Gunshots, scandals, and ill-fated banquets: Presidents and the hotels that host them

The lobby at the Willard in D.C., where the word
The lobby at the Willard in D.C., where the word

Given how much time presidents spend on the road, it's no surprise how many noteworthy events -- famous and infamous both -- have taken place at hotels. If you read our blog on Monday, you know that we have Woodrow Wilson to thank for presidential suites. And any respectable Obamaphile worth her weight in health care reforms already knows that the Obamas spent the week leading up to his inauguration at the Hay-Adams, across the street from their soon-to-be home. But did you know that the two most recent presidential assassination attempts both took place at hotels? Or that the word "lobbyist" might derive from a famous hotel lobby? If not, then this post is dedicated to you (and maybe Washington, Lincoln, and some of those other guys, too).

The Jefferson -- Washington, D.C.

In the spirit of the hotel's randy namesake (not to mention his own boss), Clinton strategist Dick Morris reportedly rendezvoused with call girl Sherry Rowlands multiple times at his Jefferson suite, where he allegedly sucked her toes (yummy!) and let her listen in on phone calls with President Clinton.

The Fairmont San Francisco

Known as the "White House of the West" (at least to the hotel's PR team), the Fairmont has hosted every U.S. president since William Taft. Democrats, in particular, have gravitated to the Fairmont (whereas Republican presidents have traditionally crashed at the St. Francis, several blocks down the hill). Truman visited the Fairmont in 1945; Kennedy stayed here nearly two decades later, Clinton three decades after that.

InterContinental the Willard -- Washington, D.C.

A hotel has stood on the site of the Willard, two blocks from the White House, since 1816. But it wasn't until Henry and Edwin Willard purchased the property in 1850 that it first gained fame. President Zachary Taylor stayed at the hotel soon after it opened, and Abraham Lincoln, amid assassination threats, covertly checked in and stayed for the 10 days leading up to his 1861 inauguration. Ulysses S. Grant was often approached by political operatives pushing various causes in the Willard's ornate lobby, where he liked to relax with brandy and a cigar. Hence the word "lobbyist." (Or so some claim. Evidence shows that the word actually dates back as far as 1820.)

Renaissance Mayflower -- Washington, D.C.

The Mayflower has long held a reputation as one of D.C.'s power hotels. Over the course of its 85 years, the hotel has been the site of scores of inaugural events, fundraisers, and high-profile guests, not to mention the notoriety that inevitably accompanies Beltway behavior -- the (in)famous photo of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinksy embracing at a 1996 campaign event was taken here.

Westin St. Francis -- San Francisco

Nearly every president has visited the St. Francis since its opening a century ago. That's the part they proudly tell you about, both in the lobby and on the website. What they don't tell you is that the St. Francis is also where some less boast-worthy history has taken place. Victor Hirtzler, the St. Francis's legendary chef in the 1910s, managed to cook a dinner that had massive political repercussions. In short, a 1916 banquet in honor of Woodrow Wilson's presidential opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, was held despite a strike by the culinary workers union. The union turned against Hughes, who subsequently lost California by the tiniest of margins, which in turn tipped the election in Wilson's favor. In other words, if it weren't for a banquet at the St. Francis, there wouldn't have been a League of Nations. Seriously. More than half a century later, a woman named Sara Jane Moore fired a shot at Gerald Ford as he was leaving the hotel. The St. Francis folks don't have a plaque for that either.

Hilton Washington and Towers -- Washington, D.C.

Speaking of assassination attempts, this is where Ronald Reagan was shot after a speech in 1981. The would-be-assassin, John Hinckley Jr., was attempting to impress actress Jodie Foster. The White House press secretary, a policeman, and a secret service agent were also wounded.

Waldorf Astoria -- New York City

Every President since FDR has stayed in the presidential suite at the legendary Waldorf. They used to arrive via a now-defunct secret train platform underneath the hotel at 49th Street.

The Watergate -- Washington, D.C.

You didn't think we were going to forget about it, did you? The word has become so synonymous with political scandals that many people have forgotten that the Watergate (or at least the main building in the complex) was a hotel. Until 2007, anyway, when it closed to undergo a massive renovation that never took place. The website, which states that the hotel "will not be accepting guests again until late 2009," is obviously a bit out of date. Given the serpentine ownership path the property has taken since its closure, including a mortgage default in 2008, the hotel's reopening date is now more up in the air than Nixon's re-election chances ever were. (I stole some documents and wiretapped a few phones to try to find the answer, but. . . Oh, shoot, have I said too much?. . .)

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