Sunday, February 8, 2015

165. Great Hotels of the Past and Present, part 1

     New York abounds in hotels – how could it not, given the constant influx of visitors? -- and some of them have become legendary.  But it wasn’t always this way.  Back in the eighteenth century there were no hotels in the sense that we use the term, only inns or taverns that were usually remodeled private houses.  The first building erected specifically to serve as a hotel in the United States was probably the City Hotel, built in the 1790s on lower Broadway.  Its large assembly room housed prestigious social functions and concerts, until it was demolished in 1849 to make room for shops.

     The nineteenth century saw the appearance of palace hotels designed to offer Everyman the comfort and luxury enjoyed by the ruling classes of Europe, a glowing democratic concept that would also, if done right, line the pockets of architects and managers.  The first of these was the Astor House,   on lower Broadway opposite City Hall Park.  A five-story granite Greek Revival structure, it was built in 1834-36 for John Jacob Astor, the fur trade king turned real-estate magnate.  Hailed as the “grandest mass” in town, it had many fine public rooms, 309 rooms that would house up to 800 guests, and running water pumped by steam to the upper stories – an unprecedented luxury and engineering feat in a city that had yet to build a modern water supply system providing running water to public and private structures. 

     The Astor House also had gas lighting provided by its own plant, and a  restaurant where guests and local merchants could choose from some thirty meat and fish dishes daily.  Its ballroom hosted the well-attended balls of the elite, and its corridors were crowded daily with merchants and loafers whose manners, to judge by a contemporary sketch, left something to be desired, since many sprawled on their chairs and propped their feet up on whatever object – table or chair or wall– offered them a foot rest: the very sort of slovenly manners that Mrs. Trollope, the quintessential sharp-tongued English biddy, had skewered deliciously in her travel book Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832).  Yet for decades this hotel was an internationally renowned meeting place for literati and the powerful, until the city’s expansion northward left it eclipsed by newer hotels farther uptown. 

     But even in those later years it was of note, for during the Civil War its vast Rotunda Bar was a popular meeting place for war contractors and the government officials they dealt with, and assorted wheeler-dealers looking to patriotically line their own pockets.  In the gas-lit, smoke-filled atmosphere a minister without a congregation might be tracking down rumors of a supply of imported Enfield rifles held up for some reason by Customs, while a commission broker, having delivered to the Army five thousand overcoats of the best cheap shoddy on the market (which might, or might not, turn spongy if exposed to heavy rain), celebrated the deal with a toast to the “old flag, the true flag, the red, white, and blue flag,” clinking whisky glasses with a compliant Army inspector (a pal of his) and an assistant quartermaster general.

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The St. Nicholas Hotel, 1853.

     Meanwhile, as the city surged uptown, the six-story, 600-room St. Nicholas Hotel opened on Broadway at Broome Street in 1853.  A massive structure with a gleaming white marble façade, it offered the innovation of  warm air circulating through registers to every room – a luxury that even the Astor House couldn’t offer.  Other attractions included walnut wainscoting, frescoed ceilings, gas-lit chandeliers, hot running water, a telegraph in the lobby, a bridal room with four chandeliers and a canopied bed upholstered in white satin, and steam-powered washing machines in the basement.  There were opulent parlors for ladies and gentlemen, a sumptuous reading room, and a stately second-floor dining room where liveried Irish servants escorted guests to their seats.  And on Broadway right next to the hotel’s main entrance was Phalon’s Hair-Dressing Establishment where, under a frescoed ceiling with an ornate domed skylight, gentlemen could be trimmed, shaved, and groomed with fragrant oils and greases and pale rum in an atmosphere that observers likened to the palace of an Eastern potentate. 

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     The St. Nicholas seemed the very last word in luxury and sumptuous technology, yet it too was destined to be eclipsed, for in 1859 the Fifth Avenue Hotel opened at Fifth Avenue between 23rd and 24th streets, opposite Madison Square.  A magnificent six-story building of brick faced with white marble, it had the breathtaking novelty of a “vertical screw railway,” the first passenger elevator installed in a hotel in the United States, a cumbersome affair powered by a stationary steam engine that – to the astonishment and wonder of all – could carry passengers to the upper floors.  The hotel’s sober Italianate exterior masked  a number of ground-floor public rooms that were richly furnished with gilt wood, crimson or green curtains, and costly carpets.  Four hundred servants looked after the guests, who enjoyed private bathrooms and a fireplace in every room. 

