The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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The Michael Matthews Reader
Thursday, August 30, 2018 -- Soap. If you want to understand Michael Matthews, who died at 78 on August 19, allow me to point you to his 2009 column on the soaps in hotel bathrooms.
"Bulgari makes a great line of soaps," wrote the man who spent a lifetime selling, marketing, building and managing luxury hotels. "But just try unwrapping a bar. You need a knife and crowbar and then some. Shrink-wrapped soap doesn't work when you're trying to open it in the shower with wet hands."
To be honest with you, I didn't know Michael well. But I know he liked the good stuff and the great places. So I can't help but laugh along with the image of him desperately trying to unpack a bar of Bulgari in a ritzy hotel bathroom somewhere in the world.
Michael made me laugh all the time. Whenever one of his columns dropped into my inbox, I knew there'd be jokes and joy. Even in 2011, when he first matter-of-factly told us he was gravely ill, he made me laugh.
And his last column, from last year, kept us laughing through his pain. There was the guy who couldn't pry open a bar of luxury-branded soap suddenly shopping in Victoria's Secret.
I wish I could write a proper obit for the man. But, as I said, I didn't know him well. I only met him a few times in my life. I can think of twice in Hong Kong, once in Seoul, once in Philadelphia, once in Dallas and maybe four times in New York. But, damn, the man could tell a funny story. When I pitched him to write a hotel column in 2003, all I hoped to get from him were his great stories. I didn't even know if he could write, but I figured if I could get those great tales, JoeSentMe members would benefit.
Michael's first whack at a column--he called it Hot Sheets--didn't cut it. I couldn't publish it. But after a few phone calls--and a couple of drinks at some bar to talk about things--he hit a stride. His columns took some editing, of course, sometimes more than I was comfortable doing. But, damn, he got stories across. And he was game for anything.
He didn't blink when I suggested he visit a Motel 6. He had some fun at my expense, made me laugh and rendered a fair judgment. His wife booked him into LaQuinta properties. He took it with good grace and humor. And he sought out a Drury Hotel after that little-known chain in fly-over country kept winning awards. I didn't complain when he used identical lead sentences for the Motel 6 and Drury Hotels columns. Michael knew who he was--and he didn't want you to forget he was slumming it. But he enjoyed the slumming.
You should know that Michael came by his luxury cred honestly. In a career of achievements, he brought us what was the greatest hotel of its era, the amazing Regent Hong Kong. It changed lodging forever from the moment it opened in 1981. In 2014, he wrote about his experience getting the property to the public--and seemed genuinely humbled by the fact it was on the market for a cool $1 billion. But we need Martin Deutsch, his friend of more than 30 years, to deliver a classic Michael Matthews moment.
"Mike ... was sent to London before the [Regent] opened," Deutsch wrote in 1982. "His mission: find the classiest possible transportation for the Regent. Dressed in jeans and a sweater, no shave--looking scruffy on purpose, I suspect--he went to the ritziest Daimler dealer in town and asked for a test drive, with a chauffeur, of course. Grudgingly, he recounts, they gave him the ride. When he came back, he said: 'Wrap up that car and five others like it and ship them to Hong Kong.' Matthews said he'd always fantasized about doing something like that."
Michael took the work seriously, but never himself. And he was always brutally honest about the fantasy that surrounds the term "luxury." Consider his column called Murdering Jeeves, which demolished the entire concept of hotel butlers. Long before other hoteliers would admit it, he'd tell anyone who'd listen that room service was an awful idea for hotels and guests alike. He was unsparing when he thought a hotel was taking advantage of its luxury cachet.
But if you want to understand Michael--or any human being--consider how that person reacts to adversity. Matthews looked mortality in the face and laughed.
What more can you say about a man? Except that after a lifetime of hotel-keeping, he knew a great hotel when he saw one.
In his next-to-last column, in 2015, Michael predicted great things for a newly opened small property in Barcelona. Three years and nearly 1,100 reviews later, it sits atop the TripAdvisor charts as the best place to stay in that lodging-rich town.
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