Wednesday, February 11, 2015

166. Great Hotels of the Past and Present, part 2

     Discussed in the last post, the Waldorf and Plaza are massive, hosting hundreds of guests every day.  But there are smaller hotels of distinction as well.  At the top of the list I would put the Algonquin at 59 West 44th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues.  Built in 1902 with a red brick and limestone façade and named for the Indians who once lived in this area, it has a mere 181 rooms, small indeed compared to the Plaza and Waldorf.  Frank Case, its longtime manager and owner, was fascinated by actors and writers and therefore welcomed them to his hotel and extended them credit.  Among the habitués he snagged over the years were Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., John Barrymore, Sinclair Lewis, and William Faulkner, but he was a bit ahead of his time in welcoming women as well, including Gertrude Stein, Helen Hayes, and later Simone de Beauvoir.  But what made the Algonquin famous was the Algonquin Round Table.

The Algonquin at night.

     Initiated in 1919, the Round Table was a select group of journalists, authors, critics, and actors who met daily for lunch in the main dining room, where they had their own table and waiter and exchanged opinions and witticisms and gossip.   Prominent among them were humorist Robert Benchley, playwright and director George S. Kaufman, writer and critic Dorothy Parker, New Yorker editor Harold Ross, playwright Robert E. Sherwood, and critic Alexander Woollcott.  Others who were in the group at times included actress Tallulah Bankhead, novelist Edna Ferber, and  comedian Harpo Marx, always mute in his films but who in this select company presumably permitted himself to speak.

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Members of the Round Table, circa 1919.  Back row, from left:
Art Samuels, editor of Harper's Bazaar; Harpo Marx; Alexander
Woollcott.  Front row, from left: playwright Charlie MacArthur;
Dorothy Parker.  And how many of these names ring a bell today?

     Besides exchanging chitchat, the Round Table members played poker and charades, staged a one-night revue, and acquired a reputation as wits when their quips and doings were reported widely in the press.  But those quips could be mordant, and not for nothing had they named themselves “the Vicious Circle.”  Critic H.L. Mencken, admired by them but emphatically not a part of the group, asserted that “their ideals were those of a vaudeville actor, one who is extremely ‘in the know’ and trashy.”  And Groucho Marx observed, “The price of admission is a serpent’s tongue and a half-concealed stiletto.”  It is true that they were probably more proficient in wisecracks than in meaningful insights, that they were arrogant and promoted themselves shamelessly, that in the last analysis most of them were not consistently and profoundly creative.

     The Round Table flourished through the 1920s but then flaked away, it isn’t quite clear why.  Edna Ferber knew the game was up when she arrived for lunch one day and found the group’s table occupied by a family from Kansas.  Others in time realized that they had nothing more to say to one another and drifted off into other ventures.  But they survived in the collective memory and ultimately helped win the Algonquin New York City Historic Landmark status in 1987.

     It is hard to recreate the atmosphere of the Round Table, but here are a few quotes:
·      Alexander Woollcott:  “All the things I like to do are either immoral, illegal, or fattening.”
·      Robert Benchley:  “Behind every argument is someone’s ignorance.”
·      George S. Kaufman:  “Epitaph for a dead waiter – God finally caught his eye.”
·      Dorothy Parker:  “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”
·      Dorothy Parker again:  “I don’t care what is written about me so long as it isn’t true.”

     Yes, maybe the quips were rehearsed beforehand, and maybe they weren’t even uttered at the Algonquin.  But they and the Round Table have become a cultural legend and as such merit a little respect … or at least a trace of a smile.  Because what else of that cultural moment remains?  Almost nothing.

     Today the Algonquin promotes itself as a luxury hotel near the Theater District and just a block from the lights of Times Square, a boutique hotel rich in history and hospitality, with 37-inch TVs, backlit mirrors, and an iPod docking station in all the rooms.  So even without Dorothy Parker and the Round Table, one can settle snugly in.  I entered its hallowed precincts just once, years ago, before the addition of all these state-of-the-art amenities, when my uncle stayed there during a brief visit to the city and treated me to lunch in the restaurant.  I can state without reservation that the vichyssoise soup that I had was, to put it mildly, out of this world; it vaulted me to the apex of joy.

     A unique hotel – unique for many reasons – is the New York Palace Hotel, formerly the Helmsley Palace Hotel, at 455 Madison Avenue, in the very heart of midtown.  It incorporates two very different structures that are linked by a two-story marble lobby: the landmark Italian Renaissance-style Villard Mansion, built by railroad magnate Henry Villard in 1884, and right smack against it, a 55-story tower built by real estate magnate Henry Helmsley in the 1970s; the resulting mishmash – or ingenious blend, if you prefer – opened as a luxury hotel in 1981.