The Fifth Avenue Hotel, 1859.

     An instant success, the hotel’s reading room was soon filled with gentlemen scanning newspapers, its dining room was jammed with diners, and certain ground-floor rooms became the preferred evening gathering place for Wall Street brokers and speculators after the stock exchange had closed.  Hotel guests marveled at the jabbering throng trading tips and rumors, and marveled even more when the throng suddenly fell silent and parted, making way for the august and towering presence of Cornelius Vanderbilt, endearingly known in the 1860s as “Old Sixty Millions,” the richest man in the country, whose prospering railroad empire would earn him, by the 1870s, the name of “Old Eighty Millions.”

     It should now be clear that each of the nineteenth-century palace hotels endeavored to outdo its predecessors in offering guests the latest in comfort, luxury, and technological advances, and that they were more than just sanctuaries where weary travelers could lay their weary but dazzled heads. They were also social centers, dining establishments, and even, on occasion, political headquarters where party members or their bosses met to make significant decisions regarding upcoming elections. 

     New York then and now has had too many hotels of every rank, from the palatial to the most modest and budget-prone, for me to list them here.  So I’ll focus on those that have something special going for them, something that gives them an aura of distinction and prestige. 

     The Plaza Hotel at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, at the southeastern corner of Central Park and overlooking Grand Army Plaza, is a massive 20-story French Renaissance chateau-style edifice built in 1907 and a National Historic Landmark since 1986.  Kings, presidents, ambassadors, celebrities, CEOs, and world travelers have stayed there over the years, not to mention the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and the Beatles on their first trip to the U.S. in February 1964.  The sedate Plaza was dismayed to learn that the rooms reserved for “four English gentlemen” were meant for the Beatles, and were further dismayed by the screaming fans, mostly teen-age females, who, once the Beatles had arrived, created pandemonium outside.  The foursome’s return to England inspired in the hotel a deep sigh of relief, and they were glad to let other hotels host the rock band on their later visits to the city.

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The Plaza Hotel today.

Fans line the streets to get a look at the Beatles following their arrival in NYC February 1964.
What the Plaza was unhappy about in 1964.
     When I came to New York I often heard mention of “the Oak Room at the Plaza” and finally, at a friend’s prompting, visited this storied restaurant and adjoining bar, which had been serving men-only lunches since the hotel’s opening, until Betty Friedan and the National Organization for Women staged a protest there in 1969.  The Oak Room was a grand, opulent, and elegant space frequented by the rich and famous, even though my friend and I managed to get in.  I vaguely recall it as having a rather warm and woody atmosphere, supremely stylish and tasteful.  So it’s dismaying to learn that it was closed in 2011, because the brunch parties staged there had become noisy and rowdy, annoying the Plaza’s long-term tenants.  The participants in these orgies were said to indulge in drugs and loud music and Lady Gaga, while spraying each other with champagne.  Lady Gaga’s flamboyant presence, wearing a wild blond wig, fishnet tights, and a dress made of honey-colored hair, would be enough to demolish instantly the aura of taste and elegance of any once legendary hostelry.  A sad comedown, perhaps, for a once elegant locale, and a reminder that in a city like New York things can change, and not always for the better. 

     The Plaza has had a series of owners and is now owned by Sahara India Pariwar, an Indian conglomerate that is currently trying to sell it.  Though today it claims to strike a balance between a storied past and a limitless future, one wonders if its glory days are long since past.  But there’s hope: it claims to be the first hotel in the world to offer iPads for all guests, allowing them, with the touch of a screen, to order in-room meals, communicate with the Concierge, request wake-up calls, and check airline schedules and print boarding passes.  But it can’t get them into the legendary Oak Room, which has ceased to exist.

