The Plaza – Where Nothing Unimportant Ever Happens

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The Plaza on a December night at Christmas
The Plaza on a December night at Christmas

It was once said that “Nothing unimportant ever happens in the Plaza.” One of America’s finest and most celebrated luxury hotels, it has the distinction of being the one and only. There is only one Plaza.

The Plaza, the most expensive hotel in the city’s history, opened amidst much fanfare on October 1, 1907, being hailed the “greatest hotel in the world.”

 Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion at the corner of 5th Avenue, 57th Street and Grand Army Plaza, New York 1908
Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion at the corner of 5th Avenue, 57th Street and Grand Army Plaza, New York 1908

The Plaza was a next-door neighbor to the largest private residence ever constructed in New York City – the mansion of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Incidentally, the first person to check into the hotel was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest people in town and the offspring of the mansion’s owners. To have Vanderbilt’s name headlining the hotel guest roster was nothing short of showing the world that the place is suitable for the world’s wealthiest, most famous, and most highly distinguished. Mr. Vanderbilt was followed by such illustrious Gilded Age personalities as Mr. and Mrs. Jay Gould as well as “Diamond Jim” Brady, with Miss Lillian Russell, a famed actress, on his arm. The list of guests grew to include Europian royalty, most notably Princess Elisabeth of Hungary, who checked into the hotel with her entourage of 12 servants, dogs, cats, owl, guinea pig, ibis, alligators, and a bear. The Plaza, unlike other New York hotels, was offering accommodations for pets.

The Plaza, a view from the corner of 58th Street and 5th Ave
The Plaza, a view from the corner of 58th Street and 5th Ave

The Plaza was designed by Henry Janeway Hardenbergh in the style of an opulent French Château and located in the most fashionable residential section of New York City during the Gilded Age. All glitz and glamor, the Plaza’s interiors were stunning. One of the most notable spaces is the famous Palm Court, known for its striking glass ceiling which filters light into the restaurant below. The Palm Court was a setting for a notable scene when famous British actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell lit up a cigarette, which was considered scandalous at the time. She was politely asked to put it down but refused, stating that “This is a free country and I shall do nothing to change it.”

A view to the Palm Court inside the Plaza
A view to the Palm Court inside the Plaza

The elegant old-world Plaza attracted not only the wealthy and powerful but also the dreamy and talented. A young Princeton drop-out by the name of F. Scott Fitzgerald was a frequent patron of the Plaza’s drinking establishments. The Plaza was such a strong symbol of the exclusivity, wealth, and the impeccable taste of old New York that when he became a famous writer he made the protagonist of the Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby, stay at the Plaza.  Scott Fitzgerald loved the Plaza and spend many pleasant hours imbibing in the hotel’s bars with his wife and muse Zelda. The irreverent “it” couple of the Jazz Age famously and scandalously jumped into the fountain in front of the Plaza out of sheer joy. Ernest Hemingway suggested that Scott Fitzgerald should donate his liver to Princeton University and his heart to The Plaza.

Like most hotels in the country, the Plaza suffered badly during Prohibition and had been through some tough times during the Great Depression. The most unexpected saviors were “the Thirty-Nine Widows” – extravagantly rich older women who resided there permanently and paid steadily, providing much-needed cash flow to the struggling hotel. The ladies (and a few men) became legendary. Their daily appearance in the lobby where they spent a considerable portion of their days grew to be a tourist attraction. Of course, after the hard times were over their presence became a nuisance. One of the ladies stayed in the State Suite, one of the most opulent rooms in the hotel with a view of Central Park, for the humble price of $200 a month. The lady remained a resident until her death in 1954. Another one had the distinction of being the Plaza’s oldest resident: she checked in in 1932 and stayed until the very end of her 103-year-old life in 1960.

The Plaza continued to be the magnet for the most celebrated names of the 20th century. Frank Lloyd Wright, the most important American architect of the 20th century, stayed at the Plaza for six years while he was working on his last major project – the Guggenheim Museum. Frank Lloyd Wright, not a fan of New York architecture, found only the Plaza agreeable enough to call his New York home. Marilyn Monroe stayed at the hotel many times, attracting much attention. Once while giving a press conference in the Plaza with her co-star Sir Laurence Olivier, she caused quite a conundrum when a strap of her dress broke, causing major turmoil amid the press and the general public. Speaking of turmoil, the Beatles stayed at the Plaza Hotel during their first visit to the United States in February 1964. The hotel manager initially decided against letting them stay due to his fear that the hotel would be besieged by the fans. But he had a teenage daughter, a fan herself, who convinced her father to let them stay against his best judgment.

The famed ballroom at the Plaza
The famed ballroom at the Plaza

One of the most coveted spaces in the Plaza is its spectacular ballroom. It has seen many glamorous events, including Donald Trump’s wedding to Marla Maples in 1993. However, the most notorious and glitzy event happened here in 1966 and was dubbed “The Party of the Century.” The party was furnished by Truman Capote, who dreamed up an event that matched the 19th-century parties given by the Astors and the Vanderbilts. The “Black and White Ball” took place on November 28, 1966, in honor of the Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. Capote invited 540 well-selected guests who were to appear wearing black and white only with their faces covered by masks. The masks were to be discarded at midnight, revealing some of the most famous faces. The invitees included the president’s daughter Lynda Bird Johnson, Henry Fonda, the Sinatras, Andy Warhol, the most glamorous women of the time nicknamed the Swans of 5th Ave, and some hand-picked individuals of no particular pedigree, just to mix things up. The famous author treated the Ball as one of his major life projects and, predictably, chose the Plaza as the setting for the Party of the Century.

Mrs. and Mrs. Sinarta at the "Black and White Ball"
Mrs. and Mrs. Sinarta at the “Black and White Ball”

The Plaza was always coveted by buyers not just as an expensive hotel but as a unique possession. It was bought by Conrad Hilton in 1943 for $7.4 million (equivalent to $107 million in 2018), who spent an additional $6 million (equivalent to $86.9 million in 2018) refurbishing it. When Donald Trump acquired the Plaza in 1988 for $390 million, he publically admitted that he’s not making a practical purchase. His poetic phrasing in an open letter published in the New York Times stated that he was buying his “Mona Lisa.” The Plaza changed hands several times after that, making a transition into being a part luxury hotel – part condo building.

Even though there might be more luxurious and better-equipped hotels in New York these days, only the Plaza has that special patina of elegance, glamor and old New York nostalgia.

An entrance to the ballroom at the Plaza
An entrance to the ballroom at the Plaza
A view to the ballroom at the Plaza
A view to the ballroom at the Plaza
Inside the Plaza
Inside the Plaza
The Plaza at night
The Plaza at night

References:

Julie Satow “The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel”, Twelve June 4, 2019

Harrison Jacobs “I stayed at New York’s most iconic luxury hotel that charges up to $50,000 a night and was once owned by Donald Trump”, Business Insider, Mar 11, 2018

“The Plaza Legacy: A Timeline” https://www.theplazany.com/history/

Rey Mashayekh “The Long and Winding Ownership History of the Plaza Hotel”, Commercial Observer, July 18, 2018

Charles V. Bagli “The Plaza Is for Sale, but a Part-Owner Has Other Ideas” The New York Times, Aug. 23, 2017

Deborah Davis “Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black and White Ball” Wiley, June 4, 2010

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