Suite Inspiration on Mackinac Island

Suite Inspiration on Mackinac Island

Trujillo/Paumier
Trujillo/Paumier
First Ladies are the suite inspiration at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan.

Lady Bird Johnson struggled not just with that weird nickname (friends actually called her Bird) but also with a nose along the lines of Louis XIV's. Had she known she was headed for Pennsylvania Avenue, she once ruefully admitted, she would have changed both.

One theory, mine, is that Lady Bird buried the grief her moniker and proboscis caused her in her defense of flowers, the issue for which she is best remembered, as the lovely Redouté prints in a suite designed in her image and named for her at the Grand Hotel on Michigan's Mackinac Island attest. But if I am reading Carleton Varney, who renovated the classic 1887 Great Lakes resort, correctly, the room also jibes with other things First Lady junkies know about their Bird that are less rosy.

Becoming a millionaire many times over amazingly did nothing to break her of the habit of buying seconds, as in sheets and pillowcases; as if to apologize for walls covered in swanky canary yellow damask, the Grand's Lady Bird Suite has a fiberglass tub and plastic shower curtain, two items to make her thrifty heart sing. Some of the furnishings seem chosen to shut out her occasionally cruel husband, so that this would be her lair, a place to lick her wounds. Lyndon Johnson thought his wife looked fat in full skirts and T-straps and forbade her to wear them. He preferred her in high heels, even though Lady Bird felt she was always about to fall over in them and that "people weren't really meant to wear [such shoes]; the Lord didn't fix the foot that way." Varney's revenge on her behalf is a pair of fussy, underscaled upholstered armchairs with backs that are high, buttoned, scrolled, straight, and quite painful, certainly for a famously broad-beamed man who stood six feet four inches tall.

Take that, Mr. President.

It's an amusing game, mining the First Lady suites at the Grand for significance and hurt feelings, and I haven't even told you about Nancy Reagan's, whose scarlet bedspreads and black-lacquered headboards brilliantly capture the dragon lady persona she cultivated before widowhood magically rehabilitated her public image; Jackie Kennedy's, where Hyannis Port meets the White House in a deliriously confused cocktail; and Betty Ford's, which hints darkly at her Valium-a-day habit.

A less magnanimous decorator might legitimately plead lack of inspiration with Rosalynn Carter and Barbara Bush, but not Varney, a sixties protégé of the great Dorothy Draper who now owns her firm and has a long history of working with First Ladies on everything from state-dinner favors to china services. While the dominant color of Carter's rather twee suite is Georgia peach (no surprise), Bush's is done in a brittle, chilly scheme of blue (for her eyes) and white (the hair she stubbornly refused to dye). The room suggests the "small nasty streak in an otherwise kindly genteel front" that Betty Boyd Caroli, in her coolly bipartisan, lightly scholarly book, First Ladies, from Martha Washington to Laura Bush (Oxford University Press), identified in G.W.'s mother.

For an institution with the Grand's flag-waving patriotism and evolved tradition of themed accommodations (Wicker, Vanderbilt, Tiffany), the memorabilia-filled First Lady suites were a natural. According to the Grand's resident historian, Bob Tagatz, at the turn of the last century the hotel was one of some 1,200 wood-frame resorts in the United States with 250 rooms or more. (Today there are just 12 such establishments.) Many, including the Grand, which has 385 rooms and is marooned in the straits where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron, were built by transportation companies in fantasy locations to entice Victorian travelers into their railcars and onto their steamships. "Some of the places were never meant to last or make money," says Tagatz.

Despite its unintended longevity, the Grand was for many years hobbled by a lack of design credibility. When it came up for refurbishment in the forties, W. Stewart Woodfill, a world-class eccentric who wore sneakers with his smoking jacket and had worked his way up from desk clerk to owner, cheaped out by hiring a no-name concern out of Chicago. With sofas in Howard Johnson's-blue matellassé vinyl, Varney says, the hotel looked like the lobby of New York's Roxy Theater.

Unfortunately for Woodfill, his guests were comparative shoppers. In 1948 the Greenbrier Hotel, the West Virginia behemoth on the same circuit as the Grand, commissioned a Romance and Rhododendrons makeover from nobody less than Dorothy Draper. The imperious New York tastemaker coined the look Modern Baroque to authorize the pairing of throbbing Regency stripes with cabbage-rose chintz, and hunt-club pink with lime and cobalt. The Greenbrier's interiors were the ones you remembered.

