L’Habitation Leclerc – a memory

I began to write this morning at the best possible time, that moment of exquisite balance when nightbirds are still singing outside the window, and a mist of gray-green light has begun to rise from the ground. The house is quiet save for it's own organic sounds; the hums, tones, and sighs of a comfortable lifestyle support system calibrated for its occupants. Refrigerator, central heater, and here, in my study, an old clock. Incense sticks in a far corner waft subtle hints of sandalwood, vanilla, and memories of Le Salon Noir.

Haiti is on the frontal lobes of world consciousness for the moment. Everyone knows why, of course. Bloggers may be more plugged into international zeitgeists than most, but everyone is disturbed by the images and moved by the tragedy, possibly even to the point of making a contribution to relief efforts.  Some have an expertise that will help and they join with others, get on a plane and go. They go. Others, such as my sister, Florice and her husband, Charlie, have many Haitian friends in their Arizona neighborhood. They pray with, cry with, mourn with, their friends.

The disaster kicked open a rusted file cabinet in a musty old hallway of my unsorted memory coils. The year was somewhere between 1974 and 76. My first husband and I went to St. Croix, Virgin Islands for about five days. He was on an assignment to write a grant for some entity, which I have forgotten if I ever knew, to apply for funds for an alcoholism rehabilitation program in Christiansted.  From there, we went to Port au Prince, Haiti to spend three days at a small resort, L'Habitation Leclerc. He had seen a tiny display ad for this exotic place in a magazine, and the heart of this staid evangelical-boarding-school-raised boy quickened. L'Habitation Leclerc originally belonged to General Emmanuel Leclerc and his wife, Pauline neé Bonaparte – – Napolean's wild child sister.

In the late 1940s, dancer, anthropologist, and author, Katherine Dunham, bought the property.  She leased most of it to Olivier Coquelin in 1974. Coquelin is often mentioned for bringing discoteque to New York. He hired architect Albert Mangonés to design a 24-villa luxury hotel around the residence. It was a hot spot for awhile, drawing rock stars, jet setters,  and fashion magazine shoots.

 My husband and I were just young folks, working for the State of Florida, neither booted nor horsed; most unlikely guests at this posh venue.

The thing that sticks in my mind most vividly, still, is the taxi drive from the airport to the secluded hotel. Crowds of people lined the streets. Some seemed to be living there, with small bundles and baskets on their heads or by their sides.  They all seemed to be offering mangoes for sale. I'm sure that my 58 year old eye traversing that path during the same time period would have seen and retained much more than an image of everyone in the street trying to sell mangoes, but that is the only  image burned into the retinas of the mid-twenties me from the airport-to-hotel ride.

The three days at the hotel were surreal. Uniformed guards with Uzi submachine guns stood atop the stone wall encircling L'Habitation Leclerc. Guests swam in a sparkling swimming pool. It had a fantastical swim-up bar draped by a waterfall curtain. It was a world of manufactured perfection. Beautiful people, like Paige and Dusty, reclined on chaise lounges while white-coated servants delivered lobster and avocado salads in pineapples, and rum drinks in fresh-cut coconuts.

Mornings brought breakfasts of perfectly ripe tropical fruit and croissants, and a lilting-voiced question: "Banana daiquiri, madame?"

Evenings were spent in the dim-lit dining room/bar, Le Salon Noir. We savored rich French meals with a Caribbean accent, and lingered over espresso and cognac, doors open to the sensuous warm night air. There, in the flicker of tall, white candles, embraced by butter-soft black leather furniture, it was easy to forget that any other world existed beyond that walled compound.

The hotel has been gone for a long time, now. Coquelin went on to create an even weirder resort compound in which his pet baby leopards roamed freely. I am not sorry to say I was never there.

Baby leopards grow into full grown predators. Tectonic plates shift, and it all slip-slides away.



11 thoughts on “L’Habitation Leclerc – a memory

  1. Elizabeth, you write such beautiful commentary! Thank you so much for your recent kind remarks on my blog — they mean a lot. And I look forward to looking into that link you gave me!


  2. I found your blog site by deliberately searching for anything written about that glorious “back-in-the-day L’Habitation Leclerc”. Ever since the tragic earthquakes, I felt drawn to look back, for I too have a vivid collection of memory snap shots from my own 5 nt stay there in 1978. I can still “see” that taxi drive thru the busy streets with little children running after the car begging for coins and small dollars as I threw them out the window, moved at their urgent pleas. There were lots of wild, stray skinny dogs running around who looked as hungry as the townspeople. Men and women stood in open doorways, little cement “homes” without doors or windows, just openings. I wondered why my fiance’ had even picked this place to vacation? (I don’t wonder now..) Then there were the casinos and dance clubs. I was in my mid 20’s as well, now 56. We had a king sized bed with an overhead fan and a huge walk-in shower. High above the streets, and surrounded by a tropical forest of palm trees, we could hear the voodoo chants as a dozen or two natives danced around a fire, singing away the demons. Their cries would raise when they sacrificed a dog or some other animal. At least I have to believe it was an animal. Although it seemed quaint at first, I was relieved and thankful when they finally quieted down for the night somewhere around midnight…
    Each villa had their own little private swimming pool (in addition to the main pool) and we were each assigned our own “servant” who slept under our villa, at our beck and call. We were reminded that since the punishment for most crimes was death, we wouldn’t have to give a thought to being robbed, even though we were windowless ourselves… We’d open the shutters every day and lizards came and went as they pleased. One of my favorite memories was rising in the morning and walking outside always to find a small wooden table for two all set with cloth napkins, home made straw placemats and fresh flowers. We’d just sit down and within seconds, our server would appear, ready to take our order. I remember high tea offered every late afternoon in the open air dining room. I remember elegant dinners in a setting such like I’ve never seen since. Sometimes I feel as if it was all a dream and that I was never really there, for I have nothing else to compare it to. I remember the art galleries and the HEAT! In the summer it must have been 100 degrees during the day. I’d lie on the ledge of the pool and fall in or roll over into the water every 10 or 15 minutes to stay as cool as I could. Its sad to know that hotel is gone. Even if it wasn’t before, it would be gone now, with all the damage Port Au Prince has suffered of late. Thank you Beth for sharing YOUR memories. I’m there with you in the cobwebs, and if you ever want to connect, pls reach out to me anytime. Eternally connected by Leclerc, Your new friend, Diane


  3. Beth & Diane, I was rummaging and found the red & black matchbook from Hotel Leclerc from our visit there in 1979 and found you. Thank you for your memories and a mindful visit to a place of contrasts and dreams. Eliot


  4. I lived in Haiti with my father in 1978-79. He often pointed out Habitacion LeClerc as we passed by in taxis…he must have done this often, because in my memory, we lived at Habitacion LeClerc. For some reason, this name has been etched into my memory incorrectly as the neighborhood we lived in for most of our time in Haiti. I was surprised to Google the name and find that it was in fact the home of Katherine Dunham. We just saw it from the roadside…and my father hinted at the decadence of the estate, and it must have loomed large in my child brain as some sort of paradise.


    1. Thank you for stopping by, Michelle. I was so young (about 22) and unaware when I visited Habitacion LeClerc with my first husband (who had seen an ad for it in the now sadly defunct Gourmet Magazine).


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