THE THIRTY-NINE WIDOWS OF THE PLAZA
“The Plaza Hotel announces for tonight a ‘Poverty Party.’ Paper tablecloths will be used . . . Costumes will be plain.”
— New York Herald Tribune
Clara Bell Walsh was a broad-shouldered Southern belle turned Manhattan social arbiter. She was famous for her living arrangements, legendary for her entertainment skills, and renowned as the Plaza’s most ardent booster. “Clara Bell Walsh is almost entirely known for her residence in the Plaza,” wrote the gossip columnist Lucius Beebe, “as though one’s address were a dominant personal characteristic.”1 If Harry Black was the man who built the hotel, then Clara Bell Walsh was the woman who sustained it.
A noted horsewoman and an avid consumer of Kentucky bourbon, Walsh’s earliest accomplishment was the supposed invention of the cocktail party. “Positively the newest stunt in society is the giving of ‘cocktail parties,’ ” wrote the Washington Post in 1917, noting that “Mrs. Walsh introduced it recently with the first cocktail party in society’s history.”2 The most notorious of her soirees was one she hosted with a “kindergarten” theme, where guests dressed up as poor little rich girls and sailor boys. One strapping six-foot-tall male guest wore a pink romper, while another heavy-set fellow dressed as “a big fat Mammie” in a kinky wig and white apron. The Hostess herself was less risqué, donning white lingerie, with a blue bow in her curly locks, while her husband was resplendent in the black velvet suit and lace collar of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Guests had to maneuver through an obstacle course, climbing up a ladder and sliding down a board to reach the bartender, who served them Sazeracs and martinis in baby bottles.3
It would be several years after Walsh gave her kindergarten-themed event that she would move into the Plaza. But once she arrived, she remained—part den mother, part head cheerleader—until her death. While Walsh kept her exact age a mystery, it is known that she was born Clara Bell, the only child of one of Kentucky’s wealthiest families, her grandfather Henry Bell having been an associate of multimillionaire merchant A. T. Stewart.4 In 1905, Clara Bell married Julius Walsh Jr., who owned a streetcar line and a share of the Royal Typewriter Company. The wedding ceremony was held at Bell Place, her family’s estate, now a public park, beneath an enormous bell made from white and yellow flowers. Two rooms were filled from floor to ceiling with gifts, including the deed to a farm and a case of silver from her in‑laws.
Despite the lavish trappings, Walsh refused to follow convention. After her wedding, the bride climbed into a plain one-horse carriage and, taking the reins herself, drove through town to thank well-wishers and stop at a nearby hospital to deliver the floral bouquets from her ceremony.5 Less than a year later, when her husband was arrested after getting into a fistfight with a railroad conductor, it was Walsh who hunted down the mayor, dragged him to the police station, and convinced him to free her husband.6 She was as acclaimed for her abilities with a horse as she was for her pluck.
“Few women in America are her equal as a rider and driver,” wrote the Detroit Free Press.7 The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called her “a fine example of the picturesque type of Bluegrass belle.”8
By 1922, Walsh’s seventeen-year marriage was dissolving, and life in St. Louis, where the couple lived, was increasingly dull. So she left her husband and the Midwest, decamping for the Plaza in New York. A year later, Walsh officially filed for divorce, a matter that was dispatched with quickly. “A brief three hours after Clara Bell Walsh, of St. Louis, had filed suit for divorce from Julius Walsh, and thirteen minutes following her entrance into the courtroom, she was awarded a decree,” noted Town Topics.9 Walsh would always insist, despite evidence to the contrary, that she checked into the Plaza on opening day in 1907. She also claimed to be a widow—technically true, but only six years after her divorce was finalized.10
Once at the Plaza, Walsh held court in her suite, swathed in enormous ermine wraps, her nails painted to match her dress.11 Her guests, who included theater stars and singers, lolled on brocade Edwardian sofas among tables crammed with Chinese lamps and tiny animal figurines.12 “Clara Bell Walsh, I think, has the best time of any local matron,” wrote columnist and frequent visitor Ed Sullivan, who would go on to host his eponymous television show. “She lives at the Plaza, year after year, and you can generally find Amos ’n’ Andy, the Lawrence Tibbetts and other interesting celebs in her company.”13 Drinks flowed, and her food consumption, or the lack thereof, was a source of constant fascination. “Clara Bell Walsh would like to live on a diet of Kentucky products but finds a lack of necessary vitamins in ham and bourbon exclusively,” wrote Beebe, who often chronicled her in his column, “This New York.”14
