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The Building of the Upper West Side


More significant, when Conried retired in 1908, Kahn enticed the legendary manager of La Scala, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, to assume the role of general manager of the Met and moved him into the Ansonia. Gatti-Casazza was the Ziegfeld of opera, a showman who produced and booked all aspects of his productions. In turn, Gatti-Casazza insisted that Kahn also hire La Scala’s conductor, Arturo Toscanini, to work with him, and Kahn brought Toscanini and his family to live at the Ansonia. Dozens of opera stars followed them to New York, and almost all rented in the same building. Composers, too: Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Gustav Mahler. Lauritz Melchoir, the foremost Wagnerian tenor in the world, lived in the building from 1926 to the early fifties and used his stuffed hunting trophies for archery practice in the hallways. At night the lobby would come alive as the stars returned from the opera house, hungry for dinner. Claques of fans congregated in the lobby, loudly debating the merits of their favorite stars.

The Ansonia even brought love to W.E.D. Stokes again: a 24-year-old Titian-haired beauty from Colorado named Helen Elwood, who was a hotel guest visiting her sister. Stokes and Elwood eloped in February 1911 to Jersey City. When the bride’s mother, back in Denver, found out that her daughter had married the notorious W.E.D. Stokes, she fainted, reported the Times.

A new wife didn’t stop Stokes from getting into another romantic tangle. In June, only four months after the marriage, the police found Stokes clinging to a banister on the fourth-floor landing of the Varuna Hotel on West 80th Street, bleeding profusely from three gunshot wounds in his legs. He was the victim of the wrath of two young women: Lillian Graham, a vaudeville showgirl booked as “The Great Emotional Psychic Actress,” and her girlfriend Ethel Conrad, a “dressmaker’s model.” The two had a fat packet of billets d’amour that Stokes had written, and when he went to retrieve them—or buy them back—the shooting broke out.

The subsequent trial became a huge tabloid news story, filling the Ansonia’s lobby with reporters and the curious for weeks. Stokes never once left his rooms at the hotel to testify in court, citing a variety of illnesses. On December 12, a specialist, Dr. Bolton Bangs, operated on him at the Ansonia for an “abscess of the left kidney.” Miraculously, the operation took only 45 minutes, not much less time than it took a jury to exonerate the two girls who shot him.

As for Helen Elwood, she stuck it out with Stokes for ten years after the shooting and even gave him two more children, a son, James, born in 1914, and a daughter, Helen Muriel, in 1915. She finally cracked when Stokes moved 47 chickens into their apartment. She hoped to end the marriage as quietly as possible and move back to Colorado.

Instead, Stokes sued his wife for infidelity, naming twelve men—including his own son— with whom he claimed she’d had sex. It was a calculated move driven by the New York State law of the time, which said that if Stokes could prove his wife had committed adultery, he could end their marriage at little cost. He presented in court a letter from Weddie—to whom, by this time, Stokes had transferred ownership of the Ansonia—backing up the assertion. Helen Elwood Stokes promptly sued Weddie for $1 million. There were two full-scale trials, plus an ancillary trial for perjury in Illinois, where Stokes had paid witnesses to say that his wife had worked in an infamous whorehouse. Both divorce petitions were denied, and eventually, Stokes settled with his wife, establishing an $800,000 trust fund for her and the two children; in return, she withdrew her libel suit against Weddie. In March 1925 in Illinois, after being found innocent of conspiring to fix a jury, Stokes told the court, “I haven’t very long to live, you know, but I’m going to try to do some good in the time that is left me.”

He was correct. Soon after, he said good-bye to his beloved Ansonia and moved across the street into a dreary four-story brownstone building, and there he died from lobar pneumonia on May 19, 1926, just four days before his 74th birthday.

Weddie, who as a young man had shown signs of inheriting his father’s brio and eccentricity, aged into a stern, difficult man who was afraid of germs and refused to enter the home of anyone with a cold. He never cared much about the Ansonia and left its operation to a series of management companies, one of which installed a miniature-golf course in the ballroom, and all of which let the building fall into disrepair. The restaurants and kitchens closed with the Depression. Although the Ansonia kept its “hotel” designation, it turned into a residence with no services. In 1930, the elegant central entrance on Broadway was bricked up and storefronts were installed.

In 1942, the most grievous affront to the building occurred. In a patriotic gesture, nearly all its glorious metal ornamentation was stripped to supply material for bullets and tanks for World War II. The copper cartouches on the corner domes, each seven feet tall and weighing half a ton, came down. The old cooling systems and pneumatic tubes were pried out of the walls. The skylight at the top of the staircase was tarred over to comply with blackout regulations, and it remains dark today.

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