From Waiter to Guest at Nantucket’s Grande Dame Hotel

In the summer of 1974, I was working as a waiter at the White Elephant, the grande dame of Nantucket hotels, a rambling gray-shingled pile that sits right on the island’s harbor. One muggy August night, I sent the six lobster dinners ordered by Francis Sargent, the governor of Massachusetts and his guests crashing to the floor when some butter on the heel of my hand propelled my tray off the stand I’d been kneeling to set it down on. Thinking about it still makes me cringe.

I had not been back inside the White Elephant in almost 50 years when, last spring, I returned to the island to check into the famous inn as a guest, size up its recent multimillion dollar makeover at the hands of the Boston architectural firm Elkus Manfredi, and ponder the ways in which both the island and I had changed.

Though it’s hard to believe today, when Nantucket airport is filled with rows of private planes that have delivered their owners to this island 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, many people clucked at Elizabeth T. Ludwig’s hotel when it opened a century ago. Without the social cachet of more accessible resorts like Newport, R.I., or Saratoga Springs, N.Y., it struck many people as folly to believe the swell set would spend their holidays on Nantucket.

Ludwig defiantly named her hotel the White Elephant. The galloping popularity of the place meant she had the last laugh, too.

Despite its name, the hotel became a success after it opened, giving the owner, Elizabeth Ludwig, the last laugh.Credit…Bill Hoenk for The New York Times
Bikes are a favored way of traveling around Nantucket and the hotel makes its fleet available to guests.Credit…Bill Hoenk for The New York Times

On a warm day in May, the island smelled the way it always had: a bracing scent of salt brine and peppery bayberry from the protected moors that cover most of its surface. On the way to the hotel, my cabdriver told me Nantucket had become too expensive, and I immediately noticed how much building there’d been. Still, I was amazed to see that the Chicken Box, a dive bar with live music and a pool table had survived.

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