The Englishwoman Who Ran an Oasis in the Heart of the Conflict

A few weeks ago, when the doctor instructed her to go to the hospital, Valentine Vester insisted on remaining in her apartment in the American Colony Hotel.

"I want to die with my girls," said Vester, proprietor and manager of one of the Middle East's most celebrated hotels. She died earlier this week at the age of 96.

Vester who ran the Jerusalem hotel for the past 45 years, had two sons - one living in England, the other in the United States. But everyone knew that when she said "my girls" she meant her three close assistants and caretakers - a religious Jew, a Christian and a Muslim.

British-born Vester (nee Richmond) died with her girls in the hotel she had turned, with her husband, into one of Jerusalem's most international spots, on the seam between the city's east and west.

"She turned this place into an oasis in the heart of the conflict," said her son, Nicholas Vester.

Yesterday evening, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat strolled in the lobby, while Tony Blair, the Quartet's Middle East envoy, relaxed in one of the suites. The hotel has been the favorite hangout of diplomats, politicians and foreign correspondents for decades.

Before the hotel passed into Israeli hands in 1967, its political history stretched back through Jordanian and British rule to the days of the Ottoman Empire.

Its famed guests include Leon Uris, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Bob Dylan and John le Carre. The latter thanked the hotel owners in one of his books, which he wrote while staying at the American Colony.

"The thing about my mother was that she was very amusing," says Nicholas Vester, who arrived from London to attend the funeral on Sunday at the American Colony Cemetery on Mount Scopus.

"My parents lived well in London and then moved here, though this place was a wreck. They worked very hard here. The fact that they were amusing helped them attract people to this place. They built this place. Even in recent years, when her sight and hearing declined, she remained a very amusing person," he said.

"On top of all that she was a very strong, witty person with a very interesting life, who helped a lot of people."

Born in 1912 in Britain to a wealthy family, Vester, an Oxford graduate, came to Jerusalem in the 1960s with her husband Horatio, the grandson of the Colony's founders. Her husband died in the 1980s.

Back in 1881, following a series of family tragedies, Chicago natives Anna and Horatio Spafford led a small American contingent to Jerusalem to form a Christian utopian society known as the American Colony.

Colony members, later joined by Swedish Christians,