A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

hot bars of the late 1960s

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 5, 2008

Last night I found myself sitting in a hotel lounge bar overlooking part of Beirut with some friends.

You know what bar I’d really like to go to? H asked. The one at the St. George Hotel.

The rest of us looked at him quizzically.

The St. George Hotel that’s closed? F asked.

Well, yes. As it turned out, the bar H wanted to try was the St. George Hotel bar of pre-1975 Beirut, full of glamour and shady business deals.

I hadn’t heard of it, but I did a little research and yes, it must have been quite a scene.

Here’s how my copy of Travel Lebanon described it in 1965:

For a lively cocktail hour, the bar of the St. George Hotel is tops. Men of hte press and VIPs are its habitues. (A local quip says, “If you want to hear the latest rumor, or to start one, go to the St. George”. Undoubtedly, many a ‘hot’ story has been written from here).

I bet. And here’s how the region’s early-2000s ubiquitous journalist, Neil MacFarquar, described it in an April 2001 piece for the New York Times, after it had become the victim of Solidere’s eminent domain privileges:

The St. George used to be one of those legendary hotels that was just too fabulous.

On any given day before civil war broke out in 1975 you might run into movie stars (Liz and Dick reportedly kept a suite there); oil tycoons on the scale of J. Paul Getty; notorious spies like double agent Kim Philby or all manner of Arab royalty, dealers in dubious antiquities and foreign correspondents. (O.K., so maybe the latter weren’t fabulous, but at least they lent atmosphere.)

The place was Beirut incarnate. Business deals covering the entire Middle East turned on handshakes offered across the bar, while the terrace view encapsulated the country’s renowned tourist mantra: you could watch skiers slalom down Mount Lebanon or swimmers frolic in the azure Mediterranean. On particularly blessed spring days people did both.

Today, the St. George remains something of a symbol of what Beirut became. It is a gutted, blackened wreck. The last guests fled in bulletproof limousines with gunfire thudding around them. During the infamous ”War of the Hotels” in late 1976 — when various militias commandeered prime waterfront towers — the St. George went up in flames.

The Lebanese have been mourning their golden age ever since, dreaming they could resurrect it when the civil war petered out in 1990. But Beirut’s once fabled city center, now partly rebuilt in grand style, remains more populated with ghosts than people.

Problems plaguing its rebirth vary from the lack of regional stability to ferocious real estate battles that picked up where the War of the Hotels ended. Most of all, perhaps, Lebanon has not quite grappled with the reality that the rest of the Arab world moved on.

”This city is never going to play the same role it did in the prewar period, but we keep trying to make a repeat performance,” said Elias S. Saba, one owner of the late Holiday Inn, another hotel the world watched burn. ”They were exceptionally good years, but they are not coming back.”

In its ”Paris of the Middle East” phase, Beirut was the only city in the region offering a full spectrum of services like banks, medical centers, universities, ports, aircraft maintenance, fine restaurants and brothels.

Lebanese intermediaries introduced Westerners promoting airplanes or Coca-Cola to Arabs evading their provincial, oppressive capitals, and everyone minted money.

During the war years, however, glorified villages like Amman, in Jordan, and Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, sprouted into full-blown cities with similar facilities. Furthermore, a Persian Gulf outpost like Dubai suffers little risk of Israel bombing its electricity grid into oblivion, a periodic drawback to Beirut.

”The Syrian-Israeli conflict still has a buffer zone called Lebanon,” said Constantin Doumani, a businessman with offices in downtown Beirut who thinks the Lebanese government gambled too much on an elusive Middle East peace.

The main vehicle for rebuilding Beirut’s business hub is a private company called Solidere. It was founded by Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister and a billionaire developer, after he first became prime minister in 1992. (He remains among its largest shareholders, owning at least 7 percent.)

Using its powers of eminent domain, the government seized downtown Beirut — some 230 acres — and handed it to Solidere. Initial appraisals put the land value at $1.17 billion, but waterfront landfill being created from a huge wartime garbage dump should add 155 more acres.

The deal was stunning in its gargantuan scale — the sanctity of real estate being about the one thing members of all 17 or so religious sects in Lebanon can agree on.