While friends would come and go, Walsh’s constant companion was Skippy, a small terrier who “had four movie offers” and was even given his own obituary when he died. Skippy was “a button-eyed midget Sealyham with comic whiskers and the grand and grave manners of a patriarch,” wrote society reporter O. O. McIntyre in his eulogy of the pooch. He “had no truck with anyone save his mistress and her chauffeur, but he sat up in bored dignity for all who approached.”15
When not hosting celebrities, Walsh was at the theater. She was such a Broadway fixture that the Tex and Jinx Show booked her on their radio program, billing Walsh as “the oldest resident of the Plaza Hotel.”16 When a production of Frederika opened on Broadway, advertisements featured Walsh’s pull quotes just beneath those from actor and performer Clifton Webb.17 Walsh also frequented the Persian Room, the Plaza’s nightclub. She was so notable a presence in the front row that Kay Thompson, the performer who would later write the Eloise books, co‑opted several of her idiosyncrasies. For instance, when Thompson’s six-year-old alter ego had her hair done in an Eloise book, it was at the men’s‑only barbershop in the Plaza’s lobby, as was also Walsh’s wont. Thompson even liked to go out with two red dots on her eyelids, creating a “subliminal flash‑of‑red effect,” a nod to Walsh’s habit of attending dinner parties with fake eyes painted on her eyelids.18
Walsh was one of the Plaza’s best-known guests, but she was far from the only wealthy woman living at the hotel. Over the years, hundreds of dowagers, with their diamonds and dogs, private nurses and palatial suites, called the Plaza home. Their presence was so notable, in fact, that they became a meme of sorts. Dubbed “the thirty-nine widows of the Plaza”— the origin of the phrase is murky—these permanent guests were all single, mostly older, and every one rich.
One of the earliest of the widows was a member of a noble bloodline, or at least claimed to be. Princess Vilma Lwoff- Parlaghy was, like Baron von Arkovy, a Hungarian of murky royal lineage. But whatever her heritage, she was indisputably wealthy. In 1909, she moved into a dozen-room suite on the second floor of the Plaza, bringing with her a retinue that included three French maids; a first, a second, and a third attaché; a marshal; a courier; a butler; and a chef. “And that’s not all. With her also is one small yappy, white woolly dog, a pair of guinea pigs badly in need of a haircut, a couple of young wolves, an ibis, a falcon, several owls and a family of alligators. And that’s not all. With her also are several drays of the gaudiest luggage that any local hotel has ever sheltered. It is all printed red, white and green, the Hungarian colors,” wrote one amazed reporter.19
Despite her extensive, and excessive, trappings, Parlaghy was an occasional target of disdain. When she arrived, she also brought along a chasseur, or private bodyguard, who wore a cocked chapeau adorned with a torrent of feather plumes and an ornamental sword. “For a private person such as Mme. Parlaghy, who is a woman of the most obscure and lowly Magyar origin, to travel about with a chasseur, is extremely ridiculous, and would excite the utmost derision were it to be known in Europe,” wrote the Marquise de Fontenoy, a royal watcher and columnist for the Washington Post.20 With such a retinue, and being of questionable pedigree, Parlaghy struggled to find appropriate housing. The Waldorf-Astoria, for example, turned up its nose at the forty-two-year-old. The Plaza, however, welcomed her staff, private zoo, and forty-three pieces of luggage.
Parlaghy was also a child prodigy and noted portrait painter. Beautiful, with a curvy bodice and reddish-gold hair, she had had her own studio as a young woman in Berlin, where she did a brisk business with a stream of European aristocracy. Her most famous client was the German kaiser Wilhelm II, and the relationship spurred much gossip. “Sneers were cast at her work and at her personally,” reported the New York Times in a profile it published of Parlaghy when she was not yet thirty. It also called her “a talent decidedly above the commonplace.”21
By the time Parlaghy arrived at the Plaza she was twice divorced, most recently to a minor Russian prince. She leveraged her ex’s title, forevermore insisting she be called Princess Lwoff-Parlaghy or, simply, Her Serene Highness. As soon as she moved into the hotel, Parlaghy began advertising her portraiture services. One of her first clients was Major General Daniel E. Sickles, age ninety-two, one of the few surviving veterans of the Civil War. (He lost a leg fighting at Gettysburg, later sending the limb to the Army Medical Museum in Washington to be displayed.)
