Hotel Beau-Rivage *****
History of the five-star luxury
hotel in Geneva, Switzerland
Added on October 31, 2007
20 years after the death of the
German politician Uwe Barschel in the bathtub of the Hotel Beau-Rivage in Geneva
and speculations in the press about the cause of death, the attorney general of
Schleswig-Holstein put the 1998 report online.
Article added on December 9, 2003
The Hotel Beau-Rivage is one of
the pearls on the shores of Lake Geneva. Its history began in 1865
when Jean-Jacques Mayer founded the still privately owned five-star hotel. He
is the great-grandfather of the present owner and administrator, Jacques
Mayer, who runs the hotel together with his mother and sister. In a long and
substantial conversation during my stay at the hotel, Jacques Mayer told me
the history of his hotel and showed me old guest books.
Especially in the German speaking world, the Hotel Beau-Rivage is linked to
two tragic events: the assassination of the Austrian Empress Elisabeth (1837-1898)
and the suicide of the German politician and possible successor of Chancellor
Helmut Kohl, Uwe Barschel (1944-1987).
The Austrian Empress Elizabeth ("Sisi" or "Sissi") remains one of the most popular historical
figures. Her fame is partly due to tear-jerking, kitsch films with Romy
Schneider interpreting the role of the empress, who, at the age of 32, decided
that no more picture of her should be painted and no photograph be made.
Therefore, her public image remained one of an eternal beauty.
In 1898, despite warnings of possible assassination attempts, she traveled
incognito to Geneva. She stayed at the Hotel Beau-Rivage, where she had
already spent a week in 1897.
On September 9, 1898, she returned to Geneva with the one-o'clock boat to
visit Baroness Julie de Rothschild. Accompanied by Countess Irma Sztaray, the
two women strolled along the quay and then ate some of their favorite ice
cream. On returning to the Hotel Beau-Rivage, the Empress spent a long time
relaxing on the lounge balcony.
Unfortunately, a Geneva newspaper revealed that the elegant guest traveling
under the pseudonym of Countess of Hohenems was nobody else than Her Majesty,
the Empress Elizabeth of Austria.
The following day, the Empress awakened very early. At her request, her
breakfast was served with a selection of rolls of all shapes and flavors.
Afterwards, she paid a visit to Bäker's music shop in the rue Bonivard, where
she purchased a magnificent music box and several rolls of music.
At 1:35 pm, the Empress and Countess Sztaray left the hotel on foot to catch
the boat. They walked along the quay, passing in front of the Brunswick
Monument. Her servants had already left by train for Territet, by order of the
Empress, who said that she did "not like processions".
The Italian anarchist Luigi Luccheni had just been waiting for such an
opportunity. He had been in Switzerland since May 1898 where he joined an
anarchist movement with the objective to abolish the state. In fact, his prime
target had been the Duke of Orléans. When the duke did not come to Geneva as
expected, he changed his plan.
As the ship's bell announced the departure, Luccheni approached the Empress.
He seemed to stumble and made a movement with his hand just as if he wanted to
maintain himself upright. In reality, he had deadly injured the Empress with a
According to the official police communiqué, the file had penetrated the
breast, lung and heart at the fourth rib, creating a heavy internal bleeding
which gradually and painlessly led to death.
After the assassination attempt, the Empress collapsed. A coach-driver helped
the unknown woman to stand on her feet. He alerted the concierge of the Beau-Rivage,
an Austrian by the name of Planner, who had been watching the Empress as she
had walked towards the ship. "It is nothing" she repeated, "we
must hurry or we shall miss the boat." As she walked to the jetty, the
Empress remarked to the Countess of Sztaray: "I wonder what that man
wanted. Perhaps he was trying to steal my watch."
The Empress managed to walk to the boat where Planner arrived and informed
them that the offender had been apprehended at rue des Alpes. As he fled, he
threw the file into the entrance to No. 3 Rue des Alpes, where its was found
the next day by the concierge during his morning cleaning.
After boarding the boat, the Empress staggered and fainted. On reviving, she
thanked a lady who had helped the Countess lift her up, and then fainted
again. Only at this moment, the Countess opened the Empress' blouse and
noticed a small wound near the heart filled with a droplet of blood.
Meanwhile, the boat was already sailing out of the harbor. When the captain
learned the identity of the fainted lady, he turned the ship around and drew
alongside the landing stage in front of the Hotel Beau-Rivage. Elizabeth was
laid on an improvised stretcher made with a sail placed over six oars and
several cushions. Six boatmen carried her to the hotel.
The head of staff of the hotel held her hand which was dangling limply.
Everybody was in panic. She was brought to her suite. When Dr. Golay arrived,
it was too late. According to Fanny Mayer, the wife of the then-hotel director
Charles-Albert Mayer, the Empress had the death rattle when she arrived at the
hotel and passed away of increasing internal bleeding some twenty minutes
later. In 1898, it was impossible to close a heart wound.
Luccheni, the assassin, was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1910 he committed suicide in prison.
The second tragic event related to the Hotel Beau-Rivage is the suicide of
the German CDU-politician Uwe Barschel. His corpse was found in the bathroom of
room no. 317 in the early morning of Sunday, October 11, 1987. A cocktail of
deliberately taken medicaments caused his death.
Since 1982, Uwe Barschel had been the Minister-President of the German Land of
Schleswig-Holstein. Many had seen in him a possible successor of German
Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Barschel's career came to an abrupt end in 1987, when he
was held responsible for a slander campaign against his concurrent from the
Social-Democratic Party, Björn Engholm. Barschel denied the accusation but an
investigating committee by the parliament of Schleswig-Holstein came to the
contrary conclusion. Barschel was politically finished.
