It was almost Memorial Day, so Max and I took a little trip down one of my own memory's lanes to Philadelphia, my birthplace, not to mention the birthplace of our country. But this particular journey made home into something different than it's ever been before. This was one of those trips through time and space that made memories seem like fantasies and transformed so many of my fantasies into reality that home will never be quite the same again.
I don't know about you, but I used to think Philadelphia was boring, grey, nothing to do, and I grew up there (maybe that's why I thought that). But Philly's changed since I used to live in it. It's certainly a lot more exciting than I remember it ever being. Though I have to admit that could be because I stayed at three of the finest hotels in town - each one more elegant and romantic than the one before - each one a great aphrodisiac in its own way. So here it is: the latest chapter in my personal Philadephia Story.
First of all, before we got to Philly, we spent one night in New York's legendary Chelsea Hotel which features some of the wildest art in the world right in its lobby (much of it given to the hotel by resident artists in lieu of back rent), great old bohemian ambiance, and some of the worst bathrooms this side of Tibet.
Then, we slid into our fabulous Hertz Rent-A-Boat - a Lincoln Towncar bigger than a Townhouse - and drove to Philly, stopped off to visit my Mom, then realized I was getting a wicked sore throat. Could this have been my perverse way of reliving my rather sickly Philadelphia childhood? More probably it was that plane from L.A. to N.Y. which was tiny and infested with coughing, crying babies).
So we hurried to check into our first great Philly hotel: the Warwick (pronounced just as its spelled by everybody except Philadelphians who all insist on saying "Warick"). The Warwick is an old hotel. I'm not sure exactly how old it is, but all my great aunts and uncles love to reminesce about the Warwick's former glory in the 1920's, 30's, 40's and 50's, so we had to stay there.
Unfortunately, it wasn't quite the vivid fantasy-come-true I'd conjured up in my mind based on my Aunt Gertie's stories of mammoth magnificent gatherings under crystal chandeliers and thrilling dances to big band orchestras, and my Mom's recollections of how my Dad used to court her with the Warwick's legendary shrimp lamaze and sophisticated airy ambiance. But it was fun and nice and refurbished and clean, the latter something I greatly appreciated after the avant funkiness of the Chelsea.
The Warwick's staff seemed genuinely cheerful and friendly, especially our adorable PR lady Diana McGarvey who had just come back from a travel adventure of her own, one of those wild hotel conventions.
The Warwick gave us a great huge suite with a spectacular view of Center City, a living room, dining room, kitchen, gigantic master bedroom, two bathrooms, just in case Max and I needed to pee simultaneously, and an extra bedroom, just in case we became fruitful and multiplied. The decor was sort of contemporary French Provincial with a huge partial canopy bed that I wallowed in as my sore throat progressed into a full-fledged cold.
Before I got too stuffed up, I did a guest appearance on the local TV show, AM Philadelphia. The host was Wally Kennedy, a nice guy and a local TV star, thus a big thrill for Mom to meet; she came down to the station and got to kvell, as they say in Yiddish, while her daughter the media mogul was interviewed about what it was like to be born and bred in genteel Philadelphia, then journey out to the Sodom and Gommorah of La La Land and make it big in radio, sex therapy and the 900 business. Actually, Wally made me sound a lot richer than I think I am, but I didn't mind. In fact, I reveled in the fantasy that all the Old Money kids I went to school with from Gladwynne and Bryn Mawr were watching and eating their little Tiffany engraved hearts out.
In the second segment, apparently attempting to present the other side of the controversial 900 issue, Wally brought on one of Pennsylvania's callow young deputy attorney generals who vainly tried to prove that the 900 business needs much more regulation. He wound up tripping over his own authority, coming off like an old Soviet hardliner when he said that in the 90's, government should take maximum control of people's lives. I did feel kind of sorry for the poor little American apparatchik; deep down, all he probably really wants is his own secretary and an office with a window. But I just had to let him have it for the sake of the young, growing 900 telephone industry, as well as the 200th anniversary of The Bill of Rights which happens to be being celebrated this very year right in Philadelphia where the freedoms we now enjoy all began. Anyway, debating this fussy young functionary was a piece of cake compared to the Oprah show where, as those of you who saw it might recall, I was set up to be the Joan of Arc of 900 lines before a whipped up, misinformed studio audience. With Max's help, I had to turn the whole show around, from 900 witch-hunt into the pay-per-call telephone educational program we thought it should have been in the first place.
