BOSTON — Perhaps the quintessential wartime hotel was the Commodore in West Beirut during Lebanon's long and cruel civil war, and later, during Israel's invasion, when artillery shells rained down on the town “indiscriminately,” as Tom Friedman of the New York Times wrote. The Times copy desk struck out the word from the published story, but it certainly seemed an apt description to those beneath the shelling. When the hotel was full I tried to bunk with a friend who told me I could have a bed, but underneath the bed was reserved for him.
The management took good care of their clients, and there always seemed to be electrical power for the telex, and plenty of liquor. Sometimes correspondents would make a booze run into Christian East Beirut to keep the hotel supplied.
However, when Islamic extremists, who denounced alcohol as the "satanic beverage," burst into the Commodore one day, Friedman wrote of it as another battle in the clash of civilizations. Friedman, who would win the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes in Beirut, wrote: "People often ask me what was the most frightening moment I have lived through in my four years in Lebanon. I was shot at by anonymous madmen more times than I care to remember. But in the end it wasn't the sight or threat of death that scared me most." No, his most frightening moment, he wrote, was when he saw a "tall, heavyset Shiite militiaman with a black beard and a wild look in his eye, and an M-16 in his hands, heading for the bar.
"Expecting such a visit, the bartender had hidden all the liquor bottles under the counter and had replaced them with Pepsi-Cola and Perrier. The militiaman wasn't fooled. He stalked behind the bar, shoved the bartender aside, and began smashing every liquor bottle with his rifle butt. When he was done, he strode out of the lobby, leaving a small lake of liquor on the floor."
"I think the reason the incident was so profoundly disturbing was that I was confronted that day something I had never seen so close before — the face of violent religious extremism," Friedman wrote. "That militiaman could easily have been smashing human beings as bottles." I don't think it would have made a dime's bit of difference to him." The easy-going Brits, in similar circumstances, tended to order up "satanics and tonic" all around.
Old hands knew how to avail themselves of a feature called the "Commodore laundry." When you checked out you would get a tall pile of chits that you had signed during your stay. If you knew the ropes, you asked that the bills be put through the Commodore laundry. The bills would come back, slightly fewer, but the total would be the same. The only thing missing were the bar bills, which had quietly been folded into your room bill, your dining room bills, even into the real laundry bill, but would never appear on your expense account.
I made the mistake of telling Gary Trudeau about this, and to my horror it showed up in a Doonesbury cartoon strip.
Editor's note: From the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s to today's conflict in Iraq, it seems that in most wars a hotel provides a stage set for a cast of characters trying to cope with the tragedy outside. You can read about some of them in this series: