For anyone considering or planning to stay at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, it might be nice to understand a bit of its very interesting history. It seems that the last (I think - someone prove me wrong, please) remaining relative of the Spafford Family (which purchased the property to make it their home in the 19th century) just passed away at age 96! Here's the NYT article about her in today's (Monday 16 June 2008) edition:
June 16, 2008
Valentine Vester, Jerusalem Hotelier, Is Dead at 96
By STEVEN ERLANGER (NYT - http://tinyurl.com/58c4h6)
PARIS — Valentine Vester, a Yorkshire homemaker who went to Jordanian Jerusalem in 1963 to take over a little hotel, the American Colony, and turned it into one of the city’s finest, died on Sunday morning at her home in the hotel. She was 96.
Her death was confirmed by Claire Kosinski, a friend and caretaker in Jerusalem.
Mrs. Vester and her husband, Horatio Vester, adapted smoothly to the Israeli victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which unified Jerusalem under Israeli rule. The Vesters were proud that the American Colony, which had been shot up during the fighting, remained one of the few places in the rivalrous city where Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Muslims and Christians could gather. Their hotel was also a site of numerous secret talks among Palestinian and Israeli officials.
Mrs. Vester, born Valentine Richmond, married into a wealthy Chicago family, the Spaffords, who had gone to Jerusalem in 1881 to live like early Christians, doing good works among the poor and establishing a children’s hospital [the Spafford Children's Center, still operating just inside Damascus Gate]. In 1896 the family bought a former palace of a pasha, which had been empty, and turned it into a hostel for pilgrims.
Mrs. Vester and her husband, a Jerusalem-born Spafford heir and British lawyer who died in the early 1980s, took over the failing enterprise and made it a commercial success.
“He’d be called the C.E.O. and I’d be called the chief executive of the kitchen,” Mrs. Vester said in a 2005 interview with The New York Times. But she also took responsibility for what became the hotel’s exquisite gardens. “I never thought to create a luxury hotel,” she said. “Just a real one.”
Many famous people spent time at the hotel, which is also considered a haven for foreign correspondents covering the Middle East. Mrs. Vester remembered T. E. Lawrence, of Arabia fame, who often stayed there and played goalie in the soccer games that took place where the swimming pool is today.
Her own family had strong ties to the Middle East. Her mother’s half sister was Gertrude Bell, a renowned British archaeologist who helped create the modern state of Iraq after World War I. Her uncle Ernest Richmond, an architect, worked on Arab political affairs for the British who governed Palestine and was strongly anti-Zionist.
“He became a Catholic convert and was violently anti-Semitic,” Mrs. Vester said in the 2005 interview. “We were brought up very much pro-Palestinian. I was imbued with the notion that the Arabs were done down, but I try very hard to take a balanced view.”
She had tart comments about the political failings of both the Israelis and the Palestinians and no expectation for any quick peace. She had a special affection for her staff members, who were nearly all drawn from the occupied West Bank and mostly Arab East Jerusalem.
“We’ve tried hard to be neutral,” she said. “And we’ve tried not to let the hotel become some Disney Oriental.”
In recent years, as her health and her eyesight began to fail, Mrs. Vester stopped traveling and lived in her apartment in the hotel, which is owned by the family and managed by a Swiss company. But she often went to its restaurants for meals and gave advice to the staff, pushing to hire some women, too, despite the disapproval of Mahmoud, the headwaiter.
Mrs. Vester is survived by two sons, Nicholas of London and Paul of California, and numerous grandchildren. She will be buried next to her husband in a plot near the Mount of Olives.
And for more about the Spafford Family and it's role in the development of Modern Jerusalem (inside and outside the walls), read OUR JERUSALEM by Bertha Spafford Vester (Doubleday & Co., New York, 1950).
suzanne pomeranz, jerusalem, israel