The Hotel: A Week in the Life of the Plazaby Sonny Kleinfield
When it opened its doors in 1907, the Plaza was considered the world’s finest luxury hotel. Since then, the grand building at the southern tip of Central/b>/i>
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A look inside New York’s icon of luxury: “We meet the managers, the chambermaids, the doormen, some of the guests, and the new owner, Donald Trump” (Library Journal).
When it opened its doors in 1907, the Plaza was considered the world’s finest luxury hotel. Since then, the grand building at the southern tip of Central Park has hosted kings and queens, the rich and famous, and countless world leaders. And like any hotel, it has seen its share of crimes, suicides, and drunken mayhem as well.
A fascinating read for fans of Stephen Birmingham’s Life at the Dakota or Justin Kaplan’s When the Astors Owned New York, this book combines Manhattan history with a guided behind-the-scenes tour, interviewing the hospitality industry employees who tote the luggage, change the light bulbs, and clean the rooms. From a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who has written for the New York Times and Rolling Stone, The Hotel offers the kind of day-to-day detail that brings the Fifth Avenue French Renaissance landmark to vivid, colorful life.
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A Week in the Life of the Plaza
By Sonny Kleinfield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Sonny Kleinfield
All rights reserved.
IN the early-morning light, a short, putty-faced man named Joe Szorentini took his normal position outside the main entrance of the Plaza Hotel. Nothing much stirred yet. The first hooded joggers were out and moving off in the direction of Central Park, and a distant police siren wailed, but that was about it. Szorentini bounced up and down on the balls of his feet. His eyes glanced from side to side. He was searching for arriving taxis or limousines. The landscape he saw never appreciably changed: taxis and limousines.
"Looks like a good day to be alive," the doorman said to me. "That means we ought to have some people."
Day after day, Szorentini scurried outside the big doors of the hotel like a vagrant pigeon, greeting the constant flow of guests. The work required fortitude, good cheer, and a willingness to be splashed by discourteous cars and jostled by people bearing packages and tennis racquets and hurrying to check in. While he waited for his first business, he rolled over in his mind the arrival and departure numbers he had picked up from the front desk. He always got the numbers first thing so he knew what to expect. It was a habit of mind that went with the job. Over time, ratios would present themselves. For instance, Szorentini knew to expect four or five cars for the garage for every hundred check-ins. Today would be fairly busy—281 check-ins, 304 checkouts. "Decent," he said.
The phone was ringing, and Szorentini moved quickly to answer it. There was a black phone booth in the left-hand corner of the entranceway. It had a direct line to the garage a couple of blocks away, allowing Szorentini to call for guests' cars, and any guest could call down to him from a room. "That was someone who wanted his chauffeur to pick up some clothing," he said to me when he returned from the booth. "You get all sorts of calls from guests who have instructions for their chauffeurs. A lot of times it's a shopping list. You're probably not going to believe this, but most of the time it's dog food they want. I get quite a few calls for dog food. So the chauffeur takes the limo and gets some Alpo or Gravy Train."
Nearby two birds were mating in the dirt of the flower beds. Szorentini cast a disapproving look at a spittle-dribbling bum wrapped in cardboard and newspapers who was camped just in front of the beds. Any violation of the decorum of the Plaza annoyed him. Lately Szorentini had been bothered by a flower thief. He knew exactly who it was: a grimy, addled man who he felt certain was on drugs. The thief pulled up the tulips, bulbs and all, from the beds in front of the hotel and then sold them unremorsefully to passers by a couple of blocks away. A few days before, the huckster had had the gall to attempt a theft in Szorentini's presence. The doorman was so maddened that he grabbed the man by the back of the neck and forced him to replant the flowers in the beds. Later on, after Szorentini had gone off duty, he returned and recaptured them.
The doorman was a lean man in his sixties, with gray hair, formidable eyebrows, prominent cheekbones, and a rather soothing aura. He wore a gold-and-fawn broadcloth uniform with collar and cuffs trimmed in gold braid—formal habiliments that suggested the hotel was not for just anyone. Around his neck dangled a silver whistle which he tweeted shrilly when someone needed a cab.