One day, soon after Parlaghy finished painting a portrait of Sickles, she attended the Ringling Brothers Circus at Madison Square Garden. While there, she fell in love with a baby lion. Sickles shelled out $250 to buy her the pet, and she named her newest animal General Sickles, in honor of her benefactor.22 The lion cub, which she usually called Goldfleck for short, lived in the bathtub of Parlaghy’s Plaza suite, until he outgrew both his porcelain home and the Plaza’s patience. Goldfleck was then taken to the Bronx Zoo, and when he died, Parlaghy had him buried in a pet cemetery in Westchester, just ten minutes from Harry Black’s final resting place.
Parlaghy courted controversy wherever she went, even in the Plaza elevators. When she had first arrived at the hotel, she gave strict orders that no one could ride in the same elevator car with her. One day, Parlaghy returned from a drive in Central Park and, accompanied by her footman, swept through the lobby and into the elevator. Just then, the Duchess of Manchester also stepped into the car. “The Princess whispered to the footman, the footman whispered to the elevator boy, and the Duchess was asked to vacate,” the New York Times tittered. “The Duchess was left standing alone, with the gate closed in her face, while the Princess sped up to her extensive suite on the second floor.”23 The duchess was outraged at the insult, and soon departed the hotel in disgust, taking refuge with Mrs. Frederick Vanderbilt at her Long Island mansion. But not before the story had spread, adding “a good deal of zest to the apathy of the waning social season.”24
No one knew where Parlaghy’s wealth came from; she seemed “to have found Aladdin’s lamp or a Midas wand,” marveled the Los Angeles Times. She struggled to spend her money and “almost tearfully admitted that she had not succeeded in spending a million a year, as she had hoped,” the paper reported. “The best she could do was $250,000.”25 Her rooms at the Plaza cost $36,000 a year and she claimed it was impossible to dress for less than $6,000 a year.26
But in 1914, when war broke out in Europe, her once-abundant wealth suddenly vanished. Parlaghy began charging for her paintings—after previously claiming that to paint for money was vulgar—and struggled to pay her mounting bills. Her lawyer, banker, and the stables where she boarded her horses sued for nonpayment. There was even a lawsuit from a Fifth Avenue jeweler over a $250 imitation diamond tiara, and she owed the Plaza $12,000.27 In desperation, she fled the hotel, leaving her paintings, bronzes, and tapestries behind. “Managers of the Plaza Hotel profess to be absolutely ignorant of the whereabouts of the princess,” reported the New-York Tribune.28 When she didn’t return, they put her belongings in storage.
In 1916, Parlaghy reappeared in the press. By then, she had moved to East Thirty-Ninth Street, “far away from the hateful, menacing shadows of the Plaza Hotel.” The occasion for her reemergence was an event in her honor, celebrating a portrait she had completed of the reclusive inventor Nikola Tesla. At the party, the “much toned down” princess talked “with plain folk” as she ate thinly sliced boiled tongue and other everyday Russian dishes. “I have moved from the Plaza long, so long ago,” Parlaghy said at the event. “My bills have been all paid and now I am of conscience free.”29
But Parlaghy was not free of her debts, despite her statements to the contrary. By 1923, as the Jazz Age raged around her, the menagerie and numerous staff that had once accompanied Her Serene Highness were gone. Parlaghy lay dying inside her home, its walls crammed with her unsold artworks, only a single maid left for company. Outside, a line of creditors gathered. To keep the debt collectors at bay, someone had tacked a white sheet of paper to a dusty pane on her front door. In pencil was scrawled “Out of Town.” Parlaghy died destitute, although at her funeral, her few remaining friends scrounged up a plush robe of blue and gold and a crown of silver in which to dress the body. As the mourners reminisced about her past glory, a deputy sheriff stood impatiently waiting for the proceedings to end, so he could take possession of what meager assets remained.30
Over the decades, the legend of the Plaza widows grew. The women (and a few men) became a tourist attraction in their own right, visitors flocking to the hotel as much to glimpse a quirky widow as to visit the Pulitzer Fountain or have tea at the Palm Court. When the Great Depression set in, it was these permanent residents who became a financial lifeline, providing a steady stream of annual rent for the hotel when transient guests were hard to come by.
For instance, Mrs. Charles O. Maas moved into the State Suite, the most sumptuous rooms at the Plaza, during the Great War. Her husband had been an aide to President Woodrow Wilson, but he died while serving in France. Maas paid over $200 a month for her rooms overlooking Central Park and Fifth Avenue, remaining there until her death in 1954.31 Ella Peterson Tuttle Freeman was the Plaza’s oldest resident, arriving in 1932 and not checking out until her death at the age of 103 in 1960.32 The most cantankerous of the widows was undoubtedly Fannie Lowenstein. The ancient widow was so litigious that Donald J. Trump once told the National Enquirer she was tougher to handle than Ivana or Marla Maples. Today, employees still recount how Lowenstein, in a fit of pique, relieved herself on the rug in the Palm Court in front of a shocked Sunday brunch crowd.
