Travel writers who tuck you into the world's comfy corners
Beverly Beyer is sitting in a hotel room in Stockholm looking pleased. It's contagious. I first saw her with her husband, Ed Rabey, in a hotel lobby in Copenhagen and was so surprised by her look of satisfaction that I said ''Hello.'' They didn't look particularly American; they weren't wearing spanking-new, slightly oversize London Fog raincoats, and that heartbreakingly questioning look Americans tend to get abroad was nowhere to be seen. Beverly, short and plump in a black cape, and Ed, angular, white-haired, watchful, and cloaked in a pointy-shouldered green loden coat, could have been from Austria, perhaps, or northern Italy. They looked comfortable, in a well-worn way, as if they'd been away from home awhile and kind of liked it. They looked like travelers, not tourists. Maybe like someone in a book. I said ''Hello,'' just on the chance that they might speak English.
''Hello,'' they replied. It turns out that they not only come from Santa Monica, Calif., they write for all those other Americans in new raincoats and beseeching faces, who probably only look that way because they don't happen to know a marvelous little place just off the Champs Elysees or a divine little fishing village they alwaysm go to in the Algarve.
Beverly Beyer and Ed Rabey don't look that way because they do know all sorts of places like that. They write the ''Passport'' books, which are crammed with information, but are only the size of a passport - perfect for clutching in dicey overseas situations. The books are chock-full of marvelous little places, everything-you-want-in-a-moderate-price hotel, inns you wish you'd been staying in since the '50s, and lovely little villages of all sorts off nearly every beaten track on the Continent. The listings are personal, with one-line descriptions and tip-offs in a kind of chummy shorthand - ''Nicest small hotel in Helsinki''; ''Matterhorn through window, fondue on table, an old favorite''; ''Old palazzo convenient to station. Ask for Room 29.''
They have a special tourist in mind. ''Our reader, bless him, is an adventurer,'' Beverly Beyer writes in ''Passport to Europe's Small Hotels & Inns.'' ''While he may splurge occasionally by going first-cabin, there is always a rucksack in his soul.'' Beyer writes the small hotels and inns book, and Ed ''absolutely produces the whole thing,'' says Bev, as her friends call her (and she makes friends fast). Rabey also bats out ''Passport to Spain'' and ''Passport to Italy'' when he's not visiting the typesetter or filling orders from B. Dalton or Waldenbooks with Bev and their daughter Palmer and any neighborhood children they can recruit.
After publishing themselves for 22 years, they have recently handed that side of business over to the New York publishing firm of John Wiley & Sons, which will do most of that for them, so they can crank out ''Footloose in . . . ,'' a new travel column for the Los Angeles Times.
But this travelogue is getting out of hand. Back to that hotel room in Stockholm: Bev is looking pleased, and Ed is getting ready to go out to dinner. I am interviewing them. Somehow, even though we are in a place meant to accommodate strangers, it's a homey scene. ''Are you cold?'' Ed asks suspiciously. ''Cover yourself up.'' I obediently pull the bedspread over my feet and curl up as Bev holds forth in the armchair by the telephone. This is the only interview I have ever done lying down. I couldn't help it: These are two people whose lifework is getting people snug in strange places.
For years, they have been stalking the Continent, seeking rooms for their books, rooms in what they call ''the little grand hotels of Europe.'' It started in the '50s, when they came back from a stint in postwar Austria and Italy, where Bev had been command director of all the service clubs for American soldiers in Italy, and Ed - a former World War II fighter pilot - had been a free-lance writer. They had gotten married in Venice, having met on an air base in the town of Misawa, Japan. Finally, they had come back and settled in Los Angeles. They had a reputation, not undeserved, for having traveled a lot and being knowledgeable about nice, cheap hotels. So many friends asked for recommendations that Bev started putting out in a mimeographed sheet.
''Gave it to my friends, and then decided, 'Well, go big time,' '' Bev says. In 1960, an advertisement in the New Yorker announced that for a dollar, even people they didn't know could have the recommendations. It was a success, or, as Bev says in her laconic prairie style with matching South Dakota accent, ''People didn't complain.'' For Bev, who wrote the descriptions, it was the start of a career. Ed, at that point, was just working in production.
