When Sam Pope Brewer, the New York Times correspondent, arrived at the bar in his three-piece suit around 11 a.m. for his daily rendezvous with CIA operative Wilbur Crane Eveland, the Gibson Martini was the refreshment of choice.
For Time magazine’s John Mecklin, on the other hand, the preferred potation at the start of the working day was Scotch and water. As for Kim Philby—ostensibly a reporter for The Observer and The Economist, but in fact perhaps the most infamous double agent of the entire Cold War—he was a late starter, not arriving for his first gin and tonic till 1 p.m. It wasn’t that Moscow’s most valuable man in MI6 was any more temperate than his peers; he simply preferred to wet the whistle at another establishment down the road beforehand.
So began a typical day at Beirut’s St. George Hotel in the late 1950s, according to then-Radio Free Europe reporter Saïd K. Aburish, another regular patron who later authored The St. George Hotel Bar: International Intrigue in Old Beirut (Bloomsbury, 1989). With apéritifs duly imbibed, the day’s business got underway. Depending on who else walked in throughout the afternoon, this business could involve plotting the restoration of monarchy in Baghdad with Iraqi exiles, subverting a particular branch of the Saudi royal family, helping a would-be assassin of the Syrian president flee the country, or taking a lustrous CIA espionne out dancing for a week to sustain her cover (Aburish ended up marrying her). Presumably, at some point, the reporters also did journalism.
This was ground zero of what the CIA’s Miles Copeland, himself a familiar face at the bar, described in his eponymous 1969 book as the “Game of Nations.” Within the Middle East, Lebanon had taken on unique strategic significance in the first few decades of the Cold War. An officially-neutral medley of political and religious identities, with Swiss-style banking secrecy, and a polyglot ruling class renowned for anything-goes decadence and venality, it was a geopolitical midpoint between then-radical Egypt and the conservative Gulf kingdoms; between Washington’s foe in Syria and its ally in Israel. Britain’s MI6 made the Lebanese capital their regional headquarters after the 1956 Suez fiasco. So crucial, indeed, was the tiny Mediterranean state deemed that in ‘58 the U.S. Marines were sent in to defend the government against the apparent prospect of a left-wing, pro-Soviet revolution (of the kind that, just one day previously, had undone the Western-backed monarchy in Iraq); the only instance worldwide of the Eisenhower Doctrine being applied militarily on the ground. From the 1949 coup in Damascus to the 1953 one in Tehran, to innumerable assassination attempts and arms deals from Amman to Aden, few were the intrigues without some connection or other to the St. George. To paraphrase Aburish, if Beirut was the center of the Middle East, then the St. George was the center of Beirut—and the bar was the center of the St. George.
Conceived while Lebanon was still a French Mandate territory, the St. George was a product both of France’s mission civilisatrice and the fantasy of recreating the lost Belle Époque on the Orient. Completed in 1934, it was in fact reserved “almost exclusively” for French nationals at first, wrote the late Samir Kassir in his classic history, Beirut; “only a very few Lebanese were admitted.” Over time, an elite Lebanese and wider Arab clientele would grow in number, though a colonial air would endure long after independence was (nominally) attained in 1943; one British correspondent, Colonel John Slade-Baker of the Sunday Times, is said by Aburish to have addressed all waiters as “boy,” to their great irritation.
Designed by local architect Antun Tabet, in collaboration with three French colleagues, the hotel’s exterior bears the imprint of the famous concrete pioneer Auguste Perret—builder of Paris’ Théatre des Champs-Élysées, among other Art Deco landmarks—who had mentored Tabet at the École des Beaux-Arts. “Strategically located at the tip of the bay,” surrounded on three sides by the Mediterranean, with its “daring use of exposed concrete,” the hotel instantly became “iconic,” wrote the architect George Arbid in a recent aperçu. As well as the hotel proper, there was the adjacent beach (where Kassir cites reports of nudism in the ‘30s) and the boat club, home to the most extravagant yachts in the city.
It was, indeed, a place of fantastic spending, no less than spying. In amongst the CIA and KGB agents—or, just as likely, accompanying them—were the region’s wealthiest oil executives, airline tycoons, and bank barons; celebrating the latest contract, or perhaps recuperating from the previous evening’s outing at the nearby Kit Kat nightclub. In the 1960s, the hotel’s name would be further immortalized by a string of celebrity visitors, from Marlon Brando to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to the Egyptian sensation Umm Kulthum and her Iraqi counterpart Afifa Iskandar.
If the ’60s are remembered now as Beirut’s golden decade, they were also the years in which the seeds of the coming 15-year civil war were sown—not that those lounging by the St. George pool were likely to have taken much note. By 1975, the year war broke out, the St. George “had become too expensive for the liking of newspaper accountants,” then-Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Randal wrote in his 1983 The Tragedy of Lebanon (it was the Commodore, further inland, that would be the foreign press’ bastion during the war). Nonetheless, Randal happened to be lunching there when in October the so-called Battle of the Hotels was launched; rival militias appropriating the capital’s finest five-star resorts for use as sniper towers and rocket turrets.
