Thursday, June 24
When we arrived in Memphis Wednesday evening, the elegant lobby of the Peabody Hotel was packed with convention goers—men in dark suits and women in business dresses—sipping drinks, talking enthusiastically and seemingly enjoying the high energy setting with a jazz pianist playing away but hard to hear with all the chatter. I remember those days myself and briefly ponder the scene with mixed emotions. I admit I loved such gatherings then but I am glad I am standing here now wearing a golf shirt, shorts and a baseball cap, observing it all as a bystander.
We were so tired we ordered dinner in and crashed around nine. (Embry had another All Souls rector search interview.)
Thursday morning was a highlight for Embry. We met Curry in the lobby for a long breakfast in the Peabody dining room. Curry and Embry were classmates from first grade through high school, and his family was very close to the Martin family since his father was dean of the faculty of Davidson and hers president. They re-bonded immediately, sharing childhood and teenage stories and catching up on almost 50 years of going their separate ways. Like Embry he also had earned a PhD (geophysics), and has recently retired from the faculty of UT-Memphis where he was an earthquake expert. This visit marks our last reunion for a while, which I am not too unhappy about since the energy involved in such reconnections is very high and my energy level at this point might be described as very low.
After breakfast we visited the National Civil Rights Museum. This is an extraordinary museum, which should require a day though we had only a couple of hours. I spent a good bit of time in the section on the early years—especially the Albany Movement where we had worked in 1966, while Embry visited the museum annex across the street focusing on King’s assassination . What a privilege and blessing to have been part of the Civil Rights Movement! How lucky we were to be alive at that time and in that place.
Now off to the Crescent Hotel, a Nineteenth Century historic hotel located in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. The first 100 miles were tedious as we made our way along a bumper-to-bumper I-40, squeezed between 18 wheelers going 80 miles an hour—even worse traffic than on I-81 on our way to Asheville. Eventually we turn off onto Arkansas state road 23, which is the complete opposite—more like a country lane, weaving up and down green mountains with towering trees, making us feel at times like we were on a roller coaster. For the first 50 miles we could not have seen more than a dozen cars and very few houses or signs of human life. Eventually the road leveled off a bit, and billboards started to appear advertising hotels in Eurika Springs, the location of the Crescent hotel. It was close to sunset when we entered the outskirts of this Victorian village, with gingerbread-looking houses, cute, touristy stores of all sorts and pleasantly crowed sidewalks. It took another 15 minutes to find the Crescent Hotel, which involved going down narrow streets, up steep hills and one sharp turn after another.
After a day of another high energy reunion, the Civil Rights Museum and 250 miles of driving in trying conditions, boy, were we ready for this hotel! Embry had found it online and noted that it was one of the most historic hotels in the country.
Now at this point I have to admit that ever since we moved from our house on Macomb Street to the Kennedy-Warren, I have come to expect as normal a somewhat higher level of excellence in living standards. I am the first to admit that this may be a dangerous sign of elitism, but it is what it is. At the K-W, there is a doorman, concierge, world class fitness center, lap pool, and elegant bar. Images of the Kennedy-Warren were swarming in my head along with those of the Homestead and Greenbrier– Five Star, world class resorts in remote locations as certainly this resort hotel was. As a destination hotel listed in the National Register of Historic Places, this would be one of those special hotels. I could already taste the martini and was wondering what delicious choices would be on the dinner menu. Embry was obviously wondering the same thing and said she hoped she had brought a nice enough dress.
As we parked and headed with our baggage to the main entrance, I did notice signs of peeling paint and rusty railings on this five-story, stone structure but did not think much of it. Besides the temperature was in the mid 90s with sweltering humidity. I could not wait to get inside to cool off and unwind.
A lean young man dressed in a shabby uniform opened the door. I immediately realized this was not the Homestead. There was no air conditioning, and it was probably hotter inside than out. Ceiling fans were swirling futilely. The walls were dark paneled with dusty pictures of the building decades ago along with news clippings of events in the 1920s. A tarnished gold plaque boasted, “Renovated in 1922.” Bits of paper and trash were on the floor. The dark rugs in the hallway were worn and in some places stained, the modest lobby furniture was drab and pretty beat up, and the ceiling lights so dim you would have a hard time reading. People dressed in jeans and shorts were milling around, but no one was sitting. We soon learned that they no longer served any dinner, but we could get some pizza on the third floor if we were hungry.
We looked at each other, groaned under our breath and made our way in the sweltering heat to our third floor room. There were some 15-20 people, mainly high school or college age, listening intensely to a slim young woman talk about spirits, ghosts, weird deaths, and pointing in the direction of our room. We managed to squeeze our way through the group and open the door to find a tiny room with dark red walls and red ceiling, torn brown carpet, one light hanging from the ceiling and barely enough room for a small double bed. There was an air conditioner in the window but it did not work, nor did the fan. We could not open the windows.
This was our introduction to the Crescent Hotel, founded in 1886 and now in its “Second Renaissance.”
The story has a happy ending. After protesting we were given a cottage suite, about a quarter mile down the hill, which was pretty nice. We did manage to walk back to get a beer and a pizza where we were one of only a handful of people and waited on by a very friendly, African American, 19-year old basketball player on his way to a junior college at the end of the summer, determined to succeed. The pizza was good enough, and we learned that the big draw of the hotel is that it is “the most haunted hotel in America.”
Not the Greenbrier but worth putting on your list—if you want a good story.