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Bucharest's Athénée Palace

Outside the hotel, the rogue cabdrivers line up lazily, hoping guests new to the Athénée Palace and to Bucharest, Romania, will have forgotten to ask the concierge for a taxi. But in the lobby, everyone is busy: bellboys and businessmen hustle about, contributing to the creation of the mighty New Europe.

No one leans in close and says, "The monkey hunts at night."

No one whispers, "The Germans have made you. Head to the safe house until you hear from your contact."

No one suggests, "I have the documents you are seeking. Put the money under the third chair from the left in the bar."

It's only slightly disappointing.

The safe, businesslike environment of the Athénée Palace Hilton is far removed from the Athénée Palace of the thirties and forties, which was the stuff of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene and Orson Welles, pure Eastern European noir. Indeed, more than any other, the Athénée Palace hotel epitomized the intrigue of the interwar period. But there's more: the noirish atmospherics continued, flourishing amid Cold War machinations—all the rooms were bugged—and a brutal dictatorship. More recently, the hotel, bought and renovated by Hilton in the nineties, has represented the aspirations of a new Romania.

For decades, then, this opulent Bucharest grande dame has claimed as central a place in a country's history, perhaps, as any hotel in the world. It sits atop Revolution Square, formerly named Republic Square, and before that Atheneum Square, the plaza that served as the center of Romanian political theater throughout the 20th century. The square is the fulcrum and the focus of Bucharest, bisected by the city's main boulevard, the Calea Victoriei. King Carol II shaped the square in the thirties to provide a site for a protective field of fire around his palace, to defend against a revolution, and Nicolae Ceausescu gave his famous last speech—with the extraordinary, visible moment of his sudden shocked understanding that the game was up—in December 1989 from the low balcony of the Party headquarters. Today, traces of the past can still be felt everywhere in the hotel, despite its modernization, despite the removal of all of the bugging devices, despite the modern, New Europe pose.

The building of the Athénée Palace began in 1912 and was completed in 1914; when World War I began, it had 149 rooms, 10 suites, and a restaurant. Designed by the French architect Théophile Bradeau, the hotel had a French fin de siècle look, an international staff, and, soon enough, a reputation. During the interwar years, and especially in the early stages of World War II, it provided the perfect venue for a short era of hard-drinking, devil-may-care decadence before the storm. "Bucharest was delightfully depraved," wrote New York Times foreign correspondent (and nephew of publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger) C.L. Sulzberger, and so, he noted, "...I moved to the gaudy Athénée Palace to enjoy my wait for war." It was a good plan. "This was a comfortable establishment with excellent service...a corrupt staff always seeking to change a customer's money at black-market rates, and continual competition by ladies of easy or nonexistent virtue to share the warmth of a client's bed," Sulzberger wrote in A Long Row of Candles, his memoir of the years 1934 to 1954. "One night when I discreetly tottered home with an actress of my acquaintance, I found, to my embarrassment, a handsome young chambermaid sleeping peacefully on my pillow."

The war sobered things up a bit, but not all that much. Journalist R.G. Waldeck, a Jewish German-born American citizen possessing an ability to ingratiate herself with almost anyone, an entirely unsentimental view of the world, and, as far as anyone knew, a phony title (she called herselfCountess Waldeck, noble by marriage, but no one ever seems to have found a count attached), observed from her first-floor room that in 1940 the hotel was the last best place to view the clash of the old order and the new. "Here was the heart of Bucharest," she wrote, "topographically, artistically, intellectually, politically—and, if you like, morally." Neutral Romania, tugged by the Allies in one direction and the Germans in another, became the setting for the last breaths of Balkan European culture, with the Athénée Palace as its microcosm.

The place was lousy with spies, not to mention ministers and diplomats and industrialists and the occasional fugitive king, and not to mention gigolos living on blackmail and dangerous ladies in silver furs, and certainly not to speak of journalists. Indeed, the hotel's strategic location drew scores of British and American writers, who saw Bucharest as an ideal vantage point from which to watch the developing war. British intelligence was there in force, Gestapo agents were all over the joint, and the spies of King Carol II's police chief were crawling out of the closets. They hung around the plush English Bar, they hung around the lobby, and they gossiped, chattered, whispered, cajoled, threatened, extorted, and misinformed.

After surviving an occupation, an earthquake, and two bombings, the hotel underwent repairs and reopened after the war in a new incarnation. The Yalta Conference had put Romania within the new Soviet empire, and by 1947 the nation had been declared a People's Republic. The Athénée Palace was one of the first major projects of the postwar regime's espionage program: it was nationalized in 1948 and, with the oversight of a KGB advisor, extensively remade into an intelligence factory.

Bugs were installed in every room. The phones were tapped. In the café and the restaurant and the bar, even the ashtrays were said to be equipped with microphones. The busboys were watching; the waiters were listening. In the lobby, the bellboys and the concierge and the receptionists were all on the government payroll. Outside, the cabstand was run by the Securitate, Romania's secret police under Communism; every pay phone within a half-mile of the hotel was tapped.

That is to say, it was a thorough job. The hotel's general director was an undercover colonel in the Securitate's Counterespionage Directorate; the hotel's deputy director was a colonel in the DIE, the Romanian CIA. The doormen did surveillance; the housekeeping staff photographed all documents in the guests' rooms. The prostitutes in the lobby and in the bar and in the nightclub reported directly to their employers; the free-speaking bons vivants and Romanian intellectuals hanging around the café, not to mention a number of the guests, had been planted.

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