The Storied Fairmont San Francisco Hotel: From Frank Sinatra to Marilyn Monroe

True confession: I’ve lived in the Bay Area for over a decade without ever visiting the Fairmont Hotel San Francisco. Sure, I’d driven past the landmark building at the top of Nob Hill. And my husband, a San Francisco native, once told me about getting his heart broken in high school by a girl he’d taken to see the view from the famous Crown Room at the top of the hotel’s 1961 addition. But this tale of unrequited puppy love was the only story I’d ever heard. Little did I know how many tales this glorious Fairmont San Francisco hotel has to tell.

THE GOLD RUSH

Were it not for the gold rush, Nob Hill might currently be crowned with a cluster of condos. Gold lured thousands of fortune hunters to California in the mid-1800s, but for James Graham Fair, the mother load was silver. The Irish immigrant and his three partners became known as “the Silver Kings” after striking it rich on the Comstock Lode, the first major silver mining district discovered in the United States. Fair went on to found the Nevada Bank of San Francisco and invest in railroads and San Francisco real estate. He made his four children stupendously rich.

Living up to their father’s legacy proved to be too much for Fair’s sons. Both died in their thirties. James committed suicide and Charles, a hard-drinking ne’er do well, was disowned by his father and died in a car crash. Meanwhile, the rich Fair daughters married even richer. Theresa wed steamship magnate Hermann Oelrichs and Virginia married William Kissam Vanderbilt II, president of the New York Central Railroad. After Fair passed away in 1894, Theresa and Virginia decided to build a grand hotel at the top of Nob Hill in honor of their Papa.

EARTHQUAKES AND FIRES

Construction began in 1902, but by 1906, the project was mired in delays and cost overruns. Cutting their losses, the Fair sisters traded the Fairmont San Francisco for two office buildings owned by brothers Herbert and Hartland Law.

Two weeks later, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake devastated San Francisco.  When the earth finally stopped moving, the barely damaged Fairmont Hotel looked down on a city in ruins. The quake had ruptured gas and water lines all across the city. The severed gas lines started fire after fire, with no water available to put out the flames.  The conflagration lasted three days, obliterating 500 city blocks, and the Fairmont Hotel San Francisco sustained severe fire damage.

Determined to restore the hotel to its intended glory, the Law brothers hired New York City’s Stanford White, the most famous architect of their day.  White never made it out to San Francisco:  He was shot to death by Harry Kendall Thaw, a jealous, mentally unstable millionaire married to White’s former lover and protégé, chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit. Thaw’s murder trial became known as the twentieth century’s first “Trial of the century.”

With White permanently unavailable, the Law brothers went for expediency and hired Oakland architect Julia Morgan. For Morgan, White’s death was a lifetime opportunity. She had aspired to be an architect in a time when women didn’t have to worry about glass ceilings –– they couldn’t even get into the building. Nevertheless, she persisted, becoming the first woman to be admitted to Paris’ prestigious École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts and earning her license as the first female architect in the state of California.  Morgan gave herself a year to restore the Fairmont. A year to the day after the quake, the hotel celebrated its official opening with a glittering soiree and fireworks over the bay.

THE FIRST CONCIERGE IN AMERICA

Mr. Thomas Wolfe: The First Concierge in the United States

When you walk into the Fairmont’s vast, perfectly proportioned lobby with its gilded woodwork and stately rows of Corinthian columns, you are instantly transported to another time. Guests in shorts and hoodies seem like walking anachronisms.

“Behind the front desk hang rows of brass room keys that may have once spent the day in Harry Truman’s pocket or Marilyn Monroe’s purse.  But if you really want to bring the past to life, I recommend a chat with the Fairmont’s concierge, Mr. Thomas Wolfe.”

A distinguished gentleman in his early seventies, Wolfe is resplendent in his classic concierge tails. The Clefs d’Or, the golden keys that identify a member of the international association of hotel concierges, embellish his lapels. Wolfe embodies the Fairmont’s institutional memory and you could say his prodigious memory is an institution in itself. Wolfe is America’s first concierge.

Having worked at such elegant establishments as the Royale Monceau in Paris and the London Ritz, he joined the Fairmont staff as assistant manager in 1974. At the time, American hotels didn’t have concierges or even understand the profession. “American hotels were good at consistency. “ Wolfe recalled. “We could serve 1000 shriners breakfast at 9:00 a.m. sharp in the ballroom, yet a person who wanted to get his airline ticket fixed would have to go to the TWA office which didn’t open ’til 10:00.”

When Ben Swig, then the owner of the Fairmont, suggested starting a concierge program, Wolfe couldn’t believe his luck. As he put it, “I practically did a spit take with my Chenin Blanc!” The Fairmont San Francisco hotel placed a tent card in every room explaining the new service and Wolfe’s expertise was soon in great demand. After launching the Fairmont concierge program, Wolfe went on to become the first US-based member of the Clefs d’Or and eventually founded Clefs d’Or USA.

Concierge service is just one of many Fairmont “firsts”. The hotel’s Cirque Room was the first bar to open in San Francisco after prohibition was repealed. (The elegant Art Deco bar is not currently in use, but I recommend peeking through the glass to admire the Bruton sisters’ graceful circus-themed murals). When the Fairmont added a new section in 1961, the 23-story tower boasted San Francisco’s first glass elevator, which whisked guests up to the Crown Room and one of the city’s most stunning views. At Wolfe’s suggestion, the Fairmont San Francisco became the first hotel in America to be wired for the Internet. The hotel’s latest innovation caters to especially busy guests: honeybees. The Fairmont San Francisco was the first hotel with an onsite apiary, providing bees with an urban home and guests with delicious, sustainable honey.

