Graham Greene Would Still Adore This Hotel
As I pull on my swimsuit, I'm like any other tourist who has just arrived in the Caribbean: I can't wait to get to the hotel pool. But before I dive in, I strain to see if there are any blood stains. You see, this is not just any hotel pool--it's the one in which Doctor Philipot was found dead in Graham Greene's novel, The Comedians.
Wait a minute, I remind myself: That's fantasy, not reality. But the two worlds seem to intersect at the Hotel Oloffson (Greene called it the Trianon) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. "With its towers and balconies and wooden fretwork decorations it had the air of a Charles Addams house in a number of The New Yorker," Greene wrote. "You expected a witch to open the door to you or a maniac butler, with a bat dangling from the chandelier behind him."
Despite my morbid imaginings, all I see in the pool are a few leaves, so I jump in. But the feeling that I've stepped into The Comedians returns when I meet Richard A. Morse, the Oloffson's proprietor. Like the book's Monsieur Brown, Morse's family connections led him to an antiquated hotel that he hoped to restore to its former grandeur. The son of the late Richard M. Morse, an American professor who taught Latin American history at Yale and Stanford universities, and Emerante de Pradines, a famed Haitian dancer, Morse took over the Oloffson in 1987, a year after dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier went into exile.
Morse, a Princeton University graduate, came to study the music of vodou, Haiti's polytheistic religion, but he "needed a day job." Through the intercession of his half-brother, Jean Max Sam, Morse obtained a 15-year lease on the Oloffson, which was built as a home for the Sams in the 19th century. The family lived there until President Guillaume Sam was torn to pieces by a mob in 1915. The incident led to the first American invasion, when the mansion was used as a hospital by the Marines.
Ever since Morse took over the Oloffson, Haiti's political climate has been anything but hospitable to tourism. After a period of chaos following the Duvalier era, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, became President in February, 1991, but was overthrown seven months later. A reign of terror under Raoul Cédras ensued. Aristide was ultimately restored to power after a second American invasion, in October, 1994.
CORPSE PHOTOS. Instead of becoming a magnet for tourists, the Oloffson hosted employees of nongovernmental organizations, health-care workers, missionaries, reporters, Peace Corps volunteers, and adventure seekers, dubbed "minglers" by Herbert Gold in his book Haiti: Best Nightmare on Earth.
It's whispered that some journalists who hung out at the Oloffson would pay a $20 finder's fee to Haitians who located corpses that could be photographed. That's a lot of money in a country where 80% of the 8 million residents live in poverty, and the per-capita gross national product is $460.
Even today, the talk on the Oloffson porch inevitably leads to dead bodies--particularly when the body in question is a blanc, Creole for foreigner. Carjackings, AIDS, and random murders have scared away all but a few intrepid tourists. "We don't have enough dead bodies to bring in the foreign press, but we have just enough to keep the tourists away," says Morse.
The international community has turned its back on Haiti because its government has repeatedly broken its promises to foster democracy. More than $500 million in foreign aid has been frozen since former President René Préval, an Aristide protege, suspended the parliament in January, 1999. Last year's legislative elections, in which Aristide's La Fanmi Lavalas party won 80% of the seats, were marred by fraud allegations. After he was elected again in November, 2000, Aristide wrote Bill Clinton offering to include other political parties in his Cabinet, but the opposition parties have rebuffed his overtures. Given President George W. Bush's avowed reluctance to engage in "nation-building," it's unlikely the U.S. would intervene if Aristide is overthrown a second time.
With all the political uncertainty, Morse hasn't invested much in the hotel--and it shows. Americans used to the sanitized efficiency of Hyatts and Hiltons grouse about the 20 minutes it takes to get hot water and the unreliable phones. Port-au-Prince has an electricity shortage, and after-dinner chats are often punctuated by sudden darkness--whereupon Morse's aunt, Anna de Pradines, hits the switch on the hotel's generator, and the lights come back on.
My favorite pastime is sitting on the Oloffson veranda and waiting to see if someone interesting will join me. I'm never disappointed. There's the Haitian radiology professor who reads palms, a Danish "honorary consul" making a documentary about Haitian art, and an American detective looking into the case of a Louisiana woman murdered while vacationing in Haiti. "The Oloffson is the best hotel in the world. It's like hotels used to be. You actually meet people," says Leah Gordon, co-author of Lonely Planet Dominican Republic and Haiti.
Everyone I meet wants to know why I'm here. "Everyone comes to Haiti for a reason," says my driver, Alix, as we climb the hill to the rich suburb of Pétionville. "For some people, it's sex. For others, it's drugs." When I tell him I've come for art, he doesn't seem convinced.
Looking for the ghosts of Graham Greene novels and buying folk art aren't the only reasons I'm at the Oloffson. I'm also here to see Morse's band, RAM, which has a hypnotic sound that he describes as "vodou rock 'n' roots." Fortunately for the Oloffson's cash register, Haitians and expats alike pack the hotel every Thursday to hear the 14-piece band. If Morse, 43, is the band's houngan, or priest, his wife, Lunise, 30, embodies Lasirene, the goddess of seduction.
Over the years, RAM's wide appeal has led to some tense showdowns between Aristide supporters and former Tontons Macoutes--the notorious security force named for "Uncle Knapsack," the bogeyman in a Haitian fairy tale. As chronicled by Bob Shacochis in The Immaculate Invasion, Morse would take his life in his hands by performing Fey, "a harmless arrangement of folklore" that became a protest anthem during the Cédras regime. Today, as Morse warns that Aristide is in danger of becoming the latest in a long line of Haitian dictators, the hotelier acknowledges: "People get killed here for saying stuff like that." There's speculation that the reason Morse is still alive lies in his American citizenship. Asked if it's true, Morse says: "Some people say that."
Sometimes it seems like everyone in Port-au-Prince knows Morse. When a Peace Corps volunteer named Jason Wians helps me make my way through the city--which is perilously short of street signs, traffic signals, and manhole covers--to see the brilliantly colored murals at Holy Trinity Church, the caretaker points to one and asks: "You know Richard Morse? Richard has many artists' paintings because they used them to buy drinks."
When I tell Morse the story, he offers his own version: The artist Stevenson Magloire "didn't always like the prices his dealers offered, so he'd sometimes trade with me." One day in 1994, Magloire called Morse looking for a copy of RAM's first CD. When Morse said he didn't have one, Magloire replied: "This is the last thing I'll ever ask you for." The next day he was found murdered, prompting Morse to write Aziyan, a song mourning the death of a friend.
Writing and performing have helped Morse come to terms with the violence and mystery of life in Haiti. But some hotel guests think Morse puts more energy into his music than into the Oloffson. "Richard needs to decide whether he wants to run a hotel or be in a band," says Bryant Freeman, a University of Kansas professor who frequently visits the Oloffson. Still, working in a band has one advantage: If the Oloffson is ever forced to close the way the Trianon did, Morse won't have to become an undertaker like his counterpart in The Comedians.
By Monica Roman
Edited by George Foy