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Hotel Detectives

As noir archetypes go, he's as recognizable as the fall guy or the femme fatale. Less tragic than the former. Certainly not as glamorous as the latter. In fact, he's the antithesis of glamour: a hard-bitten ex-cop, perhaps, installed in a flophouse lobby behind a racing form and a stogie. Unlike the private eye, he's not a romantic figure; he's paid by the hour and probably on the take.

Maybe he has a little drinking problem.

He...turns up. He always has, at least as far back as July 30, 1917, when two New York hotel detectives caught then-senator Warren G. Harding in bed with an underage girl (a $20 bribe made things right, and Harding famously observed, "I thought I wouldn't get out of that for under a thousand!"). He turns up, and we—unlike skippers and gozzlers and future presidents—are glad to see him. Because he's a real character: of the law, but a little beyond it, respected by no one, his hands full trying to maintain order in the hermetic, chaotic microcosm of the world that is the hotel.

There he is blowing his stack when W. C. Fields tries to seduce his wife in The Golf Specialist. That's him again, "a lugubrious man who's seen it all several times over," onstage in Alan Ayckbourn's Communicating Doors, saying things like, "Come on, you" and "Hey! Hey! Hey!" In The Maltese Falcon, he's busy talking to a woman—sorry, a dame—when Humphrey Bogart goads him into ejecting Elisha Cook Jr. from the lobby of the Hotel Belvedere: "I wanna show you something. What do you let these cheap gunmen hang around the lobby for, with their heaters bulging in their clothes?"

He turns up in literature, often. In his recent mystery The Hotel Detective, Alan Russell writes, "The hotel dick...brought to mind a smarmy sort, someone as likely to be looking through a keyhole as protecting a guest from someone doing the same."

He turns up, or his antagonists do, in the papers. During a scuffle stemming from a waiters' strike at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1934, Alexander Woollcott, Robert Benchley, and Dorothy Parker "gibed at the [hotel] detectives with a running fire of extemporaneous bon mots and 'wisecracks,'" the New York Times reported. (Tough job, being heckled by those three.) Celebrities of another sort have always known that few things define an image in such quick, broad strokes as checking into a hotel—preferably one with a suitable built-in atmosphere, like the Chateau Marmont—and becoming involved in an unfortunate, high-decibel misunderstanding involving the wholesale destruction of property. Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio grasped this, brilliantly, at an early age. So did Keith Moon and the members of Led Zeppelin. Courtney Love...well, Courtney Love. As a myth-enhancing career move, you could do worse than go up against a hotel and its stolid, licensed representatives, especially if you're an actor or a rock musician.

So, naturally, he—or she—also turns up in popular song. John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants says the band's "(She Was a) Hotel Detective" was inspired by a single line ("The hotel detective/He was outta sight") in Grand Funk Railroad's 1973 chart-topper "We're an American Band," in which "four young chiquitas in Omaha" meet the Grand Funk "dudes" and, it being Saturday night, "proceed to tear that hotel down." Today, of course, a discreet hotel security team would have been onto those dudes and chiquitas before any structural damage could occur.

How much has the job description really changed?It has always been a matter of protecting the property and protecting the guests. "When you come into this hotel, you're entrusting us with the keys to your home," one hotel security chief told me. "You have a right to feel safe." Guests do have the right to feel safe. But they don't have the right to drive cars into swimming pools, defenestrate television sets, or splinter end tables, so maybe it's an open question who's got the keys to whose home.

Either way, both the seedy house dick of another era and today's high-tech equivalent are charged with controlling the barely controllable, keeping everyone safe and happy and out of the papers.

My interest in hotel detectives began years ago with the purchase of an out-of-print 1954 memoir called I Was a House Detective, by Dev Collans, with Stewart Sterling. The pseudonymous Collans was a real retired house dick, the sort who, we learn, "makes collars" and is alert to "loungers, loafers, and larrikins...the 'lobby lice.' " The pseudonymous Sterling (actually Prentice Winchell)was the author of a series of mysteries involving a hotel detective at the swank "Plaza Royale" in New York. From the table of contents (sample chapters: "Corridor Creeps," "None of That Here," "The Lady Is a Stooge") to the index of hotelese that closes the volume ("Frisco. To case a guest's room and luggage...Hot-pillow House. Cheap hotel which rents a room several times a night...Riding Academy. Hotel not too particular about respectability...Under a Flag. Using a phony name"), I Was a House Detective is an amusing slink through Sweet Smell of Success-era Manhattan.

It's rewarding for the language alone. The book is populated by "belligerent buckos," "convention cuties," and redheads with "brunette chums." Collans serves up anecdotes ("It was the Hungarian Suicide Song....Bob whispered again: 'That's the one the Budapest police won't let 'em play any more....That dame must be getting set to do a high dive!' "), dispenses hard-boiled wisdom ("That decided me. Any out-of-towner who holes up in a metropolitan hotel for a solid week and doesn't use the phone is a suspicious character on my form sheet"), even insight into the period's law-enforcement pecking order. Most house officers, he says, have a low opinion of recruits from small detective agencies, preferring "graduates" of larger bureaus, such as Pinkertons. As for ex-cops, many of them—back then—were too accustomed to "telling people where to head in and when to move on. This doesn't fit in with the attitude required by hotel managements, which demand a little more suavity and savoir faire than a precinct plainclothesman is apt to acquire on his round of official duties."

I Was a House Detective's present-day counterpart isn't quite as much fun. Steve Peacock worked at the Helmsley Palace from 1987 till 1992 as a plainclothes house security officer, and last year published Hotel Dick: Harlots, Starlets, Thieves & Sleaze. The book is undercooked and overheated (chapter headings include "He'd Kill Me If He Found Out" and "Get This Hoe Outta Here"), but it's not without redeeming moments. After describing a wedding-reception brawl, Peacock relates how, in contrast, guests "were on their best behavior" at the celebration for the John Gotti Jrs.: "Somebody from the Gotti crew had advised the hotel security chief to just keep the house dicks away," he reports. "No need to tell us twice about that request. The event ran without a hitch."

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