Staying in Cannes for this year's film festival, I was amused to see that the InterContinental Carlton hotel had inaugurated a Sean Penn suite. In an enterprising take on the notion of the presidential suite, each year the president of the Cannes jury is asked to give his or her approval to an eponymous hotel room. During the 2008 festival, the Milk star "insisted on inaugurating the suite that carries his name," the hotel said.
Penn is just one of a slew of stars whose names have been appended to various Carlton hotel rooms: the list includes another Sean—Connery—as well as Sharon Stone, Sophie Marceau, Alain Delon, Uma Thurman, and Cary Grant. These names carry an aura, even though the suites that bear their names are not decorated by, or in any way pay homage to, them.
Among travelers who tour the world collecting suite experiences, one presidential suite—with its dining rooms, cavernous bathrooms, and aircraft-carrier-size terraces—merges into another. Having invested in these expansive rooms, hotels are seeking to make them memorable, in part by infusing them with celebrity. For me, simply naming a room after the judge of a film competition doesn't do the trick. I prefer a more authentic connection between the famous guest and the room that bears his or her name. Elton John, for instance, for whom the Carlton has named a suite, includes the hotel in the video for his 1983 hit "I'm Still Standing." Clearly, John enjoys a talismanic power among hoteliers, as his name is also given to a suite at the Ritz in Paris, overlooking the Place Vendôme.
Sir Elton is in distinguished company. The Ritz boasts a suite named after Coco Chanel, who lived at the Ritz from the 1930s until her death in 1971. Art historian Patrick Hourcade renovated the suite, furnishing it in the idiom of its namesake, with Coromandel lacquer, rock crystal, and oversize sofas stitched with Chanel's signature quilting alongside baroque mirrors and Chinese furniture.
Accommodations at the Ritz also include the Chopin and Windsor suites. But not every long-term resident deserves his or her own room; during the Second World War, the hotel was the preserve of top Nazis. None had an actual suite named after him, but their association lives on in literary works. As A. E. Hotchner tells it in his novel The Man Who Lived at the Ritz, Göring spent a lot of time in his suite, dressing up in women's clothes and guzzling morphine pills. One incident recounted in Mark Boxer's history, "The Paris Ritz," has the Reichsmarschall descending "from the Imperial Suite swinging his field marshal's baton—solid gold and studded with diamonds, made especially for him by Cartier—like a majorette. At the sight of him, a group of officers waiting for him burst into laughter."
On a happier note, the hotel's associationwith a famous American writer is celebrated in the naming of a room: the Hemingway Bar. Indeed, writers seem to enjoy a particularly fecund relationship with the world's great hotels; Proust and Fitzgerald also have named rooms at the Ritz. The Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok has had enough itinerant scribes pass through its doors to populate an entire wing, where laureates include Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, James Michener, Gore Vidal, Graham Greene, Norman Mailer, and, in a supremely witty touch of incongruity, the British romantic novelist Barbara Cartland, who was as famed for her love of pink as for her frothy prose; she even wrote to complain that the suite dedicated to her was insufficiently pink.
However, celebrity is a volatile commodity; its value can fluctuate. Indeed, this very principle was at the heart of a diverting film called Wings of Fame, with Peter O'Toole and Colin Firth, in which the afterlife was a luxury hotel where accommodations were up- or downgraded as a barometer of posthumous fame.
Morbid though it may sound, it is often wiser to wait to name a room until the celebrity is dead and his or her reputation assured by posterity, for better or worse. Anyone who stays at the Crillon in Paris will be familiar with the Marie Antoinette lounge, where the dauphine came to take her music lessons. It is hard to imagine a lovelier room in which to receive instruction, with an exquisite terrace overlooking the Place de la Concorde. Of course, the Place de la Concorde is also where the revolutionaries set up the guillotine, giving anyone on the terrace on Oct. 16, 1793, a perfect vantage point from which to watch Marie Antoinette lose her head.