Presently a long black limousine sailed around the corner and slid to a stop in front of the entrance. Szorentini swung into action. Deliberately, he tugged his coat into place. Straightening his cap, he bustled over to open the door for its passengers. Out stepped a stocky man with thinning hair, wearing a tweedy blue suit. On his arm was a towering beauty, heavily made-up, with hair dyed a copper red, and she was chattering away at a furious clip.
"Good morning," Szorentini said. "Welcome to the Plaza."
The man grumbled a curt hello, turned, thanked Szorentini, dug out a $1 bill, and put it in his palm.
Pleased with the reward, Szorentini smiled and patted his coat pocket.
The Plaza Hotel was just starting its day. There was a wedge of sunlight breaking through drifts of clouds. A crispness was in the air, and pedestrians turned up their coat collars against the razory wind. In the package room, two people were already sorting mail and bundles into the appropriate slots. Fresh linen was being readied by the maids. Just inside the gilt-and-marble lobby, two men on a ladder were delicately cleaning the massive chandelier that hung there, a chore they repeated once a month. The whole hotel, I was told, contained an extraordinary 1,650 chandeliers, enough to employ the two men full-time.
A lobby porter was making his way from one sand-filled ashtray to the next, collecting the most recent stubbed-out butts. He carried a small broom and a gold-colored dustpan on a wooden stick, and when he came to an ashtray, he raised the pan to its edge and then swept the butts into the pan. After smoothing out the sand with the broom as carefully as a caddy raking a bunker, he took out a squarish stamp and pressed it into the sand. When he removed it, there was an impression of the Plaza insignia—two Ps back to back enclosed in a crest. "There, that one's done," he said, and he shuffled off.
Szorentini lifted his head now and then to take a quick look at the skies. Inclement weather meant a scarcity of taxis and an abundance of guests who wanted them. If he worked hard, he could line his pockets with greenbacks. But bad weather could also ambush the body. In the summer, it was often too hot. In the winter, it was too cold. The hotel had thoughtfully installed a wide row of heating lamps under the marquee, and they helped to keep the flesh warm, but a doorman still had to spend a lot of his time away from their glow. Szorentini said he didn't much mind the weather conditions. "Listen, I'm used to it. You're out in these conditions enough years, your body becomes a fortress."
At various periods, starting in 1947, Szorentini had been a garbageman at the hotel, hauling bundled trash out to the sidewalk, an elevator operator, and a bellman. In 1952 he became a doorman. At first he was stationed at the entrance on Fifty-ninth Street, familiarly known as the Rookie Door. After three years, he worked his way to the Fifth Avenue entrance, which was where most of the guests entered; the doormen referred to it as the Big Door. "There's twice as much action at the Big Door," Szorentini explained. "All the limousines come here. All the private cars come here. The cabs from the airports come here. On Fifty-ninth, the police chase you away every couple of minutes. You can get fifty to a hundred people an hour at this door. It's definitely the door you want to work."
People were awake and much around. A cab stopped and a young blonde with big glasses hopped out. A dollar.
A shiny white limousine slowed to a halt and three Japanese men scrambled out of the backseat. Szorentini got their luggage and conducted them to the door. He was as protective of the arriving guests as a mother of an ill child. Two dollars.
He helped a man with electrified hair load up his BMW and got a $10 reward. As he snuck a look at the bill, he said, "Thank you very much. And have a very safe trip."
