It was all a blur. During his Senate testimony on Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions couldn’t recall any interactions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel on April 26, 2016, during pre- and post-receptions following then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s Russia-friendly foreign policy speech.
Certainly, Sessions did not have any “formal meeting” with the Russian ambassador, as former FBI director Comey reportedly told the Senate Committee in a classified hearing last week.
Sessions “may have had an encounter during the reception,” but if he did there was “nothing improper” about it.
He thanked Republican Senator Tom Cotton for suggesting that the idea that he’d colluded with Kislyak at a Mayflower Hotel was too “ridiculous” for a plot line in a John Le Carré spy novel or a James Bond film.
But the mystery of whether Sessions and the Russian ambassador spoke and what they spoke about at the Mayflower is in keeping with a long tradition of intrigue and scandal at the 92-year-old hotel—much of it plenty fit for spy fiction, such as Eliot Spitzer’s rendezvous in 2008 with a high-class hooker in one of the hotel’s pricier, upper-floor rooms.
Spitzer, who checked in under the pseudonym George Fox, was caught arranging to meet his costly call girl on a federal wiretap—part of a larger investigation into a prostitution ring with clients in Washington and other cities. Mayflower staff had seen then-New York Gov. Spitzer with women who weren’t his wife on multiple occasions before the episode, which led to his resignation from public office.
Another famous political adulterer, John F. Kennedy, kept a suite at the Mayflower for spontaneous trysts. A biography of Kennedy and Jackie Onassis described “intimate get-togethers and room service dinners for two” between Kennedy and actresses Audrey Hepburn and Lee Remick at the Mayflower.
He was also said to have dalliances with Mafia girl Judith Exner and actress Angie Dickinson at the hotel, including an alleged upstairs romp with Dickinson during his inaugural ball there.
Decades later, the Mayflower played host to a high-profile drug bust: Former Washington mayor Marion Barry was convicted in 1990 for possession of cocaine at the hotel in November 1989.
Of all the Mayflower’s famous patrons, the most devoted one was longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, whose daily lunches at the Mayflower’s now-defunct “Rib Room” restaurant—chicken soup, cottage cheese, and grapefruit—are well-documented in the hotel’s history books. Hoover was also rumored to be lovers with one of his frequent Mayflower lunch dates, associate FBI director Clyde Tolson.
The true story of the German spy George Dasch turning himself in to the FBI over the phone from Room 351 at the Mayflower while Hoover was sipping his soup downstairs sounds straight out of a WWII spy novel. Dasch’s subsequent two-day interrogation by FBI agents in his hotel room ultimately led to the arrest of eight other German spies.
In Andrew Morton’s 1999 biography of the former White House intern, Monica’s Story, Lewinsky told the author that she “felt like crying” at the end of the testimony “because it was hard to talk about the relationship, especially in a roomful of strangers some of whom want to harm the President. I feel that for the last year everyone has spent so much time on my relationship, my emotions, my love and I’m tired of everybody picking it apart.”
Being holed up in the hotel surely stirred feelings of nostalgia for Lewinsky, who was photographed in a pillowy embrace with Bill Clinton during a 1996 campaign event at the Mayflower.
While Sessions’ memory of any interaction with Sergey Kislyak at the Mayflower repeatedly failed him during his testimony, a photo of the two shaking hands amid the fanfare of Trump’s April 26 speech began circulating on Twitter.
Beyond being proof that Sessions and Kislyak greeted one another at some point on April 26, it’s not a particularly incriminating image—at least for now.
But just as the photo of Lewinsky and Clinton turned out to be an early indication that the president did in fact have sexual relations with “that woman,” Sessions and Kislyak’s photographed handshake could be more damaging down the road.
It’s a reminder that, despite the Mayflower’s reputation for privacy, the secrets of its most high-profile patrons have never remained secret for long.