“The hotel staff began rolling up the carpets rather than allow the militiamen to soil them,” recalls Randal, who suddenly found himself trapped on the premises with the gunmen, “nervously” telexing off his reports as the windows shattered around him. Together with the handful of others present, including CBS’ Bill McLaughlin and crew, Randal would spend the next three nights sleeping on the dining room floor until eventually the U.S. ambassador sent an armored limousine to pick them up.
A sign of the way things were then heading came a few days later, when the latest militia to occupy the hotel segregated its staff by religious sect, freeing those of the “right” denomination and detaining the unfortunate remainder. In his final chapter, Aburish details how his father, Muhammad—himself a veteran Time magazine staffer—went in person to the headquarters of the faction responsible and secured the 18 captives’ release. As happy an outcome as that was, when the ordeal was over, back at the Commodore Muhammad “buried his head in his knees and began to cry.” The St. George, as he and so many others knew it, was no more.
At some stage of the war—the St. George’s owner, Fady El Khoury, tells The Daily Beast he doesn’t remember when exactly—the looted and torched hotel was taken over by the Syrian army, which had occupied much of the country since 1976. This would endure until the late ‘90s, when the Syrians withdrew from the site, only for a new impediment to emerge in the post-war government, whose billionaire Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri envisaged a sweeping transformation of the city’s waterfront.
Solidere, a construction company founded in 1994 and granted quasi-governmental, mixed public-private status for the purpose of rebuilding the city center, sought the St. George Bay for its all-new development, which involved significant land reclamation from the sea. El Khoury contested Solidere’s rights to the bay. Hariri’s government backed Solidere—the largest shareholder of which happened to be Hariri—and the company plowed ahead with its plans, seizing the bay, filling in the water around the St. George, blocking its access to the sea with a thick concrete wall, and removing the dozens of boats from its marina by force. As a Solidere spokesperson explained to The New York Times in 2001, “Many investors were reluctant to go on as long as the marina problem was not solved.” (A request for comment sent by The Daily Beast to Solidere received an email reply that no spokesperson was available.)
Stripped of its beach and boats, the St. George was nonetheless on the path to restoration when, in an eerie irony, in February 2005 Hariri was assassinated in a giant suicide bombing just as his convoy passed the hotel, killing five of its staff and causing $15m-worth of damage to the building. Were it not for the vital structural repair work already carried out, the explosion “would have brought the building down,” El Khoury says. With the façade left in “terribly ugly” shape, the painstaking process of reconstruction began once more.
Today, the St. George’s pools and restaurant are open to the public in the warmer months, but the hotel itself—and its legendary bar—remain out of action. On a pleasant early spring afternoon Monday, I walked inside the grounds, deserted but for a few workmen assembling wooden sun umbrellas. The restaurant would resume serving food, and the empty pools would be filled, next week, said a waiter emerging from a doorway. Meanwhile, I was welcome to sit on a poolside table and have a drink. In a bid to summon the Philby ghost, I made it a gin and tonic. Across from me, on the other side of the pool, on what used to be open sea, people strolled up and down the promenade of “Zaitunay Bay;” the end result of Solidere’s work that finally opened in 2011 (all of it “totally illegal,” according to El Khoury). Behind the walkers, scores of yachts, some truly enormous, were moored; behind those, between the 26-story Four Seasons Hotel (opened 2010) and the grey hulk of Le Yacht Club Beirut (2014), I could still see a slice of the view of Mount Lebanon that once so enthralled those on the bar terrace now just above my head.
Turning to study the hotel itself up close, it strikes me it appears in excellent condition overall. El Khoury confirms it doesn’t need any major further work at this stage, but the Beirut municipality “intentionally” denies him the permits needed to finish the task. In spite of this, he draws a measure of optimism from the relative calm that has befallen Lebanese politics in the last couple of years.
“It’s been twenty years now, and after these twenty years, I hope that because the government has changed, and the relationships between the antagonists are getting more civilized, maybe the St. George will win the fight and be built soon.”
Is it so much to ask? A case can be made that the St. George belongs to that class of hotels, with the New York Plaza, the London Savoy, and the Paris Ritz, that have become more than hotels; they are historic monuments. (The St. George is also, for better or worse, like Jerusalem’s American Colony, Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace, and Singapore’s Raffles, a self-contained museum of colonialism.) It may seem a trifling matter next to the average Lebanese citizen’s myriad other, more immediate concerns. But, all the same, every night that someone can’t stay at the St. George—and drink a Gibson martini at its bar—is one in which a needless injustice to heritage is perpetuated.