The busy pace at the Big Door inoculated Szorentini against the vagaries of idleness, for idleness can be destructive to a doorman. Szorentini's days were filled with friendly interchanges during which he acquired a good deal of social information. Conversation among the doormen seemed almost always to center around the hotel and hotel guests—oddities, irritations, famous arrivals, the latest from the gossip circuitry of the staff. "You know about the problem Cary Grant had with the English muffins, don't you?" he asked me. "Oh, yeah, Mr. Grant talked it over with me." He spoke as if it had happened yesterday, not several decades ago, for the good stories were told and retold with the reverence accorded legend. It seems that Grant had ordered English muffins for breakfast and had been served three halves. He wondered what had happened to the fourth. Unable to get a satisfactory answer, he called Conrad Hilton, then the Plaza's owner, untroubled by the fact that Hilton was traveling in Turkey. Hilton politely explained that an efficiency expert had determined that most people ate one and a half muffins. Grant expressed a low opinion of efficiency experts. His indignation got results, and the Plaza served two full muffins from then on. "I like that story," Szorentini said. "It shows that it's what the guest wants that counts."
Among the many kinds of people who came to the Plaza, Szorentini liked the celebrities best (though he had nothing against unknowns who tipped big). Those he had opened doors for many times he regarded as friends. Piled in his locker he kept a yellowed file of newspaper clippings having to do with his "friends." There was a lengthy spread from the New York Post, for instance, about Terence Cardinal Cooke. "Oh, yeah," Szorentini said, "Cardinal Cooke was a good friend. Whenever he came to a function here, I took care of him." Walter Brennan was another good friend. He used to take coffee in the mornings with Szorentini. The other doormen insisted that the reason was that Szorentini always grabbed the check. Szorentini said he had shaken hands with six U.S. presidents and just about everyone in the movie business ("Sinatra, Gleason, Jimmy Stewart, Clara Bow—the whole crowd"). He considered himself a minor star in his own right, for he had opened a door for Cary Grant in the movie North by Northwest, part of which was filmed at the Plaza. "Unfortunately," he said, "they didn't get my good side."
Szorentini thought I should know a story that was a favorite among the doormen. There was a little of the incredible about many hotel stories, and this was one of them. "See, there was this very attractive woman—I'd say in her late forties," he said. "She had this date with a man she was in love with. They were supposed to meet outside the Plaza one evening. She came and waited. The guy didn't show. The way I understand it, she never saw him again. This sort of fried her circuits, and from then on, she kept coming back every week and acting as if she was greeting a man. She'd be talking to thin air. This went on for years. She was always well dressed, and she walked with her back very erect, just like a queen. But she had trouble upstairs. I used to say hello to her, but I couldn't ever figure out what she was talking about."
Terry Bertotti, one of the other doormen, said he had heard the woman owned a business that went bankrupt and that this was what had caused her to come unglued.
"I don't know anything about that," Szorentini said, frowning. "It was definitely a man."
He helped someone else now, a short, plump man with a craggy face and a dumb grin. Another dollar.
Szorentini credited success at the doors to giving a good greeting. "That's the key," he said. "A nice warm greeting. The newer people, though, are not as demanding as the old-timers were. The old-timers were very demanding. Rose Kennedy came here often, and she really put you through the mill. You had to have an umbrella ready if it was raining. You had to greet her properly—'Good morning, Mrs. Kennedy,' or 'Good evening, Mrs. Kennedy.' If you didn't greet her, she'd get furious and she'd report you to management. Now you get these people who, when you say good morning, just say, 'Agggh.' They don't want to be bothered. Fine. I won't bother them."
He gave a knowing smile, looked out at the traffic, and nodded his head. "A big day I may get eighteen hundred people coming in and out of these doors. You can never tell. All manner of humanity goes through those doors over there. You get it all. Every last bit of it."
He started to say something else, but he had to stop. Another cab was drawing close.CHAPTER 2
THE Plaza Hotel was built as a monument to the new of industrial wealth, as a magical place for people with an appetite for luxury and an aching to be part of high society. When it opened, it was an authentic wonder. Its first advertising campaign, in fact, described it as "The World's Most Luxurious Hotel." The owners actually feared it was so fancy that some of its prospective guests—no matter the depth of their pockets—might be intimidated. The day after the hotel opened, the uncertain manager ordered shellac applied atop the gold leaf decorating the lobby so that the guests would not be overly dazzled.
