The Plaza Lives!

Alfred G. Vanderbilt III
My grandfather, the first AlfredVanderbilt, 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
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.

Harry Benson
There’s never been a party like it in New York. I know people who left town because they weren’t invited. I was shooting it for the London Daily Express. Truman half-invited me. Well, he didn’t invite me, but he didn’t stop me. What I did was walk in with Henry Ford. Who’s going to come over to him and say, “Is this man with you?” Truman would say, “You’re a very naughty boy, Harry.” This was the pinnacle of his career. He can bring all these people into this one room and get them to dress up. The only thing that was difficult was identifying who the hell was behind the mask. There’s Bill Paley! There’s Babe Paley! I remember somebody shouted “Oh, there’s Walter Batman!” as Walter Lippmann was going in the elevator. Oh, he was furious. Frank and Mia were dressed as cats. Sinatra was very angry behind his mask. He looked stupid. He had whiskers coming out of his nose. I remember Henry Ford taking his mask off and saying, “I’m not going to wear this fucking thing!” He was just a bad-tempered old man.

Gloria Vanderbilt
I was very pregnant. That was all I was thinking about. I wore a black velvet dress with a starched white collar and cuffs. My husband, Wyatt, adored Garbo’s costume in Queen Christina. It was based on that. Truman said he didn’t have any flowers because he thought the people were the flowers. Also, it was a way of saving money.

Harry Benson
Truman said it was for Kay Graham, but really it was to celebrate In Cold Blood. Strangely enough, he took his mask off and never put it back on.

Gloria Vanderbilt
Actually, Truman copied the theme from a party that Lenny and Nick Dunne had in Beverly Hills. And then he didn’t even invite them! Which was very bad of him.

Dominick Dunne
I don’t know if “stole” is the right word. My wife and I had a black-and-white ball at our house in 1964, which he came to. Truman was a great dancer, by the way. Oh, honey, he was one of those people that when the music started he was on the floor. It was elaborate dancing that people stopped and looked at. [For our black-and-white parties], we were both influenced by Cecil Beaton’s sets for the ascot scene in My Fair Lady. I think Cecil even went to Truman’s. We weren’t invited. I wasn’t sad I didn’t go.

All the Grand (and Not So Grand) Rooms
Peter Duchin
We played the Grand Ballroom on New Year’s Eve. It used to have a wonderful sound system. Years later the pianos got so bad I had to have my people send one in. One night a table of maybe fourteen had a reservation. The captain asked if I’d ever heard their name. I said no. Apparently they came to see me specifically. They were dressed like Gypsies—and they actually were Gypsies. The captain was a little nervous that they wouldn’t pay the bill. They started ordering a lot of champagne. They had quite a lot of cash. There were children with them, but they stayed all night, till 3 A.M. I think they tipped the band handsomely. The next day I got a call from the captain. He said, “I just want you to know that your fans, the Gypsies, on their way out stopped off in the Persian Room and took all the musical instruments and anything else of any value whatsoever.”

Christopher Gray
architectural historian
The best interior was Trader Vic’s. I went there many times with wonderful, eligible debutantes who no doubt did not consider me eligible. I remember Fog Cutters, which was a drink. They had serving vessels in the shape of grass-skirted hula girls and ashtrays with monkeys tossing coconuts on them. The basement was dark and wonderful, and you had a sense of a counterpoint between the upstairs older folks, cigar-smoking admen and brokers, and the downstairs younger crowd who thought it was terribly swinging. Asian waitresses would glide past and ask you if you’d like more “po-po” or “cho-cho,” which were appetizers. We took a retired librarian there once. After three Fog Cutters—I suspect she had never had a Fog Cutter in her life—she suddenly looked really, really green. And then tossed everything right onto the table. And, I swear, faster than any of us could jump, there was a woman there with a huge bath towel, which she threw over the entire table and, like a magician, swept it all up! And then she brought out new drinks.

Curtis Gathje
When the Green Tulip opened in the former Edwardian Room, it was a horrible, horrible mistake. Every now and then the hotel tried to reflect what was going on in the outside world. That room, because of its corner location, is a very visible spot, and they really tricked it up in the cheapest kind of seventies way. I mean, they served fondue! Folk singers roamed! The potted plants, they died all the time. The bright waiters’ uniforms were designed by somebody. In the end they copped to making a big mistake. They even sent out fake funeral notices when they closed it.

Donald Brooks
who designed the Green Tulip uniforms
I thought the Green Tulip was very fine, very good, very tasty. I was a defender of it. I’m afraid I was. It had nothing to do with other restaurants in New York. It was a trip somewhere, a bit of a fantasy.I attempted to make Green Tulip suits look modern and a little like the costumes in The Wizard of Oz. I’m talking about the people of Oz.