In 1999, the Fairmont ushered in the new century with a $28 million restoration and redesign. The hotel had been dramatically redecorated in the late forties by Dorothy Draper, arguably the nation’s first professional interior decorator. Draper had a flair for the dramatic and a color sense that was just a shade short of garish. One contemporary acidly described her vision for the Fairmont San Francisco lobby as “Venetian Palace meets Wild West Bordello.”

RESTORATIONS AND REDESIGNS

To bring the hotel back to Julia Morgan’s original vision, the restoration paid loving attention to detail. Draper had covered the delicate marble floor with wall-to-wall red carpeting in an outsized pattern. Underneath, the original marble floor had turned porous and dull from decades of nightly scrubbing. The tiles were removed, flipped and lovingly laid back, good side up, over a new cement base. Since then, Wolfe assured me, the floors get buffed clean every night – no scrubbing allowed.

LIGHTS, CAMERAS, FAMOUS GUESTS, AND THEIR ROOMS

Wolfe is a gifted raconteur but his Marlene Dietrich story was the standout. The star headlined at the Fairmont’s Venetian Room well into her seventies. It was Wolfe’s job to roll out a red carpet from her room all the way to the service elevator, which had been painted and outfitted with a crystal chandelier so Dietrich could ride in privacy and style. Escorted by Wolfe, she stepped off the elevator on to another red carpet leading to the Venetian room. Marlene was a camp icon by then, and two waiters were positioned at each corner of the stage to protect her from overly enthusiastic fans. At the end of each set, Wolfe would kiss her hand, present her with a bouquet of posies, and escort her backstage.

Another diva Wolfe had the honor of tending to was Ella Fitzgerald. She had come directly from performing at the nearby Masonic Theater when Wolfe spotted her waiting in line at the now-defunct Fairmont Brasserie. Concertgoers surrounded her, still clutching their programs yet no one seemed to recognize Fitzgerald. After whisking her off to a private room to wait, Wolfe approached a couple the Maitre D’ had just seated. Would they be willing to give the singer their table in exchange for an opportunity to meet her and get their dinner comped? The couple was soon reseated at a table next to Fitzgerald’s. Ella got her dinner and they got their programs autographed. “Everybody,” Wolfe beams, “Went home happy.”

In 1945, the Fairmont San Francisco hosted the statesmen and diplomats crafting the United Nations charter. Tony Bennett first crooned, “I left my heart in San Francisco,” in the Venetian Room. Alfred Hitchcock and the Vertigo cast stayed at the hotel during the shoot. William Holden spent way too much time and money at the Cirque bar. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David McCullough checked in to hole up in style while working on his latest book.

Frank Sinatra always stayed in #262 on the second floor so he wouldn’t have to take the elevator while Bobby Short invariably requested a piano for his favorite suite, #540.

The Fairmont Hotel was also used in the establishing shots for the fictional St. Gregory Hotel in the 1983 television series Hotel.

I could have talked with Wolfe for hours but he had to get back to pampering his guests and besides, as he pointed out, that would have required martinis. Instead, I went on a tour of the hotel with the Fairmont’s Director of Communications, Melissa Farrar.

THE FAIRMONT SAN FRANCISCO PENTHOUSE

The Secret Library Door Fairmont San Francisco

The highlight of my tour was the 6000 ft., 3-bedroom penthouse, built in 1926 as a private residence for John S. Drum, President of the American Trust Company. After a reversal of fortune, Drum had to move and his elegant quarters eventually became home to the Fairmont’s former owner, Ben Swig, and his family. After Swig passed away, the Fairmont added the penthouse to its list accommodations. Farrar assured me that I was lucky the penthouse was available to tour. For a mere $17,000 a night, you can book it for a wedding, meeting, or extravagant getaway. (24-hour butler service is optional).

Drum chose Arthur Upham Pope, a renowned UC Berkeley professor, and Iranian art expert, to decorate his aerie. Pope channeled his passion for Persia into concepts for the tiled terrace overlooking the city and an over-the-top game room that could pass for Sheherazade’s boudoir.

My favorite room in the penthouse has to be the circular two-story library, with its rotunda depicting the constellations. Farrar took my picture peeking out from behind the secret library door JFK allegedly used to sneak in Marilyn while Jackie was out shopping. The penthouse also boasts a bedroom whose walls are hand-painted with a map of the world. Farrar pointed out Australia on the door to the bathroom. What a lovely euphemism, I thought: “Please excuse me. I have to go to Australia.”

THE FAIRMONT SAN FRANCISCO TONGA ROOM

The Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, a historic tiki bar, which opened in 1945 at The Fairmont San Francisco

After Australia, we headed for Polynesia. Farrar showed me the Tonga Room, the nation’s oldest operating Tiki Bar. Its popularity has exploded since Anthony Bourdain described it as “the greatest place in the history of the world,” on his Travel Channel show, The Layover.  The bar has become a millennial hang out where startups start and true love sparks. The space is exuberantly kitsch: the house band plays from a boat in the middle of an interior lagoon. Several times an hour, thunder reverberates through the bar while sprinklers drip tropical rain. It didn’t take too many tropical drinks for Bourdain to conclude, “If you have no love in your heart for this place you are a sick, twisted lonely f*ck with too many cats.”

Waiting for my car, I wrapped up my visit with a chat with Senior Doorman William May. Like Wolfe and Farrar, May loves his job, his guests, and his glorious workplace. I flashed on the Eagle’s lyric, “You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.” So many of the Fairmont’s staff never do, but Wolfe did.

Read reviews, find the best price, and book The Fairmont San Francisco on TripAdvisor

More Stories
The Algonquin Hotel New York: Literary Legends Know Why The Caged Bird Sings