Listen: Plaza Hotel, New York, Harry Black discussed on The Book Review
"Whether that's itunes or Stitcher or glue play, or somewhere else. Please feel free to review us. And of course, Email us at anytime. Julius stay towel is here in the studio to talk about her new book, the plaza, the secret life of America's most famous hotel Julie, thanks for being here. Thanks for having me. So this is your first book, and it is a biography of a building. How do you write the story of a building to the challenges, because it is a kind of John Rura? Yeah, it's true. It is writing a biography of a building. I think really the approach is, you know, the stories that can be told through the building, and the people that live in the building or have stayed there. So that's really the angle that I took I really tried to unearth stories and tales and anecdotes, that had been forgotten to history and bring the building to life over more than one hundred years. Are you picked a good building the plaza hotel? No, not just to every New Yorker but probably known worldwide. Let's start with the birth of this building who built it. Like what were their Embiid? Why'd they build this hotel, and then what was the hotel landscape? Like in New York at that time. So the building was erected in nineteen hundred seven and Harry black was the builder him. And a German emigre named Bernhard binaghi and the plaza from the very beginning was always a trophy property. So they really had big ego. They had big dreams and plans. They wanted this to be the most expensive hotel ever built it was it being in terms of its construction cost of actually staying there. No, it's construction accustomed and a half million dollars, which back then was unheard of, and actually magazines wrote articles about how no one would ever spend that kind of money ever again on a building its opulence was unprecedented. It had more than sixteen hundred chandeliers and two men. They hired just a dust, the chandeliers the the level of the core. And. Also the structure was was really historic at the time. It's interesting, the plaza really from the very beginning also was sort of the forefront of so many trends. So the I guess, to stay at the plaza was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt who is one of the country's wealthiest men and his moving into the plaza really helped usher, in this concept of apartment living in New York actually before that, so many wealthy people lived in single family mansions, and at the beginning, the idea of a hotel in an apartment were sort of interchangeable ninety percent of those who are checking in, like Vanderbilt, actually lived time at the hotel. So it really did usher in this acceptance of apartment living was there, some other premier hotel in New York at that time that they were trying to kind of outdo. Absolutely. The Waldorf Astoria the original Waldorf, which is not the Waldorf. We know today it was torn down to make way for the Empire State building. But the original Waldorf was really the, you know, premier hotel in New York at the time and actually. The architect who designed the original Waldorf, also designed the plaza hotel and its intention was to compete with the Waldorf end and superseded as the as New York's best hotel. What stuck a little bit about the scale of the construction and the operation, you mentioned twelve and a half million dollars. What is that in today's money it's more than three hundred million dollars? Okay. Which, you know is not an president did necessarily now. But back, then it certainly was one of the cool things I found during the construction of the hotel was a murder. I don't know. You're interested in that always interested in murder book review podcast. Tell us about the murder union tensions have always been a trend in New York. And when the hotel was under construction, the builders hired non union construction workers, as well as union construction workers, and it was sort of the beginning of the labor movement, and the union guys were very upset at this and they actually through the body of a security guard off the unfinished eighth floor of the plaza, which. Was a big deal at the time New York Times wrote about it. It was called murder in mid air, since that was considered so high the floor and but, you know, like so many stories in New York, it was forgotten by history. The first of many scandals com involving the plaza hotel. I wanna get back to the workers a little bit because they didn't always throw people over. That's true buildings. But also did some. Some really great work in terms of helping save the hotel, the hotel with the plaza hotel successful from the get-go, and what was the foundation of that success was it the people who stayed it, there was at the, the buy in from the rich and powerful New York. What was it that, that led to the success? It really was successful at the very beginning. It was as I had mentioned an unprecedented level of luxury and many people moved in, because the, the food that was available there, the technology of the rooms things like thermostats or automatic clocks was was an amazing feat at the time and it was always a draw for the very wealthy and the upper class from the very beginning. So, Harry black who I mentioned, he lived in the penthouse at the top of the Fasel. He really reveled in the success. He was sort of this Trump character before there was Trump. Yeah. What was it like if you lived in the plaza, at that time, we all know, eh louis's, for example, and, and Kay Thompson scrape picture book, I'm gonna use heroin with air quotes? But what was it actually like to have a residential apartment in the plaza hotel back in nineteen o seven? The lower floors were the most attractive since elevators were still somewhat new new inventions. So the lower floors, had these enormous sweets, multiple rooms and the plaza was erected in such a way that you could actually make as many bedrooms, in the sweets, says you wanted by opening doors through the hallways on each floor. There were a servants