On her first trip to this city, the Grande Dame of Jacmel rode in with a chicken between her legs and a gun across her lap.
That was 30 years ago, when there was only one hotel in town and the journey from Port-au-Prince was a mettle-testing six-hour mountain trek.
“And it was marvellous,” Marlene Danies recalled wistfully, drawing out the ‘r’ for emphasis.
On that fateful ride in, Mrs. Danies had no idea who she was about to become, or what, exactly, she would be capable of conjuring from the worn and sleepy seaside city.
But within a year or so of her arrival, she was presiding over the meticulous construction of a 20-room hotel she and her Haitian-born husband, Eric, called La Jacmelienne. Before long, the two had developed the seafront gem into a legendary institution, inside of which racial and class distinctions melted. Together, they helped coax Jacmel into its last cultural renaissance, a bloom of arts, fashion, culture and tourism that suffused the city in the 1980s.
“It was a time when the international community was finally looking at us in a different light,” Mrs. Danies recalled. “All these investments were coming. … We saw the opening of industrial parks. We saw agriculture movements. We saw a need for tourism, and the importance of it.”
That sense of renewal, which ramped up during the reign of ex-President Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as Baby Doc, prompted Mr. and Mrs. Danies to abandon their home in Montreal to set roots in Haiti. They wanted to participate in the rebuilding and the best place to make an impact, they decided, was in Jacmel.
“We had the vision when we went down. We knew Jacmel was gorgeous. We knew it was the time,” Mrs. Danies said, adding: “And we worked on it: developing all the little artisan trades, refurbishing the beautiful old colonial houses.”
When La Jacmelienne opened in December, 1978, flaunting its Haitian-carved mahogany doors and local artwork, it was the city’s only real hotel, and its reputation exploded.
“Word just got out. It got to Europe and America. Tourist people came down,” Mrs. Danies said. Presidents visited; foreigners smitten with the hotel and the heritage neighbourhood surrounding it bought properties and opened art galleries to feature local work.
“Because of the type of place Jacmel is, we attracted only people that cared about culture and about something exotic,” Mrs. Danies said. “Let’s face it. Haiti is intoxicating and you can be seduced immediately by the colours and the sounds and the smells.”
Soon, La Jacmelienne garnered mentions in The New York Times and Gourmet magazine; the economic prosperity began to unfurl across the city.
“It just bloomed,” Mrs. Danies said. “It just never stopped.”
The massive earthquake of Jan. 12 split open the walls holding up the 31-year-old hotel and drove deep fissures into the white-tiled walkways that lead to its guest quarters. That night, more than a quarter of the city’s 700 hotel rooms were destroyed, leaving town officials wondering where, if they are ever able to reignite tourism, the guests will actually stay.
In the case of La Jacmelienne, the truth is that the heyday years had long been slipping away before that fateful night. Although the hotel was still operating when the earthquake happened, locals say it had been in decline since 1997, when Marlene and Eric divorced and she left Jacmel.
Three years ago, Mr. Danies died of a heart attack, spurring an estate dispute that has pitted his second wife, Marguerite, and the two young children they had together in Jacmel, against the Montreal-based team of Marlene and her adult daughter Donalisa.
The damage caused by the earthquake further complicated what was already a difficult situation; the future of La Jacmelienne is more than ever up in the air.
Since January, the long-distance tug-of-war has been in play between Marguerite, who seems to want to keep the heavily damaged hotel, and the Danies family, who seem conflicted over what would be best for the hotel – and the city.
“The hotel is practically nonexistent,” Donalisa Danies said in a recent interview, adding that she has been talking with two groups interested in buying the remains of the hotel to repurpose the property as a school, hospital or community youth facility.
“The property is immense and they could construct all kinds of things to try and start a new generation of youth in Jacmel that are able to carry out their dreams,” she said. “We think that the hotel and Jacmel could really become a new hub for youth, for culture, education, and a whole bunch of things.”
Does that mean the family that created the blueprint for cultural renaissance in Jacmel is passing up the chance to be part of its renewal?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Donalisa said. “It would take people like us to go back.”