I don't suppose anyone outside the so-called 'hospitality industry' was aware of the frolics, the fraud and the downright skulduggery that took place in the Hotel Budapest in the 1970s.
Nor will many today, bar those over 60, realise that for at least a decade after opening on New Year's Eve, 1967, it was one of the 'hot spots' in town, with a rooftop disco that was a go-to destination for the Budapest in-crowd of the day - plus some western visitors, usually male, who inevitably found themselves befriended by Budapest belles eager for a taste of the capitalist world.
Stamp of Approval: Hotel Budapest
was considered a major architectural
triumph it was conceived in the mid-
1960s. Its opening was duly celebrated
by Magyar Posta.
Such goings on were, if not exactly innocent, at least no more than a modern version of an old-style country barn dance.
But down on the ground floor, where the lobby bar was located, there were far deeper levels of iniquity playing out.
Well, as a new recruit in the spring of 1975, I soon discovered why front-office workers in the Hotel Budapest, be they receptionists, bar staff or londiners – the bell boys - always preferred to work the night shift.
You see, during the day, you had guests coming and going, some were good guests, some were less so, and your daily tips depended on the turnover, and the kind of guests that you were lucky, or not, to meet that day.
But on the night shift, well, things were very, very different, and sometimes you had ten, twenty and even more in, shall we say 'tips', than you got during the day shift. Because there were various, what you might call today, 'revenue streams' available, and they were worked to their limits.
In essence, everybody made money from everything. I'll deal with the more sedate side of proceedings, on the ground floor. Up on the roof, it was all youth chasing youth – it was pretty debauched at weekend, but straightforward enough.
But in the lobby bar - and this could be during an evening at any time of the week, if a guest met a girl and decided to take her up to his room, well, he was politely approached and told in no uncertain terms: “Excuse me, sir, but the lady with you, she's not staying in the hotel.”
At this, the guest would come back to the counter, and typically stammer: “Yes, but I'd like to take her up to my room. For a little drink, you understand.”
Whereupon the receptionist – that was pretty soon me – would counter: “I'm sorry sir, but you can take her upstairs only if you reserve another room for her.”
And then we made him pay for the other room, there and then, immediately! Except we never gave them a key, because, of course, nobody was stupid enough to suppose they would actually be sleeping in two different rooms.
And as he got no key, then that income was never registered, and the money went into our pockets. Well, we shared it out each morning before the day shift clocked on. Everybody knew this, including the management, but nobody could ever catch anybody doing it.
But this was just one tip of a very jagged iceberg.
The girls, I mean the regular prostitutes, were also part of the racket. The guys who'd picked them up, of course, wanting to be chivalrous, would usually offer them a drink. But the girls were told, don't ask for a cheap drink, like beer. No, they would ask for – well, in those days we called it Champagne - Hungarian pezsgő - or Tokaj aszú, expensive drinks.
And if you asked for room service at night, of course, you paid the first-class, hotel price, the room-service fee, and you had to give a tip.
So it all started to add up. But there was more.
Rather than sell drinks from the official bar, we would pop into a supermarket in the afternoon, before starting the shift, buy half a dozen bottles of pezsgő and Tokaj aszú, and put it in our fridge.
Naturally, these would cost only a fraction of the hotel price. And it meant that immediately someone ordered room service from reception, quick as a flash we'd take out the drinks, pop them all on a tray with glasses and napkins, and the londiner would take it up to room. He was told to insist on cash, in hard currency, and when he came back, he had to hand over the money to us to be shared out. If someone tried to have it written on their room bill, the londiner had to stress this was on a separate account.
And the prostitutes were also instructed to encourage the guy to tip well, otherwise make them feel a cheapskate.
So, there we were, all cooperating to get as much money off the foreigner as possible. In fact, there was a saying in the hotel: Mindent a kedves vendégért – everything for the dear guest – az utolsó fillérig bezárólag - up to his last farthing, but no further!
So, as long as the guest had money, his ass was licked clean. The moment he'd spent his money – Sorry man, if you need anything – not here!
This was the basic attitude. Well, to tell you the truth it took me about two-three months to get the feeling of this. At first, I was shocked, because what I saw around me was a series of, well, sometimes even crimes.
Then I discovered that this was a tradition, not the habit of one or two guys, but a tradition in the hotel business, to consider each guest as a big purse. And as long as there is anything in the purse, it is his duty to get it out of there.
Now prostitution was illegal in Hungary, then as now. So this is where the police came into the story. But, at least in those days, that meant things got even murkier.
However, I'll leave that for next time. Sorry this has been such a long time in the making – you know, my editor and scribe – the English bloke who owns this blog - has been busy with other stuff of late. It's outrageous, and certainly not right, but what can a pensioned-off former spy do? More anon, I promise. Gábor
Editorial Update: Magyar Nosztalgia freaks may like to see this film clip, taken from the 1973 comedy film Riadó a Pitypang Szállóban - Alarm in the Hotel Pitypang - which was filmed in/at the Hotel Budapest. From my brief viewing, the plot seems to be the need to show the new hotel to a senior Communist Party comrade, but when the party turns up, the place isn't finished, so they have to do a sort of Potemkin job to pretend the hotel is finished.
Some lovely faces in the film, even if you don't understand Hungarian. As for the rumour that the bell boy at 6' 40" is Gábor Rimner exploiting yet another 'revenue stream' in the hotel, I promise you this is not true. (It isn't, is it, Gábor ?)