A second report by the regional parliament of October 1995 confirmed the
responsibility of Barschel, limiting it however to his political, not personal
responsibility. The German and Swiss examining magistrates concluded in 1998 and
1999 respectively, that the involvement of another person in his death could be
excluded. In other words Uwe Barschel committed suicide and was not murdered.
Of course the history of the Hotel Beau-Rivage cannot be reduced to these two
somber stories. For instance in 1918, the hotel was the midwife of a state: the
"birth certificate" of Czechoslovakia was signed at the Beau-Rivage. Its new
president, Tomas G. Masaryk, resided in the hotel. In August 1991, the last
president of the Czechoslovak Republic, Vaclav Havel (1989-1992), also stayed at
the hotel. He unsuccessfully tried to avoid the breakup of of his country. In
1993 (and again in 1998), he was elected the first president of the new Czech
Asked about lesser known events or anecdotes, the present owner and
administrator of the hotel, Jacques Mayer, told me that the heavyweight champion
Sugar Ray Robinson used to take a very unusual breakfast at the hotel in the
1950s: sardines with strawberry jam.
The list of celebrities and stars who have stayed at the Hotel Beau-Rivage
since its opening in 1865 is impressive. Here just a short selection: The most
famous and admired actress of her time, Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), whose real
name was Henriette-Rosine Bernard, was a hotel guest like her fellow countryman
Charles de Gaulle, for whom, as for many other guests such as Ludwig II of
Bavaria and composer Richard Wagner, the dates of stay are unknown. The Duke and
the Duchess of Windsor came in 1939. He had abdicated and renounced on the
English throne just three years earlier because both the British government and
the Anglican church had been against his 1937 marriage with the divorced
American Wallis Warfield-Simpson. The American silent film star Harold Lloyd
used to climb the columns in the atrium of the Beau-Rivage instead of using the
stairs or the elevator. In more recent years, the singer and drummer Phil
Collins, formerly a member of the group Genesis and now a successful
solo-musician, celebrated his third wedding at the hotel.
The widow of the American president, Eleanor Roosevelt, stayed at the Beau-Rivage
in 1947, Mary Pickford in 1948, Clark Gable in 1952, Jean Cocteau in 1953. The
Aga Khan, Soraya, the former wife of the Shah of Persia (in fact of Iran), the
Egyptian King Faruk, the pianist
Daniel Barenboim, the Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme, the German
Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and many others signed the hotels guest book. Just a
few days before I arrived at the Beau-Rivage, the famous Italian soprano Cecilia
Bartoli stayed at the hotel when she gave a recital in Geneva.
The Beau-Rivage is also famous as the host of the jewelry and watch auctions
in May and November by the auction house Sotheby's which, since 1987, has
established in the hotel's basement. Among the world's most famous auctions ever
featured were the jewels of the Duchess of Windsor (1987) and the Baroness of
Rothschild, which both took place at the Beau-Rivage.
The five-star hotel combines tradition with innovation. One can even speak of
a tradition of innovation since, in 1872, the Beau-Rivage was the first hotel in
Switzerland and the third in the world to offer an elevator for its guests. This
tradition continues today: in April 2003, the Beau-Rivage was the first Swiss
hotel to offer wireless LAN connections by Cisco Systems in all rooms and public
Last but not least, the gourmet restaurant Chat-Botté is worthy of mention.
It opened in 1968 and its chef, Richard Cressac, managed to get 18/20
points with Gault Millau and one Michelin star (which he lost in 2000). In
August 2001, Cressac left the hotel in order to fulfill his dream of his own
restaurant, "La Chaumière" in Troinex, canton of Geneva. His successor at the
"Chat-Botté" became his longtime right-hand Dominique Gauthier, who had been the
de facto or executive chef for quite some time. He made an excellent start and
after one year was already awarded 16/20 points by Gault Millau, a record he has
maintained ever since. Unfortunately, I have not yet had the time to test the
restaurant under his direction. Incidentally, the Beau-Rivage has a second
restaurant since 1999, Le Patara, which offers Thai cuisine. [Added
on November 13, 2013: We have reviewed Le Chat-Botté in 2005
German review and it was easily worth a Michelin-star, which it finally
received in 2011].
In short, the Hotel Beau-Rivage offers a discrete but refined luxury in a
relaxed atmosphere on the shores of Lake Geneva. The family-owned five-star
hotel is led in the fourth generation by the Mayer family.
More English articles about Geneva
with Cornelio Sommaruga, President of the ICRC
- Le Chat botté with chef Dominique Gauthier:
New photographs added on November 13, 2013. Exterior view of the luxury hotel
on Lake Geneva. Photographs Copyright © Hôtel Beau-Rivage Geneva / Genève.
View of the Sissi Suite; the Austrian Empress wrote her name actually "Sisi".
She was stabbed a few steps from the hotel, where she finally died from the
wounds inflicted by an Italian anarchist. Photographs Copyright © Hôtel Beau-Rivage Geneva / Genève.
The Sissi Suite terrace. Photographs Copyright © Hôtel Beau-Rivage Geneva / Genève.
View of the Wagner Suite. Photographs Copyright © Hôtel Beau-Rivage Geneva / Genève.
If you read German, check our
Richard Wagner biography.
View of a Deluxe Room. Photographs Copyright © Hôtel Beau-Rivage Geneva / Genève.
The Atrium staircase. Photographs Copyright © Hôtel Beau-Rivage Geneva / Genève.
View of the Michelin-starred restaurant Le Chat-Botté with chef Dominique
Gauthier. Check our
German review. Photographs Copyright © Hôtel Beau-Rivage Geneva.
La Terrasse. Photographs Copyright © Hôtel Beau-Rivage Geneva / Genève.