Though it has slipped somewhat from its early grandeur, the Plaza is still in many ways the quintessential luxury hotel. The place doesn't make you think of conventioneers with straw boaters and budget tourists in blue jeans but of chauffeured limousines, titles of nobility, and guests with eighteen pieces of luggage. The hotel stands on one of the most beautiful—and busiest—street corners in New York, Fifth Avenue and Fifty-ninth Street. It is a U-shaped, glazed-white-brick building of nineteen stories—a vast, grandiose place with a window-dotted facade, a copper-and-slate mansard roof, and abundant outcrops of balconies, loggias, and gables. It opened on October 1, 1907, and is one of the oldest hotels in New York City.
In its eighty-plus years, the Plaza has had seven owners. The United States Realty and Improvement Company, whose George A. Fuller construction subsidiary built it, owned it until 1943. Conrad Hilton then ran it until 1953. The Boston industrialist A. M. Sonnabend owned it up to 1958; then Lawrence Wien, a New York lawyer and realty investor, had it fleetingly before Sonnabend repurchased it. The Westin Hotels chain, the oldest operating hotel-management company in the country, took over the hotel in 1975 (at that time, Westin itself was a subsidiary of UAL, a diverse company which also owned United Airlines and Hertz Rent-A-Car). A partnership made up of the Robert M. Bass Group of Fort Worth, Texas, and the Aoki Corporation of Tokyo bought it in January 1988 for about $300 million but barely had time to take a get-acquainted tour of the place before agreeing to sell it for a quick and handsome profit to the casino operator and real estate wheeler-dealer Donald Trump, who paid a rather exorbitant $390 million.
There has been a flurry of interest in the hotel in recent years, in large part because of the possibility that vast sums of money could be realized by transforming a portion of the Plaza into high-priced condominiums or cooperative apartments, as has been done to a number of other classy New York hotels such as the Pierre and the Sherry Netherland. Trump, nonetheless, insisted that for the foreseeable future he would preserve the hotel as a hotel, and he signed a contract with Westin Hotels that retained Westin as the manager of the Plaza for a minimum of two years. Trump's first action was to appoint his statuesque wife, Ivana, a onetime alternate for the Czechoslovakian Olympic skiing team as well as a former model, as the president of the hotel for a supposed salary of "one dollar a year plus all the dresses she can buy."
There was actually once a smaller eight-story Plaza Hotel, which had occupied the site since 1890 and was demolished to make room for the present Plaza. The hotel that now stands was the vision of Ben Beinecke, a stocky former deliveryman for a New York butcher, who became a prosperous meat wholesaler and then a financier. He looked to invest in hotels, and he wanted to build a hotel that would be a sort of private club. He knew he alone couldn't afford the price, so he turned to Harry St. Francis Black, the chairman of United States Realty, which put up the bulk of the money, though Black also brought in as an investor John "Bet-a-Million" Gates, the barbed-wire king, who helped organize the United States Steel Corporation. Both Beinecke and Gates became directors of United States Realty. The construction took twenty-seven months, a speed record for building a hotel, and cost $12.5 million, which in those days was enough to found a bank.
The architect of the Plaza was Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, who had acquired a certain fame for designing the original Waldorf-Astoria, built on the current site of the Empire State Building, as well as the Dakota apartment building, which still stands on the corner of Central Park West and Seventy-second Street and is as grand and famous as the Plaza. He chose to build the Plaza in the French Renaissance style. Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic of the New York Times, would later describe it as "a French chateau blown up to the size of a small skyscraper and embellished with myriad classical details."
Excerpted from The Hotel by Sonny Kleinfield. Copyright © 1989 Sonny Kleinfield. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Sonny Kleinfield is a reporter for the New York Times and the author of eight books. He has contributed articles to the Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, Esquire, and Rolling Stone, and was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal before joining the Times. He shared in a Pulitzer Prize for a Times series on race in America, and has received a number of other accolades, including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the Meyer Berger Award, an American Society of Newspaper Editors Award, and the Gerald Loeb Award. A native of Fair Lawn, New Jersey, he is a graduate of New York University and lives in New York City.
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This could have been much more interesting. A lot of it was boring.