The New York Palace Hotel (formerly the Helmsley Palace Hotel),
with the Villard Mansion in front. 


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Leona Helmsley's mug shot.  In spite of the glowing
smile, she ended badly.
     When you talk about the Waldorf Astoria, you end up discussing international relations.  When you talk about the Algonquin, you end up discussing wit and witty people.  And when you talk about the Helmsley Palace Hotel, you end up discussing Helmsley’s wife Leona, who managed the hotel from 1981 to 1992, and whose imperious presence has darkened these pages before (post #81, August 21, 2013).  Since I have already chronicled her as the Queen of Mean, I shan’t honor her with further commentary.  Suffice it to say that she terrorized the staff, but was finally undone by the federal government, which in 1989 convicted her on various charges including conspiracy, mail fraud, and tax evasion.  What in my opinion doomed her irretrievably was testimony by her former housekeeper, who quoted her as saying, “Only the little people pay taxes.”  That assertion the government simply couldn’t ignore, and didn’t.  She served in prison from 1992 to 1994, when she was released with 750 hours of community service to perform, some of which she assigned to her servants, thus earning her another 150 hours of service. 

     When Leona died in 2007, she left $12 million to her beloved Maltese dog Trouble, who thus became the richest dog in the world and lived her last three years in security and comfort.  They don’t make ’em like Leona anymore … at least, I hope they don’t.  But the hotel, now rechristened the New York Palace Hotel, still flourishes, having been owned briefly by the Sultan of Brunei, and now by Northwood Investors, a New York-based real estate investment firm.  Guest rooms start at $525 a night, and suites at $1,100.  But I’m sure they’re comfortable.

     And if you can’t afford such rates?  You do what my mother did during a visit in the 1950s, you stay at the YWCA (or the WMCA), where she was quite comfortable.  (It didn’t hurt that she’d once worked for the Y and was still in touch with friends she’d made there years before.)  Or at some little budget hotel a bit off the beaten track, like the Larchmont at 27 West 11th Street in Greenwich Village, where single rooms range from $90 to $109 plus tax on weekdays – bargain rates indeed for Manhattan, and with a continental breakfast included.  The neighborhood is residential and quiet, and the exterior of the hotel is modestly elegant.  A friend once stayed there and I saw her room: small, with only basic furniture – a bed, a desk, a chair, little else.  (The Larchmont now advertises a color TV in every room.)  It was a place to lay your weary head at night, so you could rest up for forays into the city by day.  Modest, but doable.

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The Hilton Midtown with its soaring slabs.  Clunky.

     And for those not interested in modest little budget hotels?  How about the prestigious New York Hilton Midtown at the northwest edge of Rockefeller Center at Sixth Avenue and 53rd Street?  A soaring 47-story building with 2,153 rooms in all, the biggest hotel in the city, it opened in 1963 and since then has hosted every U.S. president from John F. Kennedy on, as well as countless conferences and conventions.  It has been called a microcosm of the city itself: vertical, crowded, diverse, and cash-driven.  When it opened, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable commented: “If the building has a look that suggests that one might put change in at the top and get something out at the bottom, this is only because today’s slickly designed commercial structures more and more frequently resemble a product, a machine, or a package.”  Certainly it lacks the grandeur of the Waldorf or the Plaza, and has been said to mark a shift from the gracious and luxurious to the utterly functional.  To my eye it looks like a big box surmounted by a slab; in short, it’s clunky.  But guests don’t come there because of the looks of its exterior, and many an online review praises it (appropriately) to the skies.

     Another bit of flashy modernity, the Marriott Marquis Hotel at Broadway and 45th Street soars above the hurly-burly of Times Square.  It was born in controversy, for five historic theaters were demolished to make room for it – a demolition dubbed “the Great Theater Massacre of 1982.”  Yet it has also been hailed as the first major project in the revitalization of Times Square, which, contaminated by nearby 42nd Street, was then undeniably seedy, with an abundance of go-go bars and “adult” theaters.  If the Marriott, opening in 1985, turned its back on Times Square, focusing attention inward on its soaring atrium, it’s because it wanted no part of that seediness.

The Marriott Marquis, with the flashiness of Times Square in the foreground.

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The glass-walled elevators.  No thanks.
haitham alfalah
     Two features especially distinguish this state-of-the-art structure, and I have experienced both.  The glass-enclosed “scenic elevators” crawl up the sides of a central column in the building’s atrium like big bugs, giving views of its soaring inner space.  Visitors are said to flock from miles away and stand in line to access them, but when I rode in one years ago there was no wait at all.  But even though I have no abnormal fear of heights, I was distinctly uncomfortable, having the feeling that this creeping creature with glass walls had no support under it and could easily plunge; when I got off and felt a solid floor beneath me, I was vastly relieved.  On the other hand, the famous revolving bar and restaurant on the 48th floor is a unique and wondrous rooftop experience, slowly making a complete turn each hour while giving breathtaking views of the city.  I was once there with visiting relatives at night, and the views of the lights of Times Square were unforgettable.

     A less publicized fact about the Marriott Marquis is its popularity for suicides.  Those planning it probably think they will plummet gracefully and land with a dramatic thump in the lobby.  Not so.  One jumper leaped from the 43rd floor, but his right arm and left leg were recovered on the 11th floor, his other two limbs on the 7th floor, and part of his skull in the elevator shaft.  And another suicide, leaping from the 23rd floor, ended up with one leg on the 10th floor and his torso on the 9th.  Why this dispersion of remains?  Because the falling body bounces off a variety of obtruding structures on the way, each breaking off a different part of the body.  So would-be suicides should definitely keep away from the Marriott.  (I would recommend the Palisades, except for the fact that there’s lots of poison ivy over there.  Besides, that’s in New Jersey, and my focus here is on New York.)

     So as not to end on a grisly note, here are some tidbits about the Waldorf Towers and its residents, courtesy of two young women who are the Waldorf’s luxury suite specialists:

·      The most requested suite: the Presidential, where every President since Kennedy has stayed.  When a President is there, they install bulletproof glass.
·      The largest suite: The Cole Porter, where the composer lived for 25 years.  It rents at $150,000 a month and up.  His piano is still there.
·       A rare bit of presidential trivia: when President Roosevelt came, he arrived via an underground railroad running from Grand Central Station to the fourth floor of the Waldorf basement.  That way no one saw him arrive in a wheelchair.
·      The suite with the biggest and most exquisite bathtub: the Elizabeth Taylor, whose tub is big enough for three.  (There’s no report of its ever having accommodated a threesome, however.)
·      The weirdest request ever: a VIP insisted that they raise the toilet height by one centimeter, which they did.
·      Objects that guests steal as souvenirs; teakettles, silverware, plates, ashtrays, and a candelabra.

     So far as I know, there is no Lucky Luciano Suite.  With this hodgepodge of trivia, I conclude.

     Note on post 162.5, Big Bank, Big Real Estate:  The feature page-one article of the Sunday New York Times of February 8, 2015, tells how foreign billionaires are secretly buying luxury condos in the soaring glass towers sprouting all over midtown Manhattan.  The article focuses on the two dark glass towers of the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, where condo buyers include a Chinese businessman whose properties in Jersey City have been investigated for unsanitary conditions; a Scottish businessman the collapse of whose investment firm in the U.K. lost the savings of 30,000 people; an Indian CEO of a global mining conglomerate responsible for severe pollution in India and Zambia; and a Russian oligarch accused of dubious financial transactions in Angola.  Just identifying these buyers took the Times a whole year, as they went from source to source to source, unpeeling layers of secrecy.

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The Time Warner Center: more soaring slabs.
     These and other condo buyers obviously have good reason to desire anonymity, often buying condos in the name of a relative or a shell company such as an LLC (limited liability company), thus quite legally concealing their identity.  Many of them are absentee owners who are here only sporadically, paying no city income tax and often receiving hefty property tax breaks as well.  Our previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, encouraged purchases by foreign billionaires, on the assumption that their lavish spending would trickle down to doormen, concierges, cleaners, drivers, construction workers, shopkeepers, and restaurants, but so many of the buyers are absentee owners that it hasn’t worked out that way.  So some local politicians, noting that the city is spending money on services the absentees benefit from, have proposed an international residents tax. 

     Buyers pay millions for a condo – anywhere from $2 to $25 million and up -- but if they sell the condo a few years later, they make millions more.  And as they snap up condos, they drive up real estate prices in the city generally.  Which brings me back to the layman’s query posed by my post #162.5 on Big Real Estate: is this a real estate bubble, and if so, is it about to burst?  During real estate busts in the past, I confess to having felt a certain grim satisfaction in seeing luxury residential high rises at night with a third or less of the windows lit up, suggesting that two-thirds or more of the units remained unsold, with resulting huge losses to the developers.  Not the most generous of attitudes, I admit, but one gets tired of endless development, endless construction, endless greed.  Will history repeat now, and soon?  I have no idea.  Let’s just wait and see.

     Coming soon:  The lady whose office performs 5,500 autopsies a year, and who wants to make sure that no more corpses get lost.  And then: Prosecutor Dewey vs. Lucky Luciano, the kingpin of organized crime, and why did Dewey finally let him go?  And then: the short, dumpy, homely little woman who said she belonged to the world, became famous, and feuded with the Duchess of Windsor.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder