Valentine Vester, who witnessed history as the proprietor of one of the Middle East's most storied hotels, has died. She was 96.
Vester spent the last years of her life in an apartment on the manicured grounds of the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem. The hotel, which sits on the dividing line between the city's Arab and Jewish sections, has served for decades as a favorite hangout for diplomats and foreign correspondents and as a backdrop for political intrigue.
Vester was born in 1912 in the English town of Alverstoke into the wealthy family of a Royal Navy officer. She came to Jerusalem in the early 1960s with her husband Horatio, the grandson of the Colony's founders.
Nicholas Vester, her son, said the move was "a colossal wrench," but that she "adapted to everything that was thrown at her."
"She and Horatio made this place into a global landmark by their wit and by being interesting enough that people would travel a long way to see them, and were flattered by their attention," he said.
Her association with the Mideast began even before the marriage. A relative who worked in the British administration of the Holy Land 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 move from Jordanian to Israeli control.
Over the years, her son 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."
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's husband's grandparents, Anna and Horatio Spafford, were millennialist Protestants from Chicago. They arrived in the holy city _ 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 proto-kibbutz. For a time, they observed strict rules of celibacy and even banned marriage because Anna deemed it little more than a "license to sin."
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.
Vester will be buried on June 22 in the historic American Colony cemetery on Jerusalem's Mt. Scopus, alongside her husband, who died in 1985. She is survived by two sons: Nicholas, who lives in Britain, and Paul, who lives in the U.S., and five grandchildren.