In her recent memoir, “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, My family’s Exodus From Old Cairo to the New World,” Wall Street Journal Reporter Lucette Lagnado wrote of the fear that gripped the Jewish community of Cairo, Egypt in 1942.
German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel made a radio broadcast to that city from the Egyptian desert town of El Alamein where his army was situated. Rommel told listeners he would take their city, and would soon be dining at Groppi’s, a famous restaurant located on one of Cairo’s main thoroughfares.
Lagnado relates how the Germans, during the Second World War, made it a practice to patronize renowned eateries located in the cities they conquered, and how pictures of German officials dining at Maxim’s in Paris after that City had fallen to the German Army had been seen around the world.
But Rommel was driven back by British forces under General Montgomery, and the Jewish community of Cairo breathed a collective sigh of relief.
If a field marshal in command of an army were to have threatened Oklahoma City at that time with a similar message he would probably have said that he would soon be dining at the downtown Skirvin Hotel. As historian Bob Blackburn details in his history of that hotel entitled “A Tradition of Elegance,” throughout much of Oklahoma City’s history, the Skirvin was the City’s premier gathering place -- where politicians, powerbrokers, and the affluent went to dine and socialize.
Built by oilman Bill Skirvin, it officially opened in 1911. Skirvin lived there with his wife and three children in a five room suite on the ninth floor. His daughter Perle, would in time be known as famous Washington hostess Perle Mesta, and would serve as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. Her life was the inspiration for the Broadway play “Call Me Madam.” As Blackburn documents, the Skirvin’s guests included blanketed native Americans, ranchers, and even on occasion outlaws such as bank robber Al Jennings.
Skirvin, who described the establishment as his “ 225 room hobby,” could often be seen in the lobby greeting guests. After a major expansion and renovation in 1930, the hotel opened the Venetian Room and Restaurant on the 14th floor that featured live music and dancing.
After Skirvin’s death in 1944, the establishment was sold by his heirs to Dan James, who owned the Hotel Black that was several blocks from the Skirvin. James installed a pool on the north side of the hotel and also offered services for his guests that included a same day laundry service, a full time physician, a stenographer and a notary. The Skirvin had 250 employees to serve its guests during that time. According to Blakeburn, James pioneered employee benefits that included insurance coverage for long time employees of the Skirvin, and a Christmas dinner in the hotel that workers could bring their families to. James sold the Skirivn to a group of out of state investors in 1963, and the hotel was to change hands several times until it closed in 1988.
In 2007 it was renovated and reopened as the “Skirvin-Hilton Hotel.” It is once again a symbol of elegance in downtown Oklahoma City. Guests who fill its lobby today, such as those who attended last week’s gala in honor of The Oklahoma Gazette’s 30th anniversary, are as diverse as those patrons greeted in the same locale by Bill Skirvin in the early decades of the last century.