by Tim Gilmore, 2/19/2021
1. Proud Totem
Newspapers called Renee van Ceulebroeck a “Belgian war bride.” A 1986 Los Angeles Times story called Clyde Slappey “a sailor who married a Belgian woman during World War II.” None of the newspapers named her. She was faceless. She was “war booty.”
In 1979, the photographer John Margolies captured Slappey’s Town of Ghent Motel, which Slappey had built Renee to remind her, so he said, of her European hometown. Margolies drove more than 100,000 miles for more than 30 years to take tens of thousands of photographs of American roadside oddities. When he died in 2016, The New York Times called John Margolies “the country’s foremost photographer of vernacular architecture—the coffee shops shaped like coffeepots; the gas station shaped like a teapot; and the motels shaped like all manner of things, from wigwams to zeppelins to railroad cars—that once stood as proud totems along America’s blue highways.”
In his circuit through Jacksonville in 1979, Margolies photographed the Beaches Drive-In Movie Theater and the Red Cross Lookout Tower at Jax Beach. On the Northside, he took pictures of the Art Moderne Winn-Dixie grocery at Main and 15th Streets, with its strange corner tower, Gary’s Ice Cream and the motel at Main Street and Eastport Road that Northsiders just called “Slappey’s.”
2. Castle Slappey
Sources differ regarding what Slappey did during the war. Clyde Woodruff Slappey was drafted for military service in World War II at age 43 in February 1942. Just two months previously, the Selective Training and Service Act made all men between the ages of 20 and 44 candidates for the draft. Yet daughter-in-law Patty Slappey says, “Experienced mariners who’d been drafted were released by the military to serve in the Merchant Marine.” She notes that Slappey’s draft card says “Master Mariner.” When he returned, as The Los Angeles Times put it, he “built a motel office—with a residence on the second story—in the shape of the town gates of Ghent, his wife’s hometown, so she would not get homesick.” The Ghent Gate, however, stood not in the town of Ghent, but in Bruges.
Slappey had long dreamt of running his own motel, his castle, where he could make the rules, for as the saying goes, “Possession is nine tenths of the law.” He figured that on his property, the maxim made him and the law interchangeable. They’d busted him back in ’26 for violating Prohibition at the barbeque stand he ran on St. Johns Avenue at Fishweir Creek. They’d shackled him while he figured the tally for 35 bottles of home brew on scratch paper. He’d sold more rotgut at Slappey’s Chili Parlor in the mid 1930s, then ran a place called the Anchor Bar.
Whatever Renee van Ceulebroeck thought of the not-so-Belgian motel her husband operated, the construction of Interstate 95 soon ruined the hospitality business along smaller highways like U.S. 17, Main Street North. Slappey’s garnered a reputation as a tawdry place to keep indiscretions secret. Prominent Baptist preacher George Hodges took his mistress Sara Luckie to Slappey’s not long before she shot him in her home in early 1963. He drove back to his church, opened his car door, and bled to death in the church parking lot.
Artist and media consultant Tracy Rigdon recalls Slappey’s distinctly. He grew up in San Mateo, the neighborhood that spoons Broward River where it cuts north from the St. Johns. Tracy’s mom sang in the choir and taught Sunday School at Cedar Bay Baptist Church. Tracy’s father was a deacon. The Slappeys were also members, though Tracy says the church knew “Slappey’s” to be “a place where people went to cheat on their spouses.” Sometimes that did not involve prostitutes.
Police raided Slappey’s in March 1963, seizing unspecified “gambling equipment,” and fined both Slappeys when a disgruntled bettor charged they’d refused to pay off his winning number. A year later, March 1964, headlines announced a very different kind of police activity at Slappey’s, when a 32 year old officer named Grady Allen Belger murdered a 19 year old “female companion,” having “jokingly” put his gun to her head and “accidentally” pulled the trigger.
The United Press International led with: “An off-duty Jacksonville policeman walked into his precinct station Saturday and told fellow officers he had shot a 19 year old girl in a small motel on the outskirts of town.” Belger had shot Margaret Snowden in the back of the head. Clyde Slappey said Belger had reserved “a cabin” Friday afternoon and checked in with a young girl Friday night, that his wife saw Belger drive away, Saturday morning, alone. A maid discovered the body.
Not long after Snowden’s murder, one strange church morning spawned Tracy Rigdon’s most unforgettable recollection of Slappey’s Town of Ghent Motel. “A commotion disrupted our worship services,” he says, “when a frantic and completely naked man ran across church property.”
Behind Cedar Bay Baptist Church, a long detached building houses Sunday School classrooms, the doors of which open to a deck that spans the building. Down the deck, the naked man ran squealing and blathering incomprehensibly, then opened a door and ducked into a classroom. He’d jumped the wall from Slappey’s, fleeing an angry husband wielding a gun. The wall still stands, though where Slappey’s stood, a Famous Amos restaurant now anchors a strip mall.
3. Wild Animals
“The best memories of my childhood revolve around Slappey’s Motel,” Ted Slappey wrote in 2011. “Each day was more interesting than the last.”
The years following World War II, despite Shellshock and a national housing shortage, buzzed with triumphant optimism. It wasn’t just that the war had made the United States a true international superpower, but a new kind of prosperity seemed possible. Before Interstate 95 pummeled through Florida in the early 1960s, disrupting whole communities, two thin blue highways, U.S. 1, Jacksonville’s Philips Highway, and U.S. 17, which came through Jax as Main Street, were Florida’s main East Coast entryways. Slappey’s was one of dozens of Jacksonville motor hotels and motor courts on old highways who’d have their entire modus operandi disrupted by I-95.
