When John and Yoko Ono booked space in Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel in May 1969, the 29-year-old ex-Beatle paid $1,000 a night for the four rooms that became the setting for the newlyweds second Bed-In-For-Peace. Today, the refurbished “John&Yoko Suite” on the hotel’s 17th floor – part of a freshly completed $145 million hotel renovation– goes for about $1,900 and bookings are coming in fast, for what may be the world’s first interactive hotel suite.
A decade ago, Joanne Papineau, public relations director for Fairmont Queen Elizabeth, showed me around the famous hotel room where strangers had knocked on the door, and especially if they were young, had been welcomed inside by John Lennon. Large pictures of John and Yoko adorned the walls back then, but apart from roses left by an anonymous fan, the room was mainly famous for being famous.
Today, the large pictures are smaller but the original mood has been recaptured and reinterpreted by architect Sid Lee and designers at Unlimited and MASSIVart, using wit, style and technology. Rather than having to imagine 1969, visitors can experience it. Virtual reality headgear places you at the centre of the scene, from the first appearance of a hotel maid unpacking a suitcase containing white pyjamas, to the sudden onrush of photographers and reporters shouting questions in your direction – the whole circus atmosphere comes to life.
Although the publicity savvy pair had held their first Bed-In in Amsterdam two months earlier, neither hotel guests nor staff could have been prepared for the unfolding scene in Room 1742. In the words of a local radio reporter, “It was a mess.” Hordes of old and new friends, photographers and reporters crowded the room amid ongoing radio and TV interviews, music, and chatter. Ultimately, on June 1, Room 1742 was turned into a recording studio for Give Peace a Chance, John’s lively, enduring peace anthem. Walk into today’s suite, pick up the receiver on the green phone and you’ll hear John’s voice: “Hi, this is John and Yoko from the Peace Station in Montreal.” In another archival message, John says, “Go back to bed.” It’s strangely real. Similarly, a vintage television shows Bed-in videos. A tape deck plays four different interviews, a guitar (John arrived without his) like the one a Montreal musician loaned him while he was in town – an acoustic Gibson Epiphone – rests against its stand.
Today’s single stylish suite unites the four rooms that John rented, the furniture mirroring the couple’s own tastes: a new white bed, a leather couch, colourful Marimekko china in the dining room. Moving into the second bedroom, we enter a quieter space painted in ocean blues (Yoko means “ocean” in Japanese.)
Joanne tells me that John would periodically “hide” in here from the Bed-In, where he’d read the newspapers with Timothy Leary. John liked baths, and in another homage, a beautiful white tub occupies pride of place off this private room.
On one wall, a dozen drawers in a faux filing cabinet – the couple stored their ideas in a similar cabinet – open to reveal Bed-In era stories, photographs, videos artifacts and personal memories.
Gail Reynard, a local fan who gatecrashed the Bed-In, was asked to babysit Yoko’s daughter, Kyoko, away from the crowds. Tony Lashta, a Beatles-obsessed bellboy of 17, just three days on the job, was scolded by his manager and told to stay away from Room 1742.
When he told John, the rocker replied, “Come work for me in London,” and so he did.
Among the famous hanging out with John and Yoko were LSD guru Timothy Leary, poet Allen Ginsberg, and folksinger Tommy Smothers, all easily identified in photos of the room. We looked, but couldn’t find the face of John’s new friend, “radical” Toronto Rabbi Abraham Feinberg, who’d travelled to North Vietnam in 1967, part of a multi-faith peace mission. It was the rabbi who reputedly told the former Beatle, “John, we have to give peace a chance.” A radio crooner in his youth, Rabbi Feinberg joined the singers on the live recording.
His name and phone number appear in John’s handwriting on a rough draft of the song written on a hotel letterhead envelope. The Sunday Times later reported that John had originally planned to record the song with Rabbi Feinberg alone under the name “John Lennon and the Flaming Red Rabbi.” Instead, 50-odd friends and strangers sang along.
It’s natural to wonder what the couple would think of their old Bed-In site today. Yoko prefers her memories, I’m told, so hasn’t visited, but musicians often come to see it – including almost everyone who played at the recent Leonard Cohen memorial concert. The suite’s official opening was held on Sept. 21, International Day of Peace, when 40 bed sheets designed by various artists were displayed and auctioned for charity at the world’s largest Bed-In, held at the Place Ville-Marie Esplanade.
Interesting too that 1960s influences form visual constants throughout the “new” Queen Elizabeth. Carpets, lamps and furniture in bedrooms and hallways feature geometric shapes and honeycomb designs. On the lobby floor, in a large space called The Agora, a video of the most famous hotel recording ever – Give Peace a Chance – ends a compelling montage of the city’s long history. “We’ve re-invented the afternoon tea,” Joanne adds. Again, very 1960s, the new tea room, one floor above the street, has mustard-yellow chairs and mismatched plates, and tea is now served with an optional “glass of bubbly.” As a friend and I enjoy our tea and scones one afternoon, I think about the room service orders made in 1969 by the rockers for peace in Room 1742. Standard dishes from the kitchen were distinguished by special orders like “an extra-large comb” and a “cage for a white mouse.” Some things from the past, it seems, stay in the past.
If You Go: The suite is booked for the 50th anniversary of the Bed-In, but your odds of staying there are otherwise good. The suite may be open to the curious on certain days in future, but the renovated hotel offers lots to enjoy right now, including a chic ground floor bar and a fresh food market. The sounds of John and friends singing on video often waft from The Agora, a treat in itself.