We have spent the summer researching and writing for our new project, Grand Hotel Palermo: Ghosts of the Belle Epoque. The book will focus on the history of the Grand Hotel et des Palmes, commonly known in Palermo as the Hotel delle Palme.
Through the hotel's illustrious and infamous guests we will tell the story of the city from the nineteenth century to the present day. The building originally belonged to the Ingham-Whitakers, an Anglo-Sicilian family with multiple business interests who started their Sicilian operations in the Marsala wine trade. When the palazzo was bought by Enrico Ragusa, he decided to turn the edifice into a luxury hotel which welcomed the likes of Wagner and Guy de Maupassant.
The hotel has witnessed the antics of duelling aristocrats, the death of a South American activist and essayist, the suicide of a French poet and the meeting of mafiosi from both sides of the Atlantic. Spies have walked its halls, stalked by Mussolini's secret service, before the invading Allies were in a position to commandeer its prestigious rooms to use as a base of operations. One Sicilian baron claimed to have been born inside its walls and would always insist on staying in the same room, whilst writing himself letters which he ostentatious collected from the reception. Another baron was supposedly sentence by the mafia to permanent exile within the delle Palme. He spent most of his life confined to the hotel, taking dinner at the same table, where he received the great and good from the worlds of art, music, literature, politics and cinema, including the singer Maria Callas, actor Burt Lancaster and artist Renato Guttuso. The ever flowing river of quirky and/or celebrity clientele paraded before the eyes of the hotel's ever attentive barman, who kept an autograph book which was signed and illustrated by many who made local and national headlines. The hotel has now settled into gentle retirement, welcoming tourists on a city break, as opposed to highly strung starlets, discontented actors and self-absorbed poets.
The story of the Hotel delle Palme encapsulates the recent history of Palermitan life.