Secret Whiskey, Urgent Telegrams & Letters From Ma
A Historic Showdown at a Nashville Hotel
Photographed by Emily Dorio
When Carrie Chapman Catt checked into The Hermitage Hotel in downtown Nashville in the sweltering July of 1920, she didn’t expect to stay long.
Catt, originally from the Midwest, was 61 years old that summer, and leader of the National American Woman Suffrage Association out of New York. For decades, she’d worked with Susan B. Anthony and other leaders of the fight for women’s suffrage. All of them had criss-crossed the nation by rail, year after year, working every city, township and holler for the cause.
At last, victory was at hand.
Seventy-two years, to the very month, had passed since the landmark convention at Seneca Falls, New York which began the long fight for votes for women. Now, the suffrage movement needed just one more state to ratify the 19th Amendment, enfranchising women nationally. In many states, particularly out West, women already had the vote. But the South had been resistant. Catt didn’t have a lot of hope that Tennessee would be the one.
The Hermitage Hotel, however, made a good base of operations, within sight of the Capitol building. The hotel, opened in 1910, still had the sparkle of the new about it. The Grill Room restaurant was the place to be, with a menu of 75-cent veal chops or 40-cent crappie fried in cornmeal. And already, in its short 10 years, the hotel had hosted about 100 suffrage-related meetings.
Still, Catt had to determine the lay of the land. As Elaine Weiss details in her book The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote, Catt held a meeting with the Tennessee governor, and brought a bargaining chip to the table. She had convinced the local paper’s editor to scrap a satire of the governor; in return, she needed the governor to smooth the procedural path to ratification.
The deal got done–merely a first behind-the-scenes step, but a valuable one. Catt called the Hermitage front desk and dictated a telegram to the Association’s head office back in New York:
TENNESSEE PROMISING. MUST STAY INDEFINITELY. ADDRESS HERMITAGE HOTEL, SUITE 309
That telegram established the Hermitage as the suffragists’ field headquarters in this boss-level battle. Before long, activists streamed into Nashville to push for victory. But Catt and her allies were not the only ones setting up shop at the hotel at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Union Street.
Their opponents were on their way, too.
• • • • • •
A Thursday night in Nashville, 2023. A purple party bus bounces to the dancing weight of a dozen bachelorettes. The bus cuts slowly through the chaos of cymbal crashes and guitar solos escaping the open bar windows along Broadway. A clash of LED and neon lights brightens the sky.
When people here talk about “new Nashville” (often with a look of chagrin), this is what they’re talking about: a city that slowly (and then, seemingly, all at once) went from the capital of country music to all-purpose, over-the-top party and lifestyle destination. Even so, in Nashville, you don’t have to look far to find layers of new paint peeling back to reveal an older, deeper story.
The Hermitage Hotel, now 113 years old, has hosted a few parties over the years, and tonight is yet another. Inside the dining room, the air feels sepia-toned, with a modern hint of rose-gold. Mother-of-pearl chandeliers hang under an arched Rathskeller ceiling.
Hotels, especially older ones, can carry a special energy. Like train stations or harbors, they hold the anticipation of coming and going–an openness to hearing and making new stories. At the Hermitage, stories abound. Like the time Gene Autry checked in with his horse Champion (he stayed in a room that night). Or the nights Hank Williams, Sr. stayed during his Opry days. Or when Elvis had his shoes shined in the famed art deco men’s room. It’s where the Country Music Association formed. It’s where an early Nashville hit record originated (the Francis Craig orchestra’s “Near You”). It seems a certain serendipity can take hold when different people on a journey come together under one roof.
On this night, folks are here to taste the new spring menu, and mark a year since the restaurant’s refresh and partnership with world-famous chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Locals and tourists brush elbows for a taste. Vongerichten himself, the owner of a new pair of cowboy boots, is in the kitchen preparing plates of beet-cured salmon and caviar.
[L] Chef Kelsi Armijo, executive chef and [R] Dee Patel, Managing Director
At his side is Chef Kelsi Armijo, the hotel’s executive chef. And while Vongerichten might be the star name, Armijo runs the Hermitage kitchen every day and night. In the dining room, Dee Patel is greeting guests–the first woman to be named Managing Director in the hotel’s century-plus history.