Several older men also lived at the Plaza. There was the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who occupied “Diamond Jim” Brady’s old suite while designing the Guggenheim Museum.33 The Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar took refuge in a small one-bedroom at the Plaza after escaping Nazi persecution during World War II. Mr. Rosenbloom, whose first name is lost to history, also arrived at the Plaza after fleeing the horrors of war. A rich banker in Berlin, Rosenbloom showed up one day in the hotel lobby “dressed in a shaggy old bath robe, a towel wrapped around his head, unshaven and in bedroom slippers.” Despite his disheveled appearance, he had deep pockets, checking into a three-bedroom suite where he stayed for years, refusing to talk to any Plaza staff save for Birdie, the woman who did his laundry.34
While there were many widows, it was Clara Bell Walsh who personified their ilk. In 1957, in honor of Walsh’s birthday and her supposed half-century spent living at the hotel, the Plaza threw her a lavish party. Guests ranged from musical star Ethel Merman to retired head Plaza waiter Jack Koch. When a photographer asked her to pose for pictures, Walsh quipped, “What do you want us to do, swing through the trees?” She said that the bouquets of yellow snapdragons that filled the room were “more appropriate at a gangster’s funeral,” and told an inquiring reporter that her age was “none of your business.”35
At the party, Walsh was described as “a tall Junoesque figure,” and, echoing earlier commentators, the New York Times noted, “Her health is so good she never gives it a thought, eating whatever and as much as she likes and drinking only pure, Kentucky bourbon.”36 But talk of Walsh’s strong constitution was more fiction than fact. Five months later, just a few weeks shy of the Plaza’s half-century mark, Walsh suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in her suite and died.37
The thirty-nine widows rose to prominence just as the men who had created the hotel passed away in quick succession. In 1933, three years after Harry Black’s suicide, Frederick Sterry, the Plaza’s first manager, died. Sterry’s death came on the heels of Bernhard Beinecke’s, who passed away the year before. Beinecke was age eighty-six when he died in his Plaza suite, surrounded by his wife of more than fifty years and his extended family.38
Beinecke’s widow continued to live at the hotel, as did several of his children. Edwin J. Beinecke rented Black’s old penthouse atop the Plaza, moving into the glamorous twenty-two-room apartment with his wife and daughter just three months after Black ended his life. Edwin’s sister, Theodora, also lived at the hotel, although in later years she suffered from acute depression, brought on by the death of her husband, followed just three weeks later by the death of their only child. In 1940, Theodora jumped from the window of her parents’ twelfth-floor Plaza suite, clad only in a blue satin dinner dress. Her note read, “Please forgive me. I seem to be sick most of the time.”39
Just as these Plaza founders passed away, so the Plaza they had envisioned faded from view. Following the 1929 crash, the Great Depression took hold and factories closed, skyscrapers emptied of workers, and the jobless hawked apples in the street. In 1930, the year of Black’s suicide, 26,000 businesses failed, and more than four million Americans were unable to find a job. In 1933, the year that Frederick Sterry died, President Herbert Hoover was voted out of office and Franklin Delano Roosevelt replaced him.
The new president immediately began implementing his New Deal to shore up stressed financial institutions and get the unemployed back to work. But despite President Roosevelt’s best efforts, the Great Depression persisted, and with it, the country’s hotel rooms, ballrooms, and restaurants remained mostly vacant, devoid of paying guests. Parents stopped holding lavish coming-out parties for their debutante daughters, while young couples opted against extravagant weddings, or, in some cases, marriage at all.
