When I checked into Room 358 at the Fairmont Château Laurier, George Bernard Shaw was staring down at me, Irish eyes smiling beneath white bushy brows.
The black-and-white photograph of the eightysomething playwright was the only evidence in the large suite of its former tenants. Yousuf Karsh, who snapped the image, and his wife Estrellita lived in the same rooms for 18 years.
When they moved out, in the late 1990s, they took all their furnishings and personal belongings. But they left a parting gift for the hotel -- signed prints of seven of Karsh's most memorable portraits.
Now hanging in the reading lounge, off the main lobby, are: Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock, cellist Pablo Casals, and artists Georgia O'Keeffe and Jean-Paul Riopelle. The hotel had asked for one of the pictures to be displayed in the new Karsh Suite. Estrellita chose Shaw. Why?
"Because it's one of my favourites," she told the hotel's director of public relations, Deneen Perrin, at the time. "Yousuf and I discussed it and decided this was the one that belonged in the room."
Her husband photographed nearly every major figure of the 20th century: kings and queens, prime ministers and presidents, popes and movie stars. Many came to his studio three storeys above his suite in the Château Laurier to be immortalized by the man known as Karsh of Ottawa.
His widow recently recalled visits by Pierre Trudeau, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela -- and that Bryan Adams drew an admiring crowd when the Karshes entertained the singer in a hotel restaurant after his photo session.
The couple left the capital in 1998, moving to Boston, where Karsh died in July 2002 at the age of 93. He is buried at Ottawa's Notre Dame Cemetery, beside the ornate gravesite of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the hotel's namesake.
Karsh's former digs, of course, are haunted. Not by the man himself, but by the unforgettable images frozen forever in his photographs. At least that's what I discovered during my two-day stay in Room 358.
Shaw, who died in 1950 at the age of 94, proved a friendly ghost, with his mischievous eyes and white Santa beard. He seemed right at home amid the antique furniture in the living room, above the fireplace, dressed in a woolly jacket, vest and tie, clutching his reading glasses in his right hand.
But as I wandered through the rest of the suite, from bedroom to dressing room to bathroom, from formal dining room to kitchen, I could visualize the other famous faces Karsh captured.
I imagined a glowering Churchill framed by the window behind the desk in the living room, lighting a cigar and looking for an ashtray. His wartime ally, the haughty Charles de Gaulle, is nearby, lecturing Trudeau -- or is it the other way around?
In the bedroom, Pope John XXIII and John Paul II find a Gideon Bible in the nightstand; Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart check out the king-sized bed. (Maybe they'll always have Ottawa.) JFK is in the dressing room, slipping into a tux, while wife Jackie sits in a ballgown at the vanity. The three Marx brothers are in the giant Jacuzzi in the bathroom -- with Margaret Thatcher, Joan Baez and Fidel Castro.
Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer are in the kitchen, at the open steel doors of the old-fashioned icebox, attacking the mini-bar inside; the two Alberts -- Einstein and Schweitzer -- are at the counter, brewing a pot of tea.
Since her husband's death, Estrellita has returned to the Château Laurier several times. But she never stays in Room 358. "Too many memories," says PR director Perrin.
The Karsh Suite rate is $1,800 a night. For more information, call 1-800-257-7544 or visit fairmont.com.
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