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The Plaza Lives!

Its close brush with death-by-condo has set off a flood of memories. A grand tour of the world’s most storied hotel—with Eloise and Ivana and Ringo and Liz and Truman and a mob of victorious doormen.

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Alfred G. Vanderbilt III
My grandfather, the first Alfred Vanderbilt, was the Plaza’s first guest. He signed the registry “Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt,” but Mrs. Vanderbilt didn’t come because Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt were having “difficulties.” The original marketing plan of the hotel was to attract people like my grandfather. His main residence was in Newport, and this was his pied-à-terre, until he built his own hotel. His parents had a house where Bergdorf is now. The question I had was, “If Mom and Dad had 154 rooms across the street, why take an apartment at the Plaza?” And the rumor was because of the girl. He was a big equestrian and one day he was riding in Central Parkdf and he met a girl whose horse got away from her. He stayed at the Plaza so he could see her. Then she gave way to [his second wife], my grandmother, whom he also met at the Plaza. He was the most photographed man in America at the time. In 1915, he was bringing his horses to London on the Lusitania and became a hero when he went down with the ship. He gave away his life preserver to a woman who survived. He was the richest man in America, and he couldn’t swim.

Ward Morehouse III
author of “Inside the Plaza”
The Plaza was built for $12 million—a tremendous sum then. It was the most ever spent on a building in New York. The St. Regis, built three years before, cost around $5 million. They had marble everywhere, vaulted glass ceilings in the Palm Court, cavernous freezer lockers in the kitchen.


Curtis Gathje
former room-service waiter and author of “At the Plaza”
The day the Plaza opened was also the day that a fleet of taxicabs was introduced to the city. The owner’s name was Harry Allen; he arranged for the cabs to be paraded on Fifth Avenue. Horse-and-buggy owners weren’t pleased by this new development. It got to the point where Allen was having lunch in the Edwardian Room and someone took a shot at him through the windows. They missed, but he sold his fleet of cabs shortly thereafter. Of course, the Plaza is still one of the few places where you can hail a horse-drawn carriage. So Harry Allen never really got rid of the horses.

Sally Cline
author of “Zelda: Her Voice in Paradise”
In 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda went frequently to the Plaza. Scott thought her flouncy organdy frocks were so out of place he telephoned a friend and asked her to take Zelda shopping and get her the right kind of outfit. She bought an original Jean Patou, feeling all the while incensed and humiliated. Soon Zelda acquired big-city gloss. She and Scott lived at the Biltmore but drank cocktails at the Plaza—orange blossoms spiked with bootleg gin.

Ward Morehouse III
The hotel was in bad shape financially during the Depression, just like the Waldorf. However, the Plaza had the saving grace of being frequented by people in the arts, in film, by the Duke of Windsor before he married the Duchess. It also had a lot of long-term tenants—called the “39 Widows.” They kept it alive because of their deep pockets and lengthy leases. Some lingered until the 1970s.

In 1943, when Conrad Hilton took over, everyone was worried he was going to turn it into a chain hotel. He bought it for a proverbial song [$7.4 million]. But he took a special interest; he had a glamorous wife, Zsa Zsa Gabor. Also, they renovated rooms. The current hotel operator always looks back at the previous one and says, “This place is a mess.”

Curtis Gathje
Conrad took away the stained-glass ceiling in the Palm Court so he could add air-conditioning, and also because it was starting to fall down into the teacups. People said that was terrible. But they needed central air in that lobby; it’s a luxury hotel.