Of course, the only concrete tie between Patel and Armijo and Carrie Chapman Catt is the hotel itself. But in the more abstract way that history really works, it’s hard to imagine The Hermitage Hotel of today without those moments more than a century ago, when the hotel’s corridors saw all kinds of maneuvers aimed at bending the course of the nation.
• • • • • •
As the hot, un-air-conditioned weeks of summer 1920 unfolded, the Hermitage’s mezzanine became a crossroads of rival political ambitions–in fact, of worldviews. Even as Catt ran her lobbying operation from the hotel, Josephine Pearson from Monteagle, Tennessee, commandeered the space overlooking the lobby. As president of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, Pearson rallied her allies at The Hermitage Hotel as well.
Over the next weeks, “the Antis” would set up a “museum exhibit” in the hotel, painting the suffragists as anti-religious feminists, and as historic allies of the late abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The Antis also snapped photos with an unfurled Confederate flag and an elderly Civil War veteran. One of their flyers promised to relay “The Truth About the Negro Problem.” That tract suggested a vote for women meant all women, therefore tipping power away from Tennessee’s white majority–not to mention the “domestic problems” such a change cause.
[The relationship between suffrage and the cause of racial equality is, it should be noted, complicated and vexed. While the work of Susan B. Anthony and other early suffragists entwined with the cause of abolition, over time many “Suffs” worked to offer assurances that white women voting would not threaten white supremacy. For millions of women of color, the 19th Amendment would do little by way of securing the vote; the Voting Rights Act of 1964 would prove much more significant. For additional perspective, see this piece by historian Tammy L. Brown.]
High-powered corporate lobbyists also filed into the hotel, a perfect place for mingling with off-duty legislators. Railroads and factories had long held sway over lawmakers, and those industries didn’t want women disrupting their control. “It really was remarkable, because it was these women going up against goliath,” says Carole Bucy, Davidson County’s historian.
And despite Prohibition–in effect nationally since that January, and which many of the Suffs supported in the context of progressive reform of the day–the liquor lobbyists set up a somewhat secret headquarters on the 8th floor of the hotel. In the so-called “Jack Daniel’s suite,” booze flowed and left legislators with whiskey on their breath at meetings or even more tipsy toward midnight, some singing the Anti’s rallying song as they swayed through The Hermitage Hotel halls.
But the Suffs fought too, with political meetings and constant visits with legislators. And, well, some creative tactics as well. Like the time, Sue Shelton White visited the Jack Daniel’s suite. As a member of the more militant National Women's Party, White had protested in D.C. and spent nights in jail, so she wasn't afraid of a little eavesdropping. After being asked to leave the area multiple times, Tom Vickstrom, hotel historian, says the hotel staff had to get involved. Newspaper headlines the next day: “Two Woman Spies Caught in Hotel.”
A bust of Carrie Chapman Catt by Alan LeQuire [L] and a archival materials [R] from the hotel's collection.
On the other hand, Anne Dallas Dudley, a well-heeled, Nashville-born Suff and an important face of the movement locally, employed a softer approach. It often worked, but not always. As Weiss details in her book, Dudley approached a lawmaker in the capitol halls who had complained about the swarms of out-of-town activists. While straightening his string tie, she reminded him that Nashville women want the vote too. He took out a pocket knife and snipped the tie, leaving her holding the bottom half.
When Dee Patel breezes through The Hermitage Hotel lobby–her stilettos clicking on the same Tennessee marble where the suffragists and their foes once walked–she seems to know every desk clerk, every guest on business and every local popping in for coffee.
Patel arrived at the hotel 20 years ago at age 21 to work as manager of housekeeping. She asked for the position specifically after a transfer from the hotel’s sister property at the time, The Jefferson, in Richmond, Virginia.
“You really need to know the heart of the house,” she says of her first Hermitage role. “It’s sort of where the magic happens. That’s why it’s called the heart of the house.”
Patel, born in England, graduated from high school in Mississippi at just 16 and headed for Johnson & Wales. Hospitality has been life. She worked her way up at Hermitage holding various positions and collecting accolades. “I really consider myself a steward more than anything else,” she says. “A steward of preservation, a steward of a historic institution in a city that considers the hotel to be the pride of Nashville.”
