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Heartbreak Hotel


Despite the obvious need to drag the Gramercy into the twenty-first century, some of the former staff, many of whom still feel loyal to the hotel after working there for years, are unimpressed with Steven's efforts in that direction. "One day he says to me, 'I'm going to put a pizza oven here behind the bar,' " says Legon, the former bartender. "What kind of idiotic thing is that? Then he says, 'I'm going to put a sports bar in the lobby and you're going to run it.' I said, 'What, are you stupid? You'll cannibalize your own bar here!'

"Despite everything, I love the guy," says Legon. "I feel sad. A guy who was handed everything can't figure it out."

Even before the impact of September 11 on the city's hotel business, the restaurant was losing $1 million a year, but what, the staff wondered, was the point of closing the profitable bar? Steven argues that it was a necessary move to stop certain employees who were stealing from him. But he had to pay out $300,000 in severance to union employees and forgo $100,000 in banquet bookings. "I had to help one girl re-book her wedding at the Soho Grand," says Robbin Cullinen, the former food-and-beverage director. "The woman was in tears."

Steven says he regrets only one thing: the lack of room service. "Breakfast," he says. "I still feel bad about."

Every morning, he provides a spread of bagels, Danishes, and OJ from an Igloo cooler in the former bar area to compensate. A few feet away, the smoke-soaked mauve curtains are still hanging; a carton of the hotel's signature bar snack, Pepperidge Farm Cheddar Goldfish, still sits on a mirrored shelf.

How he handles the food-and-beverage operation will be Steven's next test. He had decided to lease it out and had been talking to two chefs: Giuliano Bugialli, best known for his Italian cooking classes and TV specials, who was interested in opening a cooking school in the hotel kitchen; and then Peter Vuli, who owns Fino on Wall Street and Vuli in the Radisson on Lexington and 48th. Nothing happened with Bugialli, but Vuli says he has a tentative deal to take over the restaurant in September with a Northern Italian menu. "I was thinking of calling it Brazza," he says. He has already planned a horseshoe-shaped bar. Steven will say only, "I'm putting everything on hold."

Inevitably, there is no shortage of suggestions for the Gramercy's future. Jeff Klein suggests only renovating 50 rooms to create a "hotel inside a hotel" and adding a Les Deux Gamin–type cafe. "It would be a really chic place where people went to smoke cigarettes, talk about literature or art. Somewhere you could run into Damien Loeb meeting with Blondie," he says. Neighborhood residents, however, are keeping their fingers crossed for Danny Meyer, even though he's indicated he's not interested. "There is a lovely space on the second floor overlooking the park," says James Benenson, who lives in Meyer's building across from the hotel. "It could be like the Ritz hotel in Boston."

But any substantial renovation of the Gramercy is a developer's Catch-22. The Weissbergs' long-term lease on the property isn't so long anymore. In sixteen years, they will have to renegotiate with the Sol Goldman estate; the intervening time is long enough to lease out the restaurant but not to justify spending the $15 million to $20 million it would take to give the property the refurbishment it needs, and get much of a return.

"I don't think just renovating some rooms would be enough," says Stanley Bard, managing director of the Chelsea Hotel, the other eccentric family-run establishment famous for its artistic following. "You see, they should have done that over the years. We've had a restoration program over a ten-year period. We are interested in preserving and propagating a legend. It's very difficult for a family that doesn't have public financing or chain financing."

"A family operation is different," agrees Ira Drucker, Balazs's partner in the Mercer and developer of the Chambers Hotel, who met with Steven earlier in the year about possibly partnering on a revamp. "Families doing business tend to hurt each other. The cash flow is probably eroding." If it is, Steven is not admitting it. "I just looked at an 800-room hotel in Italy," he notes, "and a 200-room hotel in Aruba."

Today might be the day Steven finally has a meltdown. His lawyer is expecting him uptown; his mother is calling relentlessly from the hospital where his father is undergoing some tests. And Marilyn, David's wife, has called the cops. After David's death, Steven gave Princess, David's Jack Russell, to a hotel guest who passed the animal on to a friend. But now Marilyn, who has moved back into the hotel temporarily, wants Princess herself. Unfortunately, the dog has disappeared somewhere in the wilds of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Jonathan, Steven's second son, has been dispatched to the Kennel Club to try to find a replacement. A puppy, it turns out, costs $1,500. "Just put it on the credit card," Steven tells Jonathan, his head in his hands.

Suddenly, he decides on a motorcycle ride. "It's too nice out," he shouts. Five minutes later, he's revving his red-and-black 1999 Indian Chief up Park Avenue, past the Waldorf and back down Fifth, past the Pierre and the Sherry-Netherland. He drives by the building where he's considering an office to separate himself a bit from the hotel. He is even thinking that when Jonathan goes to college, he might move Cameron and their infant son, Logan, out of the hotel altogether.

The couple were married Valentine's Day, 1999, by Mayor Giuliani, and again in a service at Temple Emanu-El. "I converted," says Cameron, a textile designer who grew up Catholic in Philadelphia. "I worked in the garment district. I always wanted to be Jewish."

Since Logan's birth, she's been active in the neighborhood, partnering with Harrison's Gramercy Park Block Association to launch Gramercy Babies, a group for new mothers and their kids to meet. For the first time in ten years, there will be an election in the fall for five new park trustees, and Cameron Weissberg is a strong candidate. "I would like to move out of the hotel some day," she says. "But I love the park."

Steven says hotel living is not exactly like the Eloise books he read as a kid. "Her parents were monthly tenants," he points out, "Not hotel owners. And they traveled a lot. I don't think hotel life is geared towards raising a child. It will be a new era. To be in an apartment, have neighbors, a home. I'd like more of a home."

But for now, the hotel will have to do. And there are certain perks. After a month of tsuris, Steven takes out his massive chain of keys and opens the gate to Gramercy Park. The ceremonial black ribbon he was wearing for David's shiva is still in the inside pocket of his suit jacket. "I would not have predicted it," says Steven, recalling that just three weeks before, the two of them had gone shopping together to buy white roses for their mother on Mother's Day. "My feeling is that it was his feelings of defeat from the departure of his wife that were the main incentive." It is possible that there may have been something else weighing on him, too. Only recently, the family had passed the difficult hurdle of the first anniversary of Michael's death. Around Steven's wrist is the silver-and-ruby bracelet that Michael used to wear. He walks up the gravel path and turns right. The first green bench has a brass plaque that reads IN MEMORY OF MADALYN WEISSBERG. The adjacent bench is dedicated to Max Weissberg, Steven's grandfather, and the one after that is in memory of Max's wife, Rose.

"Okay, Grandma," he says. "We'll sit on you." The clouds shift and the sun's glare makes him squint. He is tired. "This is a good place to sit," he says, pausing. "Unfortunately, I need more benches."


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