The Birth of Eloise (1955)
Hilary Knight
illustrator of “Eloise,” which was created with Kay Thompson
A woman named D. D. Ryan at Harper’s Bazaar first took me to see Kay Thompson. Kay was very famous because of the nightclub thing. She was a song arranger with MGM, and she was funny and sarcastic and bitchy. Noël Coward loved her. Kay had been doing this little voice for her friends where she pretended to be this little child Eloise [who lived in the Plaza]. D.D. told Kay this would be a terrific book. We arranged to meet at the Persian Room, where she was performing her last act. It was like a cocktail party of nonstop songs and movement. Kay didn’t wear dresses; she wore very severely tailored, beautiful pants. She was, as she would say, “paper thin.” I would bring a sketch pad, and she would be with a typewriter talking like Eloise: “I have a dog who looks like a cat.” “I am Eloise.” “I am 6.” The Plaza didn’t know. We just did it. There was no payment. They paid for her room for several years later on. I think I got one meal out of them.

Donald Brooks
fashion designer
Some people say Liza Minnelli was the inspiration for Eloise because Kay knew Liza when she was little. But Liza was never very little.

Curtis Gathje
Kay had a good relationship with the hotel that turned very sour. At some point in the late sixties she was given a suite to live in, and there were Eloise promotions and an “Eloise room” on the ninth floor with a German nanny. People would bring their kids. The nanny would say, “Eloise just ran out to pour water down the mail chute.” Later, the hotel was sold to Westin, and they told Kay, “You’re going to have to pay.” She stormed out and took the rights with her, and that was that. The only thing that was Eloise in the hotel was the portrait that belongs to Hilary.

Hilary Knight
The first Eloise painting was really a great big watercolor. It was not my finest work. It was stolen one night and nobody knows what happened to it. Kay would always say drunken debutantes stole it.

Alfred G. Vanderbilt III
I used to go there for dances and debutante balls. Once, a kid came with a starter pistol. We were about 15 and interested in girls, but we didn’t know what to do with them yet. This kid was making mischief, showing people the pistol. We started running away from him—up and down the elevators and finally down the marble steps into the lobby. And we hopped in a cab and told the driver to “just go!” and he said, “Oh, sure.” And we said, “No, really, just go!” Then the kid came up, pointed the pistol at the front seat, and fired. We did two blocks in 30 seconds.

The Beatles’ Invasion (1964)
Harry Benson
photographer
They had a whole wing to themselves on the fifteenth floor. I shared a room with George—a room, not a bed, you know? It was the beginning of Beatlemania. [The label] wanted to give them a real New York launching. There was a piano in the room, and they wrote songs in there. “Michelle,” I think. We’d all slip out and go to the Playboy Club, which was just down the road. They ordered room service all the time. They would get the steak and bottles of whiskey and never touch it. Or they’d just take a swig. They did it because it was a thing—they can spend money. It was very childish.

Ed Trinka
doorman for 42 years
They were always in and out too quick—I never even got an autograph. It was just crazy with the girls screaming and the cops on horseback pushing people back. I was 19. When they went back to Liverpool, they took the [coat] hangers with them. Two years ago, they returned them to me. The guy who was the announcer on the Hard Day’s Night DVD said, “On behalf of the Beatles, here are the hangers that we took 40 years ago.”

Dr. Joyce Brothers
who attended the Beatles’ February 10, 1964, press conference at the Plaza
I have photographs of myself with all four Beatles. I’m one of the few people in the world. I had written a column saying the Beatles would be the next big smash. I have pictures of them taking my shoes off, taking my pulse. They were just being so cute. One reporter asked them, “What do you call your hairdo?” and they said, “Arthur.” I also went to their first concert with my daughter. All the girls were shouting and fainting and screaming, “I love you, Paul!” “I love you, John!” It was very scary for me.

The Black and White Ball (1966)
Peter Duchin
society bandleader
Truman Capote called. I was just starting out, and he was a friend. He said he wanted me to play for this wonderful party, but don’t tell anybody! There’d be no press. Keep it between us! I said of course. In about four days, several people called and said, “I hear you’re playing for the ball Truman’s giving?” And then the famous columnist Earl Wilson called and said, “You know, once Meyer Eavis was playing at the White House and he snuck me in as a trombone player . . . ” And I said, “No, Earl!” It was the most-hyped party I’d ever been to. It was the beginning of the whole paparazzi deal.


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