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Howard Hughes, and an amazing hotel career

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Willem Mulder with his portfolio of paintings (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

Willem Mulder loves painting, but laughs about his actual talent.

“I was amazed,” he said. “Last year two of my paintings sold in the Warwick Academy Art Auction. One went for $25 and one went for $75.”

He had his first lesson as an adult at the Bermuda College, in a class taught by Emma Ingham.

By then he had retired – he hadn’t had much time for hobbies during his long career as a hotel manager.

“As an executive in the hotel business there was not much time to do anything,” he said. “It was 24/7.”

Mr Mulder grew up in the Netherlands. Velp, the tiny village where he was born, sits just east of the city of Arnhem.

As a teenager he longed to join the merchant marines. When he was 18 his veterinarian father, Siebold Mulder, put him on a freighter that travelled from Rotterdam to Hamburg, Germany. His career aspirations quickly changed over those two weeks.

“The life on the ocean, I had it all glamorised in my mind,” the 83-year-old said. “The reality was quite different. As part of the freight we had huge rolls of barbed wire. Next to that was a huge shipment of cow hides for the preparation of shoes. That stank. There were thousands of crystals of salt in these huge skins. We unloaded this in one of the German big cities.”

When the hides were lifted there was an avalanche of salt onto the deck. It was Mr Mulder’s task to clean it up.

Willem Mulder with his art collection (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

Back on dry land he made his way to Switzerland and enrolled in Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, one of the world’s top hotel schools.

“We had to know all the cocktails by heart,” Mr Mulder said. “We had to know everything from the sheets to Bellinis to the make-up of the champagne and the rosé. We went to the big French champagne factories in the north of France. We understood how to taste and evaluate.”

He graduated in 1961 and knocked around the world a bit, working in Washington DC, San Antonio, Texas and Amsterdam.

In 1966 Sig Wollman, the general manager of the Pink Beach Club, was one of the guests at his hotel.

They got to talking and, four months later, Mr Mulder was working with Bodo von Alvensleben, the general manager of the Hamilton Princess.

“He said, 'What’s your name?' I said, 'Willem.' He said, 'No, no, no that won’t do. From now on your name is Bill.'”

Many people still greet him that way, 55 years later.

Tourism was in its heyday when he arrived here.

“There were lots of tourists, boats and planes coming in,” he said. “The Queen of Bermuda used to come into Hamilton Harbour every Monday morning.”

He worked his way up – from assistant manager to sales manager – and then moved to Cambridge Beaches as general manager.

Mr Mulder then moved to the Xanadu Princess Hotel in Freeport, Bahamas, once a sister hotel to the Hamilton Princess.

Celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant and Lucille Ball were regulars but when Mr Mulder went there in 1974 it was home to its owner Howard Hughes, the billionaire recluse.

“He was a famous aviator and businessman,” Mr Mulder said.

Mr Hughes and his staff occupied the top two floors of the building. No one else was allowed into that area and Mr Hughes was never seen in the rest of the hotel.

On February 11, 1976, Mr Hughes sent a request. He was flying to Mexico the following morning and needed Mr Mulder to round up several pilots.

“It was the middle of the night and the pilots were fast asleep,” Mr Mulder said.

A side door opened and two of Mr Hughes’ staff members emerged pushing their boss in a wheelchair.

“He had on the hat that he always wore,” Mr Mulder said. “He had a big bag on his lap.”

His bodyguards made it clear that Mr Mulder needed to take the pilots to the airport, immediately.

“I was just glad they didn’t wave guns at me,” he said.

“Freeport was a big gambling destination. There were four or five casinos there, so there was a lot of activity at the airport at 4am in the morning. There were planes landing and taking off constantly.”

He had to drive his car along the edges of the dark landing strip, literally dodging incoming and outgoing planes.

Mr Hughes died in hospital in Houston, Texas on April 5, 1976. His death certificate lists renal failure as the cause. The 71-year-old was worth about $1.5 billion.

As Lynden Pindling, the Bahamas Prime Minister, had not been a fan, he cancelled the work permits of the team at the Xanadu Hotel the following year.

“We were given three months to get our affairs in order and get out of the Bahamas,” Mr Mulder said. “So the end was a bit bitter.”

For a while he worked in Washington DC and then went on to Vienna, Austria.

In February 1980, he returned to Bermuda to run what is now Coco Reef Hotel in Paget. At the time it was owned and operated by the Bermuda College.

“It felt like coming home,” said Mr Mulder who has two daughters, Margo Powell and Caroline Oilar. “A dear friend of ours, Paul Leseur who had Lantana, called and asked if I wanted to come back to Bermuda. He introduced me to the gentleman who started the Bermuda College. I opened the Stonington Beach Hotel.”

As the years passed young Bermudians became less interested in the hotel trade, as more opportunities opened up in reinsurance, construction and other fields.

“It became a problem to get students in that school,” he said. “There were just not enough young people who were interested. Then the hotel became more of a purely commercial property.”

One proud moment was meeting to the Queen when she visited the Bermuda College in March 1994.

“We had a lovely lunch and she was introduced to the staff and students,” Mr Mulder said. “They got a real kick out of this. She was very interested. It was a lovely event and we felt very honoured. She had a lovely blue dress and a big yellow hat.”

She also wore a cast, having broken her wrist after a fall from her horse.

In 1998 Mr Mulder became the first Dutch consul in Bermuda to speak the language. It gave him the opportunity to meet Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, twice.

“In recognition, I was given a knighthood,” he said.

After leaving his post as general manager of the Stonington Beach Hotel, he worked for two years in human resources at Zurich Global Energy.

“That was a glorious time,” said Mr Mulder, who retired in 2002. “I had off Saturdays and Sundays, and we had off American holidays and Bermuda holidays. And there was lots of synergy around the boardroom table.”

Mr Mulder married his wife Shirley, in 1996.

Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Wednesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or jmhardy@royalgazette.com with the full name and contact details and the reason you are suggesting them

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Published November 10, 2021 at 7:52 am (Updated November 12, 2021 at 8:12 am)

Howard Hughes, and an amazing hotel career

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