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WINTER 2011
Hotel Biz is an extraordinary memoir. In an easy, con-
versational style, with wry, self-deprecating wit
, hotelier
Hans Gerhardt shares tales of a life of triumph and tragedy. He
always seems to be at the centre of the action, or causing it.
Even as a child, Gerhardt found himself at action centre, and
not in a good way. He was the son of a rocket specialist in Nazi
Germany and was living at Peenemunde when it became the
target for 596 Royal Air Force bombers. Later, he watched the
arrival of Russian tanks from behind the Schloss.
Post-war Germany was a time of brutal deprivation – a real
struggle for survival for Hans and his mother and siblings. His
father had been captured by the Russians and held for his rock-
et expertise. By the time he was released years later, Bernhardt
Gerhardt was a stranger to his family. At age 15, Hans rebelled
against his father’s authority, got his papers and spent the next
fve years having wild adventures as a cabin boy, sailing to the
most exotic corners of the world.
There are great stories of terrifying storms, drunken shipmates
and “cockroaches as big as your fst.” But it was in Turbo,
Colombia, that Gerhardt defnitely decided to make a career
change. He and a comrade were chased by a gang of angry
Colombians and escaped by jumping into a pond of reeking
excrement.
After that dunking, a career in hospitality really seemed invit-
ing. Hans started as a waiter at a small German inn. He was
trained by meticulous European hoteliers and fnally ended up
inWest Berlin with his newwife Helga. In 1965, they made their
way to Canada and Toronto, where his sister lived.
Sons Stephan and Ralph were born in Canada. They grew up
while Hans advanced and won awards at the new luxury hotels
being established in Toronto. In 1986, the Gerhardts moved
into an apartment on the 25th foor of The Sutton Place Hotel,
where Hans had fnally achieved the top perch he had worked
so hard to reach. He refers to his time managing The Sutton
Place as “the happiest and most rewarding years of his life.”
Hans J. Gerhardt
West End Books, 241 pages, $21.95
Willa McLean
is a
freelance writer who
lives in Kitchener.
Hotel Biz – A Memoir
In the over-the-top 80s, The Sutton Place was known as the
place to stay in Toronto for royalty, world leaders and espe-
cially movie stars. Hans actively courted the Hollywood set and
established warm personal relationships with many of them.
In Hotel Biz, Gerhardt shares anecdotes of getting Blue Jays
tickets for Jane Fonda, being charmed by the Queen Mother,
teased by Prince Philip and bewitched by Sophia Loren. He
drank expensive wine with Charlton Heston, introduced Tony
Danza to Wayne Gretzky and watched Marlon Brando direct
trafc in the lobby of the hotel during an early-morning fre
alarm.
Not all of the guests were celebrities. There were the regular
guests who became like family, the guests who stole every-
thing that wasn’t nailed down, the guests who came for sex
trysts – sometimes in the elevator between foors – and, most
traumatically, the guests who checked in to a hotel to commit
suicide. Gerhardt writes about his guests with the warm, non-
judgmental detachment of a good host.
The book Hotel Biz is the result of a period of deep introspec-
tion by a grieving father. Hans Gerhardt reviewed his whole
life after the death of his beloved son Ralph at the World Trade
Center in New York.
There’s a poignant account of Ralph making a shaky call on
September 11, 2001 to say that something had happened in
Tower One, but that he and the other executives on the 105th
foor were trying to evacuate. He promised to call later, but that
call never came and Ralph’s remains were never found.
Gerhardt’s portrayal of he and Helga watching the towers col-
lapse on television, and then the days in New York, waiting for
news as Ground Zero smouldered, is a story you’re not likely
to forget. The dedication to Ralph reads: “To the world, he was
one of the victims of 9/11. To us, he was the world.”
To the world, Hans Gerhardt is still remembered as “Hotelier to
the Stars” but, in his memoir, he emerges as a loving
husband and father, and a compelling writer.
Book
review