It’s customary to give gifts on birthdays and anniversaries, but The Roosevelt New Orleans is putting a unique spin on this tradition. The historic hotel turned 125 in December of last year, and as part of its ongoing anniversary celebration, The Roosevelt is inviting former guests to return any items they may have taken—on purpose or “accidentally”—to the hotel, no questions asked.
There’s no item too big or too small to be returned, and former guests will not only be rewarded with a clear conscience. The hotel is offering “the chance to win a grand prize of a seven-night stay in the presidential suite, gourmet meals cooked by the hotel’s executive chef, spa treatments, and more” in exchange for the temporarily returned items—you can reclaim your tiny soaps and slippers after the contest has ended.
Jacob Tomsky, author of Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality, worked for several years in various positions at a luxury hotel chain in New Orleans, including housekeeping and purchasing. He said that people will pretty much steal anything: “robes, branded linens, pillows, slippers, shampoo bottles, larger electronics, plates, cutlery, and even batteries from the remote.”
Hotel employees aren’t shocked by their guests’ sticky fingers, and, in fact, in most cases theft is cautiously encouraged. As a general rule, employees won’t confront a guest when an item goes missing for fear of embarrassing them and discouraging repeat business. Branded items that make their way out into the world serve as de facto advertisements for their respective hotels. There is “an inherent value for hotels in having items worth stealing,” Tomsky says.
People take menus not because they’re criminals, but because they want to remember an excellent meal. “What you’re taking is a memory,” Tomsky says.
From state capital to Sazerac capital
In 1892, when the popular Grunewald Hall Performing Arts Center burned down, Bavarian-born businessman Louis Grunewald decided to reopen it as a hotel. A year later, The Grunewald Hotel opened and a 400-room, 14-story annex was added in 1907. The hotel’s bar, called the Cave, is thought to have been one of the country’s first nightclubs.
Despite its popularity, the hotel suffered during Prohibition and it was sold and remodeled, reopening in 1923 as The Roosevelt. The new lavishly decorated hotel—named in honor of former President Theodore Roosevelt, who died in 1919—had 505 guest rooms and occupied an entire city block. When Prohibition ended in 1933, The Roosevelt was on the receiving end of the city’s first legal liquor delivery.
Over the years, The Roosevelt has hosted its share of famous people, including Louis Armstrong, Vivien Leigh, Eartha Kitt, Dean Martin, Ethel Merman, Lena Horne, Marlene Dietrich, Jerry Lewis, and Ray Charles.
Huey “The Kingfish” Long, Louisiana Governor and Senator, had his own suite at the hotel. According to Theodore P. Mahne of The Times-Picayune, Long built the Airline Highway from Baton Rouge to New Orleans in order to cut 40 miles off of his journey to the hotel. “It also meant that the governor could speed his limo from the state Capitol to the Sazerac Bar of the Roosevelt Hotel in an hour flat.”
The Blue Room and buried treasure
The hotel’s famous Blue Room, which opened in 1935 and once included an ice skating rink, has hosted performances by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Tina Turner. According to the hotel, “items such as a plate from the Blue Room, Roosevelt Reviews from the 1950s, invoices from the 1940s, menus, and postcards have already been returned” as part of their Giveback Sweepstakes.
Tomsky says that, in his experience, the number one stolen item is the hotel robe. “Not everyone has a bathrobe at home. You get into a hotel room, put on this plush, wearable towel and just think, ‘There is something about these robes,’” he says.
Despite an epidemic of disappearing robes, Tomsky says he never once charged a guest for a robe, which are usually available for purchase. With so many people involved—housekeeping, hotel staff, previous guests—the cause of a missing item is usually nearly impossible to trace. “Go ahead, put that robe in your bag,” he says.
The contest’s grand prize—a seven-night stay estimated to be worth $15,000—is more than worth the embarrassment of surrendering that robe or old key tag you “accidentally” packed in your suitcase. But what if your stay could net you even more cash?
There are many legends that have cropped up in the hotel’s last 125 years, but no one is more enticing than the mystery of where Long kept his infamous “deduct box.” State employees who received a job from Long rewarded the politician with a portion of their salary—estimated at more than $1 million annually—which he kept in a locked box. Just before Long was assassinated at the State Capitol in September 1935, hotel owner and Long confidant Seymour Weiss inquired about the whereabouts of the box. Long evaded the question and the box has never been found.
The winner of The Roosevelt’s Giveback Sweepstakes will be announced in July. Items may be dropped off at the hotel’s concierge desk, or mailed; items that are gifted may be picked up after the contest, but can’t be returned by mail. The contest is open to legal U.S. residents, at least 18 years of age. See the full list of rules and details on how to enter here.