From the street, Montreal's Fairmont the Queen Elizabeth hotel looks spectacularly ordinary. Built in the 1950s by the Canadian National Railways above rail yards that funnel trains through Central Station, the 21-storey hotel could be easily mistaken for a government office block.
Yet the hotel's history is more intriguing than its plain exterior suggests. This is where John Lennon and Yoko Ono famously spent a week in bed in 1969 during the height of the Vietnam War. Their Bed-In for Peace (their second, after staging a similar event in Amsterdam) took place in Suite 1742, a corner room with views reaching all the way down Rene Levesque Boulevard, a major city thoroughfare. During the bed-in, some of the sunshine that streams into the room was blocked by handwritten signs – saying "hair peace" and "bed peace" - taped to the windows. I've arranged for a peek into the suite where Lennon and Ono installed themselves on a mattress below the picture window and gave up to 150 interviews a day (which included a belligerent encounter with Li'l Abner cartoonist Al Capp). Today, an elegant drinks table and low-slung armchair occupy the same spot. On one wall are framed lyrics for Give Peace a Chance, the anti-war anthem Lennon penned and then recorded with the help of whoever was in the room, including Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and Petula Clark. The sunlit sitting room connects to a bedroom decorated in muted cream and brown tones. Both rooms feature photographs of Lennon and Ono during the bed-in.
My biggest surprise, though, is that my host has brought along the hotel's security logbook from 1969. We sit on the sofa as she flips through the pages, revealing what went on behind the scenes. On May 26, 1969, the 4pm to midnight shift reported: "At approximately 10.45pm, Mr Lennon phoned to let me know that he would be arriving by 11.15pm. At this time I told him that some protection could be given, but he would have to come by the garage entrance where four [security officers] would escort him.
"The Murray Hill Limousine Service was to drive Mr Lennon by the garage entrance as instructed. At the last moment Dorval police drove Mr Lennon to the outskirts of the city and placed him in a taxi. He finally arrived at midnight where some 50-75 teenagers were waiting for him. Seeing that he was being mobbed by the crowd I went over to help him out while some bellman tried to push the crowd aside. We finally got him out and ... took him to his suite. He was satisfied with the accommodation and apologised for not coming by the garage entrance as instructed."
A few hours later, another report said: "We not only had tonight the visit of [Mr and Mrs] John Lennon ... but also of approximately 200 fellow Beatles who were running around in the lobby and unfortunately also sometimes a couple of them on the floors hoping to see their beloved 'John'.
"Security did their best to control these young people but quite a few guests looked rather shocked when they passed through the lobby seeing this long-hair demonstration. As the news [is] in every paper we can expect some visitors. The hotel was quiet again by 2am."
The logbook also holds Lennon and Ono's room-service orders. The menu – a mix of British and Japanese dishes – included a salad of radishes, cucumber, hard-boiled eggs, some onions (no tomatoes) and lettuce; broiled or poached filet of sole; and scrambled eggs with crisp bacon and grilled tomatoes for breakfast. For lunch, there was fried natural brown rice (served cold!), broiled salmon or English fish and chips. Brown rice returned on the dinner menu, along with turtle soup or consommé, lamb chops or hamburgers, and two-colour Jell-O(perhaps for Ono's five-year-old daughter Kyoko). Throughout the days and days of talking, Lennon and Ono were served orange juice and "Spanish smiles" (orange juice with honey).
The housekeeping department's report is here too: "Floor housekeeper was told corridor and suite were very dirty and littered with flower petals. Apparently, a Houseman had to vacuum three to four times per day since John Lennon threw flower petals into the air.
"Furniture was found in corridor without having notified the Housekeeping Department. All furniture had been taken out of the room, pictures taken off the wall; only the double bed remained in the sitting room.
"Ex-employee (bell boy) asked the Floor Housekeeper to clean John Lennon's shoes, since the shoe-shine people refused to do so. "Day of departure, suite had to be placed in order in an hour's time. John Lennon plus wife had to be asked several times to leave bed, so that the bed could be moved back into the bedroom.
"Dry-cleaning staff refused to touch (for cleaning and pressing) two floppy hats which were then given to Housekeeping and the Laundry Department to be ironed."
Management received a stream of guest complaints about the disruption but ultimately took the bed-in in its stride. On May 31, an internal note read: "Last night I received three calls from a woman treating me of all names because of John Lennon staying at the hotel, and today I received another call from a woman ... telling me that management should throw out Lennon from our hotel. My answer was that management knew exactly what to do without needing advices."
Fairmont the Queen Elizabeth is at 900 Rene Levesque Blvd W in central Montreal (fairmont.com). Air Canada flies from Sydney to Montreal via Vancouver, Melbourne passengers can fly Qantas to Sydney to connect; see aircanada.com, qantas.com.
The hotel's Bed-In for Peace package costs CA$899 a night; it includes breakfast in bed or at the bistro, souvenir white pyjamas and nightgown, and a recording of Give Peace a Chance.
SEE + DO
Climb Mount Royal to find the Give Peace a Chance sculpture embedded in the ground that showcases the phrase in 40 languages.
The writer was a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission