He Was Never Afraid — The Stranger

In 2005, Ace Hotel founder and Seattle native Alex Calderwood went to Dubai with his friend and business partner Nasir Rasheed. Bored in their overpriced hotel, they decided to venture out.

Dubai is divided by a creek. On one side is New Dubai, the land of wealthy sheikhs, white sand beaches, and impossibly surreal buildings; on the other side is Old Dubai, where the poor workers, the people who built the glittering city on the other side, live.

“He wanted to find the real Dubai,” Rasheed remembers. “‘What do the real Dubai people do?’ he kept saying. ‘Where do they hang out?'”

They headed to Five Green, a skate shop in Old Dubai. Alex quickly bonded with the store’s owner, and later that week they all went out in Old Dubai to a club in the basement of an old hotel. “It was where the workers let off steam,” says Rasheed. A seemingly endless number of rooms sprung from a long corridor. In one, a Nigerian funk band performed; in another, bad Russian rock music blared from the speakers; in a third, a Filipino rock cover band played. The final room was filled with Indian workers. “It was the best of all. It was like a scene out of a Bollywood movie,” Rasheed says, with girls dancing onstage and the audience throwing money.

“We were like, ‘Oh wow, here’s the scene, we found it.'”

This was classic Calderwood—always open and curious and looking beyond the surface to connect with people, no matter who they were.

Alex grew up in Bellevue. His father worked as a contractor, and his mother worked as a newspaper columnist. He sold repurposed vintage clothes before opening Rudy’s Barbershops. Later, he had a nightclub, ARO.space; a promotions company, Tasty Shows; a record label, Sweet Mother; a marketing company, Neverstop; and a design firm, Art & Revolution Organization. The first Ace Hotel, which he opened in 1999 in Belltown, was a renovated halfway house. He later opened Ace Hotels in New York, Palm Springs, Portland, and London—the city where he was found dead on November 14. He was 47. No cause of death has yet been given.

I met Alex in 1993, through Jared Harler (now Jared Lovejoy). I had just moved here from Las Vegas and didn’t know anybody. They were throwing parties at Re-bar and Moe’s, and later, as Tasty Shows, bringing artists like Portishead, Kruder & Dorfmeister, the Chemical Brothers, and Jamiroquai to rock-centric Seattle. I worked the door for Alex at ARO.space and at Electrolush, the dance night at the Showbox.

Though I knew him for a long time, and his life often intertwined with mine—he was my current roommate Todd Bohannon’s first boyfriend in 1997—I didn’t know him deeply. Alex could be guarded and private. But he was caring and generous, rare in the nightlife world.

Almost everyone has a story about Alex’s little acts of kindness. Caroline Davenport, a co-owner of Tasty Shows and Neverstop, remembers him bringing her records from a band he thought she would like. When Kelly Sawdon, the executive vice president of the Ace Hotel Group, was sick in London, Alex went to the corner store late at night and brought back a care package for her. My Alex story involves him taking me home after a night of drinking, cleaning up the vomit I spewed all over the bed, and tucking me in.

Alex’s trajectory really started with Wade Weigel, Alex’s business partner and one of his oldest friends. They met in 1985, when Alex was hanging out with a mutual friend and Weigel called. Even though he’d never met Weigel, Alex asked if he could speak to Weigel on the phone. He asked Weigel out to dinner, and they were instant friends.

Indeed, Alex had no qualms about introducing himself to anyone—whether it was Anthony Bourdain or a total stranger. “It was just his personality. Nothing really stopped him,” says Weigel.

In 1992, they opined that old barbershops were cool but the haircuts were never any good. The next day, they went and looked at spaces. Armed with $12,000 and a whim, they, along with David Petersen, opened the first Rudy’s in January 1993. There are now 19 Rudy’s Barbershops around the country.

Around the same time, Alex met Rasheed, Davenport, and Lovejoy, who would become his creative partners for the better part of the next decade. Together, the foursome represented the antithesis of the Seattle grunge scene.

