Of pomposity and insecurity


The Ocean House.

The Ocean House.


Excerpted from Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary'' column in GoLocal24.com

One of the more entertaining recent stories in New England was Richard C. Morais’s denunciation in the Dec. 20 Barron’s of the service at the pretentious Ocean House, in the Watch Hill section of Westerly. Mr. Morais approvingly quotes Penta Travels as calling it “America’s Most Overrated Hotel’’. 

But first it should be noted that the $147 million rebuilding of the 19th Century resort hotel with the money and close direction of Wall Street mogul Charles (“Chuck’’) Royce (of Greenwich, Conn., natch) was done beautifully, albeit with furnishings with the sort of faux aristocratic/WASP imagery promoted by that brander extraordinaire Ralph Lauren (ne Lifshitz and born in the Bronx – a delightfully American life  story). The hotel is heavy on model boats and Chinese vases. It employs some locals (in addition to its cheap labor from abroad) and is a major source of revenue to some local businesses.

Anyway,  Mr. Morais and his wife had a generally unpleasant stay in what Travel + Leisure magazine  in 2014 had called the No. 1 resort in the  continental U.S.!

Mr. Morais’s tale of occasionally incompetent and arrogant service sounded pretty accurate to me,  at least based on a couple of meals we had there (one of them blessedly paid for by somebody else). In any event, the pomposity of service at the hotel is likely to be best tolerated by the sort of insecure customers who, among other things, want to feign not having to worry about money in a joint pitched to the rich and the wanna-look rich. Some are the same sort of people who stay in the tacky but expensive hotels, and buy the branded made-in-Asia junk, on which the con man Donald Trump puts his name.

Mr. Morais wrote:

“That night in the formal dining room, as at the spa {which also involved bad service}, we were handed menus without prices, as if we were faint-hearted Victorian women who couldn’t possibly handle seeing how much things cost. Again I was irritated. Then our obsequious waitress demanded to know our dessert choice before we had even started the meal, somehow under the impression we were on a simple Italian pensione meal plan. Our dinner, when it came—local oysters, halibut—was tasty enough, at $293 with a modest half-bottle of wine.

“But each course was introduced by ludicrously long and pretentious descriptions. Worse still, my wife and I tried to have a serious discussion over dinner, but the waiters interrupted us every few minutes, asking if everything was to our satisfaction. After the fifth or sixth such request, my wife whispered that it felt as if we had to reassure them of their job security.’’ Reign of terror at the Ocean House? Staff fearful of being shipped back to Sri Lanka or Mexico or Slovenia?

If the rumors about Hillary and Bill Clinton buying a place in Watch Hill turn out to be true,  maybe they can re-establish their frayed populist credentials by championing the rights of low-paid summer-resort workers. The Clintons have apparently stayed in the Ocean House and bought some books in Westerly’s Savoy Bookshop and Café on their visit after the election. One rumor had it that they were looking at real estate to buy.

I’m glad that Mr. Royce has pumped a lot of money into the Westerly area.  And  in his piece Mr. Morais  sometime sounded rather pompously privileged himself.  However, in the same piece, he did have nice words about the Castle Hill Inn, Newport – very expensive,  but not in the stratosphere with the Ocean House.


Now that the most corrupt and sociopathic person ever to inhabit the White House is in charge, will  there be a reaction against his gaudy sleaze, as there was in the ‘30s in reaction to the Gatsby-like excesses of the ‘20s?  Will it again become fashionable again, even for the new rich, to show less exhibitionism, more selflessness and more low-key civic-mindedness? Probably not: America’s decline into civic decay, celebrity culture and willful ignorance seems unstoppable, lubricated by cable TV and “social’’ media, which turns out to be pretty anti-social.

Another big question, of course, is whether Mr. Trump’s protectionism will lead to the sort of trade war that helped intensify and lengthen the Great Depression after the Smoot-Hawley tariffs of 1930. It will be fun to watch a Congress run by the Republicans rubber-stamp the protectionism even though the GOP has long prided itself as backing free trade. In the end, the configurations of political power and the associated spoils will trump (or Trump) principle.

Some economists have estimated that Smoot-Hawley and retaliatory tariffs by America's trading partners helped reduce U.S. exports and imports by more than half during the Depression, helping to drive American unemployment to 25 percent by March 1933.  History doesn’t repeat itself, but as Mr. Twain said, “there are rhythms’’ in it.