THE CRAZY ’20s
The hotel, it was said “attracted dissatisfied wives and their lovers”. One of the most interesting love affairs of the crazy ‘20s was printed in the local newspaper. During one of the “soiree dansante’s”, a well-known Zagreb Don Juan seduced a young lady. Their love lasted for a few months, mostly using for its meeting places the luxurious hotel rooms, until the man found a new love. After a public quarrel, the lady “fainted” and a public scandal was aroused.
The first striptease in the country happened at a farewell party given by an Italian count, at which champagne and caviar were served, and during which certain ladies took off their shoes and clothes, remaining only in their underwear. The hotel was shaking, and the Manager, Mr. Matignon, went through the most difficult night of his life. One of the very interesting events of that time also took place in the Esplanade. It was the Miss Yugoslavia (1926) contest, organised by “Fanamenta”, a film company from Berlin. Miss Yugoslavia, and later Miss Europe was Miss Stefica Vidacic, the owner of a small café in Jurisiceva street. In the interview to the press this “charming young lady of almost perfect proportions, with greenish-brown eyes and brown curly hair” said that “she preferred men of a feminine type, but of a strong manly character”.
The hotel also became known through some incidents in which even the police had to intervene. Certain Italians opened a Club for golfers, using it as a cover for a casino. For some time, the police turned a blind eye, but when prostitution was mentioned, they closed the casino.
A RENDEZ-VOUS OF DISCTINCTION AND ELEGANCE
The Esplanade’s most frequent guests were journalists in the constant search for interesting people and special events. The balls they organised were the most attractive of all and for many years the biggest social event in the town. A great interest for this “rendez-vous” of distinction and elegance was aroused even by guests who came to see it from abroad. They couldn’t stop wondering at the fact that “a town of this size can put on a high class performance with so much good taste, beauty and harmony”.
This “most fashionably appointed hotel of Central Europe” attracted many famous personalities. What the Esplanade hotel meant for the social life of that time is proved by the following statement: “Being at the doorstep of the Esplanade was an event worth mentioning to the grandchildren”. Generations and generations talked about the elegant and mystical premises of the hotel with awe.
The guests of the hotel were also Asta Nielsen, the famous star of the silent movies and the stage and screen actress Gitta Alpar, who was so popular in Zagreb that her fans besieged the railway station and the Esplanade hotel for hours. Similarly, crowds waited for the arrival of the black Venus, queen of the Parisian cabarets, singer and dancer, Josephine Baker. Upon her arrival she had to fight her way through the masses at the main entrance of the hotel. The fans Croatianized her name and shouted “we love Pepica Bekerica”. Some puritan ladies of Zagreb demanded that her performance be cancelled, but in spite of that, the citizens of Zagreb could enjoy her half naked and sensual dance.
The European king of shoes, Bata, stayed at the hotel, as well as the greatest screen lover of that time, Vladimir Gajdarov. The signature of Lady Ashby, chairwoman of the International alliance for women’s rights is also in the hotel visitor’s book. Famous Charles Lindbergh, the man who first flew over the Atlantic Ocean, was one of the hotels guests and the French writer Jules Romains, with his young wife, stayed at the hotel for a couple of days, too.
Even the King of Spain stayed at the hotel, though the newspapers wrote about it after his death, immediately before the outbreak of war. The Prince of Nepal, one of the richest Indian maharajas, the ex King of Egypt Abbas Hilmu, German ambassador von Heren with his bad acts and presumptuous manners announcing bad times, were also the Esplanade’s guests.
THE ESPLANADE WW2 DAYS
In 1941, in the first days of foreign occupation, the hotel was completely empty: the last guests disappeared without trace and the new ones came: German officers. The Esplanade became the Gestapo’s and the Wermacht’s headquarters. At the numerous parties the Germans organised in the hotel much information, even the most secret, could be obtained. The war atmosphere was brilliantly described by the Italian writer, a well known anti–fascist, Curzio Malaparte, in his novel “Kaputt”. In 1943 he was war correspondent of a Roman newspaper in Zagreb.
One of the events we happily remember from those difficult war times in the guest performance of the opera singer Beniamin Gigli. He had such a strong voice that glasses in the Emerald Ballroom, were cracking. At the end, amidst mass consternation, he took a hat and collected money, which was later given to the maitre d’hotel to distribute among the staff.
Among the first guests during the reconstruction of the hotel in 1957 were the famous Italian tenor Mario del Monaco, and his wife.
It was a time when Arthur Rubinstein and many other prominent artists stayed at the Esplanade. A further connection with the world of entertainment and the arts was given by actors and directors, such as Giuseppe de Santis who, while making his film “The Road a Year Long” stayed in the hotel for several weeks.