     Only one other New York hotel enjoys the status of National Historic Landmark: the looming 47-story Waldorf Astoria, the second of that name, occupying the entire block between Lexington and Park avenues and between 49th and 50th streets, a massive limestone structure in what is described as “restrained Art Deco style” that opened in 1931.  With twin towers topped by bronze-clad cupolas rising above the twenty floors of the main building, its great mass has a majesty all its own; it overwhelms.  The 1413 guest rooms include 181 in the Waldorf Towers, a hotel within a hotel occupying floors 27 through 42, and of those 181 there are 121 luxury suites often named for eminent guests who once resided there: the Presidential Suite, the Elizabeth Taylor Suite, etc.  Those guests have included ex-president Herbert Hoover, who lived there for over 30 years, Cole Porter, Douglas MacArthur, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, society hostess and party-giver Elsa Maxwell (who got a rent-free suite, in hopes she would lure the affluent), and Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano.

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The Waldorf Astoria as seen from the north, with St. Bartholomew's Church.
Reading Tom

     Wait a minute – Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano, two notorious mobsters, at the Waldorf?  Treading the same corridors as an ex-president and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor?  Is this conceivable?  Yes, it is.  Thanks to prohibition and America’s craving for liquor, Bugsy Siegel by 1927, at the tender age of 21, was awash in cash and, to flaunt it, bought an apartment at the Waldorf.  We’ll assume that management didn’t know who they were dealing with, and of course his money was good.  The same goes for Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who in the early 1930s lived in room 39D in the luxurious Waldorf Towers under the name Charles Ross, and looked very much the affluent businessman, wearing custom-made suits and riding about in a chauffeur-driven limousine.  He held meetings of the mob in his suite and was even photographed there with some of his cohorts.  In 1936, when U.S. Attorney Thomas Dewey tried him for operating a massive prostitution ring, the testimony of Waldorf employees about him and his associates at the Waldorf was devastating to his defense and helped bring about his conviction.  (More of this in a forthcoming post.)  And in his later years yet another gangster, Frank Costello, got his haircut and manicure regularly at the hotel’s barber shop.

     Another eminent guest was General Douglas MacArthur who, returning to this country in 1951, was lodged with his second wife and their only child in a suite in the Waldorf Towers.  So it was from this exclusive address that his son Arthur MacArthur issued daily to attend classes at Columbia College, where he was in the second-year French class that I was teaching in 1957.  A sensitive 19-year-old with an excellent accent in French that must have been acquired through private tutoring, he sat apart from the other male students.  Remembering photos of him at a very young age with his mother and his Chinese amah in Australia, where they went following their escape with the General from the besieged Philippines in 1942, I sensed that, through no fault of his own, he had been too much in the company of women and needed more contact with boys his own age.  His parents resided at the Waldorf from 1952 until 1964, the year of the General’s death, and his mother continued there until her death.

      (A brief digression regarding Arthur MacArthur:  With his father in charge of the war in the South Pacific, at age 4 his photo had appeared on the cover of the Life magazine of August 3, 1942, and prior to that he had been photographed repeatedly with his father.  After the General’s death in 1964 he moved out of the Waldorf to another part of Manhattan and changed his name, so as to creep out from under the burden of an illustrious heritage.  His father had wanted him to go to West Point, but he was drawn to music, literature, the arts, and theater.  For decades he simply vanished from sight, probably glad to escape the publicity that, as a son and grandson of renowned generals, had so oppressed him and kept him from living a life of his own.  Then, just last year, it was reported that Arthur MacArthur, who would now be 76, was one of four reclusive tenants in rent-controlled apartments in the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West who were given lavish sums by a developer to move out.  Arthur MacArthur is said to be living now in Greenwich Village, which, if true, makes him a neighbor of mine.  I wish him well in his anonymity.)

     Lavish dinners, business conferences, and fund-raising galas have been held at the Waldorf.  Prominent among them was the annual April in Paris Ball (later moved to October), which, in the words of an organizer, catered to “very, very high-class people” and raffled off prizes like a chinchilla coat, a Ford Thunderbird car, 25 cases of expensive French wines, a pedigree poodle, and other goodies, with earnings going to French and American charities.  Unique among hotels, it also became involved in world affairs, hosting international conferences and secret meetings of statesmen and other figures of prominence, and receiving controversial foreign leaders requiring the highest level of security.

