The Economist:IT’S a cliché to say that the Oloffson is the iconic hotel of the Caribbean and of Haiti. But it’s been said so often for a reason. The rickety 19th-century building, immortalised by Graham Greene in his 1966 novel The Comedians under the fictional name The Trianon, is still open, and at the moment pretty full. It is also amazingly unchanged, given its location in a country that has seen so much turmoil and destruction.
Arrive at the hotel and you are greeted by a statue of the top-hatted Baron Samedi, the Vodou (Voodoo) spirit of sex, death and resurrection. Richard Morse, an American and the current proprietor, is a Vodou priest known as an Houngan. Refresh yourself in the pool where Brown, Mr Morse’s fictional predecessor in The Comedians, recalls watching a girl making love—and where he finds a corpse when he returns from New York after failing to sell the hotel.
On the hotel’s famous shady terrace foreign and local journalists mingle with aid workers, politicians and purveyors of analysis and high-class gossip. Every now and then Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, the gleaming-headed singer-turned-presidential-candidate, and a cousin of Mr Morse’s, dashes in and out with his entourage. A slow waiter creeps up and down occasionally serving rum sours, while characters that Greene might have invented hold court.
The building was first put up by the Sam family, which has given two presidents to Haiti. During the 1915-34 American occupation of Haiti, the American army used it as a hospital, and their extension to the property is still called the “maternity wing”. It became a hotel in 1935 when Werner Gustav Oloffson, a Swedish sea captain, took over the lease. It then passed to Roger Coster, a French photographer, and again in 1960 to Al Seitz, an American. Under them the Oloffson enjoyed a golden era, when guests included Mick Jagger, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Sir John Gielgud.
A modern-day devotee of the hotel is Jorgen Leth, a Danish filmmaker who has spent a lot of time in Haiti over the last thirty years. He narrowly escaped death last year when the earthquake that devastated the island levelled his house in Jacmel on the coast. Mr Leth first came to the Oloffson in 1982 to make a film, called Haiti Express in English, about a foreign correspondent. “I liked the Graham Greene fantasy of a banana republic, sensual women and Vodou,” he says.
According to Mr Leth, Mr Seitz accompanied Greene on his visits to nearby brothels, which the novelist would later describe in print. Mr Leth says the character of Brown, the proprietor, was based on Mr Seitz, and that Petit Pierre, a journalist in the book, was a fictional version of a real reporter called Aubain Jolicoeur, whose photo has pride of place behind the Oloffson’s reception desk. “He was not as evil as Greene portrayed him,” Mr Leth recalls.
In 1987, after a short period when the hotel was closed and fell into disrepair, it was taken over by Mr Morse, a musician born to an American professor of Latin American studies and a famous Haitian dancer. Although the murderous dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier had ended the year before, violent instability followed his departure. “From my room I heard the noise of the coup of 7 January 1991,” Mr Leth remembers. “People were in the streets at four in the morning beating telegraph poles with spoons. It is the traditional call to rebellion.”
The coup failed, but its bloody aftermath reached the hotel’s doorstep. “A tall, strong, black man comes up. Everyone knew he was a Tonton Macoute,” says Mr Leth, referring to Mr Duvalier’s paramilitary death squads. “He was scared. They were putting tyres around their necks and burning them in the street [a practice called ‘necklacing’]. The staff would not approach him. The hotel was full of tourists.”
“We understood the situation,” he continues. “Richard [Morse] said he had to go. He was a killer. He was pleading. He took out crumpled dollar bills. Richard took him to the gate. I thought, when he gets on the street he will have minutes left to live. We don’t know what happened. They were killing people, necklacing them and burning homes. It was the classic moral dilemma. The tourists did not even notice.”
Mr Morse does not remember this specific incident, but does recall when a mob thought he was hiding someone they were after and, jerry cans to hand, were at the point of torching the hotel. “When there is political trouble and someone shows up sweating with no luggage,” he says, “I say the hotel is full.”
Once the country calmed down, chaos gave way to boredom. Because the UN stabilisation force in Haiti has often designated the hotel’s neighbourhood an insecure “red zone”, the Oloffson has spent much of the last ten years off-limits to UN employees, diplomats and many other visiting foreigners. Mr Morse calls the last decade “awful”. “There were periods when there was nobody here,” says Mr Leth. “It was dead.”
During the earthquake of last year, which flattened much of Port-au-Prince, the capital, the wooden Oloffson came off virtually unscathed. Fittingly, Mr Morse was in the Graham Greene room. (All rooms are named after one or more famous guests.) While the hotel did not fall down, “it sure danced,” he says. Right behind the Oloffson, on a steep hill, are the remains of the eight-story Hotel Castel Haiti. It was dilapidated at the time but packed with squatters, dozens of whom died when the building collapsed.
On being a Vodou priest, the 53-year old hotelier says that Vodou is a much-misunderstood “prayer system”, that is not so different from Catholicism or Protestantism. It is, he says, about “praying to God, the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, all the male saints in heaven as on earth and all the female saints in heaven as on earth.” Catholics too have a Day of the Dead, he notes, and “we have a Vodou-type celebration in the States, which is Thanksgiving.”
Haitians are a special people, says Mr Morse, and now they are living through “biblical moments” in their turbulent history. And, with that, he withdraws to tweet. You can follow him at @RAMhaiti.
(Photo credits: Tim Judah)