Inside the Covert Affairs, Scandal, and Spies at The Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC

by Allison DiLiegro
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Washington, D.C. is home to many historic hotels, but few come close to the prestige of the Mayflower Hotel. At over 90 years old, grand dame has hosted inaugural balls, state dinners and grand galas. Nearly every president since 1925 has been a guest. Harry Truman called it “Washington’s Second Best Address.” Which residence surpassed the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC? That would be the White House, of course.

At less than a mile from the White House’s front door, the Mayflower Hotel could be considered an extension of its ballroom. Gold leaf glimmers in the grand lobby. Opulent chandeliers crown the ballrooms. Bellhops wear white gloves. The hotel feels fresh, but its deep-rooted history is palpable. As General Manager Kori Johnson says, “this hotel has history coming out its gills.”

The Mayflower has lived a long and eventful life characterized by grand political affairs (and the more sordid sort of affairs). Like a good nonagenarian, her list of worldly experiences is long. That’s why we listen closely, asking her to tell us just one more story.

The Largest Hotel in Washington

It was Allen E. Walker’s idea to build the largest hotel in Washington. A successful developer behind some of D.C.’s residential neighborhoods, he selected a the site on Connecticut Avenue. The area was among the most stylish in the city.

Work began in July 1922. The architecture firm in charge was Warren and Wetmore, a New York-based company known for designing the most elegant hotels in the country. Its portfolio featured the Ritz-Carlton, Philadelphia, the Providence Biltmore Hotel, the Commodore Hotel and the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel. And yet, the firm’s most famous venture wasn’t a hotel: it was New York’s iconic Grand Central Terminal.

Walker originally planned to name the hotel Walker Hotel and Apartments. He expected the cost to reach $11 million, an exorbitant price for the time period. However, the project went well over budget. Walker had to sell his controlling shares just months before the opening. The new owners decided to change the name to the Mayflower Hotel after the ship that landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620.

The hotel opened on February 18, 1925. The elegant suites were among the first in the country to offer fireplaces and kitchens. The switchboard was at the height of technology. The hallways, lobby, and ballrooms were decorated with the second greatest quantity of gold leaf in Washington. The greatest was found in the Library of Congress. With luxuries like these, it’s easy to see how spending went overboard.

A grand celebration was thrown in honor of the opening. It was a posh affair, attended by some of the top names in Washington society. And yet, an even grander party was soon to come. President-elect Calvin Coolidge hosted the inaugural ball at the Mayflower Hotel on March 4, 1925.

The White House Comes to the Mayflower Hotel

From that point on, politics continued to happen at the Mayflower. And it wasn’t just lavish galas – the hotel hosted meetings and conferences, too.

The National Democratic Headquarters had an office on the second floor. In 1929, the leaders of several South American countries met with U.S. government officials at the Mayflower Hotel to discuss deepening relations between North and South America. The room was renamed the Pan American Room. The G.I. Bill was drafted on Mayflower stationery in 1944.

Thanks to the plush bedrooms and proximity to the White House, the Mayflower was a popular choice for visiting foreign dignitaries. The hotel hosted Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, and Queen Elizabeth. Hollywood royalty stayed too: John Wayne, Jean Harlow and Bob Hope among them.

Washingtonians were also regulars at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC. Herbert Hoover’s Vice President Charles Curtis lived at the Mayflower for the entirety of his four-year term. At least 23 congressmen lived at the hotel for some time. Presidents-elect and past presidents chose the Mayflower.

A Home Away from Home for the Roosevelts

The Mayflower was a particular favorite of Franklin D. Roosevelt. After winning the election in 1932, Roosevelt and his family stayed at the hotel until it was time to move into the White House. During his stay, the president-elect was hard at work on his inaugural address.

As the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, he needed something that would reassure the American people. On March 3, 1933, the night before his speech, Roosevelt wrote this line in room 776: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It would go on to become one of the most famous quotations in American history.

The Mayflower Hotel continued to be a special place for the Roosevelts. In 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt worked to promote the sale of war bonds, savings bonds, and defense stamps. To support the effort, the Mayflower hosted the bonds retailers during Defense Week in September 1941.

The Roosevelts’ time at the Mayflower wasn’t always so serious. During a state dinner in 1945, Prime Minister Winston Churchill leaned towards his neighbor to tell a risque joke. Because of the unusual acoustics of the Chinese Room, however, his joke traveled into the dome and was magnified to the distinguished guests in the room, including President Roosevelt himself.

German Spies at the Mayflower Hotel

On June 13, 1942, four Nazi spies landed on a beach near Long Island, New York. One of these men was named George Dasch. Along with four others who arrived in Florida, the men had a nefarious task at hand. They were instructed to sabotage a number of American economic targets to give Germany the upper hand. The men had been trained and brought enough supplies to power two years of destruction. Some of their targets included power plants at Niagara Falls and aluminum plants in Philadelphia. Their mission was called Operation Pastorius, named for the first German immigrants in America.

Operation Pastorius was on track, but Dasch had a change of heart. He left his team and traveled to Washington, where he checked into the Mayflower Hotel. He called the FBI, revealed his true name and asked to speak with director J. Edgar Hoover. Coincidentally, Hoover was downstairs in the hotel’s restaurant, the Town & Country Lounge, having lunch.

