The last time Julie Satow was at The Plaza Hotel, it was to record an interview about her new book, The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel, for the Today show. But the last time she actually stayed there, she was still writing the book — and looking for a conclusion. “I had worked on it for three years, and I decided to stay there one night,” Satow said in a recent interview with HSMAI. “I thought it would be a good way to end the book.
“It was really cool,” said Satow, a journalist and native New Yorker who grew up meeting her grandmother for tea at The Plaza, and later had her wedding there. “Everywhere I walked, I just felt all the stories and the characters from history coming out at me. It was almost like they were ghosts. I know all these stories and all the history, so as you walk through the rooms, it’s a very rich experience.”
The lavish, French Renaissance–inspired property on Central Park South has been having that effect on people since it first opened in 1907. It’s where F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald regularly dined during the Roaring Twenties (and reportedly leapt fully clothed into the Pulitzer Fountain right outside), where Kay Thompson set her series of Eloise children’s books, where the Beatles stayed on their first trip to the United States in 1964, and where Truman Capote held his famous Black and White Ball in 1966. And in 1988, The Plaza is what Donald Trump decided to buy as the crowning jewel of his real-estate empire.
Through it all — booms and busts, renovations and bankruptcies — The Plaza has endured not just as a symbol of luxury and elegance but as a potent hospitality brand. Satow talked about the history, legacy, and behind-the-scenes reality of, her subtitle notwithstanding, the most famous hotel in the world.
When you first started thinking about this book, what did The Plaza represent to you?
At first, I would say I thought it was kind of this symbol of opulence and glamour. But when I started researching it, I realized how much richer the history was than I had even realized. Everyone knows about Eloise, who lived at The Plaza, or the Black and White Ball, but there’s so much more to it. What I felt was so interesting is that it was really this lens that I could use to tell a social history of New York through the hotel itself.
What did the original owners set out to do when they built The Plaza?
It was the most expensive hotel ever built at the time, and it was meant to be the rival to the Waldorf Astoria, which was the premier hotel of the time. It was really the epitome of elegance, whereas the original Waldorf was very opulent and it had all this filigree on the façade and it was very detailed. The owners wanted this to be the place where everyone went, and in fact it really was an important hotel when it opened because it was kind of the beginning of this idea of wealthy people living in apartments. Before that, most wealthy people lived in mansions and single-family homes in New York City, and when The Plaza opened, it was so elegant and it was such an important structure that wealthy people decided to live there full time.
How did the hotel come to capture the popular imagination so quickly?
I think that one thing is its location. You know, it’s right in the center of Manhattan. I mean, when it was first built, Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue didn’t have any streetlights yet, but as Manhattan developed, it really was the center of the city. It was right at the foot of Central Park. And Manhattan in so many ways is central to America and even the world — it’s a global capital. So I think that The Plaza became this magnet that appealed to such a broad range of people, whether it be royalty or celebrities or presidents, and it took on this almost mythic air.
Did the people who originally ran the hotel do anything that we would consider traditional hospitality sales or marketing to help establish and grow its profile?
They were very savvy. For instance, on the hotel’s opening day, the owners had asked Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, who was one of the wealthiest people in New York, to be the first guest, to kind of herald the importance of the building. They announced it to all the media beforehand, so when The Plaza opened its doors, there were already crowds of press and people waiting to see who was going to show up. It was a very orchestrated moment. They had Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt come, and then they had a who’s who of all the wealthiest members of society from across America.
Publicity was a huge piece of it. They planted a lot of stories in the press. They made sure that the first Christmas, there was a story about, for instance, what all the wealthy guests ate. Everything was a constant PR effort to keep that up. In fact, when I was looking at what was the last book written about the hotel, the last history was written in the 1960s and it was actually the head of publicity who wrote the book. There was always an inhouse publicist — it was always a very important piece of how the hotel kind created this image of itself.
Eventually that helped create something like an ownership stake for guests and non-guests alike.
I think what’s so cool about hotels in general is that they’re like a public property, like the Brooklyn Bridge, because anyone can come. It’s not like a private home — anyone can sit in the lobby. That was a huge piece of what The Plaza was for New York. People would come and they would sit in the lobby and just enjoy the ambience even if they couldn’t afford to be a guest. The restrooms at The Plaza were famous for the best restrooms in Midtown, and if you were shopping and you were in the know, you’d go to The Plaza to stop there.
What was Donald Trump’s interest in The Plaza?
The Plaza has always been kind of like a trophy. You buy it, you can say, “I’m the owner of The Plaza Hotel!” Trump has always loved The Plaza. His offices in Trump Tower had huge windows and they looked right onto The Plaza. When he was contemplating his next deal, he liked to say he would turn his chair around and just kind of look at The Plaza. He called it his Mona Lisa, and he paid an extraordinary amount for the hotel. He paid almost half a million dollars per hotel room, which was a record at the time, and even took out a big full-page ad [in The New York Times] saying, “I know that this deal makes no financial sense, but I love the hotel so much I want to own it regardless.”
He installed Ivana, his wife at the time, to be the president of the hotel, and everyone I interviewed said she did an amazing job. She was very detail oriented, she worked incredibly hard, and the property was very successful. But the problem was, Trump borrowed all the money to buy it and so there was a lot of debt on the hotel. No matter how much money the hotel was making, it wasn’t enough to cover the debt, so eventually, when the recession hit in the early ’90s, Trump became the only person ever in the history of The Plaza to actually bankrupt the hotel. That’s not to be critical, that’s just facts.
You write that “The Plaza is a mirror that has reflected the country’s cultural narrative, from era to era.” What do you think it’s reflecting now?
Much of the hotel has been converted into condominiums that go for many, many millions of dollars. It was one of the first very high-end condominiums to be sold in 2007, at the runup to the big real-estate bubble. We now talk a lot in New York about Billionaires’ Row, which is a block away from The Plaza, where all these very high-end condos are with very wealthy owners, many of which use them as investments. In that way, The Plaza is really emblematic of what’s happened in real estate in New York and in many other cities around the world.
As for the hotel, the trend at least in New York seems to be toward these more boutique kinds of hotels, not these huge hotels like The Plaza or the Waldorf. A city like London, they have these huge hotels that still do quite well. In New York, I think that between union pressures, the real-estate values, the cost of salaries — all of that has gone into play to make it very hard to have a huge hotel make sense financially, so I think it’s emblematic of that, too.