiti. In 1986 the Olaffson closed. All the wicker furniture was carted away and locals whose memories recalled gentler times pulled the nameplates of John Barrymore, Graham Greene and other famous guests, off their doors.
Through pluck and fancy Richard Morse and Blair Townsend, a pair of American Princeton grads, bought the place in 1988 and refurbished it to its former funkiness. The youthful, bushy-haired Richard, smiling from a faded New York Times article heralding the hotel’s rebirth that is plastered next to the check-in desk, still owns the place; although now his grey ponytailed mane and faded jean slouch conjures a zeitgeist of aging hippie more than 80’s entrepreneur.
Last night, Halloween, I had the privilege to be Richard’s guest, along with hundreds of other expats and a smattering of hip Haitians. Plane schedules and transportation between Grand Goave and Port-au-Prince all conspired that I should join Jonathan, Lauren, and Zakiyyah; Be Like Brit’s director and his two Tulane interns, on their overnight junket to celebrate Halloween at the Olaffson. When we arrived mid-afternoon I was pleased how much the place looked and felt like Graham Greene’s rendering. The welded metal Day of the Dead sculptures, mechanical zombies rising out of coffins and multi-armed babies, meshed perfectly with the hotel’s flowering shrubs, palm trees, curved walks, erratic stairs and angled structures; a haphazard respite from Port-au-Prince’s dust.
Francky, BLB’s driver, took the girls further up hill for a spa afternoon at the newer, ritzier Caribe, while Jonathan and I loitered along the Olaffson’s veranda enjoying chicken, pommes frites and plantains; Prestige beer and rum and coke. We weren’t lucky enough to land the Graham Greene cottage or John Barrymore suite, but Jonathan assured me our remote cottage would be distant from late night music.
Wrong. Halloween is a big day at the Hotel Olaffson and the entire compound was reordered for the event. The pool was covered with a platform set with tables under a tent; I’ll never know if the bodies are still there. The patio was the dance floor and a stage was set up beyond. Our supposedly remote room sat at ground zero of the night’s festivities. When Jonathan and I retired for a pre-party rest around 6 p.m. the band ran a practice set. Even inside our room, we had to shout over the sound.
Sleep is overrated when an experience looms, and observing the Olaffson’s Halloween crowd streaming in from nine ‘til midnight was worth the deprivation. Privacy-seeking screen actors and Beat Generation writers stalking exotic locales have been replaced by NGO disciples: skinny, slightly disheveled hipsters alternating a cigarette or Prestige in one hand and faux hugging each other with the other. The guys all have beards and carefully unkempt hair. They wear too short oxford cloth shirts that hang ambiguously over frumpy-butt jeans. The women’s hair hangs long and loose. When their free hand cannot find someone to hug, they grab the mass, bun it to the top of their heads and sigh with relief for their cool neck. They wear sheer dresses of every conceivable cut and pattern, with the single commonality that every style tucks under their shapely asses.
We found a table on the edge of the action. Francky, not Grand Goave’s most energetic evangelical to begin with, had the time of his life. He’d never seen so many blan, or tightly sheathed Haitian women in stilettos. Jonathan and I enjoyed his unsubtle gaping; his eyes, head, sometimes even his tongue followed the women’s backsides across the patio. When he couldn’t sit as passive observer any longer he struck off on his own. Half an hour later Jonathan and I found him sitting along the patio wall, arms raised high to the beat, mesmerized by a shapely black form in tiny cut offs in a twerking frenzy. We let Francky find out for himself, much later, that the twerker was a guy in drag.
Around midnight Richard Morse took the stage with his band RAM, a ten-piece ensemble with three flowing black voodoo songstresses, a trio of horns, and the usual assortment of drums, keyboard, guitar and bass. The men wore black pants and skeleton T-shirts; Richard added a topcoat and high hat. The local crowd swayed in succinct rhythm and mouthed the choruses of the Kreyol tunes set to loud, bluesy rock. The white folks danced with greater energy but less effect. A quartet of gay guys in pleated pants and impeccable silk shirts claimed their own corner, while the lone Asian woman, a perky girl in a perfect orange shirtwaist dress, smiled and danced too wholesomely.
Around one I drifted up to sit on the wall near the base of the veranda to enjoy the view of the grounds, the band, the dancing throng, the Day of the Dead table littered with candles; food and wine beckoning our ancestors to rise up and nourish on our tribute to them. The serious dancers hoofed this far out; people who wanted space to work off a partner and display their moves. Sitting alone, buxom ladies in skirts so tight they must have dressed before they showered came on to me. I smiled at their attentions but preferred to turn in alone. I returned to our room, where the music was just as loud, percussive and persuasive.
I showered, crawled beneath the spread, clamped one pillow under my head and one pillow over. When the music turned into dream I cannot say, nor can I discern whether the hours of noisy cleanup entered a conscious or slumbering brain. All I know is I rose refreshed. I can’t imagine it was from sleep. I attribute it to the good spirits of the place: to Graham Greene’s prose, to John Barrymore’s artistry, to the spirits nourished by our Day of the Dead celebration, and to Richard Morse’s reinventing the Hotel Olaffson for us twenty-first century oddballs who come Haiti’s way.
Hotel Olaffson, Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Day of the Dead Statuary