A Reminiscence by Mary B. Williams.
Living a lifetime in Nashville has been a storybook experience in many ways. Memories of the magnificent Hermitage Hotel have certainly played a large part in creating the desire to write my own storybook for my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
My first visits to the Hotel were by invitation when my uncle, an attorney in Louisville, Kentucky, came here frequently to visit my family. He usually stayed at the Hermitage and my brother and I, though quite young, were always included in his invitation for dinner at the Hotel. What a splendid occasion that was!
In those days of early childhood I had a vivid imagination, so on those evenings I became the beautiful princess who lived in this wonderful castle right out of the storybooks my parents had read so often to me – it was much more than a mere hotel!
My mother often went to the beauty salon that was located on the mezzanine at the Hermitage. Daddy would drive us there and, while waiting, would sometimes get a shoe shine just off the lobby, somewhere in the vicinity of the men’s restroom, as I recall. I could always be found nestled in one of the big comfortable chairs in the lobby, reading a book. Even at that young age I enjoyed pausing to enjoy my surroundings and observe the beautiful carvings that were an important part of the architectural design.
Later, as a teenager, I enjoyed the Hotel in a different fashion when I attended sorority meetings there on Saturday mornings. I felt so sophisticated as I mimicked the movie stars like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Loretta Young, and smoked along with the older sorority girls. My mother and daddy would have killed me! So they wouldn’t know, I hid my cigarettes among the potted plants in the beautiful urns, ready for my next party at the Hermitage!
Sorority and fraternity dances were held in the Grand Ballroom with its exquisitely rich wood paneling. All the brass features throughout the Hotel shone with a mirror finish. I remember being a little reluctant to use the handrails as I was fearful of leaving fingerprints.
On one particular evening I was waiting for my handsome date, who was going to drive me to the Hotel for his fraternity dance. I was in a panic before leaving the house, rushing around to find Daddy’s tool chest, using any tool that I could find to pry the high heels off my new evening sandals, specially dyed to match my evening dress. Of course, to my horror, the heels came off, but the nails were left intact. I had no choice but to take them to my daddy and say sweetly, “Please do something.” He actually laughed when I explained that my date was probably about my height and those heels would make me look taller than he was. I knew my daddy was still laughing when I walked awkwardly out the front door.
When the two of us arrived at the Hotel, the doorman, dressed in his beautifully tailored clothes and top hat, was even more elegantly dressed than my date, who was probably wearing a rented tuxedo. Bellboys, doormen, every person employed by the Hotel, male or female, were all sharply dressed, with excellent posture and manners. The band was playing – I’m wondering whether it might have been Frances Craig, everybody’s favorite. The huge vases were filled with fresh flowers, and I danced away the night, never giving my damaged shoes another thought.
Beautiful evenings like this came to an abrupt end when World War II was declared. The next memorable event would be the day my handsome Army-Air Force Lieutenant and I were married at West End Methodist Church, located just a few blocks out of downtown. Our wedding dinner was held at the Hermitage Hotel, and the beautiful wedding suite with a large arrangement of fresh flowers on the table and chocolate on the pillows was ours for the night. Just as when I was a small child, I felt like a princess in my castle, which was, of course, my beloved Hermitage Hotel.
After my husband and I returned to live out our lives in Nashville, the Hermitage Hotel memories would continue. My mother was still a patron of the Hotel beauty salon when one morning, with my baby boy in tow, I found myself back in that familiar area. Wanting all the hairdressers to see my beautiful little boy, we stepped inside, where I nearly burst with pride! As we were walking to the lobby, my sweet son tugged on my coat sleeve, asking, “What were those women doing with those big buckets on their heads?” Well, those old hair dryers really did look like big buckets! On that day, sitting in the big comfortable chair with a book in my hand, reading to my child as I waited for my mother, I was overwhelmed by a wave of nostalgia. I shared with my son stories of myself as a little girl, sitting in the same beautiful Hotel lobby waiting for his grandmother all those years before.
Except for an occasional lunch with friends or a very special dinner, I did not spend a great deal of time at the Hermitage while we were raising our family of five children. Our youngest child, a daughter, would be the one to bring the Hotel back in my life when her wedding reception was held there in June 1991. The wedding took place just a few blocks down the street in the historic Downtown Presbyterian Church at Fifth and Church. Many guests walked the short distance to the Hotel, while others rode the trolley, which was not difficult to spot, with a large wedding wreath on the front, its white ribbons flowing lightly in the breeze. All the wonderful people employed by the Hotel seemed to get into the spirit of the evening, as we had become good friends during the weeks of planning. They also enjoyed my loving memories of the Hotel, which I was eager to share.
Leaving the ballroom at midnight, we watched the bride and groom being whisked away in their limousine, and I cried. I walked back inside just for a moment, glanced around the lobby, said “Good night!” to two young couples on the verandah, and then walked down the steps and out those handsome doors with an ache of sadness: an era in my life was now closed.
Just a few years ago, this same daughter’s children, my grandchildren, had become old enough to appreciate a tour of downtown Nashville. I took them to the lovely old church where their parents were married, and to the Hermitage Hotel where the family celebrated afterwards. Of all they saw and loved, they were most impressed by the Hotel.
I could see their excitement when we first walked through the doors. They didn’t know which direction they wanted to go first! We covered it all – every nook and cranny. They kept saying, “Nunny, I’ve never seen anything this beautiful.” Those children could understand how, when I was even younger than they were, I viewed it as my castle! I’m sure the Hermitage Hotel has never hosted more appreciative young visitors.
Just recently, when a group of younger friends asked where they could take me for lunch to celebrate my 85th birthday, my choice, of course, was the Hermitage Hotel. What a treat! As I stepped out of my car, that rush of nostalgia engulfed me once again, and I had to keep myself from dominating the conversation, as I yearned to share every memory. Just this morning, one of those precious young women said she hadn’t gotten to see it all on that day, so she and I will return in the near future. I can hardly wait. One more time I will have a captive audience to share the grandeur and my unforgettable memories of the Hermitage Hotel.