Louisville: Ghosts of the Old Seelbach
“Stranger would you solve the mysteries of our city? Go then to 4th Avenue, for there beats the pulse. You’ll come away baffled, but pleased.”
Courier-Journal, August 3, 1919
Mister Biscuit and I arrived to the Seelbach just before 10 o’clock. A valet zipped past us on the steps of the grand old Louisville hotel and after several more zippings, I was able to catch hold of his flying lapels, detaining him long enough to request the assistance promised by nearby signs, and to receive his breathless reply: “hello-a-wedding-at-the-hotel-is-just-now-finishing-up-and-things-in-the-general-vicinity-are-about-to-get-crazy.” I assured the gentlevalet that if a cart could be procured, we’d manage ourselves just fine. Henceforth in this travelogue, understand “we” to mean the cat meowling his displeasure from the travel bag/passenger seat/moonlit windowsill as his human struggles in vain to sleep under a stack of several pillows.
“What kind of dog is that?” asked an elegant lady in green velvet as the member of our party with opposable thumbs piled cat and human gear onto the old rolling cart: snacks for two and four-leggeds, my traveling office, a suitcase of lady dresses and cat bow ties, and what I hoped was a discreetly hidden litter box. Though Mister Biscuit’s reservation was confirmed with the front desk, scattering cat feces across the storied lobby and the feet of its guests felt like a definitely unglamourous way to begin our tenancy. I smiled as I handed the car keys to our distracted valet friend, saying a silent prayer that we would be reunited with the same vehicle in the morning. Though if things took a turn in that regard, I suspected that there would be worse places to be marooned than the former glamor den of Al Capone and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In the time-honored tradition observed by august hotels, our graceful check-in dance was shouted through face masks across a lobby. Key in possession, we made our way through the labyrinth of elevators and hallways leading to room 646. Having settled into his evening digs, Mister Biscuit made a snuggly case for pausing hotel explorations until the morning. I fought off his purrs and the post-driving stupor to haul my weary bones back down to see what sort of mischief and dusty ballrooms I could get into, and what might be had in the way of ghosts, history, and chocolate bars.
My meanderings deposited me in front of a large display of hotel artifacts. Nearby a video looped “Legends of the Seelbach” recounted by a white-haired, twinkling-eyed gentleman. I listened to them all, punctuated by the valet’s footsteps thundering behind me:
“I'm late, I'm late! For a very important date! No time to say 'hello, goodbye,' I'm late, I'm late, I'm late!”
If I had given in to the strong impulse to chase him, I’m sure that I would still be tumbling down some rabbit hole tucked into the shadows of a Seelbach lobby column. Fervently wishing for this, or for the kind of magic which attends the letting of strangers tell you tales, I lamented that the white-haired, twinkle-eyed storyteller was a video rather than a flesh and blood human who I could exhaust with my questions and enthusiasm. This wish expressing itself to my heart, it occurred to me to inquire with the concierge about a guided history tour, though it seemed a vain hope for 11:15pm.
“Oh yes, the next one departs in about 15 minutes.”
The gentleman conducting the tour which my desire had seemingly apparated for the very improbable hour of just-exactly-when-I-happened-to-be-in-the-lobby-desiring-it-o-clock was Patrick Rhodes. In his 13 years at the Seelbach, Patrick’s dedication to the hotel and its guests had earned him a prestigious Rose Award (“the Oscar of Kentucky hospitality,” he explained with a low chuckle). As the evening progressed, it became clear that the heroic Patrick was one of four total employees I counted working Saturday night shift at the 500-room Seelbach. Half a dozen times during our tour, static would crackle from his suit pocket, summoning him to a remote corner of the massive hotel with a bucket of ice or, after a more ominous-sounding broadcast (which I interpreted in hotel language to mean that a guest was being a pain in the butt), to restore order. Somehow Patrick managed it, and managed it with grace. During the interludes in which Patrick was otherwhere, I snapped photos and struck up a chat with the friendly St. Louis couple sharing my enthusiasm for midnight tours of old hotels.
We followed Patrick across the darkened stages of Seelbach legends. In the upper ballroom where Daisy Buchanan had married the wrong man, a crew of weary event staff disassembled the last of the evening’s wedding. I wondered if tonight’s happy couple had read the book whose fictional couple made their reception room famous? To follow in Daisy’s marital footsteps seemed like a dubious choice to me. Then again, I am an unmarried woman who travels with her cat.
Through a service entrance and pair of imposing doors relieved of their European castle, we stepped into the subterranean “Rathskeller” bar, where friendship---and fiction’s most famous character--- allegedly bloomed between F. Scott and bootlegger king George Remus. During the prohibition era, the Seelbach was a playground for gangsters whose bootlegging fortunes ran fast through it: in high stakes games of poker and blackjack, in bribes made to police, and in the seduction of fast-living dames, one of which landed in the bottom of an elevator shaft and still haunts the place as “the Blue Lady.”
