Heartbreak Hotel

Photo: Photograph Courtesy of Gramercy Park Hotel

It was a typical weekday afternoon in Gramercy Park: High-school kids were crowding the corner of Lexington Avenue and 22nd Street. The park gates were swinging open and shut for a steady stream of local nannies pushing strollers and guests of the Gramercy Park Hotel, escorted by hotel doormen in their forest-green uniforms. Steven Weissberg, CEO of his family’s 509-room hotel, was in his second-floor office returning calls. His wife, Cameron, was out on Long Island with their young son. On the fifth floor, Steven’s younger brother, David, and his wife, Marilyn, were arguing in their suite. This was not unusual; since their wedding at the Elvis Presley chapel in Las Vegas two years ago, they were known for their tempestuous rows. But this time, Marilyn had packed her bags and insisted she was leaving for good. David suggested they go up to the roof garden for air. Marilyn agreed, hauling her suitcases with her. After a few minutes in the penthouse party space where Humphrey Bogart married Helen Menken, Marilyn said good-bye and took the elevator eighteen floors down to the lobby.

Left alone, David made his way to the roof’s northeast corner. He unbuckled a fanny pack containing $4,000 in cash and dropped it on the floor before climbing up onto a ten-foot ledge. He removed the gold Ten Commandments necklace he always wore and clasped it in his hand. Then, just as Marilyn emerged from the hotel’s revolving door, David jumped. He landed in front of the hotel bar.

“Marilyn was hysterical,” says a witness. “She sat down right next to him with her back against the wall. The doorman from the building next door tried to console her.” Moments later they were joined by Steven, who would spend the rest of the day huddled in the hotel’s lounge with the police as Marilyn was taken to the hospital to be treated for shock. “Someone on my staff came into my office and told me. I went downstairs,” he says, “and saw the horror.”

For Steven, his brother’s death was only the latest in a string of family tragedies set against the background of the shabby genteel hotel whose history is intertwined with theirs.

“It’s like they’re the Kennedys or something,” says a neighbor. “They have their own family curse.”

“Well, the Kennedys did stay here,” sighs Steven. “Maybe they rubbed off on us.”

Beloved by celebrities and civilians alike for its threadbare charm, the Gramercy Park Hotel is a one-of-a-kind New York institution. In an era of corporate chains and high-end Ian Schrager-style boutiques, it’s a throwback, an eccentric family-run operation in stately, if neglected, prewar quarters, where rooms under $200 a night make up in size what they lack in amenities. Guests still get metal keys instead of plastic key cards, and the kitchenettes come equipped with hot plates instead of microwaves.

To many, its retro character is part of the appeal. But to competitors, it’s a fabulously underdeveloped opportunity. A week after David’s death, André Balazs, the proprietor of the Mercer and the Château Marmont, invited Steven to dinner. “It’s been a dream of mine to own it,” confides Jeff Klein, owner of the ultraluxe City Club Hotel on West 44th Street. He isn’t the only one. “Seven years ago, I just couldn’t stop thinking about it,” says restaurateur Jonathan Morr, who owns the Townhouse Hotel in South Beach. “I’d just go and sit in the lobby and think about what I’d do with it. I called my broker and said, ‘I want to take it over!’ But the father didn’t want to sell.”

“Every hotelier in the world loves that hotel. It’s something everybody, anybody, would want to put their hands on,” says Morr. “Tell Steven to call me.”

The hotel’s most coveted asset, of course, is its enviable location opposite the city’s only gated, private park, accessible solely to those fortunate enough to have a key, a privilege that comes with a Gramercy Park address. Once a bastion of late-nineteenth-century elegance, the park itself has become a lightning rod for high drama in the form of legal combat between Aldon James, president of the National Arts Club, and the park’s trustees over everything from tree pruning to racial sensitivity. Picking sides in the various battles has become a favorite dinner-party pastime for residents, as has speculating on the outcome of the district attorney’s investigation into the club’s finances. But while the neighborhood gossip swirled around them, the Weissbergs, the largest lot holders by far, remained curiously and determinedly below the radar.

David’s death changed all that, shining an unwelcome spotlight not only on his family’s problems but on the hotel’s uncertain future. To observant regulars, it has been clear for some time that all was not well. Eighteen months ago, Herbert Weissberg, the 89-year-old family patriarch and once a hotelier of some renown, reluctantly gave up the day-to-day running of the hotel because of failing health, but the succession has been far from smooth.

Last winter, Steven, who had been appointed CEO by his father, fell out with his older half-brother, Martin, 59, who’d been in charge of the hotel’s advertising and marketing. Accusing him of stealing from the hotel, Steven launched a $1 million lawsuit claiming Martin not only made “extortionate threats” against him but also used the hotel coffers as his “own private candy store.” Martin quickly countersued, denying all charges and claiming he was owed $500,000 in unpaid services.

In March, Steven uncovered a cache of assault rifles, shotguns, and ammunition that David, 46, was hiding in his room and the hotel’s basement. Steven called the police, and the story made the tabloids. David’s drug use had been an open secret for years. He and Marilyn had attended a methadone clinic together, and because of several earlier heroin arrests, the new gun rap could have landed him in jail.

Then, one Monday night in April, to the astonishment of those both working and drinking there, Steven abruptly closed the hotel bar and restaurant – with neither warning nor explanation.

None of this could have been easy for Steven, who had already endured his own personal tragedies – the death of his first wife from cancer in 1997, followed shortly by the death of his 19-year-old son from a drug overdose.

“It’s been one monumental tragedy after another,” says Arlene Harrison, president of the 2000-member Gramercy Park Block Association. “It’s hitting him more and more every day. But Steven was not the cause of all of this. He is not the person that made the problem.”

The Gramercy’s guest book would rival a Liz Smith column for name checks. Babe Ruth was an early patron; Joseph Kennedy rented out the hotel’s third floor when his son John was 11. In the seventies, it was such a rock-star haven that Cameron Crowe insisted on filming scenes of Almost Famous in the lobby. Debbie Harry took up residence; the Rolling Stones stopped by. “When I was a kid, I used to hang out and have Shirley Temples and eat dinner in the restaurant,” says fashion photographer Terry Richardson, whose father lived in the Gramercy for seven years.

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.

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.”

Heartbreak Hotel