The Omni Parker House on Boston’s famous Tremont Street is the kind of building that screams of the history of the city. Placed between the Old North Church and the Boston Commons, and surrounded by dormitories and college campuses, the building still stands out. More than a hotel, it is not tall as some of the other skyscrapers of the city or as well known to the people who pass by it on their way to work or class or the Freedom Trail. Those who know understand it has housed some of the most influential people of the last century, and those really in the know speak of the ghosts that also are said to check in every now and then.
The name may have changed through the century and a half it has been open, but not its draw to famous people in the world of entertainment and politics. It has been a phoenix of sorts, originally open in 1855 and then reopened in 1927, and all the while it has been a stop for people seen in history books. It is said John Kennedy stayed there on more than one occasion and even asked Jacqueline to marry him there. It was the stop over for Malcolm X and Hô Chí Minh in their professional careers, the latter acting as a baker, although not the primary figure in our story.
Over the years, the hauntings there have become as infamous to paranormal enthusiasts. There seems to be several ghosts that roam the rooms, and the property has seen its share of tragedies that have created different culprits for the hauntings. The most frequently seen is that of the original owner Harvey Parker. Many residents and staff have seen a man matching his appearance, with his characteristic beard, walking the halls, often disappearing through walls. Some people have woken up to see him standing at the foot of their beds early in the morning or very late at night. Legend has it he sometimes asks if everything is alright or if there is anything he can do to help you. The most documented hauntings have happened in Room 303 where a man killed himself in 1949. People have heard conversations or laughing in the room when no one else was present. The odor of cigars and cigarettes have been smelt there although there was none lit, and a staff member returned to the empty room once to find a lit cigarette although he has just left the room. Fires have been set in the room, always found before any serious damage is done. People have also seen the man, whether it be a flash in the mirror, seen across the way in the window, or as a full person who opened the rooms door and shouted at one employee. The haunting had become so bad that the room was closed and turned into storage, and many people feel it is the inspiration for the short story and movie 1408, originally written by Stephen King.
The most lasting story of the hotel may be the one that never happened.
Some time ago, usually it is said to have happened in the late Sixties or early Seventies (although some have placed the story as happening only a few years ago), some friends were enjoying a lunch in the same place Camelot was formed. The Omni Parker House is said to have invented the Boston Crème Pie, so it was their tradition to order it as their dessert. Have finished, and having just finished the story or her last failure in making on in her own kitchen, one of the ladies asks the waitress for the recipe. The baker, just coming of his shift, deliveries the handwritten recipe on the hotel’s finest stationary and wishes her luck. Both women are floored and enjoy a good laugh until the bill comes. The restaurant has added five hundred dollars to it. They leave, paying only the price of the actual lunch. The woman is later contacted by the hotel’s lawyer and told she will have to pay or they will be pressing charges. Her lawyer tells her the same. You see, she received the letter, clearly looked at the recipe, and because she had asked for it on her own, she was liable for the price.
The woman pays the bill in disgust. She is so put off by the incident, she types the recipe out on note cards and travels the Green Line handing it out to anyone who will take it. She even gets it printed in the Boston Globe and goes on to post it anywhere she can on the Internet.
The story, however perfect, never happened. There was no handwritten code to the secret of the Boston Crème Pie or the march of revenge. If you ask authorities at the hotel, they will laugh and tell you it is all part of the mystique of the hotel, but its truth lies somewhere this side of the Tooth Fairy. It is what urban mythologist call a David and Goliath story and has its own history in the lore of Friend of a Friend (FOAF) tales. While it may have not been the first of such stories or the most widely circulated, it is the version Bostonians hold on to the most.
Most people who study folklore trace it back to an old wives’ tale told about a red velvet cake from the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City back in the 1960s, but the concept of the overpriced bill for a recipe was seen for two decades before that. Since then, the story has been told about Neiman Marcus Cookies, Mrs. Field’s Cookies, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, and even Gatorade. The basic elements of the story, the request, the recipe, the bill, and the revenge, carry through all the stories, and while the food changes, the appeal never does. There is even a similar legend told about a man who asked to borrow HTML code from a Web site, but that is not nearly as circulated, probably because you can’t eat code.
The draw for the audience is clear. A simple person, the David, is charged by the faceless company, the Goliath, and ultimately gets her revenge (it is important to note the hero of the story is almost always a woman). The basic setup is odd in that most people who eat at the places mentioned are members of the upper class, usually the bad guys in urban legends. Their revenge speaks to our basic feelings of being rolled over by big business and our desire to see the little guy win out over them. This is intensified by the fact places like the Omni Parker House are surrounded by “average” people and struggling students. There is also a deeper meaning in the story that points at our disappointment towards the hero herself, and one of the sexist themes unfortunately seen all throughout modern folklore. If she had just been able to make the snack herself, none of this would have ever happened. In fact, that is what happens when ladies go out to lunch and gossip.
The legend endures, and most places embrace the legends and use it as a way to poke fun at themselves. Many of the restaurants mentioned, including the Omni Parker, actually have printed note cards with the recipe ready for those who ask about the story (although the Omni Parker stopped this years ago). Some will even provide you with a fake copy of a bill with the recipe price included. Stories like this can not be killed, and it is better to be part of the joke than the butt of it.
If you are downtown and taking in a slice of history, stop in to the restaurant in the Omni Parker House and get a slice of Boston Crème Pie to go with it. It is a delicacy well worth the price, and better than the doughnut with the same name you can get at any of the 27 Dunkin Donuts you can get walking distance from the hotel. Enjoy the view and the company, even enjoy Massachusetts official dessert free of guilt. Let it end there though. Don’t ask for the secrets of making it in your own kitchen or they may just change their minds and force you to wash dishes for it. As the lawyers in training at Suffolk Law School on the next block will tell you, a law is a law if everyone believes it.