While FBI thought the call was a prank, they sent a team to the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC to do their due diligence. They soon realized Dash was telling the truth when he was able to reveal the names of the others involved. He showed the FBI vital evidence, including a handkerchief with addresses written in invisible ink. Team was arrested between June 20 and June 27. The spy’s confession was downplayed and the bust was heralded as a massive success for the FBI.

Lunch, Dinner, and Drinks at the Mayflower Hotel

In fact, J. Edgar Hoover spent a lot of time at the Mayflower. He had lunch at the Town & Country Lounge nearly every day for almost 20 years. He always ordered the same thing: half a grapefruit, white toast, cottage cheese, and bibb lettuce. The Nazi spies weren’t his only catch while at lunch at the Town & Country Lounge. One story goes that he looked up from his meal to see the third-ranked criminal on the Most Wanted List. He immediately ordered his arrest and went back to his lunch.

To the dismay of loyal locals, the Town & Country Lounge closed in 2011. In its place, a new restaurant opened in 2012. It is called Edgar Bar & Kitchen, after J. Edgar Hoover, of course. The space has a classic interior and strong cocktails that draw politicians, lobbyists, and locals alike. Drinks pay homage to the city, like the Washington, the Adams and the Watergate.

The Mayflower wasn’t always a place to grab a cocktail. The hotel opened during Prohibition, which banned the sale of alcohol under the 18th Amendment. During this time – Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1931 – the hotel was the meeting place of the Women’s Organization for Prohibition Reform. The women were fighting to end Prohibition.

In 1931, a meeting of the Democratic National Committee was held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. This would go down to be an important step in the repeal of Prohibition. After the 18th Amendment was repealed, the hotel purchased its liquor license as soon as it could. It has been one of Washington’s most essential cocktail destinations ever since.

The Great American Pastime

It was 1994 and the country was on edge. Was Washington abuzz with a presidential scandal? Was the nation consumed by a polarizing murder trial? Yes, but something else was nagging at the heart of the American people: baseball was suspended. The players were on strike and the remainder of the season was cancelled. The World Series was called off.

Owners of Major League Baseball teams had proposed a cap on salaries. Players planned a strike to start on August 12, 1994. Months dragged on. Clinton, a St. Louis Cardinals fan, decided to do something about it. He met with the mediator, Bill Usery Jr. and Labor Secretary Robert Reich in the White House. Clinton set a deadline for the players and the owners to reach an agreement or else other parties would step in and resolve the debate. The talks were held at the Mayflower Hotel. An agreement was reached shortly thereafter and the strike was ended after 234 days.

Covert Affairs

Many proud moments have happened inside the Mayflower’s walls, but the scandals have gotten much of the press. (This is Washington, after all.) The hotel has appeared in a number of political sex scandals dating as far back as the Kennedy era.

John F. Kennedy often kept a suite at the Mayflower Hotel. As the years have gone on, stories have emerged alleging that women met the president here. Longtime mistress Judith Campbell Exner often kept a suite at the Mayflower, where she secretly met with the president. A biography claims Kennedy met actress Angie Dickinson at the hotel. Similar rumors have come out about Audrey Hepburn.

Years later, the cast of characters was new but the story was the same. Before the news of the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, President Bill Clinton was photographed hugging the former White House intern at an event. While the picture didn’t mean much at the time, the now-iconic photo was splashed all over the news when the scandal came out the following year. Interestingly enough, Monica Lewinsky taped her deposition inside the Presidential Suite at the hotel.

In March 2008, news broke that New York Governor Eliot Spitzer met with a high-class call girl named Ashley Alexandra Dupré inside the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC. Spitzer was a frequent guest at the hotel, booking a room at least 13 times while he was governor. This time, however, he reserved room 871 under the name George Fox, a donor and friend. The revelation ended Spitzer’s career.

The Mayflower Hotel Today

The Mayflower is still an integral Washington address – just ask the Trump administration. The hotel hosted a Donald Trump speech during the presidential campaign on April 27, 2016. The Russia-friendly speech that included the line: “the horrible cycle of hostility must end” between Russia and the United States.

While the speech made headlines, the scandal was yet to come out. Stories emerged that Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner met with a Russian official named Sergey Kislyak at the event. When Sessions testified before the Senate intelligence committee, he said he had no recollection of a conversation with a Russian official at the event. Unfortunately for Sessions, a Getty photo showed the two speaking. While the photo doesn’t prove any wrongdoing, the photo certainly made its rounds on the internet.

Landmark Status

In 1982, after a succession of owners and their different renovations, the hotel was ready to return to its roots. A renovation began with the goal of bringing the hotel back to its original grandeur. The project stripped away some of the less elegant additions and revealed the original beauty.

Workers uncovered a grand skylight – 25 feet by 60 feet – that had been covered in the 1960s with a modern dropped ceiling. Beautiful friezes and two large murals were revealed and restored. The iconic gold leaf was made to shine once more. The meticulous renovation brought back the glamour of the old Mayflower Hotel, but with all the modern comforts.

After the renovation finished in 1983, the hotel was awarded a place on the National Register of Historic Places. Shortly thereafter, in 1989, the Mayflower was added to the National Trust’s Historic Hotels of America. In their announcement, the Trust said the hotel maintained its “historic integrity, architecture, and ambiance.” While the award sounds distinguished, one has to wonder – would there really be ambiance without a good story?

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