03 January 2006

Stop Teasing!

Every so often, I read an article where a passing detail is so intriguing that I cease to care about the rest of the piece. A Wall Street Journal article (subscription required) this morning is an excellent case-in-point:
Like a few other adventurous foreign investors in the early 1990s, American businessman Larry Hillblom believed Vietnam was on the cusp of becoming Asia's next big economic story. As the co-founder and the "H" of express-delivery company DHL, he spent $40 million of his fortune to restore the run-down, French-built Dalat Palace Hotel in Vietnam's chilly central highlands. His idea: transform the 85-year-old building into an exotic gem recalling the country's colonial past.

. . . .

Mr. Hillblom made his bet on Vietnam too early. Like many businesses stalled by the reluctance of Communist leaders to open up the country, the Dalat Palace languished, employing as many as 170 crisply uniformed staff to attend to just 43 rooms. As late as 2002, the hotel -- with period details like rotary-dial telephones and faux paintings in the style of Renoir and Lautrec -- had anemic occupancy rates of 25%.

In recent years, however, much has changed in Vietnam, and in Dalat, to help realize Mr. Hillblom's vision. A longstanding American economic embargo was replaced by a bilateral trade deal concluded in 2001. The pact has helped make the U.S. Vietnam's top trading partner, and has also prompted local entrepreneurs to cash in on export opportunities. The country's economy is now growing at a rate surpassed only by China in Asia.

It's an interesting article -- a visionary man devotes himself to building something which is ahead of its time and, thus, commercially unsuccessful; it might make a good movie, just as similar stories have, at least twice in the last twenty years or so, in Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) and Bugsy (1991). Did I care? Not a bit, because amongst those introductory paragraphs was this:
But the famously enigmatic Mr. Hillblom died at the age of 52 in 1995, when his World War II-era seaplane disappeared into the Pacific Ocean off Saipan. He left behind a trail of teenage lovers, several children and complex estate claims. As for his beloved hotel, open for just one week at the time of his death, it failed to attract the swarms of wealthy foreign patrons he'd envisioned.

Yes, yes, he built a hotel; now what were you saying about those teenaged lovers?

Granted, a full-length motion picture provides a somewhat greater opportunity to explore side issues and character details than does a newspaper article; if you're going to write a short article about the less colorful side of a subject's character, however, why allude to the more salacious details at all? Supposing that Bugsy Siegel's personal life were as obscure as Mr. Hillblom's, if a 1950's-era reporter had wanted to write a business-focused article about the development of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, wouldn't it have been better to stick to that and avoid dropping in a paragraph like this:
But the famously sociopathic Mr. Siegel died at the age of 41 in 1947, when he was shot multiple times by a mafia hitman. He left behind a trail of Hollywood mistresses, several murders and extensive organized crime connections. As for his beloved hotel, open for just six months at the time of his death, it failed to attract the swarms of wealthy patrons he'd envisioned.

There are details which enhance and details which distract; I'm not saying that a journalist has to write only about the five Ws and exclude all else, but a bit of focus is always welcome.

Now, what about those teenaged lovers?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

He was a pedophile; DOHH... that's what about those "teenage" lovers..