“There weren’t very many gay party producers back then—and we seemed to like all the same stuff,” says Lovejoy. “We were doing funk nights and hiphop and music that most gay people at the time didn’t pay attention to. And he was interested in doing the same thing—mixing cultures and mixing music and mixing styles.”

Rasheed had just moved from London and had bluffed his way into meeting Alex by saying he was an acid jazz DJ, even though he’d never DJed professionally. Their first party, at the Vogue, was called, ridiculously, “Acid Jazz and Other Illicit Grooves,” billing “London DJ Funkee Nasir.”

“It was super-packed. DJ Masa (KEXP) was opening, and he was rocking the turntables, and I’m like, ‘I am fucked, I have blagged my way into a situation where I feel like a complete idiot,'” says Rasheed. “But Alex loved it. He was right behind me the whole time, bobbing his head. And the more drunk I got, there’d be huge gaps in between the songs. I’d be so into it, and then Alex and I would be talking. Boom! Silence. I’d play the next record and the crowd would cheer, thinking it was so punk rock.”

Regardless, the night was a hit, and they forged ahead undeterred.

“Alex was fearless,” says Davenport, who met him when she was 24 and booking RKCNDY. “I am not a fearless person. It pushed me out of my comfort zone in the best way. It’s an ongoing gift.”

But his biggest talent was his ability to connect with different types of people—and to connect them to each other. His best friend from high school, Kai Ichikawa, recalls how the preppy teenager could blend among the jocks, the stoners, and the super-straight-As. “If we knew there was a great party going on and we weren’t really part of that clique, he got to know the guy who was running the party—and lo and behold, we were going to the party.”

In business, his gumption took him far: When the fledgling Tasty Shows was vying for big acts like Portishead against far more established concert promoters, Alex and Jared flew to London to meet with the band’s management. “They were so impressed at these weird little Seattle promoters who flew over there,” says Lovejoy. “And, you know, you don’t make money on a show like that.”

“I don’t think he ever looked at his bank balance,” says Rasheed. “What drove him was creativity and doing something amazing.”

At Tasty and Neverstop, they’d constantly overspend on small things, like flyers. “In the long run, it pays off because you actually do something better. And he was never afraid to do that,” says Lovejoy. “That’s why he redefined hotels.”

As with Rudy’s, the first Ace was a hustle. He and Weigel, along with Doug Herrick, cobbled together some cash for a flophouse on First Avenue that still had tenants living inside. “At first, Alex and I were trying to do it out of our cash flow,” says Weigel. But then they realized they would need investors.

“That was him,” says Rasheed. “Say yes now. We’ll figure it out later.”

The hotel was bare bones. “We were thinking of it as a white canvas, really plain, like a New York loft or art gallery kind of space,” says Weigel. “It was very minimal.”

The subsequent hotels were more complex, but unlike other chains, they were not carbon copies. Instead, they mirrored each city. In Portland, you can rent a bike made by local designer Jordan Hufnagel. In New York, the walls are adorned by local artist Ryder Robinson. Throughout his career, Alex supported artists like Shawn Wolfe, Kalani Fujimori, and Shepard Fairey before they were well-known.

“He believed in people and things before other people could see those things themselves,” says Davenport.

Caterina deCarlo, his longtime friend and manager, would ask him, “Why are you meeting with this weird guy you met on the corner who thinks he has an idea?” she says. “He just made time for everyone. He saw interesting ideas in the most uncommon or unpredictable places. He was just super-generous with his time; he wasn’t hierarchical about it.”

“I was kind of a nobody little 20-year-old raver, but he treated me the same as everybody else,” remembers Bohannon. “He’d introduce me to people like Dave Grohl—not like, ‘This is Dave Grohl,’ just ‘This is my friend Dave.'”

Even after Alex himself became famous, “he never really changed, which is the cool thing,” says David Hershkovits, the editor in chief and publisher of Paper magazine, who met Alex in 1994, the day Kurt Cobain died. “He didn’t turn into some monster version of himself, strutting about like a big powerful player.”