The Grand had been going a full 90 years before finally acquiring the right sort of visual oomph. Casting about for help in 1977, R. D. Musser Jr., Woodfill's nephew and soon-to-be successor, telephoned—and who couldn't see this coming?—Dorothy Draper & Co. After asking for the lady herself (Musser did not know she'd been dead eight years), he signed Varney up when it was explained to him that this was the person you hired to channel Draper's genius. Substituting geraniums for rhododendrons as a motif, Varney zapped the hotel with his mentor's signature mix of audacious colors and eye-bending patterns. In the time since, he has become the decorator du jour for traditional all-American properties in need of a jump-start. Among recent commissions is the once-tired, now-sprightly Mount Washington Hotel & Resort in New Hampshire.

To spend the night with Nancy Reagan, however, you will have to go to Mackinac Island, a place whose decided populist flavor (Main Street is lined with fudge shops) would give Queen Nancy the shivers. Meanly, I thought, her suite is hung with posters for the colossal duds she made as a movie actress, like 1958's Crash Landing ("Standby, New York! Standby, Lisbon! Flight 627 preparing to ditch in midocean!"). But Varney, a flamboyant figure from the old-school world of pagoda lampshades and Axminster carpets, insists Reagan is as proud of these films as Charlize Theron has a right to be of Monster.


"Believe me, Nancy thinks she's equal to, if not better than, Joan Crawford," he says. "Van Johnson's a client of mine, and he told me she still thinks of herself as a movie star."

Also in the room, framed, is the handsome scarf with Reagan's initials that Varney created at her behest and had put into limited production. Reagan's Associate Presidency was in full swing then, and she gave the scarves as gifts (apparently, you really had to earn one). Each of the First Ladies was solicited for contributions to her suite, but beyond agreeing to send a (very fuzzy) copy of her White House portrait, Reagan short-circuited all participation in a note from her assistant, which Varney, oddly, has elected to display. Well, maybe not so oddly. If you have stars in your eyes, I suppose, a brisk rejection on Nancy Reagan letterhead might be interpreted as an embrace.

Reagan's choice of the romantic society portraitist Aaron Shikler to immortalize her was no accident. Shikler had already done the official likeness of another First Lady and queen, Queen Jackie, a copy of which (also 10th-generation) adorns Kennedy's suite. The two works are so similar in composition, it is easy to imagine Reagan ordering, "Make me look like Jackie—or else!"

By the evidence, Varney does not seem very fond of Kennedy. There is no shortage of beautiful pictures of the world's most photographed woman. But he has gone out of his way to choose wire-service images for her room that show her looking either painfully vulnerable (at JFK's funeral) or plain crazy (wild hair and strange black spaces between her teeth at Henley in 1969). I guess you could imagine the bed, which is freighted with finials, whorls, and volutes, in the White House after Kennedy Frenchified it. But the glitzy way Varney has painted the bed is more Highpoint than Jansen. Referencing his subject's long association with Martha's Vineyard is a beefy seaside-ready check stitched into curtains and bed hangings. But the fabric is a slimy synthetic taffeta. Synthetic?Jackie Kennedy?I don't think so.

On the other hand, Varney should get the Purple Heart for his mere willingness to engage with the exasperatingly negative style of the senior Mrs. Bush, who took a sinister pleasure in weariing $29 shoes with her made-to-order Arnold Scaasi inaugural gown, and Carter, whose clothes were so far below the radar that they failed to register.

While Varney never worked on the White House itself, he did do Rosalynn and Jimmy's log cabin in Ellijay, Georgia, as well as the couple's main residence in Plains. To repay their patronage, I have a suspicion, Rosalynn's is the only suite with a four-poster. But if designing her room was a breeze, because of their shared history, Betty Ford's was the most challenging.

"I'm theatrical, so it was a little difficult, what with Mrs. Ford being so low-key, such a nice woman," says Varney. "My first thoughts were Michigan, where the Fords started out when he was a congressman. Michigan is very subtle, which is why I decided to do the walls in a limpid teal green. The Betty Ford Center and all that only came into my head afterward."

Another thing about those walls: they're padded.

GRAND HOTEL, Mackinac Island, Mich.; 800/334-7263 or 906/847-3331; www.grandhotel.com; First Lady suites from $600, double; standard doubles from $370.

CHRISTOPHER PETKANAS is a special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.

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