When Swiss bankers loosen up at Zurich's Baur au Lac hotel, you can overhear some great gossip."I want you to transfer 10 million kronor from the joint account." In the hushed, orchid-filled lobby it was impossible for me not to overhear the elderly Swedish couple giving instructions to their banker, who was seated with them. The white-haired husband, his skin tanned to leather by years of living under Monte Carlo's sun, wore a gray silk suit and puffed raffishly on a cigarette in an ebony holder. He and his wife voiced concern their "crazy" children might try to break the family trust. The banker reassured them it was airtight.
Good to know.
And here Baroness Bertha von Suttner urged Swedish dynamite mogul Alfred Nobel to start an international peace prize.
Elsewhere, I noticed, other clients, including a beautiful Russian woman, were having consultations with gnomes of their own. Welcome to the 124-room Hotel Baur au Lac, unofficial club for Zurich's private bankers and a five-minute walk from the headquarters of UBS, Credit Suisse, Julius Baer, Bank Vontobel and other such institutions. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the cold heart of old Swiss money beating. Still owned by the descendants of founder Johannes Baur, the 161-year-old Baur au Lac has a platinum pedigree:
Yes, it was here that Austria's Empress Elizabeth summered with an entourage of 60. It was here that Richard Wagner performed the world premiere of Die Walküre, himself singing the first act (off-key), accompanied by his father-in-law, Franz Liszt, on the piano. And here Baroness Bertha von Suttner urged Swedish dynamite mogul Alfred Nobel to start an international peace prize. My own history with the place is somewhat checkered. I grew up in Zurich as a middle-class American kid in the 1960s and 1970s, fascinated to see the likes of John Lennon, Henry Kissinger and Walt Disney coming and going from the hotel. More exotic to me were the liver-spotted Swiss money men sipping Fendant, a dry white wine produced in the Valais canton, or getting their hair cut by Oskar, the hotel barber. Later, as an arrogant young reporter, I met the late Fritz Leutwiler, former head of the Swiss central bank (and co-chief executive of ABB), in the Baur au Lac's wood-paneled lobby. Leutwiler quietly let me know that Werner K. Rey--an American-style corporate raider then shaking up stuffy Swiss companies--was a crook. I dismissed Leutwiler's remarks as self-serving (big mistake) and went on to publish a pro-Rey story, even as his company collapsed and he, charged with fraud, fled the country.
When I returned to Zurich for a visit this past summer, I found the hotel had lost none of its attractive rigor or punctiliousness. It dispatched--as it will for any guest--a car and driver (dressed in a white, Prussian-looking uniform) to whisk me to and from Kloten airport. The Baur au Lac recently underwent a much-needed $75 million renovation: kitchen overhaul, soundproof windows and high-speed wireless in each room. The best improvement is a health club carved out of a penthouse suite, with treadmills facing sheer glass walls that provide spectacular views of Lake Zurich: fishermen trawling for pike, the snow-capped Alps in the distance. Zurich insiders still stalk the halls. I was reminded of their sense of ownership when I tried to check my e-mail on the hotel's free service. A heavyset man was tapping at one terminal; a woman's cardigan was draped over a second. The man barked that his wife--nowhere to be seen--would be giving up her spot in a half hour. An apologetic concierge whispered to me that the Internet hog was the chief executive of one of Switzerland's largest insurance companies. The traditional friction between the Baur au Lac's foreign guests and domestic oligarchs has produced a few memorable encounters. When Yves Saint Laurent strolled onto the terrace in a white jacket, a Swiss diner, assuming he was a waiter, archly berated him for slow service.
Alfred Hitchcock once convinced a proper but gullible Swiss matron he was a butcher on holiday, pointing to his enormous stomach as proof. The hotel's rack rate--$560 for a double room--struck me as worth it. My renovated room, done in a contemporary Bavarian style, had a large bathtub, handsomely lit by natural light from a frosted pane overhead. Of the hotel's three restaurants, only one is open all year--the hip (by Zurich standards) Rive Gauche Restaurant & Bar, serving modern European fare in a setting that includes a Swiss DJ and plasma-screen TVs with Bloomberg and CNN. The Restaurant Français, open in winter, serves classic, old-world French cuisine, as does Le Pavillon, open in summer. Set in an all-glass Victorian conservatory, Le Pavillon qualifies as one of Zurich's hidden jewels. Here a tranquil riverside lunch of risotto and langoustine reminded me of all that was fine and decent about my old hometown.