Today's Wall Street Journal carries a front page story on the enduring mystery of why the name Bristol should have been used by hundreds of hotels around the world over the past 200 years.
The handsome block on the corner of Place Vendôme and Rue Saint-Honoré (pictured right) was built in 1723 for the king's secretary by the architect of the nearby Élysée Palace, and in less than a hundred years it had the distinction of being what was almost certainly the world's first Hotel Bristol. Opened in 1816, the year of peace in Europe following the end of the Napoleonic wars, this top establishment soon became the hotel of choice for Europe's visiting royalty. Half a century later the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), Europe's most glamorous royal, was paying regular visits to Paris where he commanded an entresol suite at the Bristol, just as his grandson would establish the Prince of Wales suite in the Vienna Bristol, one of the most expensive in the world today (see story, below). The 19th-century Prince of Wales even installed his own man as manager of the Bristol, one Bachmeyer, who had been a personal servant of his late father, Prince Albert.
The Bristol's nemesis was the Hotel Ritz, which opened in the Place Vendôme nearby in 1898. The Bristol, which had a bath on each floor, could not compete with the world's first hotel to have a bath in each room, and it went into decline. It did not survive the First World War, when the passionate Russian dancer Ida Rubenstein turned King Edward's suite into a hospital ward. In 1921 the Bankers Trust Company of New York leased a large part of the premises. The old Bristol building passed into history, and today it is part occupied by the Deluxe four-star Hôtel de Vendôme.
So why did the first Bristol pick on the name? Was it taken from the city or, as some insist, from Frederick Augustus Hervey, 4th earl of Bristol, bon viveur and traveller par excellence? Absent from England for most of his life, Lord Bristol might have provided gossip for his peers, but his fame would not spread until later. He died in a wayside Italian barn in 1803, during the Napoleonic wars when European travel was out of the question. He had been one of many besotted with Emma, Lady Hamilton, the lover of Admiral Nelson. Nelson had become a national hero on the moment of his death in the decisive naval battle against the French off Cape Trafalgar in 1805. A decade later Emma, chased by creditors, was ending her days in exile and penury in Calais.
But there remained a public fascination for her extraordinary life story, and when Memoirs of Lady Hamilton with Illustrated Anecdotes of Many of Her Most Particular Friends and Distinguished Contemporaries was published in 1815, the year of her death, it was an instant, runaway success. In the book, many pages were given by its unknown author to the extraordinary friendship Emma had with the outrageous Earl Bishop, concluding:
"Such was the character and end of Frederick Hervey, earl of Bristol, who dissipated a long life, a princely fortune, and respectable talents, in the pursuit of pleasure, with all the eagerness, and on the same motive as that which actuated the Epicurean philosophers of old, whose creed and practice were comprehended in the resolution, ‘Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die’.”
Bristol, the epitome of style and taste, was thus exposed to a wide and hungry audience.
Using his name, with the insistence that it applied to the Epicurean Irish peer, a prospective Parisian hotelier would have got round a tricky conundrum: How does a defeated country appeal to the enemy nation of tourists who had brought it prosperity in the pre-war days of the Grand Tour without offending local feelings? Names such as Grande Bretagne, Londres or even Westminster would have stuck in their throats. The self-exiled Earl-Bishop, who had nothing to do with the recent hostilities, would fit the bill nicely. And if anybody imagined the name referred to the transatlantic port of Bristol, they might think only of a slave-trading port that had always conducted good business with the Revolutionaries' friends in America.
For good measure, the hotelier could borrow the noble coat of arms of the city of Bristol – he would not have been entitled to use the coat of arms belonging to the Bristols of Ickworth. Few people would know the difference.
See the FULL STORY of the first Hotel Bristol
• Tales about the Paris's famous contemporary Le Bristol, opened in 1924, can be read on-line in
Suha Arafat and the Hope Diamond,
• The scandal of the 20th-century Prince of Wales and Wallis Simpson in the Vienna Bristol can also be read online in
High Noon for the King's Moll
Both stories can be found in that most fascinating of books,
High Times at the Hotel Bristol.
Back to the latest news