Michael D’Aniello
waiter at the Palm Court
When I started [in the seventies], it was a different Plaza. The Palm Court was mostly for Park Avenue ladies coming for lunch with big hats. We had a guest named Mr. Louis, a big businessman from the South who’d ask for a double Jack Daniels for breakfast. You won’t find those people no more today. Sometimes there was heavy stuff: One guy was in the Cosa Nostra. A madam used to come in with different girls. I think she was arrested. We used to call her Contessa. She left good tips.

Nan Kempner
I was crazy about the Palm Court. They used to have cottage-cheese-and-something salad that I ate every day. It was yummy and cheap. Many of those went down through three pregnancies.

The Parade of Stars
Peter Bogdanovich
In April of 1980, we were in the lobby shooting They All Laughed with Audrey Hepburn when I heard that Alfred Hitchcock died. And the reason I was shooting there was mainly because of North by Northwest, which begins with Cary Grant walking into the Plaza. I made an announcement: We’re going to take a silent minute, stop everything, and think about Hitch. He’ll understand a minute’s all we can afford on a movie. I stayed in Suite 1001 with Dorothy Stratten. I was crazy in love with Dorothy. Doubleday on Fifth was open till midnight. We used to walk there. It was the happiest time in my life. She got killed two weeks after we wrapped.

Gene Simmons of Kiss
who’s stayed at the hotel more than 200 times
I would say my first time was around Christmas 1981, and it would have been for a liaison, which is a French word that means swinging from the chandeliers. I remember not leaving very much. During the day you saw this scenic postcard of snow-covered trees. It looked like a page out of a Vermont come-and-visit-us ad. And I enjoyed the service so much. It would be in the middle of the night and I would say, “Send up a few cans of whipped cream.” They’d say, “Well, we have fresh whipped cream,” and I’d say, “No, I want the cans.” I like it frothier—once you have the can, you can play sculpture. You take a beautiful girl and you sculpt. And then you eat. So they’d send somebody out to the 24-hour supermarket or whatever to bring it back. They really trained their staff right.

Pat Buckley
I’ve done quite a few things there for National Review. One year I decided to order chicken potpies. They nearly fainted! I had to go into the kitchen and teach them my recipe. It was much too down-home for them.

Mickey Pierce
When I was working as security, Ronald Reagan came to stay. What I remember most is that it was the day that he and Nancy got a dog, because they brought the dog to the hotel.

Cindy Adams
The queen of Thailand always used to stay. I did a TV interview with her, and I walked in wearing a white-tie silk suit and hat. And she came out wearing a white-tie silk suit and hat. And we looked at each other in horror.

Yvonne Smith
room attendant
I saw Elizabeth Taylor back in 1970. She showed off her diamond ring—the one Richard Burton gave her. She was in her room in a negligee; she wasn’t dressed up or anything. I said, “I heard about your ring!” And she held out her hand and showed it.

The Trump Years
Donald Trump
I bought it in 1988. I thought owning the Plaza would be extremely cool, which is sort of my investment policy in life and it seems to work. It was in terrible shape. In terms of dollars, I can’t exactly tell you how much I put in, but I redid the lobby, the interior of the elevator cabs, which were literally falling apart, the Palm Court. I bought beautiful crystal chandeliers from Austria. I brought it back. Unfortunately, people haven’t taken very good care of it. I didn’t love to sell [in 1995]. You sort of hate to sell the Plaza.

Ivana Trump
I loved it, too, but there were many headaches. I remember when all the carpeting was redone. We went to the finest workshops in India, and the carpet for the Palm Court was hand-loomed in one piece. A modern miracle, except it was so big and inflexible, they couldn’t load it on any cargo ship. So, we had to get a huge 747, load it through the front, and bring it to New York. Here it was put on a flatbed, and we had to dismantle all the doors on the 58th Street side, take down the chandeliers so they wouldn’t break, and install it—still in one piece!

Curtis Gathje
The Trumps’ buying it gave it some jazz. Over the century it needed a little jazz—the Beatles, Capote. Ivana gilded everything. Fortunately, now they’ve got a little patina, they don’t look so bright.

Catherine Saxton
former PR executive for the Plaza
Ivana covered all the scaffolding with moiré silk in dark bottle green, and a lot of people didn’t realize there was a scaffold underneath. There was discussion of putting a swimming pool in the basement space, but then they realized it was over a subway. She was always thinking of concepts.

Michael D’Aniello
Ivana was a little tough. One waiter made homemade wine, and his hands were the color of the grapes. Ivana said, “I want this guy sent home.” Then Donald called the guy over and said, “You made the wine? Don’t worry about it. Bring me a bottle, I want to try it.”

