In 18th century Britain it became fashionable to be melancholic, particularly in cemeteries. It became so popular some graveyards even charged entrance fees. This early version of Dark Tourism was in part inspired by the (fake) discovery of the poems relating to Ossian. But it was also part of the larger development of humanism, science and nationalism, and the beginning of the correlated decline of religion. Cemetery visitors looked to sublime pathos to add meaning to their lives.
While you would expect to find mourning at a graveyard, it is more jarring to see it at a hotel, where we are usually in the delight of experiencing the world. Here are ten hotels where delight is bedfellow with despair.
Chelsea Hotel, USA
Sid Vicious, bass guitarist of the Sex Pistols, stabbed his 20-year-old girlfriend Nancy Laura Spungen to death in Room 100 of the Chelsea Hotel in New York City on 12 October 1978. Less than a year later, Sid was dead as well, at the age of 21 from a deliberate heroin overdose. The Chelsea has had many other rock’n’roll appearances including featuring in a classic Leonard Cohen song. Dylan Thomas would also have died at the Chelsea Hotel, after his famous ‘18 straight whiskies’ binge, but he was taken to hospital in time to die there, rather than at the hotel.
Hôtel D’Alsace, France
On 30 November 1900, Oscar Wilde died in Room 16 of the Hôtel d’Alsace on Paris’ rue des Beaux Arts. Gazing at the awful wallpaper, Wilde supposedly uttered his last words, ‘well one of us had to go’. He was reputed to have left a large bill at the hotel and the comment that ‘I’m dying as I have lived… beyond my means’. Wilde was 46 years old, his health broken after a spell in Reading jail; his death was caused by cerebral meningitis, after an operation for an ear infection. Today, now renamed as L’Hôtel, this luxurious establishment is a much more up-scale place than it was in the time of the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Lady Windermere’s Fan.
Landmark Hotel, USA
Janis Joplin was 27 years old and recording her classic rock album Pearl when she died of a heroin overdose on 4 October 1970. She died in Room 105 of Hollywood’s Landmark Hotel, now renamed as the Highland Gardens Hotel. The singer had finished her last recordings three days earlier; among them were the song ‘Mercedes-Benz’ and a birthday greeting for John Lennon. Jimi Hendrix had died just two weeks earlier; he was also 27 years old.
Ambassador Hotel, USA
Soon after midnight on 5 June 1968, Robert F Kennedy was gunned down by Palestinian-born Sirhan Sirhan as he left the Ambassador Hotel’s Embassy Ballroom via the kitchen area; he died a day later in hospital. Located at 3400 Wilshire Boulevard, the Ambassador was a true Hollywood hotel, used for Academy Award presentations in the 1930s and 1940s and the backdrop for many movies, most notably The Graduate where it appeared as the Taft. The hotel closed in 1989, but even as an empty building it made many movie appearances; scenes from Pretty Woman, Forrest Gump, LA Story and Apollo 13 were all filmed here.
Shelton Hotel, USA
Playwright Eugene O’Neill, who wrote The Iceman Cometh and A Long Day’s Journey into Night, was 65 years old when he died, broke and unhappy, in Suite 401 of the Shelton Hotel in Boston on 27 November 1953. His last words were ‘I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room – and God damn it – died in a hotel room.’ He had been born in a Broadway hotel room in New York, the son of an Irish-American actor. The hotel is now Shelton Hall, a student residence for Boston University.
Lorraine Motel, USA
Memphis’ Lorraine Motel is now the National Civil Rights Museum. No question about it, the museum is a powerfully moving experience. It winds its way through a series of exhibits in the gutted and rebuilt old motel to finally emerge in Room 306, from which Martin Luther King Jr stepped to his death, shot by a racist sniper on 4 April 1968. King was 39 years old. Four years earlier, King won the Nobel Peace Prize; in 1977, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
St Francis Hotel, USA
Prohibition or not, there was plenty of alcohol at the party that silent-movie star Fatty Arbuckle put on in Room 1220 of the St Francis Hotel in San Francisco. At some point in the proceedings on 5 September 1921, starlet Virginia Rappe suffered a ruptured bladder, which led to her death a day later; a friend subsequently alleged that Fatty had raped her. Fatty really was fat, tipping the scales at around 140kg; was the starlet’s death the result of his weight when he raped her? Did he rape her at all? Although Arbuckle was tried for murder, he was subsequently acquitted. However, the scandal wrecked his career.
Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Australia
Michael Hutchence, the lead singer from Australian rock band INXS, hanged himself with a leather belt in Room 524 of Sydney’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel on 22 November 1997. The room cleaner found the body of the 37-year-old hanging behind the door the next morning. Hutchence is remembered for singing INXS classics that became anthems of the late ’80s and ’90s, such as ‘Need You Tonight’, ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ and ‘Suicide Blonde’ – and for highly publicised relationships with celebrities including Kylie Minogue, Helena Christensen and Paula Yates.
Hôtel Ritz, France
Fashion designer Coco Chanel was 87 years old when she died at the Ritz Hotel in Paris on 10 January 1971; she had been living at the hotel for 30 years. Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, the designer was raised by aunts after her mother died when she was 12 (some sources suggest she was aged 6) and her father abandoned her. Coco, who never married or had children, started a fashion house that became one of the largest in the world. Another style icon linked to the Ritz was Princess Diana, who left the hotel by car for her appointment with death in 1997.
Chateau Marmont, USA
Hard-living film star John Belushi (who appeared in Animal House and The Blues Brothers) was 33 years old when he died of a heroin and cocaine overdose on 5 March 1982 at the Chateau Marmont. He was staying in Bungalow 3 at the extremely fashionable Sunset Strip hotel in Los Angeles. Robin Williams and Robert De Niro are both said to have visited him at the bungalow on the night he died, when the star had been partying hard. Another of the Marmont’s celebrity deaths was Helmut Newton, who was driving out of the hotel in 2004 when he died.
See also our article on Dark Tourism.