If Lovejoy was the charismatic face of Tasty, with his rock-star good looks and long wavy hair and tattoos, Alex was the quiet and reserved one. He had a slight build, with dark curly ringlets and wide brown eyes, and he would often hang back and watch the action from afar.

“He was a ‘we’ person. It wasn’t ‘I’ at all,” says Davenport. “When someone is ‘we,’ and ‘let’s’ and ‘we,’ it’s so major and so amazing.”

Perhaps that’s why Sawdon and Ryan Bukstein, the director of PR and marketing for the Ace Hotel Group, seem confident about the Ace’s future. They are moving ahead with an Ace Hotel in Pittsburg in 2015. “There’s never been any question in any of our minds that because Alex is gone this is the end,” says Bukstein. “We all want to continue his vision. It would be unfortunate to see it go away.”

It’s easy to take Alex’s vision for granted now. Small details—turntables in the rooms or graffiti elevated to fine art—are often dismissed as being quintessentially “hip” by the national press, but he was the first one to do it in that setting.

“In his hotel, he had KAWS very early on,” says Hershkovits. “When he did the Ace in New York, he put in that wall of graffiti. He knew that stuff inside out. He didn’t do it because someone told him to do it,” he says.

“You look back and you see that he was an innovator and an original. In taking all those things he worked on—street wear, entertainment, nightlife, Rudy’s, and the marketing company, and rolling that into the hotel. The hotel became everything he’s done in one place,” says Hershkovits. “He was a business genius.”

The last few weeks of Alex’s life were consumed by the September opening of the London hotel, and preparing for the near-simultaneous openings of the Los Angeles Ace on January 7, and a Panama City Ace-run hotel, called American Trade, on December 5. After a couple of weeks of whirlwind travel—Los Angeles to New York to London—he’d spent the weekend in the English countryside with friends.

“We both connected on Monday, and he was really happy and excited to move on to LA,” says Sawdon. Alex was especially thrilled by the 1,600-square-foot theater at the LA Ace. “It was all kind of coming full circle,” she says.

At press time, the autopsy results had not yet come in, but that hasn’t stopped rumors from flying about Alex’s death. In 2011, he’d told the New York Times he’d gone to rehab: “You get to a certain age, and you get to a certain point where you realize this is just, like, dragging me down. It’s not fun anymore. I’m not enjoying it.”

Ironically, in all the years I knew Alex, he was always the straight man while the rest of us were getting plastered on ecstasy.

His friends acknowledge that he struggled with substance abuse but say Alex’s main weakness was being a driven workaholic who had a hard time unwinding.

“No, this is not the conversation of a functioning junkie. I know what that is,” says Lovejoy. “Alex’s problem around it was that he needed to learn how to relax on his own.”

Perhaps no one knew Alex better than deCarlo. She was technically his manager, but that doesn’t begin to describe the extent of her relationship with Alex. She was like his platonic wife, bodywoman, and protector all rolled into one. He called it a “life appointment.”

She has been living in his First Hill apartment on and off for the last 12 years and has access to every facet of his life, from his storage units to his e-mail. She had found a tropical pink Craftsman house for them in Echo Park in Los Angeles. The night before he died, she logged into his e-mail to see if he’d looked at the pictures of the house.

“I saw how many unopened e-mails there were that day, and all of a sudden this wall hit me that he was operating past his maximum,” she says. “I don’t care how amazing you are. I don’t care how driven you are. Everybody has a limit. I was like, ‘This is going to be the death of him,’ and I went to bed thinking that.”

The next morning, she received the phone call that Alex had died.

In the midst of mourning him, his family and friends have been scurrying to put together memorials—there was one held in New York on November 23, and there is another in Seattle planned for December 9. After all these years, the old crew is frantically trying to throw a party Alex would think was totally awesome—a high bar, no doubt.

But Alex was always calm in the face of a crisis. I know what he would say to his friends. After all, the words are emblazoned on the stairs at the Ace Hotel in New York: “Everything is going to be alright.”
He Was Never Afraid by Tricia Romano – Seattle Features – The Stranger, Seattle’s Only Newspaper.