Living at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier

A look-back at the 100-year history of the hotel with Estrellita Karsh, legendary photographer Yousef Karsh’s widow


In 1980, medical writer Estrellita Karsh and her husband Yousuf Karsh, the renowned portrait photographer, decided to do what few had done before—live at the Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottawa.

The Karshes had close ties to the property as the Chateau hosted Yousuf’s first solo exhibition in 1938 and he’d moved his studio there in 1972.

When they approached hotel general manager Franco Anglesio, he wasn’t sure what accommodations to suggest. He finally brought them to Suite 358, overlooking Confederation Square. It was being used as a storeroom and the walls had hideous blue wallpaper that Anglesio wasn’t sure could be removed. On that point, however, Estrellita would not budge. “I said, ‘Mr. Anglesio, if I have to lick it off with my tongue, I’m getting that blue paper off the walls,’ ” she recalls. Fortunately, a steamer did the trick.

Estrellita saw the suite’s solid bones, including the original icebox and leather checkerboard floor in the galley kitchen. She still calls the bathroom’s multi-jetted shower the “sexy shower,” noting it looks like “something that Rube Goldberg might have done, in his more insane moments.”

After the couple moved in, the world’s rich and famous came to visit: Bryan Adams, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, various governors general and U.S. ambassador Jim Blanchard often dropped by.

When the Karshes lived in Suite 358, the only photographs on the walls were family pictures. But today, some of Yousuf’s most iconic images— including photographs of Ernest Hemingway, Barbara Ann Scott and Pablo Picasso—hang in the suite.

Even though they moved out in late 1997 and Yousuf passed away in 2002, Estrellita, now 83, returns to the hotel frequently from her home in Boston.

“What one really remembers are the warmth and the love and the closeness in the hotel,” she says. “It was a family. It was wonderful.”

Winston Churchill portrait

287 Photo courtesy of the Estate of Yousuf Karsh.

Just before taking this photo, Yousuf Karsh took away Churchill’s cigar. The glowering portrait, reprinted around the world, made his career. “It thrust him into international prominence,” says Estrellita Karsh. “Before the time he photographed Churchill, he was just a hard-working guy.”

288 Photo courtesy of the Estate of Yousuf Karsh.

Chateau celebrations

Tea time

Zoe’s Lounge is serving a special Centennial Tea menu throughout the summer.

Peek backstage

As part of Doors Open Ottawa, a city-wide architecture festival (June 2–3), you can tour the Chateau with a guide in period costume.

Eat through history

From June through November, each month’s table d’hôte menu will focus on dishes from a different period in the hotel’s past.

Get a deal

From June 1 to December 15, the hotel is offering anniversary accommodation packages.

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