When Slappey’s opened in 1946, a couple could rent a room for $5 a night or a cabin out back for $3. By 1959, rooms cost $6 to $8 and cabins $4 to $5.
Clyde and Renee’s son Ted, a former schoolteacher who now suffers from Parkinsonian dementia, can no longer tell the sensational stories of his childhood, but he published a handful of recollections in the October/November 2011 issue of Reminisce Magazine.
“My brother Woody, my parents and I lived in a two story part of the motel with two round towers in front,” he recalled. Eventually Clyde Slappey enclosed the front porch and made it the motel office. Woody and Ted cleaned rooms, made beds, mowed the lawn and unclogged sewer lines. His mother treated a guest for snakebite and a maid shot a snake in a guest room.
An old man who stopped at Slappey’s in his Volkswagen bus rented a room with his pet chimpanzee. One couple bought a baby alligator for a dollar as a Florida souvenir and returned with the beast each summer from Buffalo, New York. In one photograph, the brothers, dressed in jackets and flat caps, hold the reptile, whose growth they measured from one summer to the next. In another, Clyde holds the alligator, its head over his shoulder, his hand on its back, the boys on either side.
But the wildest animals were always the guests. “I saw a naked lady walk out of our motor courtyard one day,” Ted writes, “stopping traffic as she crossed the highway.” One night, “an inebriated man demanded a room and started to get rough,” then “fell backward, breaking a liquor bottle in his back pocket” and “started crying.”
When Ted was 15, he and Clyde “caught a Peeping Tom at gunpoint.” Ted considered it “a chance to show off in front of two college girls—until Mother called out and told me it was past my bedtime.” A tornado pulled two ancient oaks from the yard behind the main building and an unnamed “drunken ex-actor from Hollywood” chased all the other guests away. Clyde kept a maintenance man whose sole wages were a daily bottle of wine.
Ted also remembered his father’s tendency toward chaos. Having no fireworks on hand on the Fourth of July, 1956, Clyde Slappey fired a flare that started a fire in the woods behind the motel. Fire trucks arrived to put out the blaze. Another time, his father crashed the family Jeep into a cabin.
“We had a 1947 Jeep Woody,” Ted writes, “and Mother, who didn’t speak English very well, tried to explain to Dad that its brakes were not working. Dad didn’t get the message, jumped into the Jeep, flew around the motel courtyard and crashed through the concrete wall of Room 1.”
Across the 1970s, Slappey’s Town of Ghent Motel declined steadily. Clyde Slappey died in 1974 and Renee ran the motel until 1982. By the time John Margolies photographed the motel, it was done for. Soon thereafter, developers demolished the motel Ted’s father built for his mother. Renee died in 2000.
“I miss every day of Slappey’s Motel,” Ted wrote in 2011. “I wish I could go back there, rent a room and see my family again for just a few minutes.”
4. Slappey’s Swan Song
Barb Starling remembers “Mrs. Slappey” better than she does Clyde. Clyde and Renee named a son Clyde René, bequeathing him both their names. Barb called him “Junior.” He went by “Ted.” She says Renee Slappey spoke “with a funny accent,” her eyes sometimes “piercing,” sometimes tired and “all giv’d up.” Barb remembers Renee scribbling in heavy ledgers and handing out key fobs, but other times sticking to herself “behind the front office.” Her eyes looked sometimes shrewd and sometimes “almost spooky, like looking into a different world.”
Barb sips gin at her tin trailer at Oceanway Oaks Mobile Home Park near the airport, three and a half miles north of where Slappey’s once stood. She says Clyde lured Renee to America, promising to build her ancient European hometown on Florida’s shifting sands, says she partied at Slappey’s a time or two with mosquito coils and bourbon, says a fight once ensued about whether Southern Comfort was bourbon or just tasted like it.
Patty Slappey, who married Ted (Clyde René) in 1969, says, “I doubt Clyde promised Renee much of anything because she could barely speak English and he couldn’t speak Flemish when they got married in France. They had to communicate through an interpreter.” Patty says Clyde was “no mere sailor,” but captain of a cargo ship with the Merchant Marine. “His ship was torpedoed during the war and he spent three days in a lifeboat with life-threatening injuries before he was rescued.” She adds, “Anyone who knew Renee knows she took back seat to no man. She was a spy during the war.”
And the rain came down and came down and poured and some nights lasted years and sometimes eons, with prog rock soundtracks and varied tragicomedies blurred and smudged through stained iniquitous cheaply rented rooms.
A drawing of the Ghent Gate hung on the wall behind the checkout counter of the Town of Ghent Motel. Unlike Slappey’s, the Ghent Gate never did sport a rubber tire above its central doorway after its front porch became motel office. Not only was the gate, with its squat round towers either side of its narrow entrance, designed by architect Jan van Oudenaerde in the 1400s, in Bruges, not Ghent, but the Nazis had made the Ghent Gate their point of entry for attacking Renee’s hometown. The British Intelligence Service recruited her, among hundreds of other Belgians who spoke Dutch, French, German and English, in addition to other languages like Renee’s native Flemish, to spy on Nazi correspondence in Bruges and later Bonn.
Clyde told Barb Starling he’d sailed to London and Iran and to Port of Spain, Trinidad. Barb claims, with insistent precision, she once watched Renee watch Clyde talk for three minutes and 12 seconds, during which interval Renee never blinked. Someone once tried, she says, to burn a hallway out of the front building. Just the hallway. It was always eavesdropping and he resented it. It was nobody else’s business what he chose to say, in the midst of a thunderstorm, in the middle of the night, to himself, in private.
And no one could argue otherwise.