Local fans of globetrotting superstar author Elizabeth Gilbert, and there seem to be quite a lot of them, were startled to run across this line in her second autobiographical book, Committed, about her marriage to the man she calls "Felipe," the exotic modern romantic hero of Eat, Pray, Love. In the newer book's introductory chapter, she's talking about Vietnam and Indonesia and Bali and Brazil and Sydney, Australia. And then, suddenly, comes this line: "I took a temporary job teaching writing at the University of Tennessee, and for a few curious months we lived together in a decaying old hotel room in Knoxville."
Elizabeth Gilbert did live and work here for a semester, the spring semester of 2005, and while she was here she and Felipe—whose real name has been revealed to be Jose Nunes—lived in the Hotel St. Oliver on Market Square.
For the record, the St. Oliver is an eccentric luxury boutique hotel. Some of the decay may be intentional.
The storied old Kern Building, built in 1876, has housed a bakery, confectionery, and candy factory; a Victorian soda fountain and "ice-cream saloon"; an Oddfellows Hall; and, for a few years, the Knoxville Metaphysical Library. The ground floor has seen a drugstore and a few restaurants, but for the last 30 years, most of the building has served as a one-of-a-kind hostelry. It has hosted the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, and return visits from BBC producers. Actress Patricia Neal, who could have stayed anywhere, stayed there when she was in her hometown, and she once told a magazine the St. Oliver was her favorite place in her home state. At the time Gilbert lived there, one of her down-the-hall neighbors was Kristopher Kendrick, the esthetically assertive owner of the building. It's probably thanks to Kendrick's romantic sense that it does seem very much like an old hotel.
Staying at the St. Oliver was the idea of Gilbert's colleague, UT professor and fiction writer Michael Knight, who was trying, while she was still in Bali, to find the new fiction-teacher-in-residence a place to stay in Knoxville. "I called her up and said, ‘Look. there's this sort of nutty hotel downtown, great location, down-at-heel French antiques, Patricia Neal, etc.,'" Knight says. "And she said, ‘It sounds like the kind of place a writer might go to drink herself to death,' and I said, ‘That's exactly what it's like,' and she said, ‘I'll take it.'"
Knight assumed she might just stay there for a few days while searching for a more ordinary place to live. It turned out she liked it, and spent the entirety of her Knoxville sojourn at the St. Oliver.
Through Knight, we got in touch with the author herself, currently enjoying the rare celebrity of being played by Julia Roberts in a hit movie. Eat Pray Love (the book has punctuation, the movie doesn't) has no Knoxville scenes. But Gilbert confirms that she finished writing the book during her time at the St. Oliver.
I'll let Ms. Gilbert continue:
"The St. Oliver is, and remains, my favorite place to drink myself to death.... Yes, I was working on Eat, Pray, Love there. I sent my editor the first draft of the book from Knoxville, I think, and it was definitely in that room that I received his marked-up version of the manuscript, along with a note saying that he loved the book, which made me so relieved I cried."
Unfortunately for local restaurant lore, she usually ate in, with "a microwave, a tea-kettle, and a small cube of a fridge. I ate a lot of pickles and microwaved eggs while I lived there. Also carrot sticks and tea. And nuts." She was trying to learn Portuguese at the time, and put Post-It notes on objects all over her suite.
"I do believe the room was on the third floor. The bedroom faced the street, which was nice in terms of light and all, but the living room was a cave. A cave with really old, somewhat depressing, seemingly French furniture. Somebody down the hall had little dogs. My now-husband came to live with me there for the last month and it was his first stop in America after years of living in Indonesia and Brazil. He found Knoxville to be a marvel of order and civic responsibility—certainly compared to Indonesia and Brazil—and used to stand at the window and watch cars pass on the street below us, awed that they all obeyed the traffic rules.
"He found a place across the street that had a $3.99 Back-By-Popular-Demand-All-You-Can-Eat Lunch Special, and he loved it. To this day, if you say the word ‘Knoxville' to him, he will chime out, ‘Back by popular demand! All you can eat!' He liked the idea that the good people of Knoxville had once marched in the streets, demanding a return to this lunch special."
We suspect Felipe may be remembering MacLeod's. Then in the Arnstein, it later moved to the Strip.
"The library at the St. Oliver seems to be haunted," she continues. "Whenever I came home at night, I would run past that room, frightened. I could never figure out any system as to why it had the books it had. They were utterly random books. The elevator, one could also make a case, was haunted. Or at least made haunted noises at night."
She regrets she never encountered Patricia Neal during her time there.
"I have really fond memories of those months," she concludes. "It was an important haven, during an important transition."
Her Knoxville sojourn adds to the already considerable literary history of Market Square. In books by James Agee, Cormac McCarthy, David Madden and several others, the Square may be the most-described place in East Tennessee, but it's rarely been a place where notable authors actually woke up in the morning.
Maybe there will be a day before long when busloads of educated divorcées point at the building, and quietly ask about rates.