available to serve food, or to clean the rooms, or whatever it was that the guests wanted, you could have guests, you know, room service at any moment. Was there was a pneumatic tubes that were used to bring food straight from the kitchens, up to the room, so they would stay warm, which was very unusual at the time there was, as I mentioned, automatic clocks and thermostats for the rooms the furnishings, they spent more than eight million dollars in today's dollars on silver flatware that were used in all the rooms and Edwardian furnishings. They went to Ireland to buy lace and the Bacharach store in France was where they purchased all their glassware. So it was just very beautiful and anything you could want from turtle soup to kangaroo meat was served. And if you wanted to let's say a host a party and you lived at the plaza hotel, did you have access to the public rooms so that you could say, I'm going to use the ballroom tonight into hosted dinner party. There was actually at the very beginning. There was a sin, so many. One of the guests were actually fulltime residents. There was a, a dining room, that was set aside for them. That was only acceptable for the, the residents and separate dining room for transient guests. So that's they could absolutely host parties there. There were many more restaurants than today. So there was a grill room in the basement where they had a dog check room and you could bring your dogs when you had dinner and you could have dinner parties there and they served all kinds of grill meat in the summers. They even poured water on the floor and made it an ice skating rink, so you could skate, you mentioned that the ground floor was actually, the, the lower floors were the more coveted real estate, which is the opposite. Obviously of what we have today when did that flip, and did they have elevators from the beginning. And where is it just that people were nervous about them and didn't trust them? Yeah. They did. They had elevators from the beginning. They were called plungers was the name of the elevated because not fire confidence. Through you could they had glass doors, and you could see the pistons that went up and down the mechanical workings of the elevators. And the actually those elevators were used through the nineteen seventies they were they were a big feature of the plaza at the time. But, you know, it was always seen as more elegant to be on the lower floors. So this state sweet, which was their big sweet was on the second floor. And when did that flip when did the penthouse to become the place that you actually want, right? Well area black did live up at the top of the building. So, so there was still some appreciation for the views that you could get at the top. But I think as, as technology for elevators were improved and, you know, the style changed for buildings and more buildings were taller, it became more attractive. I don't know exactly what year that happened everything that that goes up in New York must fall down. And the plaza has had many ups and downs over the decades beginning in nineteen. Thirty with the stock market plunged, what happened to the plaza would happen to the plaza was what happened to many hotels at the time, obviously, in nineteen twenty nine the Wall Street crash, which actually, Harry black, who was the, the main face of the plaza. He had been a big Wall Street booster. And he lost much of his fortune in the crash, and tried to kill himself in the penthouse bathtub, but he survived, but he later later was successful. But in terms of the plaza itself prohibition, was also going on at the same time, so you had to sort of a double whammy, I would say a lot of guests preferred places like the twenty one club or the illegal Speakeasy is rather than hotels, which were too big, and too noticeable to serve illegal alcohol. So they lost many guests in that way, and then also the depression. So they closed several of the, of the great rooms at the plaza during that period on the oak room was turned into a brokerage office, and it was tough going. Thing for sure. And what happened to Harry black? He tried to, to drown himself in his bathtub he was revived by his valet. But the following year in nineteen thirty he shot himself in the head and was not able to survive that wound. Let's talk about some of the people who did survive in the plaza hotel during that period and also help keep it going as I understand it, who the thirty nine widows. They were a quirky group of very wealthy women who end a few men, I should say, who over the decades lived at the plaza, most of them were widows. There were a few that really stuck out the reason why they're called the thirty nine widows isn't really known because there were many more than thirty nine of them at the thirty nine exactly. I don't know. But they were an Accenture group. There was a woman who liked to walk around the perimeter of the plaza and clean up the sidewalk using the her umbrellas tip. She would stick it in the cigarette butts and put them in the garbage cans, there was Clara Belle. Wall. She was one of the most famous of the widows. She was best known for who's doing the first ever cocktail party. And she was I don't we know is the highest ever cocktail said, or was it in the plaza hotel? No, it wasn't. It was it was before she moved into the hotel was, she was a interesting character in that she created her own myth about herself. I would say she always claimed that she moved in one thousand nine hundred seven but my research showed that it was probably during the nineteen twenties after her divorce that she moved into the plaza. So the cocktail party took place before her plaza residence. She was from a very famous Kentucky family. She was very wealthy. She loved Broadway. She was good friends with Ed Sullivan, she hosted all sorts of Broadway stars. And she actually was even Kay Thompson, who you mentioned earlier. She was a author of elouise. Yeah. K- copied many of her things in her book. The first cocktail party, apparently did not take.."