“The Peabody is the Paris Ritz, the Cairo Shepherds, the London Savoy … if you stand near its fountain in the middle of the lobby, where ducks waddle and turtles drowse, ultimately you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta.”
David Lewis, 1935, “God Shakes Creation”
I fell in love in a hotel lobby. Fortunately, since I was only five years old, the object of my affection was the hotel itself. My little shoes tip-tapped across the Italian marble floors of the Peabody Hotel Memphis like clinking gold in a vault of unimaginable treasures. Crystals dripped from shimmering chandeliers, while the magnificent stained-glass ceiling cast a kaleidoscope of colors into the furthest corners of what seemed like an exotic palace. Liveried bellhops glided reverently through the lobby, silently scooping up suitcases and svelte fur coats from smiling ladies with feathered hats. It took my breath away.
Truth be told, I still feel that way when I step into the lobby of The Peabody Memphis. Although I’ve slept in dozens of storied hotels since that day, there’s just something about the Peabody Memphis that justifies its moniker of the “South’s Grand Hotel.” Even after a remodel of the magnificent Italian Renaissance Revival masterpiece in the late 1970s, this iconic sleeping chamber has somehow managed to retain that aura of deep gentility and grace that courses through downtown Memphis like the currents of the Mighty Mississippi River.
A short walk away, “Ole Man River” streams past the hotel, carrying grand paddle-wheelers, steamboats, and showboats with names like Memphis Queen and American Empress. It’s easy to imagine Mark Twain in his trademark white suit kicking back in the Peabody Hotel lounge, cigar in hand, spinning tales of misadventure and showboat shenanigans. Many travelers pass through the Peabody as overnight guests before 9-day river journeys to New Orleans or Nashville. The American Queen even has an onboard Mark Twain library named for the notorious storyteller.
Presidents and Honorary Duckmasters
Every U.S. president since Harry Truman has slept in the chambers of the Peabody Memphis, which hosts a presidential suite that’s fit for – well, a president. Known for decades as “The South’s Finest,” the suites, lounges, and lobby nooks have hosted Confederate generals, rock stars, literary icons, famous chefs and celebrities. The Peabody Hotel routinely makes an appearance in the tangled tales of Southern novels, while their storied creators have made themselves at home in what’s been nicknamed “the living room of Memphis.”
William Faulkner spent many a day at the Peabody Memphis in the 1950s, and novelist and historian Shelby Foote noted its draw for the literati from all across the South:
”Memphis was the capital of Mississippi as far as we were concerned,” explained Foote. “Everybody went to the Peabody in Memphis and saw a constant parade of friends. I used to come up from the Delta with my aunt. The Delta women would buy shoes at Levy’s and the Delta men would buy shotguns at York Arms.”
It’s easy to wistfully imagine the Peabody Hotel Memphis in its bygone glory days, but the truth is that it’s pretty much the same as it ever was. Only the world around it has changed. But modern-day guests quickly toss out their reticence to embrace timeless Peabody traditions, even the cheekier ones.
Honorary Duckmasters such as Oprah Winfrey, Ariana Grande, Kevin Bacon, Larry King, celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse and dozens more have joined in the hotel’s quacky daily tradition of leading five trained mallard ducks from their lavish Duck Palace on the top floor through a red-carpet march off the elevator and around the polished travertine lobby fountain. As Kelly Earnest from The Peabody Memphis tells me:
Just this week, we had Martin Short and then Jay Leno appear as Honorary Duckmasters. Over the years, both Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder have stopped in and ended up playing a few tunes on the Lobby Bar piano for a very lucky group of amazed guests. We have also played host to many presidential candidates and First Ladies (Hillary Clinton while both). And former President Jimmy Carter has been Honorary Duckmaster. He makes a point of seeing the Duck March every time he is in Memphis for Habitat of Humanity projects.
Like most things in Memphis, the Peabody Marching Ducks ceremony wasn’t born from a slick marketing scheme, but rather from some buddies “cuttin’ up” and seeing just how much they could get away with. It was 1933, and general manager Frank Schuff piled up in a truck with his friend Chip Barwick for a hunting trip, taking along some live duck decoys and a generous supply of Jack Daniels sippin’ whiskey. They returned empty-handed, except for a dose of humble pie and the still-living decoys – which quickly became fodder for a joke on the hotel staff.
The ducks were plopped in the elegant marble fountain, where they splashed the day away to the delight of guests and staff alike. And the rest is history. Generations of well-trained Peabody Ducks have been waddling through that lobby like clockwork ever since, at 9 am and 5 pm every day.
They now have their own miniature marble fountain and posh $200,000 digs that are worth more than double the median home price in Memphis. They’ve made appearances on “Sesame Street,” “The Tonight Show,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and in the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. (The sippin’ whiskey has remained as well, featuring in signature Lobby Bar cocktails and starring in the year-long 2018 Jack Daniels 150th Anniversary celebration.)
Beale Street and Ballroom Dancing
The dichotomy of the rambunctious Beale Street just steps away would seem odd anywhere but Memphis. When blues and jazz start cranking out from the endless strip of iconic music clubs, the well-heeled guests of the Peabody Memphis toss their tailored suits and evening dresses onto well-appointed guestroom beds, abandoned like starched handkerchiefs that nobody gives a twit about anymore.
Throngs of music and barbeque lovers from far-flung locales spill out onto the sidewalks, darting around street performers, curbside harmonica players, and finger-picking, guitar thumping tunemasters. Melodies from slide-guitars, trombones and wailing blues singers waft through the damp, sultry night air in the wee hours of the morning. As a modern-day version of Miss Scarlett O-Hara would say if she were within a hop, skip and jump from the clubs of Beale Street,
I don’t care what they think; tonight I’m gonna dance and dance … tonight I wouldn’t mind dancing with Abe Lincoln himself.
There’s plenty of dancing going on under (and on) the roof of the Peabody Hotel Memphis as well. Many a bride and groom have cha-cha’d, waltzed, tangoed and boogied their “first dance” on the marble floors of the Peabody’s grand ballroom. And the Peabody Rooftop parties are a long-held warm-weather tradition, kicking off in April every year, hosted by local favorites such as Nugget from Q107.5 and DJ Epic.
When nudged to reveal whether the gossip about British Princes William and Harry partying at the Peabody in recent years, Kelly graciously and expertly sidesteps with the well-known fierce protection of Peabody guest privacy:
“There is that rumor,” she says. “They dined across the street at The Rendezvous while in town. There was a sighting of Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie at the Duck March and on Beale Street.”
It’s easy to see why The Peabody Memphis has a listing on the National Register of Historic Places – and it’s even easier to remember why this grand hotel that I fell in love with at age five forever cemented my affection for storied hotels. There are stories everywhere we go, tucked into the tiniest corners of the world and lurking in the shadows of time. If we’re lucky, we learn to listen for them on our journeys. As Pulitzer Prize-winning Southern author Eudora Welty once said:
Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.” – Eudora Welty