Meanwhile, Chef Armijo got her start in the hotel restaurants of Las Vegas where she grew up, and steeped in the scene. Her step-grandfather and grandmother opened Caesars Palace in 1966. (He worked as a dealer; she sold cigarettes.) And while Armijo originally intended to be a nurse, a community college pastry course detoured her into kitchen life. She eventually opened Vongerichten’s restaurant in the ARIA Resort & Casino as “a lowly, little cook,” she says. “I was the only female on the hotline, I was the only female on that line most of the time I was there. But I worked all the way through the line–every station–before anybody else.”
A student of today’s American food scene could make a flow chart of prominent chefs who have come through The Hermitage Hotel kitchen. Just as its lobby and bars have served as a schmoozy town square for Tennessee politics and Nashville business, the kitchen has been a training ground for Southern culinary talent. (Sean Brock, a nationally recognized proponent of Southern cuisine, for one). But Armijo is its first female executive chef.
“The industry has changed tremendously,” she said, standing in the hotel bar, a space rumored to have been men-only for a time. “We have probably more women back there today than we do men on the line. In fact, that is very true. I think I have one male cook back there today.”
Armijo came to the hotel from the Peninsula Beverly Hills in 2021 just as the Hermitage was going through a refresh. With Patel leading the hotel’s team, that makeover removed heavy jewel tones from the lobby, accentuating instead the high Beaux-Arts masterpiece ceiling and hand-painted stained glass. Pulling from the pinks and grays of the original Tennessee marble, the designers also leaned fully into a downright feminine pink for a casual cafe up front, and a stunning ladies room that recently made the pages of Vogue.
The restaurant also got a new name, Drusie & Darr, for the two children who lived in the hotel with their father, a widower and former manager Dick Hall. A new branding took on a bold yellow, a nod to the suffrage colors signified by the yellow rose. Patel says she hopes the color shows the hotel’s commitment to history and inspires today’s girls and women, and men too. Over her time, she’s also picked up favorite stories from the hotel’s moment at the center of the movement. Like the time Catt found a bottle of whiskey in her room. Was it a sinister plant? Catt didn’t know. But she couldn’t pour it out–reporters or visitors might pick up the aroma. And she didn’t dare drink it either. So she snuck it off the property to hide it on the outskirts of town.
• • • • • •
Carrie Chapman Catt could see the Tennessee Capitol from the window of her hotel room, where she stayed for six weeks. But she never entered the chambers, leaving that role to the other Suffs in the fight. She knew, though, when the vote had finally passed–a deadlock of 48-48 broken by one vote–when she heard the whoops and watched a crowd stream from capitol wearing yellow sashes.
Harry T. Burn, the youngest member of the legislature at age 24, had arrived that day wearing a red rose in his lapel indicating support for the Antis. At the last minute, he changed his vote to “Aye.” His widowed mother in the small-town of Niota, Tennessee had written him letter: “Dear Son, … Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt… With lots of love, Mama.”
As Vickstrom tells the story, Burn climbed out the window of the legislative chambers to avoid the crowd after his vote. He hid for a bit in the attic of the state library (too hot) before exiting the window again and sprinting for The Hermitage Hotel where he passed through the lobby unnoticed.
The Evening Tennessean reported the scene–a crowd gone wild with chanting and singing, it surged to the governor’s office.
“It carried its joy and song into the Hermitage Hotel where the song and cries continued. Those who had stood for suffrage, including members of the House, outside men, and women gave a reception to themselves. ‘Rah for the immortal forty-nine’ was the shout. And the joy was unrestrained.”
• • • • • •
It’s one thing to say a hotel can hold history, but in the case of The Hermitage Hotel, at least one round pillar literally does just that. During the 2021 renovation–as circular saws whirled and hammers knocked–the employees quietly left a time capsule of sorts, a large kitchen pan full of yellow roses and photographs of suffrage centennial events printed on longlife archival paper. They left dollar bills and old menus. Patel also slipped in a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, from a barrel chosen by some of the city’s female leaders with the help of Lynne Tolley, the great-grandniece of Jack Daniel the man.
But even if the physical pieces of history crumble or fade, the legacy of Catt’s stay at Hermitage Hotel, and the tussle of competing visions and ideals that unfolded in its halls is perhaps more subtle. The ripples of our stories and choices can influence future generations in ways we might predict, but also ways we can’t.
“There’s a sense of resilience and perseverance,” Patel says, reflecting on the hotel’s history. “It feels powerful–like you are connected in some way.”