Finest Hour 108, Autumn 2000
PHOTOGRAPHS BY LA MAMOUNIA & DAVID DRUCKMAN
“This is a wonderful place, and the hotel one of the best I have ever used.”
“It is the most lovely spot in the whole world.” So said Winston S. , Churchill to Franklin D. Roosevelt about Marrakech in 1943. The Prime Minister, who had persuaded the President to visit his favorite haunt after the Casablanca Conference, made this remark while they gazed at one of the beautiful sunsets for which the city is famous, the setting sun tinting the distant, snow-capped peaks of the Atlas Mountains velvet red. Such scenes often inspired Churchill to take up his paintbrush in Marrakech, though during World War II he found time to paint only one picture: it was done on this occasion. Invariably on his visits, Churchill chose to stay at the luxurious Hotel La Mamounia not least because the views from the roof were incomparably “paintaceous.”
La Mamounia takes its name from the surrounding gardens, which were once called the “Arset El Mamoun.” Two centuries old, these gardens, usually referred to as a park, have a history of their own. The Park once belonged to the Prince Moulay Mamoun, the fourth son of Sultan Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah, who reigned in the 18th century. It was customary for the Sultan to offer his sons, as a wedding gift, a house and garden located outside the Kasbah. For his marriage present, Moulay Mamoun received the park, which has since always carried his name. It is said that the prince used to hold extraordinary garden parties here. The magnificent garden remaining from such royal revelry adds to the pleasure of present-day guests, as much by its size (nearly 20 acres) as by its unusual flora.
Designed in 1922 by architects Prost and Marchisio, La Mamounia managed to combine the Moroccan architectural tradition with the very latest in Art Deco design and decoration. The hotel originally had 100 rooms, but was expanded in 1946, 1950 and 1953, and now includes nearly 200 rooms.
In 1986, a vast renovation programme took place to create the look of today’s La Mamounia. A larger and wider main entrance was constructed, incorporating the traditional elements of Moroccan architecture: columns, arches and painted wooden doors. The porch, dating from the 1920s, has remained intact and opens into the 1920s style “Salon of Honor.” The salon has also remained the same with the exception of a large chimney, added during renovation, which accentuates the room’s ceremonial character. Today this entrance is used when welcoming guests of honour.
Throughout the year, from the four corners of the globe, visitors come and go at hotel La Mamounia. Before the Second World War, guests from Europe and America even brought their own furniture, so that they could enjoy the exotic surroundings while still feeling “at home” in their rooms. Longtime employees at the hotel still tell stories about the stately dinners for which the men dressed in top hats and tails and the women, bedecked with exquisite jewels, wore long evening gowns.
Of the many famous people who have visited La Mamounia, Churchill is the most renowned. He would wander from balcony to balcony, following the sun on its daily route in order to render the colour of his painting as real as possible. Several of his paintings of La Mamounia’s gardens hang in England. General Charles de Gaulle also stayed in the hotel after the Casablanca Conference. The director of the hotel was obliged to have a special bed made to accommodate the General’s considerable height.
Over the years the reputation of Marrakech and La Mamounia have attracted the attention of both French and American film makers. Eric Von Stroheim filmed “Alerte au Sud” in 1953. “Morocco” with Marlene Dietrich was filmed there, as was Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” In 1955 Charlie Chaplin was warmly welcomed to the hotel. Those who followed from the film world include Omar Sharif, Charles Aznavour, Joan Collins, Elliot Gould, Ted Danson, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Curtis, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston and Sylvester Stallone.
With the film stars came the fashion world, some designers, such as Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Balmain, buying homes in Marrakech. In 1968, with the explosion of rock groups, Marrakech welcomed the Rolling Stones, while the group Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young wrote the hit song “Marrakesh Express.” Other stars from the world of music have included Johnny Halliday, Elton John, Vanessa Paradis and Sacha Distel. Royals and Statesmen who have discovered the hotel, some to return on a regular basis, include Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Princess Alexandra and Angus Ogilvy, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Prince Naruhito of Japan, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
Todays guests are welcome to leaf through the Livre d’Or (visitor’s book), kept in the General Manager’s office. It contains comments from many of the hotel’s celebrated guests. A love of La Mamounia and Marrakech seems to unite them all.
Winston S. Churchill to Clementine Churchill (Spencer-Churchill Papers; reprinted by kind permission)
30 December 1935 Hotel Mamounia
My darling Clemmie,
At last the sun! I thought we should never overtake it. I think we travelled from England with a blizzard. You saw what happened when we landed at Majorca. It was just the same at Tangier, so we came on here. And no sooner had I opened my tin boxes than a perfect deluge—the first for three months— descended around the hotel. However it was only a shower and we have had two perfect days. All say that the prospects are bright.
