Art critic and social historian Terence MacCarthy has done it again: another historic hotel, another book. The title choice A Room With a View may disturb E.M. Forster and Merchant-Ivory fans, but the subtitle shows that this is not plagiarism: A History of the Grand Hotel Villa de France.
And it's MacCarthy's Tangier, not Forster's Florence. Here, the view is of Tangier and the Strait of Gibraltar and Spain, and even creeping medina rooftop escalation in the intervening century has probably not obstructed the view that Matisse made famous in his 1913 Paysage vu d'une fenêtre, which graces the cover of Dr. MacCarthy's book.
For a contemporary photo of what Matisse saw from the Villa de France, here's a link to the George Eastman House collection of French photojournalist Charles Chusseau-Flaviens. Hard to imagine today, but back in Matisse's day, the Villa de France counted as a suburban address.
As with his earlier No Better Address, a social history of the extinct Hotel Cecil, Terence has gathered much of his material at the Legation's research library. Our collection of the Tangier Gazette, which used to publish the guest lists of selected local hotels, was particularly useful for this growing series of books.
Dr. MacCarthy has a good sense of humor, and can be counted on to spot the odd news item, not always with a discernible link to the history of the hotel (in late 19th century Morocco, a literal interpretation of "head count" when delivering prisoners – or the heads of those who had expired – to the Sultan). Stories about stevedores battling it out for tourists' luggage, and then taking the newly-arrived foreigners from the port… not to the hotel of their choice, but to the hotel that gave the porters the biggest tip.
And I like his analysis of why
did the Hotel Villa de France cease publishing its guest register in September 1939, whilst its sister hotel, the El Minzah, continued to do so? One interesting possibility is that the management of the former ceased doing so for reasons of political discretion. What is immediately obvious is that when the Villa de France started to publish her guest lists once more, in August 1945, within a few months of the conclusion of the War, they contained a large number of Jewish surnames including Heikke, Hertzenfield, Israel, Kann, Klein, Levcowitz, Levy, and Serfaty, etc. Presumably, some at least of these guests were European Jews, fleeing Hitler’s relentless and murderous persecution, who had sought refuge in the International Zone of Tangier in the hope of finding safe onward passage to the United States or one of the South American republics. The management of the Villa de France may well have deliberately wanted to avoid drawing the attention of the occupying Fascist Spanish Administration to their presence in Tangier…
Terence MacCarthy's book is timely, in that this summer is to see the "soft re-opening" (the owners' idea of a low-key relaunch) of the newly-refurbished hotel, which has been closed for the better part of two decades. We never knew the original version, so we can't speak to its 2012 makeover. It would have been nice to know what Matisse or other guests circa 1912 thought of the food there, so we could do some comparison dining.
For now, Hotel Villa de France has a placeholder website, which we hope will soon be replete with photos to entice guests to stay in one of Tangier's historic hotels. And we look forward to Dr. MacCarthy's next foray into Tangier's social history.