Claude Brickell'sQuoi de Neuf?
The Curious World of Art,
Architecture and Art History
October 1, 2012
The Crème-de-la-Crème in Hotels!Ah, September… and the first crispness in the air. Fall is here at last!
I was on my way along East 49th Street heading for a doctor's appointment and nearing Park when I suddenly found myself passing alongside one of my favorite places in all of New York… well, as hotels go… in the whole world. I was passing by the Waldorf-Astoria and I could not resist a brief visit inside even if it meant I'd be late.
As hotels go, there simply is none more renowned. Oh, I know many of them and have even stayed in a few like the Grand Hotel Europe on Mikhailovskaya Ulitsa just off Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg. After all, Queen Elizabeth had stayed there on her official visit as did President Bill Clinton… oh, and Adolf Hitler insisted on parking himself there after his armies had brutally besieged Peter's 'Venice of the North.' But there is something about the Waldorf that is simply legendary like none other.Michael Bennington, the lead character in my art history mystery book 'Carlota's Legacy,' puts it best: "I glanced at my watch and it read a quarter to nine. I was anxious to arrive. I always enjoyed visiting the Waldorf-Astoria. Its impressive Art Deco exterior, reminiscent of New York's grand 1930's-era, made anyone feel like a millionaire just making an entrance. And there it was only a block ahead of me…
After entering the polished brass doors, I climbed the carpeted staircase, passed beneath the dazzling crystal chandelier and glanced down at Louis Rigal's magical Art Deco mosaic that had unfortunately been carpeted over for years. I was delighted to see it was once again greeting the guests, its warm pastel colors exuding the feel of a renaissance fresco masterpiece. I passed then through the central lobby alongside the two-ton, nine foot Goldsmiths' of London clock executed for the 1893 Chicago's World Fair and paused a moment to glance up at the time just to be sure my own watch was correct."
This crème-de-la-crème in hotels was once owned by none other than the King of Hotels himself Conrad Hilton having acquired it back when it had become a white elephant following the disastrous depression years. In his thoroughly entertaining autobiography 'Be My Guest,' Hilton laments:
"The 'new' Waldorf, as the tall edifice on Park Avenue was still sometimes called, was an enigma, a riddle as tantalizing to the hotel man as the sphinx with its mysterious smile is to the archeologist. How could a hotel that was not a profitable hotel be the greatest in the world?" Yet, the chance of owning this rare and precious jewel was irresistible to Hilton and he simply could not resist the lure. He goes on to say:
"The Waldorf's elegant rooms might have been almost entirely empty, but the few that were used housed the VIPs of the world. They (the current owners) could point out that during World War II, when a telephone call came in asking to be connected with the King, the Waldorf operator asked casually, 'Which King, please?' It would have been a breach of delicate Waldorf diplomacy to give by mistake the calls of Peter of Yugoslavia to George of Greece." And it took the King of Hotels to put the depression era behind the Waldorf and restore it to its premier status in the world.
Few know that the current Waldorf-Astoria, however, is not the original at all. The story of this grand hotel began much earlier. The first Waldorf was built in 1893 in the most elegant residential section of New York at the time. Among the handsome mansions of the socially elite, it was hardly a welcomed innovation and the owner hadn't meant it to be. For many years, two Astor families, William Waldorf Astor and his aunt and uncle William and Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, had lived in twin edifices side by side, one on the corner of Thirty-third, the other on the corner of Thirty-fourth, both facing Fifth Avenue.There had been no love lost, so rumor had it, between William Waldorf and his Aunt Caroline. When young William, a man who took politics seriously, was christened 'Wealthy Willie' by the press and defeated in a run for Congress, he retaliated in a fit of pique by ordering his mansion destroyed and a commercial hotel raised on his corner instead. This could be counted on to annoy his aunt, of course, as well as other influential neighbors who had failed to support him in his congressional run. After that, he promptly renounced his citizenship and moved abroad.
But the hotel was an instant success nonetheless from its very first day and all of New York's Four Hundred was there for the opening. The society editor of the 'Herald' promptly christened the wide corridor connecting the Empire Room and the Palm Room─a parade of fashion and beauty─'Peacock Alley.' The name stuck, proved irresistible and soon hundreds of well-dressed patrons wandered each day over the plush carpets, some pausing in the gilt chairs, to see and be seen. Within a few years, America's most fabulous hotel gained fame around the world. The King of Siam, Prince Henry of Prussia, Indian maharajahs, crown princes, prime ministers, and even African diamond kings flocked to the Waldorf from abroad.Wealthy Willie's cousin, John Jacob Astor IV, in the mansion next door, could not overlook this dazzling parade and he was thoroughly envious of it. So he decided to join in the venture, as well. A second hotel soon rose on the other corner, the Astoria, and was wedded eventually to the Waldorf by means of a hyphen and joint management that soon ran both. The Waldorf-Astoria in name was born!
But as New York changed over the years and the upper crust moved north, the Thirties became completely commercialized and eventually the Waldorf-Astoria was raised to make way for the glorious new Empire State Building. The former owners of the hotel granted the long-time manager of this dual-edifice the million-dollar name for a mere $1.00. And for a brief time following, the Waldorf-Astoria simply existed in name only. But in 1929, the manager was ready to begin again.