After the show, we switched hotels, and entered the world or, should I say, The Cult of the Ritz Carlton. The Ritz-Carlton at Liberty Place in Philly is, like Ritz-Carltons everywhere, a most impressive establishment. It's also a bit disconcerting because although it is brand spanking new, everything is made to look old. The interior design is essentially based upon the American Federal Period, with touches of English, featuring beautiful millwork, beveled glass, marble and mahogany, crystal chandeliers, oriental carpets (supposedly these have worn spots woven into them to make them appear old), plush period furniture and statues everywhere. It's a little strange - this new-old style, but its very nice, and especially fitting for Philadelphia.
We were greeted by our personal valet who was dressed impeccably, including spotless white gloves. He told us in his lilting Jamaican accent about so many different kinds of cleaning and pressing of which we could avail ourselves that Max and I both felt kind of low and shabby for not giving him anything to clean or press. Not only that, but the Ritz's super high-tech computerized system allowed every staff member to know the names of any particular guest. So everytime I called, they said "Hello, Dr. Block." Unfortunately, everytime Max called, they said, "Hello, Mr. Block", which would be great, except that Max's last name is Lobkowicz. So much for computers.
But the service was otherwise utterly flawless. Everyone onstaff is on their toes to serve your every whim; no one shrugs you off, even if it's not their job to do something for you. When the gift shop was closed and Max needed his Dunhill Blues, all he had to do was mention it to me in the lobby, and the nearest staffperson--who happened to be an aerobics instructor--managed to get him Dunhill Blues inside of about 8 minutes. The place really works like Swiss clockwork.
All employees follow the Ritz-Carlton Credo which is printed on a little card: "We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen", and they all seem to be thrilled with their jobs, from the chambermaids to our transplanted Southern Belle PR lady Alain Robinson. They're immaculate and terribly proper, really, and they all follow this Credo physically and spiritually, or I guess they don't keep their jobs; that's why I call it the Cult of the Ritz-Carlton.
Anyway, we didn't get a suite, just a room, a nice room, but hey, Max and I do go for suites, of course. But we did have access to the bountiful Ritz-Carlton Club accessible only via special key where what with Continental Breakfast, High Tea, Happy Hour, and Late Night Snacks, we could literally eat and drink ourselves into pig-heaven all day and all evening without ever having an actual meal.
But we restrained ourselves because neither Max nor I have pig-heaven fantasies, and we were having dinner back at the Warwick's 1701 Cafe with my mother, brother and the congenial Mrs. McGarvey. Dinner was fun, but not what I'd call a culinary achievement. When the waiter rather casually asked my mother if she enjoyed her soft-shell crabs, she shocked the supercilious smile off his face, with her politely negative response. Max wasn't too thrilled with his fettucine either. I had something called "Grilled Shrimp From Hell" which wasn't as sinfully good as I'd hoped, but it did clear up my sinuses for a few minutes. My brother was the only one who was truly enthusiastic about his meal; interestingly, he ordered the fluke (a kind of fish).
While the restaurant wasn't really worth restraining ourselves for, I did find out that the Warwick is a great place to meet people and just hang out, sort of a party hotel with lots of people in their twenties going to the disco and to Capriccios for pastries and cappucino. But even "Shrimp from Hell" didn't decongest me enough for partying, so Max and I just went back to the Ritz Carlton and crashed.
Next morning, we TownCarred down to a very funky side of Philly and did one of the wildest live radio interviews I've ever done on WPEB radio with the adorable Abdel Bey. Hey, WPEB made KFOX look like the Ritz--no headphones, office telephones ringing in-studio-- but it was great grassroots fun and productive too. Now WPEB carries the freshly syndicated Dr. Susan Block Show.
Then we got back into our Hertz rental aircraft carrier and cruised back to the Ritz Carlton for a very pleasant lunch at their Grill with the lovely Mrs. Robinson who eloquently explained the Ritz Carlton Credo and a little of the Ritz Carlton lore and history. Apparently, the first Ritz Carlton was erected in Georgia when William B. Johnson was building a hotel and suddenly decided he wanted to do something different, something tres elegant. I believe his other hotels were Howard Johnsons, but maybe I was mixing up Johnsons in my fluish delirium. Anyway, Johnson started building Ritzes in the early 1980's and he hasn't stopped. They're popping up everywhere, and though all that supercilious service can be a bit stifling to gypsy-type travelers, they're perfect for executive-types and anyone who likes impeccable shiny new but old-style accomodations amidst predictable luxury and crackerjack service from cheery staff people.
