By Athanasios Dimakis
The first version of Willa Cather’s 1920 short story “Paul’s Case” was published as “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament” in McClure’s Magazine in 1905. The hotel sequence in the story introduces the aporias that hotels often generate in this period. In an attempt to escape from the banality and inertia of his middle-class environment, Paul, the protagonist of the story, flees to New York where, in a fit of self-indulgence, he rents a luxurious room at the opulent Waldorf-Astoria hotel. There he hopes to liberate himself from the frustration caused by his progressive realization of his queer “temperament” as suggested in the story’s original title.
The Waldorf-Astoria (1897) was considered to be one of the grandest of the grand hotels (Fig. 2). It symbolized the waxing of hotel culture in urban America. The old premises of the Waldorf, which “fixe[d] the standard of elite American sensibility at the turn of the century” (Wharton, 523), had to undergo full demolition in 1929 to make space for the construction of the Empire State Building in 1930. The Waldorf hotel in Cather’s story becomes for Paul a space of queer possibility as in it he indulges in a short-lived camp life which is evoked through shining surfaces and alternating colours. Paul’s entry “into the warm, lighted building, into an exotic, a tropical world of shiny, glistening surfaces and basking ease,” is juxtaposed to the bleak, heteronormative domesticity and monotony of his hometown Pittsburgh (Cather 1920, 38). The fact that in Paul’s “scrap-book at home there were pages of description about New York hotels, cut from the Sunday papers” (44), suggests that Paul had always envisaged the hotel as a counter-site, the “other space” that he dreamily aspired to inhabit. As a result, his transport from his bland provincial domesticity to the phantasmagoric hotel and its sensory stimulation is emancipatory.
The gilded hotel spectacle that Paul beholds while wandering like a somnambulist through the Waldorf dazzles him. The trance-inducing material flamboyance and flashiness of the hotel touches something immaterial, abstract, and private in Paul. The hotel space becomes fetishized and eroticized. The colourful dream evoked by the Waldorf corresponds with his artistic pursuits and his Wildean, camp aestheticism, igniting the queer desire of this daydreamer:
The lights, the chatter, the perfumes, the bewildering medley of colour he had, for a moment, the feeling of not being able to stand it. But only for a moment; these were his own people, he told himself. He went slowly about the corridors, through the writing-rooms, smoking-rooms, reception-rooms, as though he were exploring the chambers of an enchanted palace, built and peopled for him alone. When he reached the dining-room he sat down at a table near a window. The flowers, the white linen, the many-coloured wine glasses, the gay toilettes of the women, the low popping of corks, the undulating repetitions of the Blue Danube from the orchestra, all flooded Paul’s dream with bewildering radiance. (47)
It is mostly in Paul’s private room that the peculiar configuration of the hotel with its laissez-faire promise opens a range of possibilities for transgressive behaviour: “Everything was quite perfect; he was exactly the kind of boy he had always wanted to be” (Cather, 46). Having, most tellingly, become the kind of boy he had aways wanted to be within his hotel room, he has now metaphorically become a medical, bureaucratic, proto-queer “Case” as suggested in the story’s original title “A Study in Temperament.”* For Paul, the hotel room ambivalently functions as an anteroom, the antechamber for fully-fledged non-conformity. The blossoming of his sexuality is symbolically registered through the emphasis on flower arrangements: “[H]e rang for the bell-boy and sent him down for flowers” (45). The imagery of “the violets and jonquils on the taboret beside the couch” and the “cool fragrance of the flowers” combined with the sensualized view of a “resplendent” boy in “new silk underwear” suggestively playing “with the tassels of his red robe” disclose Paul’s anticipation of a queer future (45). The Waldorf-Astoria becomes “Paul’s entryway to a self we could call queer (or at least oblique to conventional masculinity)” as per Wayne Koestenbaum’s discussion of the role of opera in Cather’s short story (Koestenbaum 29). Having always felt like an out-of-place queer man perennially confronted by his father, he now feels perfectly at home within the counter-sites of the hotel. When Paul’s escapade is abruptly brought to an end, he kills himself. His hotel-sponsored final severance from convention could not have been more complete.
E. M. Forster’s “Arthur Snatchfold” (1928; published posthumously in 1972), progressively acquires the semblance of a “hotel case” (108) through the protagonist’s assumption of an imagined queer life within the hotel premises akin to Cather’s “Paul’s Case” (Dimakis 2021). The homosexual intercourse that Richard Conway and Arthur Snatchfold enjoy in the comfort of the green belt surrounding the hotel is conveniently misidentified: “How did the hotel case end?” he asked. “We committed him for trial.” “Oh! As bad as that?” (108).
Two years after the original publication of “Paul’s Case,” Henry James also gets lost within the labyrinthine Waldorf and its contrived mannerisms and affectations in The American Scene (1907). In James’s portrayal of the old Waldorf Astoria, the hotel becomes a potent symbolic marker of the elite sensibilities, amoral materialism, and aesthetic ideals of urban America. Despite James’s consistently critical tone, his understanding of the ideological significance of the “hotel-spirit” of the era proves to be prescient. The microworld of the Waldorf becomes a metonymy of the “American spirit” (James 79):
[At the Waldorf-Astoria] you are in presence of a revelation of the possibilities of the hotel—for which the American spirit has found so unprecedented a use and a value; leading it on to express so a social, indeed positively an aesthetic ideal, and making it so, at this supreme pitch, a synonym for civilization, for the capture of conceived manners themselves, that one is very tempted to ask if the hotel-spirit may not just be the American spirit most seeking and most finding itself. (James 78-79)
Cather, Willa. (1905) “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament,” McClure’s Magazine, 25: 74-83.
—. (1920) “Paul’s Case,” Paul’s Case and Other Stories. Mineola, NJ: Dover Thrift Editions, 2011.
Dimakis, Athanasios. (2021) “‘The hotel case’: Queering the Hotel in E. M. Forster’s ‘Arthur Snatchfold.’” In Polish Journal of English Studies, Special Issue on E. M. Forster, 7:2: 7-24.
Forster, E. M. (1928) “Arthur Snatchfold.” In The Life to Come and Other Short Stories, 97–112. New York: W.W. Norton, 1987.
“History.” The Towers – Waldorf Astoria Residences, New York, https://www.waldorftowers.nyc/en/history.
James, Henry. (1907) The American Scene. Ed. John F. Sears, New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
Koestenbaum, Wayne. The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
Paul’s Case. Dir. Lamont Johnson, Monterey Video. 1980.
Wharton, Annabel. “Two Waldorf-Astorias: Spatial Economies as Totem and Fetish.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 85, no. 3, 2003, pp. 523–43. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3177385. Accessed 6 Nov. 2022.