Solidere tore down hundreds of historic buildings, including the labyrinthine bazaars, because they were mutilated when the wartime fault line between Christian north and Muslim south cut through the city center.

Proponents of Solidere say bickering property owners would have needed 50 years to agree on rebuilding downtown, while opponents howl that Solidere constitutes one of the great land grabs in human history.

Solidere likes to trumpet a list of blue-chip companies like Merrill Lynch relocating downtown. But much of the area remains either barren lots or beautifully restored circa-1920 buildings with Ottoman or Venetian flair and few people in them. Rare merchants say they can go all day without a single customer, while at night entire streets remain deserted.

Downtown used to be Lebanon’s one melting pot, where bankers, merchants and craftsmen from all sects and social classes mingled day and night.

”The open area we have now has lost its binding role,” said Assam Salam, an urban planner and scion of one of the great Sunni Muslim merchant families. ”It remains a city divided between a Christian ghetto and a Muslim ghetto.”

Solidere’s own profits from leases and land sales slumped to $3.4 million in 1999, after reaching a high of $77 million in 1997. Financial analysts were predicting that 2000 would show a loss.

Solidere’s master plan mixes offices and apartments at prices not much lower than those in New York or European capitals. Lebanese complain that it is far too expensive for them, while wealthy gulf Arabs or Lebanese expatriates aren’t exactly rushing to sink money into Lebanon.

Critics contend that in its zeal to attract outsiders, Solidere is trampling over any locals deemed in its way. One such battle developed over the famous St. George yacht club, a piece of the mythical hotel.

Although the waterfront adjacent to the hotel fell outside Solidere’s land, the company built a $230 million seawall encircling it. (The wall was designed to ward off the 60-foot waves that batter the coast every 100 years.) The developer announced that Prince Walid bin Talal, the Saudi businessman, planned to build a luxurious Four Seasons hotel facing the 500-yacht basin.

The plans stalled, however, after Fadi Khoury, owner of the St. George, contested Solidere’s rights to the entire new marina. Last winter, after years of legal wrangling, the government evicted all 50 or so boats moored by the St. George and declared the whole basin Solidere’s.

Mr. Khoury noted that the five-story pink stone building had had some form of water access since a French company first built the place starting in 1929.

”They are destroying a beach institution that has been here for 70 years,” he said. He said he believed that Solidere and, more important, Mr. Hariri coveted the landmark hotel, a charge both denied.

”We are developing here many projects, which we believe are more interesting on a national level than this one hotel,” said a Solidere spokesman, referring to the St. George. ”Many investors were reluctant to go on as long as the marina problem was not solved.”

Mr. Khoury spends most days sitting in an unfinished, circa 1975, annex, the bare cement walls painted white. Across the street, on the St. George’s roof, a camera pans across the new marina. The picture flashes onto the screen above Mr. Khoury’s desk, and periodically he manipulates a control stick to zoom in on a Solidere construction crew.

”If we weren’t watching, one day they might fill in the whole marina just to get some more land,” he says balefully.

Without water access, and with Solidere’s new sea wall blocking the hotel’s view of the mountains and the Mediterranean, Mr. Khoury is now contemplating whether the St. George has a future.

Asked if he has any snapshots lying around of say, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton cavorting around the pool, he shakes his head.

”It was a burned building with nothing left,” he laments. ”All I found were a few burned documents. I can’t find anything from the old days, not even one picture.”

I understand that the marina battle continues today. The St. George was in the midst of a renovation when Hariri was killed, shearing off part of its facade, and putting further rebuilding on hold. But the St. George beach club is alive and kicking, a little thorn in Solidere’s side.

As for the bar, its long gone. But as H mentioned last night, its legend lives on in a 1990 book written by Said Aburish, Beirut Spy: International Intrigue at the St. George Hotel Bar. Its out of print, sadly, and what copies are available are $50+. But I know where to find a copy – and I’ll let you know all about the intrigue once I’ve read it :).

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One Response to “hot bars of the late 1960s”

  1. […] hot bars of the late 1960s […]

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