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Society hostess Elsa Maxwell whispering to Marilyn Monroe at the April in Paris Ball,
1957.   There's a story here; it will be told in a future post. 
      A 1949 conference, held at the Waldorf to discuss the emerging the Cold War in hopes of promoting peace, was attended by Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Vyshinsky, composer Dmitri Shostakovich, Albert  Einstein, and others, but was climaxed by Shostakovich’s outburst in front of 800 people asserting that “a small clique of hatemongers are preparing world public opinion for the transition from cold war to outright aggression.”  Anti-Stalinist activists picketed outside, flaunting signs saying NIET TOVARICH! (no comrade!) and SHOSTAKOVICH! JUMP THRU THE WINDOW, while  prominent American literary figures denounced Stalinism inside.  Needless to say, the Cold War continued unabated.

      An international event of somewhat less significance was the stay there of the British rock band The Who in 1968, when a dispute with the hotel staff led to their being denied access to their room.  What prompted the Waldorf to receive a band known for rowdy behavior and trashing hotel rooms is unclear, but the band’s response was forthright and immediate: they blew the locked door off its hinges with a cherry bomb and retrieved their luggage, following which they were banned from the hotel for life – a ban later revoked when The Who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a ceremony held at the Waldorf in 1990.

     Though not a “very high-class people,” back in my freelance editing days I used to obtrude my plebeian presence on this storied edifice.  Coming back from a publisher on Third Avenue, I would enter the Waldorf on Lexington Avenue and walk the length of the arcade, lined with pricey boutiques, that leads to the elegant Park Avenue lobby.  There I would usually linger for a few moments, enjoying the music from the plucked strings of a harp on a mezzanine above.  Most of the people traversing the lobby seemed totally unaware of the music and hurried on, but I and a few others savored it, grateful for the surprising presence of the woman harpist who sent these gentle sounds wafting down to us below.  A harpist lodged above a hotel lobby: once again, the Waldorf was unique.

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The Waldorf lobby.  All this and harp music, too.
Alan Light

     And who owns the Waldorf today?  From 1972 on, Conrad Hilton, but as of October 2014, the Anbang Insurance Group of China, who acquired it for $1.95 billion, the highest price ever paid for a hotel.  So the legendary Waldorf Astoria, like the Plaza, is foreign-owned today.

     Note on J.P. Morgan:  Once again I must come to the defense of J.P. Morgan Chase, my beloved candy-dispensing bank, whom the government just won’t let alone.  Targeted by an anti-trust lawsuit accusing 12 major banks of rigging prices in the foreign-exchange market, it has agreed to pay $99.5 million to settle its portion of the suit.  And this on top of a $1 billion settlement to resolve claims by U.S. and European regulators last November!  To top it off, the New York Times article reporting the latest settlement reads as follows:

To Pay Out
$99 Million
Over Graft

Not only is this unsporting of the Times, to hit a man when he’s down, but referring to the matter as “graft” is worthy of the lowest, meanest, nastiest, most sensationalist tabloid.  Let the Newspaper of Record take note: It wasn’t graft, it was profit enhancement.

     Notes on Al Sharpton and friends: 

1.  A viewer of this blog informs me that Al Sharpton may have had surgery to reduce his girth.  He denies it, but some medical sources confirm it.  (See last week’s post #164 on Al Sharpton.)

2.  Another viewer of this blog informs me that, back during the Tawana Brawley controversy, he heard attorneys Alton H. Maddox and C. Vernon Mason tell a WNYC interviewer that Attorney Steven Pagones was in the habit of taking out photos of Tawana and “massabatin.”  At first he wondered if he heard this remark right, but when the station did an end-of-the-year roundup of the big stories of the year, he heard the remark repeated.  Both attorneys, he further informs me, have since been disbarred. 

     Coming soon:  More on great hotels: the hotel that hosted the “Vicious Circle”; the hotel whose manager terrorized the staff; budget hotels; the super modern hotel that to my eye looks clunky; and the hotel where you shouldn’t attempt suicide, and why.  Also: How did Franklin Delano Roosevelt get to his Waldorf suite without being seen by the public?  And what is the weirdest request ever made by a guest at the Waldorf Towers, and what did the Waldorf do about it?

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder

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