During the ‘60s the most famous guests of the Esplanade were: Silvana Pampanini, Yul Brynner, Jack Palance, Rosana Podesta, Belinda Lee, Liana Orfei, Orson Welles and many others. The unpredictable Orson Welles was famous for never bending when a banknote fell from his pocket, however big it was. When he had his suits cleaned, he would never take back the money he left in his pockets. The hotel staff also remembers him as a great gourmand and very jolly man.
In the middle ‘60s, Anita Ekberg, the sex symbol of that time was expected in the hotel. As the time of her arrival was uncertain, a small welcoming committee was waiting for her at the reception. Not one of them had seen her before, but they thought that such a sexy lady couldn’t pass unnoticed. When an attractive blonde appeared at the main entrance, the committee greeted her, a short speech was made, and she was presented with an armful of red roses and escorted to the most beautiful suite. The lady didn’t look surprised, she even smiled happily.
The welcoming committee, satisfied with the reception, was having a refreshing cup of coffee, when another blonde appeared. This one was the right lady, Anita Ekberg herself, and the one they had greeted was her secretary. Anita made a joke out of it, not believing there could possibly exist men who would mistake her for her secretary.
In those years the Esplanade accommodated the most famous actors and the most famous artists – Domenico Modugno, Charles Aznavour, Maria Callas, Maja Plisetszkaia, Arthur Miller, Dizzie Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Aran Hachaturian, Henryk Szeryng, Pablo Casals and David Ojstrach.
DIPLOMACY IN THE EMERALD BALLROOM
Many a diplomat and world statesman came to the Esplanade. What did the hotel offer them? Was the service to their satisfaction? During Nikita Hruschtchow’s visit – a duck in red cabbage was on the menu.
Leonid Brezhnev and his delegation were offered saddle of venison a‘la wild and crabs. Prince Sihanuk was so delighted with the dinner the Esplanade’s cooks prepared for him that he gave the Chef Martin Macek gold dessert cutlery as a reward.
The Esplanade’s cooks delighted President Nixon with their culinary art as well. The British Queen Elisabeth showed a special admiration for the Chef’s ability and presented him with a gold coin for an expertly prepared guilt-head bream Dalmatian style.
Italian politician Fanfani was served veal knuckle royal style, a well-known speciality of the hotel. Among the statesmen who liked the Esplanade and its excellent cuisine were: Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, the President of Uganda Milton Obote, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the American senator Fulbright.
In later years the signatures of Andrej Gromiko, the Austrian Minister for Foreign Affairs, and later President, dr. Rudolf Kirschläger, the Italian Minister for Foreign Afairs Matteoti, Portugal’s Prime Minister Mario Soares, the French Minister for Foreign Affairs Maurice Couve de Murville and many others were in the hotel’s guest book.
Some statesmen and politicians passed through the hotel incognito. One of them was Panama’s president general Torrijos. Fortunately, a young man recognised the president and drew the hotel photographer’s attention to him. That young man later became the ambassador of Panama.
IN HIGH SOCIETY
1964 was a year of special importance for the Esplanade hotel. It was then that it joined the Inter-Continental Hotel Corporation, a corporation established by PAN AM, in order to accommodate their passengers in the best hotels in the world and at the same time offer them the best possible service and comfort. The golden years of the Esplanade start from this time: joining the corporation and entering the high society of the best hotels in the world.
In 1967, the Esplanade received the Zagreb city Assembly award for business performances. In 1968 it was nominated the best among 62 Inter-Continental hotels in Europe and the Middle East.
In 1975 by the acknowledgement of President Tito the Esplanade hotel received the Order of Labour with a golden wreath.
The long list of the worlds most famous celebrities becomes even longer: Pele, Kurd Jürgens, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Stuart Granger.
An interesting story is connected with Stuart Granger’s birthday. As he had already left the hotel on his way to Split, he couldn’t be given the usual birthday gift from the hotel, so a waiter, a cook, and the front office manager went after him to the railway station, greeted him and presented him with the huge birthday cake.
Elena Tessadri, a well-known Italian novelist, chose the Esplanade as the setting of one of her novels, and described it as a most beautiful and warm hotel. Writing about the hotel, she always emphasised its warmth, elegance and luxury. The Esplanade becomes the centre of social and cultural life of Zagreb, in which numerous events, symposiums, fashion shows, culinary competitions and gastronomic events are organised. World personalities, such as Errol Garner, Ike and Tina Turner, Cliff Richard, Gian Maria Volonte, Mikulski, Clay Regazzoni, Bob Guccione and others continue to visit the most famous hotel in Zagreb.
The year of the 50th jubilee of the Esplanade (1975) was of the greatest importance to it. The new Inter-Continental hotel was opened in Zagreb and the Esplanade was, in a way, its begetter and model.