Now it has turned into a profession which has both of them writing and on the road, sometimes apart and sometimes together. As Ed puts it in his soft, wry, Southern-gentleman's voice, ''we've been chasing each other around ever since.'' They have written numerous travel articles in many newspapers, Ed with an erudite but wisecracking style, and Bev more straightforward but personable. They have been together so long, says Bev, ''we write one-liners together.'' They plan to stay on the road, says Ed, because ''Bev wakes up with her hat on and sand in her shoes.''
''That was the idea, to be able to travel,'' says Bev. ''And we never made much money, but I thought, well, we're paying for the trip. But then it started to support us.''
She is quite offhand about the whole business. They update ''Bev's book,'' as they call it - ''Passport to Europe's Small Hotels & Inns'' - every year. They weed out the ones that have gone from colorful to crummy by changing hands or neighborhoods, and packing in new little surprises.
They take suggestions from readers and national tourist boards, she says. ''But most of the time we just get in the car and stop someplace and if it's bad we don't put it in, and if it's good, we do.'' Bad ones are few and far between. There was the time their daughter, a little girl at the time, was moved to take out her handkerchief and try to clean out the sink, before her mother told her not to touch it. ''You have all sorts of creepy things, but that's the way you find the good places other people don't write about. I don't read anybody else's guidebook,'' she adds.
What she writes has that same natural, sensible tone to it. The books are condensed but not terse. She tells what she thinks of each hotel in one tiny, flavorful sentence that gives you a taste of where you might be going.
Some people plan their whole vacations around the books, following wherever Bev and Ed lead, which they find amusing. But one of life's most rewarding moments was the evening they checked in at their favorite Paris hotel. (''If you go in Paris you'll have to stay there. It's on the Left Bank, it's small and it's colorful, and very friendly,'' the guide in her interrupts.) The concierge pointed out that there were four people in the lobby with ''Passport'' in hand.
For all her savoir-faire and far-flung travels, Bev doesn't look transient. She has an ''at home'' quality. Sitting in an anonymous hotel armchair here, she looks more than comfy; she looks rooted. And that solid sense of comfort somehow seeps out of the tiny type in the little Passport books.
Readers respond to it. ''People write, and that's what's such fun,'' she says. ''They feel like we're all family because the book is so relatively small and sort of chatty.''
Most people begin planning their trip to Europe as soon as they take down their Christmas trees, according to Ed. ''That's when we'll go to the post office, there'll be 15 letters [saying], 'Well, we used your book in '68 and again in '74. Here's a dollar, send me another,'' Ed says. ''Then we get a chuckle out of it [when they say], 'I give it to all my friends to use.' And we want to say, 'Why don't you have 'em buy one?' ''
She even gets a kick out of complaints. ''Ladies that are just super, super clean and neat, and talk about, 'Well, I had to go into your hotel in Lisbon and spray!' You can see these ladies walking around, all over Europe, spraying!''
Some nuns who went to a hotel whose neighborhood had become seamy wrote them to tell about it, ''but they weren't angry with us. I think it says something for the tone of the book,'' she says happily, as if telling some family story that came out right in the end.
As she talks about growing up, it doesn't seem possible that she is almost halfway around the world from her hometown, Chester, S.D., named for her grandfather's dog. Perhaps it's that landlocked, prairie-bound Midwestern upbringing, something most people want to leave behind, that gives you the feeling, as soon as you meet her, that she probably doesn't believe in strangers. After all, she grew up in a town with, she says, 350 inhabitants.
''Bev,'' says Ed admonishingly, ''350?''
Well, maybe 250. At any rate, her grandfathers owned the town. ''They gave one child the drugstore, and one child the grocery store, and all my aunts and uncles ran all the stores, and my mother got land. So they [her parents] farmed. I think it's a great way for a child to grow up.''
''In her own town,'' I say.
She laughs and says quietly, ''You feel very good about yourself.'' She also feels very good about many small, comfy corners of the world she and her husband have found and tucked their readers into.