It didn’t surprise me in the least to discover that the real-life version of Miss Scarlett O’Hara, aka Vivien Leigh, had breezed through the doorway of the Hermitage Hotel like it was her own Tara Plantation. The Hermitage lobby is like a movie set with a mix of Southern gentility and classic golden-days Hollywood, an intoxicating dose of which can leave you utterly enchanted no matter which decade of time-travel you’re stepping into.
Vivien Leigh and husband Sir Lawrence Olivier arrived during
a winter storm in 1940 and sought refuge in a suite at this prestigious Beaux
Arts edifice. I can imagine her heels click,
click, clicking across the Tennessee marble floors, a swirling mix of pink,
chocolate and Quaker gray stones that also clad the chambers of American
architectural icons such as The Smithsonian, the Lincoln Memorial, the National
Cathedral and Grand Central Station in New York.
As I stepped across the threshold into the infamous lobby many years after its grand opening in 1910, I instinctively knew that the story of the Hermitage is more than one long documentary encompassing the history of America. It’s more like an unending collection of short stories, snippets of dialogue, scenes in a play, improvisational moments and newspaper headlines. In what surely must be the most storied hotel in America, the tales still burn, inhabiting the halls, walls and doorways with significant slices of history and heritage as the country grew, fought, changed, triumphed, cried and celebrated over 100-plus years
Though Nashville is famous now as the home to country music, that was far from reality when the Hermitage first opened in 1910. Instead, the grand opening of the hotel featured hand-picked musicians from the Waldorf Astoria’s stringed orchestra, and the hotel’s Grill Room restaurant often featured opera singers. The Nashville Symphony even had its first office inside the Hermitage, and the Francis Craig orchestra was in residence in the dining room from 1925 to 1947.
During his tenure, Mr. Craig composed the song “Near You” on the back of a hotel menu, and it became Nashville’s first hit record, selling 2.3 million copies and planting the seed for an early version of Music City. By the time the Country Music Association officiated its formation inside the Hermitage, the hotel had come full circle from the day in 1925 when it was one of three locations to host the first broadcasts of the new WSM Radio station. That station would become the now-infamous Grand Ole Opry.
With more than five million overnight guests and countless characters revolving through its doors, the hotel harbors moments both fleeting and significant. Through decades of world wars, political movements, the rise of radio and film, and the birth of country music, I could almost hear the echoes of past voices and footsteps. From the twanging of Elvis Presley’s guitar to the phosphorescent eyes of Bette Davis and a young Taylor Swift starring in a Pepsi commercial at the Hermitage, a literal parade of film and music stars, presidents, soldiers, gangsters and Wall Street titans make up the cumulative tales of the hotel from 1910 through the present. Patsy Cline, Babe Ruth, President John F. Kennedy, Leonard Nemoy, Robin Williams, Yul Brenner, Red Skelton, Emily Post, Steven Spielberg, Roy Rogers … a never-ending swirl of entries and exits.
Historian Tom Vickstrom tells me how these gracious hallways
were once filled with women raising their voices for – and against – the
suffrage movement in 1920. Both sides worked from headquarters within the
Hermitage, symbolized by the wearing of yellow roses by the suffragettes and
red ones by the opposition. They came to the Hermitage from across the country,
filling up half the hotel.
“There was a lot of
eavesdropping, a lot of strategy going back and forth,” Tom explains. “We actually supported the suffragettes and
gave them a free office at one point.”
Many fiery exchanges took place beneath the painted glass
skylights and opulent chandeliers, as women campaigning against the right to
vote set up shop on the mezzanine level. Abby Crawford Milton, president of the
Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, tells Bygone
Nashville that the mezzanine level was “the
site of many fist fights and swarms of red roses in the lobby there every evening.”
In 1974, the CBS movie “We the Women,” narrated by Mary Tyler Moore and starring Geraldine Fitzgerald, was filmed in the Hermitage guest room of suffragette leader Carrie Chapman Catt. It overlooks the Tennessee capitol building where the final vote took place on August 18, 1920, ratifying the 19th Amendment and granting women the right to vote. The gift shop at the Hermitage now offers newly released books on the movement, including “The Woman’s Hour” by Elaine Weiss, released in time for the upcoming 100-year anniversary.
Not all the characters of the Hermitage are as noble, but
they’re certainly colorful. The infamous Minnesota Fats pool shark lived at the
Hermitage for six years (leaving behind a few bullet holes in the walls in
memoriam) and even had his own hotel-supplied billiard table on the mezzanine
level. Al Capone pulled up more than once in his armor-plated car on the way to
Miami, and bank robber John Dillinger checked into the hotel with his
girlfriend Billie Frechette and “Three Fingers” Hamilton while wanted by the
In 1918, just a few years after the Hermitage opened,
Charlie Chaplin strolled up to the reception desk carrying a custard pie. As
his motorcade made its way from Union Station to the hotel, a fan thrust the
pie into his car in a nod to its notoriety as a prop in Chaplin’s slapstick
comedy films. The silent-film star was in town to help raise war bonds at the
Ryman, using a patriotic message, his iconic bowler hat and bamboo cane, and
his now-famous on-stage antics as “Little Tramp.”
Later film stars were far from silent. As I strolled the passages with Tom Vickstrom, he pointed out a photograph of singing cowboy Gene Autry checking into the Hermitage front desk in 1938 – with his horse. In a single month in 1988, the hotel was a setting for “Roots: The Gift” starring Louis Gosseet, Jr. as well as the “Sunday Kind of Love” video with Reba McEntire. When Elvis Presley hit the screens and stages of America, it was inevitable that he’d eventually make his way to the Hermitage in Nashville from his home in Memphis, just three hours away.
Elvis stayed at the Hermitage many times, and Vickstrom tells a favorite staff story of one lively visit. A gaggle of about 50 teenage girls burst into the elegant lobby in 1961, shrieking in adoration and anticipation amidst rumors that The King was staying there. With the hotel’s sacred policy of protecting guest privacy, nobody would confirm the young ladies’ wildest dreams. One precocious girl sidled up to a bellboy, hoping to garner favor and some insider info, when she suddenly shrieked and tore out the front door, creating a stampede down the street. The bellman had slyly whispered that Elvis was staying down the street at the Andrew Jackson Hotel – the main rival of the Hermitage.
Elvis was indeed staying at the Hermitage that day. My eyes followed the trail he made up and down the elaborate staircase, stopping more often than not to greet his fans and even pulling out his guitar to make someone’s fantasies actually come true. That same staircase has been the stuff of dreams for many a traveler over the decades, including the time a young man walked into the lobby, lifted his eyes upward, and saw a vision of unspeakable beauty standing there. “That’s the girl I’m gonna marry,” he said. And he did just that.
I wondered if my host and hotel historian was growing weary after an afternoon of guiding me through the intricately woven tales within the chambers of the Hermitage. But I needn’t have worried. “As you can see,” said Tom, “I’m still enchanted with all the stories, even after 15 years of being here.”