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The Building of the Upper West Side


Gail Palmer and Robin Leach, photographed November 6, 1978, in Plato's Retreat.  

Stokes had a Utopian vision for the Ansonia—that it could be self-sufficient, or at least contribute to its own support—which led to perhaps the strangest New York apartment amenity ever. “The farm on the roof,” Weddie Stokes wrote years later, “included about 500 chicken, many ducks, about six goats and a small bear.” Every day, a bellhop delivered free fresh eggs to all the tenants, and any surplus was sold cheaply to the public in the basement arcade. Not much about this feature charmed the city fathers, however, and in 1907, the Department of Health shut down the farm in the sky. The animals went to Central Park and lived happily ever after.

The Ansonia might have been luxurious, but it was never considered chic. In spirit as well as in location, it was part of the Upper West Side, the bohemian stepchild of the city, and it would always have a risqué reputation. The hotel first became indelibly linked with gambling and shady characters just two years after it opened, when, with Stokes’s encouragement, Al Adams, the notorious millionaire “Policy King” of the New York numbers racket, moved into the Ansonia straight from a stint in Sing Sing. He stayed two years, badgered by police and reporters, before Stokes found him dead of a self-inflicted bullet wound in Suite 1579. There was immediate conjecture that Stokes had shot him over a gambling debt, but the coroner ruled it a suicide.

The Ansonia’s racy reputation also drew pro athletes. Jack Dempsey trained for the heavyweight-championship bout of 1919 against Jess Willard while living there, and after World War I, the Ansonia became the preferred lodging of professional baseball players in New York. It was the home of many New York Yankees, including Wally Schang, Lefty O’Doul, and Bob Meusel, as well as Babe Ruth, who moved there with his wife when the Boston Red Sox sold his contract to the Yankees after the 1919 season. There wasn’t a fitness regimen to follow in those days, and the ballplayers spent a lot of their evenings wandering up to the Babe’s suite, where there was always some sort of party or card game. Ruth, who thought of the entire hotel as an extension of his apartment, would sometimes wear his scarlet silk bathrobe down in the elevator to the basement barbershop for his morning shave. He was inspired to take up the saxophone while living at the Ansonia, and his squeaky bleatings were familiar up and down the hallways on his floor.

Just before Babe Ruth arrived, the mixture of bad guys and baseball turned bitter. On September 21, 1919, a group of Chicago White Sox players assembled in the Ansonia hotel room of first baseman Arnold “Chick” Gandil and agreed to throw the World Series for about $10,000 a man. The money was put up by Arnold “The Big Bankroll” Rothstein, the king of New York’s gambling houses. The Sox lost five games to three, playing so clumsily that suspicion arose, and baseball’s biggest scandal ever was set in motion. Though the players were found innocent by a 1921 grand jury, they were later banned from baseball for life.

Adding to the constant air of melodrama and excitement at the hotel around this time, the Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld moved into a ninth-floor suite with his first wife, the siren Anna Held, the greatest of all his Follies stars. When Held became pregnant, Ziegfeld demanded she undergo an abortion—in the apartment—so as not to affect her performance schedule. The showman kept a gold-painted, life-size statue of his voluptuous wife in the foyer. And in an apartment on the tenth floor, Ziegfeld kept an equally voluptuous mistress, another Follies showgirl named Lillian Lorraine.

If real life at the Ansonia had operatic overtones, it was appropriate to the music that seemed to fill its every room. It has been written that Stokes built the Ansonia for musicians, and that’s why the doors to each apartment were double-width, so grand pianos could easily be moved in and out. It’s also been claimed that the temperature-control system, a great benefit for sinuses, lured singers to the hotel. But there’s really no explanation as to why the Ansonia, of all the hotels in New York, turned into a “Palace for the Muses,” as West Side historian Peter Salwen named it.

But what is clear is that the Metropolitan Opera—looking to make a splash right around the time the Ansonia opened—was a factor. The financier Otto Kahn had joined the opera’s board, gradually taking control and buying up much of the Met’s stock, and he wanted to bring in stars. One of Kahn’s first decisions was to appoint the highly regarded Heinrich Conried director of the Met. Conried, looking to draw attention, presented Enrico Caruso at his 1903 American debut in Rigoletto—and the great tenor, it’s said, stayed at the brand-new Ansonia, though historians dispute whether he actually did.

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