The Parade Continues …
Catherine Saxton
On 59th Street there was a small desk for VIPs. Don Johnson used to register as Dick Head. Billy Joel as Rocky Shores.

Freddy Davilla
One January night, I stepped in to warm up a bit. When I came out, Charles Bronson was standing with all his luggage and he cursed me out. I brought his bags in, and then he started laughing and gave me a $10 tip.

Gem Livingston and Brenda Williams
Marla Maples lost her baby pictures and also—once—her panties.
B.W.: “They had us in a panic looking for those.” G.L.: “I think it was under the pillow.”
Michael Jackson was a good tipper.
B.W.: “Maybe he should have kept some of it.”
Roseanne Barr: “Nice.”
James Brown: “Left no tip.”
Stevie Wonder: “Used the name Eliot Ness to check in, so that’s what we used to call him.”

Michael D’Aniello
Eddie Murphy got married here, but he didn’t like our carpets. We had to put down white carpets just for one night.

Mohammed Mukhtar
waiter at the Palm Court
I shook John Kennedy Jr.’s hand when he ordered cheesecake. It was probably six months or so before the crash. He was limping a little; he looked like he had something wrong with his ankle. He asked my name and about the cheesecake and how come we are so slow. I said usually we are more busy. When the crash happened,I could not hold my tears.

Lawrence Harvey
directorof catering, helped coordinate Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas’s wedding
For two months I talked to Catherine nearly every day. They were both very exacting. There was a gigantic tree in the Terrace Room. You clipped your place card down from it with scissors. We flew the Welsh flag outside the hotel. She introduced us to her dance teacher from the fourth grade, who was in her nineties. No one wanted to leave. The Welsh people certainly can drink. I think I left at 4 A.M.

The Final Battle
Miki Naftali
CEO of Elad Properties
We bought it [for $675 million] in August. The Plaza had been losing money for many years. There was a real need to bring the infrastructure to where it should be, but the only way to do that is to generate revenue through sales and downsize the hotel [by converting most of the building to residential condos].

Peter Ward
president of the New York Hotel Trades Council
We didn’t have a sit-down with them until December. Originally we tried to work out a severance package and we couldn’t. Then it became clear that this [condo] conversion was part of a serious trend. We had to make a stand.

Cindy Adams
To see it go would have been absolutely painful for me. I can see the Plaza from my terrace.

Joshua Sirefman
chief of staff to Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff
The very first [secret] meeting was in February at Gracie Mansion. The Olympic committee’s staying at the hotel brought the issue to the mayor’s attention. The situation was so sensitive that anything in the press, I felt, could have had a damaging effect, and I made it clear that we were not going to negotiate this through the media.

Peter Ward
We had several polite exchanges of our views, and then we began to have impolite exchanges. By April 8, I said to Josh, “They may close on April 30, but they’re going to close with a picket line outside.” It turns out Elad had called, too. We just knew it was time to take advantage of the mayor’s hospitality or we were going to have a drawn-out, nasty affair. Because of the Sabbath, we agreed to meet Saturday night.

Miki Naftali
The mayor asked both of us to come back to the table. We almost took over City Hall. We had five different conference rooms with architects, labor lawyers, real-estate lawyers, hotel experts. In each different scheme the number of rooms would change. It was intense. We ate a lot of junk food.

Joshua Sirefman
We started at 7 P.M. on Saturday and went until midnight, then came back Monday until 4:30 A.M., then Tuesday, then Wednesday. I wouldn’t let people leave. I spoke to the mayor, and I called the two principals in and said, “On behalf of the entire city of New York, you’re in two separate places, and it’s time to split the baby.” There was a moment of silence, and both sort of stared at me. And it worked. At 4:36 a.m., everyone signed a new floor-by-floor site plan [with 348 hotel rooms rather than the 150 Elad had originally wanted, and 190 condos rather than 225].

Freddy Davilla
I’m ecstatic. I’ve worked here for fifteen years, so it’s personal.

Rosita Sarnoff
Striblingreal-estate broker for the hotel’s new apartments
We’ve gotten hundreds of calls. We get a lot of people saying, “We’d like to buy five or six,” as investments. One man said, “I just have to buy Room 824 because I’ve stayed there for 30 years.” I tried to explain that I didn’t know where particular rooms will end up. Everybody asks me about the price range, and I tell them, “Imagine the highest.” Somewhere between $3,000 to $4,000 a square foot on the park side.

Curtis Gathje
I really thought the hotel was in peril, that it would become something your children can’t experience. The idea of tradition, maybe that’s not as important in American life as it once was. But people need something to balance out all the Paris Hiltonization.

The Plaza Lives!