This is a wonderful place, and the hotel one of the best I have ever used. I have an excellent bedroom and bathroom, with a large balcony twelve feet deep, looking out on a truly remarkable panorama over the tops of orange trees and olives, and the houses and ramparts of the native Marrakech, and like a great wall to the westward the snowclad range of the Atlas mountains—some of them are nearly fourteen thousand feet high. The light at dawn and sunset upon the snows, even at sixty miles distance, is as good as any snowscape I have ever seen. It is five hours to the ridge of the Atlas and they say you then look down over an immense area, first a great tropical valley, then another range of mountains, and beyond all the Sahara desert.
Rothermere came on here with his party and we were warmly welcomed by L-G, who has been here for three weeks in perfect weather, and proposes to stay till February. Mrs L-G and Megan1 arrive on the 8th. He is busy writing his book and is very splendid and patriarchical. What a fool Baldwin is, with his terrible situation on his hands, not to gather his resources & experience to the public service.
I am painting from the balcony, because although the native city is full of attractive spots, the crowds, the smells and the general discomfort for painting have repelled me.
You would be staggered by what the French have done out here…it is very pleasant to see what a vigorous civilised race can do in creating order and progress in these ancient deserts.
How I wish you were here. The air is cool and fresh for we are 1500 feet high, yet the sun is warm and the light brilliant. It is much the best place I have struck so far. But the whole country is full of interest. The soil is black or red and of great fertility, plenty of water, fine harbours, everywhere excellent hotels. We must see how things go on, how far you are amused with your winter sports; how the political situation in England leaves me. But do not altogether exclude the idea of taking the boat at Marseilles. There are ten thousand ton steamers every week which in forty hours will take you to Casablanca, from which three and a half hours in a motor car brings you here. A etudier!
We get excellent French newspapers and so are able to follow the French side of the political drama. There is no doubt we are in it up to our necks. Owing to this vigorous manifestation from the depths of British public opinion, the French have come a long way with us against Mussolini and they will expect a similar service when the far greater peril of Hitler becomes active. We are getting into the most terrible position involved definitely by honour & by contract in almost any quarrel that can break out in Europe, our defences neglected, our Government less capable a machine for conducting affairs than I have ever seen. The Baldwin MacDonald regime has hit this country very hard indeed, and may well be the end of its glories.
Now the one thing that matters seems to be to try and find seats for those two ragamuffin MacDonalds!2 Luckily I have plenty of things to do to keep me from chewing the cud too much.
New Year’s Eve. My beloved I have just heard yr voice on the long distance. It was a vy Miaou cat & I cd not hear much, but it was sweet to get in touch across all those distances. All my wishes for yr happiness in the coming year. Rothermere offered me 2 bets. First £2,000 if I went teetotal in 1936.1 refused as I think life wd not be worth living, but 2,000 free of tax is nearly 3,500 & then the saving of liquor 500 = 4,000. It was a fine offer. I have however accepted his second bet of £600 not to drink any brandy or undiluted spirits 1936. So tonight is my last sip of brandy. It was kind of the old boy to take so much interest in Randolph’s health & my own. I think you will be pleased.
My beloved pussy cat, I will write you again vy soon. I have been idle today. No Marl, only a little daub & a little bezique. Randolph is of course wanting to fight Malcolm M.3 but I hope he won’t be able to—because it would put a spoke in my wheel & do nothing good for him. I do not think he would really when it came to the point.
Tender love my darling one
From your ever loving husband
Mr. Druckman of Arizona, who travels widely, wrote about his visit to South Africa in FH47 and to Gallipoli in FH9Q. This year he and we persuaded “La Mamounia” to allow him to visit the Churchill Suite. Written material courtesy Hotel La Mamounia.
Footnotes by Sir Martin Gilbert
Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume V, Part 2
1. Megan Lloyd George, 1902-66. Younger daughter of David Lloyd George. Liberal MP, Anglesey, 1929-43 and 1945-51. Pres., Women’s Liberal Federation, 1936 and 1945. Companion of Honour, 1966.
2. In the 1935 election Malcolm MacDonald, the sitting National Labour MP, had been defeated by F. J. Bellenger, the Labour candidate. Ramsay MacDonald was also defeated by a Labour candidate, Emmanuel Shinwell. Ramsay MacDonald eventually found a safe seat at the Combined Scottish Universities, to which he was elected on 31 January 1936. Malcolm MacDonald was elected for Ross and Cromarty on 10 February 1936.
3. Malcolm John MacDonald, b. 1901. Son of Ramsay MacDonald. Educated at Bedales and Queen’s College, Oxford. Labour MP for Bassetlaw 1929-31 (National Labour 1931-35); for Ross and Cromarty, 1936-45. Parliamentary Undersecretary, Dominions Office, 1931-35. Privy Councilor, 1935. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, 1935-38 and 1938-39; Colonial Secretary, 1935 and 1939-40. Minister of Health, 1940-41. High Commissioner, Canada, 1941-46. Governor-General of Malaya, Singapore and British Borneo,1948. Commissioner General for South-East Asia, 1948-55. High Commissioner, India, 1955-60. Governor-General of Kenya, 1963-64; High Commissioner, 1964-65. British Special Representative in East and Central Africa, 1965; Africa, 1966-69.