After securing financing, construction on the 'new' Waldorf-Astoria was begun and despite the horrendous crash of Wall Street, it continued. In 1931, the Waldorf as we know it today opened to the thousands crowding its public rooms hearing a private radio address from President Herbert Hoover proclaiming: "The erection of this great structure at this time has been a contribution to the maintenance of employment and an exhibition of courage and confidence to the whole nation." And once again, high society moved through Peacock Alley and the Waldorf was a continual mecca for the world's elite.At one time or another, everyone of any note seemed to arrive at the Waldorf from James Thurber to Albert Einstein. The Prince of Wales had been to the original Waldorf. Now, he returned as the Duke of Windsor with his American duchess. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was a guest at one time and then her daughter Queen Juliana. There were the Crown Princes and Princesses of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and again the King of Siam.
Glittering parties filled the Waldorf's magnificent ballrooms. The Birthday Balls for President Roosevelt, Cobina Wright's legendary Circus Balls supporting the Boy Scouts of America, Amelia Earhart awarded the Zonta trophy and the Italo Balbo and the Royal Italian Fliers honored there, as well. Yet, every small detail and tradition that had made the Waldorf famous was maintained as of yore including the Men's Bar 'Haven' which was said to be the male's occasional emancipation from the emancipated female! History was there, too, when 2,500 leading Americans marked America's recognition of the Soviet Union and later Winston Churchill, Pandit Nehru and His Holiness Pope Pius XII, then still Cardinal Pacelli, graced the 'grand lady,' too. Room service, which originated at the Waldorf was, of course, maintained and who can forget the famed Waldorf Salad invented there, as well.Is it any wonder, Hilton just could not turn down his dream purchase?
Some of the glory of the Waldorf's past has faded with time. But much remains especially in lore and legend. There is no longer a Peacock Alley per se. But you will find the plush Peacock Alley Lounge, a breakfast and lunch venue, just off the main lobby positively irresistible. And this is where I always drop in for a bite or just a coffee or tea.
So the next time you're on the East Side or in town for a stay if you're not a bona fide New Yorker, treat yourself to a bit of panache. Visit the Peacock Alley Lounge and soak in its luxurious surroundings. Become a part of the legend yourself. You won't regret it, I promise you that.
Quoi de Neuf? continued…In addition to talking about my 'fabulous' art world experiences… ha, ha… just kidding… I also enjoy bringing to your attention friends, acquaintances and individuals I have encountered who are making important statements in the world of art today.
One young artist you will surely want to know about is Kevin McEvoy whose portraits and still lifes are on a par with the finest of living artists I have seen anywhere today. We met at the Washington Square outdoor art fair a couple of years ago where he was displaying his unique works.
Kevin's next display of his work will be at the 25CPW Gallery on the corner of 62nd and Central Park West beginning November 15th where one of his oils depicting prisoners will be exhibited. This work actually grew out of a program he conducts behind bars of a maximum security jail. Don't miss it. It's exhilarating!
Today, Kevin paints and teaches on Long Island where he lives with his wife, two children and sixteen chickens. How cool is that?To view more of Kevin's unique works, go to his website and blog links:
Quoi de Neuf? the curious world of art, architecture and art history is an ongoing blog which brings to you interesting and often totally obscure curiosities about places and things Claude has come across in his many travels throughout the world. So check in monthly about things you would just never know otherwise. You will always find the entries exciting.
The Jewel Trilogy
by author Claude Brickell
An art history adventure mystery series which introduce readers to likable and accomplished art historian Michael Bennington as he searches the world for rare and missing art and artifacts. And more often than not, these tend to land him in thrilling and provocative and even erotic encounters of a pan-sexual nature as only Bennington's quirky escapades can do.
If you love mysteries, art and art history or just a good art history mystery, you're sure to find The Jewel Trilogy more than entertaining in the tradition of authors such as Dan Brown and the likes.
e-books from Amazon.com ($2.99) and paperbacks from Lulu.com ($17.95)
Claude Brickell is a New York-based screen- and fiction writer. He attended New York University, the American College and the Sorbonne in Paris and Oxford University in England. Following this, he worked in the Hollywood film industry developing projects for, among others, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand and Paul Newman and producers Jay Weston (‘Lady Sings the Blues’), Arnold Kopelson (Oliver Stone’s ‘Platoon’) and studio head Steven Bach at United Artists. In France, he repped their 3rd largest film studio located on the Riviera in Nice where he helped bring 20th Century Fox’s ‘The Jewel of the Nile’ with Michael Douglas, Warner Bros.’ ‘Under the Cherry Moon’ with Prince and John Frankenheimer’s mini-series ‘Riviera’ to the South of France lot. Born to an ancient baronial family, he is also a Vietnam-era veteran (serving with NATO), a former ice hockey league skater and an avid equestrian enthusiast. Today, he is a screenwriting instructor at New York University and his primer on screenwriting is available on Amazon.com along with his mystery series ‘The Jewel Trilogy.’