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OBITUARIES : Valentine Vester, 1912 - 2008

Owner of Jerusalem hotel

June 22, 2008|From the Associated Press

Valentine Vester, who witnessed history as the proprietor of the storied American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, died June 15. She was 96.

Vester spent the last years of her life in an apartment on the manicured grounds of the hotel, which sits on the dividing line between the city's Arab and Jewish sections.

For decades, the hotel has served as a favorite hangout for diplomats and foreign correspondents and as a backdrop for political intrigue.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators secretly drafted parts of the Oslo peace accords at the hotel, in Room 16. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now an international Mideast envoy, has a suite of rooms on the top floor.

Vester was born Valentine Richmond in 1912 in the English town of Alverstoke into the wealthy family of a Royal Navy officer. She arrived in Jerusalem in the early 1960s with her husband, Horatio, the grandson of the Colony's founders.

Her association with the Mideast began even before the marriage. A relative who worked in the British administration of Palestine between the world wars introduced her to King Abdullah of Transjordan, and another relative, Gertrude Bell, was a renowned British diplomat and archaeologist in the region a century ago.

Vester went on to live through much of the upheaval that shaped the modern Mideast. In 1967, she saw her hotel switch from Jordanian to Israeli control.

Over the years, her son Nicholas said, Vester "learned to really hate people who make wars."

"Very often her irritation with Palestinians and Israelis was summed up by the phrase 'A plague on both their houses,' " he said. The hotel, which has always seen itself as neutral ground, managed to maintain that status largely because of Vester's "intemperate hostility to extremists on both sides."

Vester's husband's grandparents, Anna and Horatio Spafford, were millennialist Protestants from Chicago. They arrived in Jerusalem -- then a neglected backwater of the Ottoman Empire -- in 1881 after losing their four daughters in an Atlantic shipwreck and then a son to scarlet fever. They wanted to do charitable works and await the Second Coming.

They gathered around them a community of Americans and Swedes, forming a kind of Christian kibbutz. The Colony's residents made a point of providing help to Jews, Muslims and Christians, and treated both Turkish and British wounded during the battles of World War I. When the Turks surrendered in 1917, their white flag was a sheet from the Colony's hospital, ripped in two and tied to a stick.

Around that time, T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, was a regular dinner guest, as was Sir Edmund Allenby, who commanded the British forces.

The commune eventually fell apart and became a family-owned inn. When the British left in 1948, it was damaged in the fighting that surrounded Israel's establishment and came under Jordanian rule.

In the 1967 Mideast War, the Colony was damaged again when a Jordanian tank positioned itself in the driveway and Israeli troops threw a grenade into the bar to flush out a sniper. The hotel is now managed by a Swiss hotel chain.

Vester will be buried today in the historic American Colony cemetery on Jerusalem's Mt. Scopus, alongside her husband, who died in 1985. She is survived by sons Nicholas of London and Paul of Los Angeles; and five grandchildren.

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