After lunch, I crashed in my predictably luxurious Ritz Carlton bed, and woke up just in time to eat. This time, I was glad I did, because it was an exquisite dinner at Founders Restaurant in the Hotel Atop the Bellevue, where we stayed our last two nights.
The Bellevue, originally called The Bellevue-Stratford, "The Grand Dame of Broad Street", first opened in all its great elegance and splendor in 1904, and reigned supreme for several decades thereafter. Then in the 1970's came the great Bellevue plague, when that deadly Legionnaire's disease spread through the hotel's air conditioning system, infecting several guests and seriously damaging the hotel's fine reputation. The Bellevue-Stratford was jinxed. After Legionnaire's Disease, nobody wanted to stay there, no matter how gorgeous it was. It was sad, because it seems to have been a freak occurence that could have happened anywhere.
After a few unsuccessful comeback attempts, the Bellevue building is now newly restored - with a new air conditioning system - and it looks and feels absolutely magnificent, the quintessence of Old World charm. It includes an assortment of high end shops, offices, The Palm Restaurant, and the top 12 floors are now The Hotel Atop the Bellevue which transports you to another time completely. First we arrived at the Barrymore Room, a breathtaking domed salon with wondrous views of the city and elegant tables and couches to take High Tea or drinks before dinner.
We walked down the hall past the clubby-looking wood-panelled Library Bar and into Founder's Restaurant, also domed and decorated in the French Renaissance style, and Max, my mom, my brother and I had a perfectly delightful dinner with The Bellevue's marketing director Daniel Vas, the consummate Hotelier, and his sidekick secretary Susan. I never imagined that dining with two total strangers could be so much fun. But it was, the food was also excellent, and the ambiance was genuine old Philadelphia with a European flair.
Then we Lincolned back to the Ritz Carlton, which we heard from The Bellevue is having some legal disagreements with the original Ritz in London, a sister hotel of the Bellevue (a little hotel gossip), and made sweet sniffly love among the RC's luscious goose down pillows.
The next day, Max, my brother and I took the Lincoln on a memorable motortrip down many memory lanes of the Philadelphia area, from Independence Hall (where Max fit right in since with his bifocals, long hair, and aristocratically high forehead, he's the spitting image of Ben Franklin) to The Philadelphia Art Museum (where my brother ran up all the the steps just like in the Rocky Movies) to the house my brother and I grew up in, to all the schools we went to, to the apartment we were born in. Max swore he saw a vision of me as a little girl playing in my elementary schoolyard.
That night, we picked up Sharyn, my best friend from high school, and we ate at the Original Old Bookbinders Restaurant, which I remember going to as a little girl for the incredible fresh fish. Now it's quite the tourist trap, but still lots of fun and great fresh fish, run by the Taxin boys - granddad, son and grandson. Granddad Albert's 84, still comes to work everyday and copies Impressionist paintings in his spare time. Grandson Johnny is a budding restauranteur; he made sure we had a good time and ate lots of fish. Then we all went back to the beautiful Bellevue where Sharyn and her hubby Neil were suitably impressed. We had a suite at the Bellevue - The QE2 Suite, so Max in his captain's cap felt right at home. In fact, the whole place really felt like home, with room service. We sat in the living room, which seemed like a real home living room, not like a hotel living room, and we talked for hours, inspired and invigorated by the unique charm and relaxed refinement of the Bellevue.
This hotel is truly unusual, with huge hallways like you never see in modern hotels, big doors, giant columns, sculpted archways, original touches. Plus, everything had a "B" on it, so I just had to swipe a couple of handtowels (sorry, Daniel!).
Next day was Block family day. We went out with all my aunts and uncles and old friends of the family to visit my Dad in the cemetary for an unveiling of his gravestone. I don't mean to get morbid here; it actually wasn't too terribly solemn, not like the funeral which was last year. Unveilings are, in the Jewish religion, a time to rejoice that the soul of the deceased has risen to Heaven, having been released from that Great Waiting Area between Heaven and Earth. How's that for the ultimate travel fantasy?
We could have stayed in the Bellevue for a couple of weeks at least, but we had to come back to L.A. to do a show (the subject of which, conveniently enough, was "Travel Fantasies"), so onto another plane we went. At least on this ride, we had plenty of room to move. We also had some real hard-core Travel Fantasy Fun; you know, those little lavatories are just big enough for a lot of fun. Joining the Mile-High Club isn't as economical as being a Frequent Flyer, but it is more exciting.