Patrick tells us that interactions with the Seelbach ghosts are a part of his routine, much like bringing ice to the fifth floor. He explains that his upbringing was one of heart, mind, and soul, and that the phantomly things are just a part of life. Though the Blue Lady hasn’t officially been seen in years, according to Patrick, she comes and goes just about as she pleases. Also according to Patrick, she has personally confirmed to him findings of a recent investigation which allege that she did not leap into the service elevator shaft: she was tossed. “When did you see her last?” Mister St Louis asks Patrick. “Oh, about two weeks ago.”
Far below the Rathskeller, secret tunnels entwine with Kentucky’s famous cave networks, providing convenient egress for gangsters eluding prohibition agents. Above the Rathskeller and accessed by another hidden passageway (whose walls bear the scorchings of a more recent fire) is a secret room haunted in the 1920s by flesh-and-blood Al Capone. This room was outfitted with a two-way mirror and locking mechanism which could be tripped in the event of unwanted guests. In the stately dining room adjacent, a simpler ruse was employed by hotel staff and patrons. When the prohibition agents turned up, the revelers would hide their alcohol beneath the tables and hotel staff would throw cash at the federal party poopers to make them disappear. Exiting Capone's secret room, we passed through a cloak room whose magnificent beauty set a gal pondering the sort of world which lavished extravagance upon a chamber whose sole dedicated purpose was the collecting of coats and losing of gloves.
The evening’s melancholy notes lingered as I nestled cozily beside Mister B, thoughts drifting between sleep, Seelbach room 646, and a scene from the movie Somewhere in Time in which Christopher Reeve’s character finds himself haplessly tossed back through the decades, landing as an intruder in his own hotel room, once again occupied by its guest from 100 years previous. He hides from the woman as she moves around the room doing inconsequential doings, oblivious to the handsome time traveler. She plucks a pin from her hair. She absentmindedly hums a tune. She is unaware of the extraordinariness in which our gaze casts her, peering from another time.
I fall asleep thinking of the untold moments played out in this room across the nights and the years, and those playing out across the honeycomb of the Seelbach's additional 499 guest rooms, secret passageways, and dark corners. F. Scott understood: “There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year's shining motor cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered..."
My dozing is crowded with the parade of a century's costumes. The drunken leanings-in of bar conversation. Schemes and love hatched over drinks, forgotten in morning light, or transformed into great American novels. The newspapers, letters, and journals tossed for a time onto the desks, chairs and beds, to be replaced in turn by other newspapers, letters, and journals telling same-different stories. The tunes hummed quietly under breath while preparing for an evening dance. The lost hair pin still wedged somewhere 100-years after the hair has tumbled onto its pillow, fragrant and framing sleepy eyes, exhausted from dancing. The spilled Rathskeller drink, which may still be cascading, tumbling somewhere down below the hotel’s sub-subterranean levels, where even Patrick has not ventured. The honeymoons, tears, laughter, deaths, suicides, affairs, babies made, hearts broken, silent prayers, presidents, rock stars, the reversals of fortune. A lady with her cat, maybe, in some other room, some other time.
Mister Biscuit shrugs in his sleep. Probably, silly human. But now it’s time for sleep.
From what I could see under his mask, the gentleman greeting me at the desk in the morning was a dead ringer for the one in the “Legends of the Seelbach” video, so I chanced to ask. No no no, he said, though he gets that all the time. The star of the video is a man named Larry Johnson, who began working for the Seelbach in the 1980s, and loved it so much that he created a book dedicated to its history. Johnson was no longer employed by the hotel, as of very recently, having been laid off in the Covid upheaval. From the sparkle so evident in Johnson's "Legends" video, I suspect that this development is a mutual loss for both storyteller and hotel. Since the arrival of Covid, five to thirty of the Seelbach's 500 rooms have booked per night. Since March, only three weddings have taken place in the ballroom of inauspicious Daisy fame.
As I pull the door of 646 closed, the last thing I notice are the patches of dust left ragged on the desk where my computer and phone have sat. They leave near-perfect rectangles. With my new copy of Johnson’s book tucked safely in the old valise, Mister Biscuit and I step from the dim hotel into the bright sunlight of Louisville’s downtown. So recently the epicenter of Breonna Taylor protests, the boarded windows lining 4th Avenue remind us that new chapters continue to be written.
Watch Larry Johnson tell the "Legends of the Seelbach"
Buy Larry Johnson's book, The Seelbach: A Centennial Salute to Louisville's Grand Hotel
Meet the real Lady in Blue, as chronicled by Lisa Pisterman, in this thoroughly researched exposé
Visit the Seelbach