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Heartbreak Hotel

For nearly 50 years, the Weissberg clan has been quietly running the legendary Gramercy Park Hotel. But when David Weissberg jumped off the roof last month, his death exposed a family torn apart by drugs, illness, financial woes, and family feuds. Is it too late to restore a New York institution?

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It was a typical weekday afternoon in Gramercy Park: High-school kids were crowding the corner of Lexington Avenue and 22nd Street. The park gates were swinging open and shut for a steady stream of local nannies pushing strollers and guests of the Gramercy Park Hotel, escorted by hotel doormen in their forest-green uniforms. Steven Weissberg, CEO of his family's 509-room hotel, was in his second-floor office returning calls. His wife, Cameron, was out on Long Island with their young son. On the fifth floor, Steven's younger brother, David, and his wife, Marilyn, were arguing in their suite. This was not unusual; since their wedding at the Elvis Presley chapel in Las Vegas two years ago, they were known for their tempestuous rows. But this time, Marilyn had packed her bags and insisted she was leaving for good. David suggested they go up to the roof garden for air. Marilyn agreed, hauling her suitcases with her. After a few minutes in the penthouse party space where Humphrey Bogart married Helen Menken, Marilyn said good-bye and took the elevator eighteen floors down to the lobby.

Left alone, David made his way to the roof's northeast corner. He unbuckled a fanny pack containing $4,000 in cash and dropped it on the floor before climbing up onto a ten-foot ledge. He removed the gold Ten Commandments necklace he always wore and clasped it in his hand. Then, just as Marilyn emerged from the hotel's revolving door, David jumped. He landed in front of the hotel bar.

"Marilyn was hysterical," says a witness. "She sat down right next to him with her back against the wall. The doorman from the building next door tried to console her." Moments later they were joined by Steven, who would spend the rest of the day huddled in the hotel's lounge with the police as Marilyn was taken to the hospital to be treated for shock. "Someone on my staff came into my office and told me. I went downstairs," he says, "and saw the horror."

For Steven, his brother's death was only the latest in a string of family tragedies set against the background of the shabby genteel hotel whose history is intertwined with theirs.

"It's like they're the Kennedys or something," says a neighbor. "They have their own family curse."

"Well, the Kennedys did stay here," sighs Steven. "Maybe they rubbed off on us."

Beloved by celebrities and civilians alike for its threadbare charm, the Gramercy Park Hotel is a one-of-a-kind New York institution. In an era of corporate chains and high-end Ian Schrager-style boutiques, it's a throwback, an eccentric family-run operation in stately, if neglected, prewar quarters, where rooms under $200 a night make up in size what they lack in amenities. Guests still get metal keys instead of plastic key cards, and the kitchenettes come equipped with hot plates instead of microwaves.

To many, its retro character is part of the appeal. But to competitors, it's a fabulously underdeveloped opportunity. A week after David's death, André Balazs, the proprietor of the Mercer and the Château Marmont, invited Steven to dinner. "It's been a dream of mine to own it," confides Jeff Klein, owner of the ultraluxe City Club Hotel on West 44th Street. He isn't the only one. "Seven years ago, I just couldn't stop thinking about it," says restaurateur Jonathan Morr, who owns the Townhouse Hotel in South Beach. "I'd just go and sit in the lobby and think about what I'd do with it. I called my broker and said, 'I want to take it over!' But the father didn't want to sell."

"Every hotelier in the world loves that hotel. It's something everybody, anybody, would want to put their hands on," says Morr. "Tell Steven to call me."

The hotel's most coveted asset, of course, is its enviable location opposite the city's only gated, private park, accessible solely to those fortunate enough to have a key, a privilege that comes with a Gramercy Park address. Once a bastion of late-nineteenth-century elegance, the park itself has become a lightning rod for high drama in the form of legal combat between Aldon James, president of the National Arts Club, and the park's trustees over everything from tree pruning to racial sensitivity. Picking sides in the various battles has become a favorite dinner-party pastime for residents, as has speculating on the outcome of the district attorney's investigation into the club's finances. But while the neighborhood gossip swirled around them, the Weissbergs, the largest lot holders by far, remained curiously and determinedly below the radar.

David's death changed all that, shining an unwelcome spotlight not only on his family's problems but on the hotel's uncertain future. To observant regulars, it has been clear for some time that all was not well. Eighteen months ago, Herbert Weissberg, the 89-year-old family patriarch and once a hotelier of some renown, reluctantly gave up the day-to-day running of the hotel because of failing health, but the succession has been far from smooth.

Last winter, Steven, who had been appointed CEO by his father, fell out with his older half-brother, Martin, 59, who'd been in charge of the hotel's advertising and marketing. Accusing him of stealing from the hotel, Steven launched a $1 million lawsuit claiming Martin not only made "extortionate threats" against him but also used the hotel coffers as his "own private candy store." Martin quickly countersued, denying all charges and claiming he was owed $500,000 in unpaid services.

In March, Steven uncovered a cache of assault rifles, shotguns, and ammunition that David, 46, was hiding in his room and the hotel's basement. Steven called the police, and the story made the tabloids. David's drug use had been an open secret for years. He and Marilyn had attended a methadone clinic together, and because of several earlier heroin arrests, the new gun rap could have landed him in jail.

Then, one Monday night in April, to the astonishment of those both working and drinking there, Steven abruptly closed the hotel bar and restaurant -- with neither warning nor explanation.

None of this could have been easy for Steven, who had already endured his own personal tragedies -- the death of his first wife from cancer in 1997, followed shortly by the death of his 19-year-old son from a drug overdose.

"It's been one monumental tragedy after another," says Arlene Harrison, president of the 2000-member Gramercy Park Block Association. "It's hitting him more and more every day. But Steven was not the cause of all of this. He is not the person that made the problem."

The Gramercy's guest book would rival a Liz Smith column for name checks. Babe Ruth was an early patron; Joseph Kennedy rented out the hotel's third floor when his son John was 11. In the seventies, it was such a rock-star haven that Cameron Crowe insisted on filming scenes of Almost Famous in the lobby. Debbie Harry took up residence; the Rolling Stones stopped by. "When I was a kid, I used to hang out and have Shirley Temples and eat dinner in the restaurant," says fashion photographer Terry Richardson, whose father lived in the Gramercy for seven years.


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