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Heartbreak Hotel


More recently, an hour or two at the piano bar would almost guarantee a glimpse of Matt Dillon, John Waters, Ethan Hawke, Steven Tyler, or Andy Garcia. Chloë Sevigny seemed to conduct all her interviews in the low-lit lounge. And one night around 11:30, Phyllis Love, the regular Monday pianist, met Jewel and her date for the evening, Leonardo DiCaprio: "We weren't supposed to let people sing -- most people can't sing -- but she said she'd sing something I would know how to play. So she sang 'Summertime.' There was a huge round of applause that must have woken someone up because, believe it or not, I had a complaint as soon as she finished. But she did give me a nice tip."

The hotel had its share of homegrown celebrities, too. There were the octogenarian silver-haired Harvey sisters -- Jacqueline and Evelyn -- who dressed identically and sipped multiple martinis at their VIP table facing the bar. Aunt Bee, 96, the hotel's oldest tenant, has kept the same room for 60 years; during the summer months, she can be spotted sunbathing in the park, with the help of a tinfoil-covered album cover tilted toward her face. European travelers are a constant presence, none more notorious than the Savile Row–suited businessman who drank six Bombay Sapphire martinis directly after arriving from London. When finished, he headed to his room, only to reappear shortly thereafter sans suit, ready to order another.

The week after his brother's death, Steven Weissberg is on an FF&E tour, accompanied by Yvonne English, his head of housekeeping. "Furniture, fixtures, and equipment," he notes. Weissberg is in the early stages of a modest refurbishment that he hopes will make up for the years of benign neglect the hotel suffered under his ailing father. David Rockwell bamboo, Frette linens, and Jonathan Adler rugs may never make it to the Gramercy, but at least the black-and-white TVs were replaced with color sets and DVD players; coffee-makers and microwaves are edging out the dangerous hot plates.

Returning the faded lobby to its former glory is his next goal. He's already fixed a series of chandeliers at the entrance. "Five years from now, I want to see the hotel look like it did 50 years ago," he says. "I want to bring back the Roaring Twenties with chesterfields, the leather wingbacks with gold nail heads."

Another plan is to increase the number of monthly tenants in the hotel, à la the Chelsea Hotel. He's thinking of transforming the roof garden into a high-end cocktail lounge like Grand Central's Campbell Apartment, or building out two family-size apartments there that he hopes could draw $1,000 a day. Steven opens the door to Room 721–25. It's a two-bedroom suite with an enormous terrace overlooking the park, which he wants to rent for $10,000 a month. He strides out onto the AstroTurf. "This is where I lived with David in the mid-seventies," he says. "We lived here with nine dogs."

As he walks the halls, Steven keeps up a running narrative on everything from the status of newly ordered clock-radios to how he played bass guitar in his college band. It's hard to avoid the sensation that he's trying to distract himself from his many sorrows. The visit to the morgue to identify his brother was his third trip in five years. In 1997, his wife, Madalyn, lost her fight with colon cancer. She was 46. They had been married for eighteen years. "We met at the Roxy," he says with a smile. "I was wearing a black silk suit and roller skates."

After her death, Steven moved his two sons, Michael and Jonathan, out of their Upper East Side apartment and into a suite of rooms at the hotel to be closer to his family. Uncle David, in and out of rehab for his $500-a-day speedball habit, had never spent much time with his nephews, largely because Madalyn wanted to protect her children from his erratic behavior. Her instincts turned out to have been right: On the night of his 19th-birthday party at the hotel, Michael collapsed from an apparent drug overdose -- in David's room. "From what I understand, he was unconscious for a while," says a hotel-staff member. "If someone had noticed, he could have been saved." It is something Weissberg refuses to discuss. "I've had a lot of loss. My wife. My son. David," he says. "How do I do it? I don't know." He pauses: "See that air conditioner? I just bought a hundred of them."

During his heyday, Herbert Weissberg's empire included the Biltmore in Palm Beach and the Ponce de Leon hotel and casino (now known as the Condado Plaza) in Puerto Rico. In New York, he owned the Paramount and the Taft, now the Michael Angelo in midtown, before buying the Gramercy. Steven learned the trade by osmosis. During college at the University of Arkansas, while Bill Clinton was governor, he managed the Sam Peck, a hotel across from the state capitol. He moved to Detroit after his father acquired the famed 1,136-room Sheraton Book-Cadillac and renamed it the Detroit-Cadillac. Three years later, he returned to New York to run the Lancaster on Madison Avenue and 38th Street, known today as the Jolly Madison. Meanwhile, even though Herbert had sold the majority of his holdings in 1967 and moved to Florida to semi-retire, he couldn't resist one last fling with the Gramercy. When an interim operator defaulted on payments, Sol Goldman, the building's owner, tempted the family with an offer to take on the Gramercy's lease. In 1976, after a nine-year absence, the Weissbergs returned to the park.

Each evening, Herbert and his wife, Ruth, who've been married 50 years, ate dinner in the hotel restaurant, a windowless room behind the piano bar where the staff outnumbered the customers and the Continental menu included Jell-O for dessert and kippers for breakfast. Despite the fact that the owners were on the premises, the hotel was on autopilot. "It was either that the owners trusted it," says Shelley Gold, a lounge pianist for thirteen years, "or it was a form of anarchy that worked." About two years ago, when a stroke forced Herbert's second retirement, Steven was officially installed by his parents as CEO. Robert, the oldest of the brothers and a political-science professor at the University of Illinois, had no interest in the family business; David, clearly too troubled to have a role, aspired to be a photographer. Martin, however, Herbert's second son, was not pleased. "He thought he was going to be the man," says Shelly Legon, a hotel bartender for seven years. "He thought of himself as the sharpest of the brothers. Even afterwards, when we had a staff meeting, Marty was doing all the talking. Steven never said a word."

Tensions came to a head in December when Steven unceremoniously fired his older brother, following up a few months later with the lawsuit. In it, he also accuses Marty's Media Marketing Group of grossly mismanaging the hotel's Website, at one point even shutting it down and leaving a stream of unpaid advertising bills, including some from the New York Times. The brothers' five-month silence was broken only when the two were forced to acknowledge each other at the funeral home in front of David's coffin. According to Steven, Marty tried to address their disagreement, but Steven refused to talk. Depositions in the case begin in August, and neither brother will comment on the details.

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