At the Plaza, the taxis lining the front entrance stood idle as customers took the subway or walked, and the hansom cab drivers across Fifty-Ninth Street dozed off in boredom. The Pulitzer Fountain was crumbling; the limestone pedestal on which Pomona, the goddess of plenty, welcomed Plaza guests, was chipped and the fountain lip so cracked that water stopped shooting from its spigots. 40 Central Park became home to squatters, who built shelters from cardboard and brick, their makeshift village, known as a Hooverville, so complete that the post office began delivering mail to them there.41
With the economy in shambles, the nation’s hotel industry, the Plaza included, slipped into the red. The average hotel occupancy rate—the ratio of occupied guest rooms to the total number of rooms—went from around 70 percent in 1929, to 51 percent by 1932.42 In other words, hotels were just barely half full. This trend was exacerbated by the sheer number of hotels that were competing with one another, many built in the heyday of the 1920s, such as Black’s Savoy-Plaza. To attract guests and increase their occupancy, hotels began to slash their prices. “Desperate attempts were made to retain old customers and attract new ones from other hotels by reducing rates,” wrote the Harvard Business Review. “The other hotels countered with sharper reductions, and the practice continued with rates going down and down.”43
Between 1929 and 1933, the cost of hotel rooms dropped an average of 30 percent, but at the same time, hotels struggled to cut their operating costs. Just because there were fewer guests, and those who did check in paid a lower rate, did not mean that hotels could curtail their food service, shut off their heat, or stop paying what remained of their skeletal staff. This mix of an oversupply of rooms, lower room prices, and numerous fixed costs was a toxic brew. “Few industries in the United States suffered more severely than the hotel business in the depression,” wrote the Harvard Business Review. In 1932, at the depths of the downturn, an astounding 81 percent of the nation’s hotels filed for bankruptcy.44
The Plaza was not immune to the same economic ills. In 1933, the Plaza Operating Company, the subsidiary of the U.S. Realty & Improvement Company that owned the Plaza, posted a net loss of nearly $708,000.45 With little money for maintenance, the Plaza’s facade grew dingy, its white marble turning gray from pollution and grime. Inside, the Plaza’s tapestries became threadbare, its oak paneling dulled and pockmarked. The hotel’s mechanical underpinnings, once so cutting-edge that the New York Times described them in minute detail, began breaking down.46 Staff sometimes waited weeks for their paychecks, and transient guests were occasionally forced to carry their own luggage.
In a bid to save on costs, the hotel closed many of its once-fashionable gathering places. The downstairs Grill Room, the favored hangout of F. Scott Fitzgerald, became a storage closet. The Rose Room was rented out to the Studebaker Company for an automobile showroom; when the car company left, the Rose Room, too, was shuttered. On most evenings there was just one lonely Plaza restaurant for guests to choose from, the Fifth Avenue Café, at the spot that would later become the Edwardian Room. Still, the thirty-nine widows of the Plaza remained, a steady presence helping to shore up the hotel’s increasingly precarious financials. By the 1930s, the number of permanent residents, who had once made up 90 percent of the hotel’s guests, had dwindled to four hundred, or about half of the rooms. Their presence was critical, as they paid regular rent on which the hotel could depend, with some permanent residents shelling out as much as $27,500 a year, or the equivalent of $280,000 today.47
But even the widows couldn’t stop the bad news from piling on. One pressing issue was the cost of labor. The early 1930s saw major upheavals among workers across the country, with some two thousand strikes taking place in 1934 alone. In 1935, the government passed the Wagner Act, which outlawed unfair labor practices. New York hotel workers had been trying to unionize for years, with failed attempts in 1912, 1918, 1929, and 1934.48 This time, however, the city hotel workers would be successful.
Ten months of intense negotiations concluded in the early morning hours of December 28, 1938, when, after a raucous meeting that stretched more than five hours, a contract between hotel employees and owners was reached. Among the stipulations was the agreement to set minimum weekly wages for hotel workers at $9 for waiters, $7.50 for waitresses, and $18 for telephone operators.49 It was just a starting point, since over the next nine years, hourly average earnings for hotel workers would more than double.50
The union contract covered 60,000 hotel workers across 160 New York hotels, but some employees were excluded from the deal. In 1939, there were more than 5,000 African American hotel workers in New York, but just 2,000 were members of the union.51 “It is common knowledge throughout the country that there are countless unions which, despite official resolutions and pronouncements, either openly bar Race workers from membership in their lily white unions by clauses in their constitutions, by‑laws or rituals—or else covertly practice discrimination,” wrote the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper.52 To combat this, the CHENY Cultural League, which stood for Colored Hotel Employees of New York, was established in Harlem. Its purpose was “to make Negro hotel workers more aware of the principles underlying trade unionism as well as to promote the general welfare of the Negro hotel workers,” wrote the New York Amsterdam News.53
The color barrier wasn’t a hurdle just for hotel employees. Unsurprisingly, guests, too, were victims of discrimination. The Afro-American, which was started by a former slave, wrote about the experiences of black guests at the large hotels in New York: “ ‘We have orders to direct all colored people to the freight elevator,’ is a refrain that will greet you upon entering eight out of ten hotels in the City of New York,” it reported. “You might be a servant, you see, and they cannot take any chances.” The newspaper added that “the average New Yorker does not know and the individual outside of New York would never believe to what extent the Negro is discriminated against in America’s biggest and most cosmopolitan city.” The Plaza, noted the Afro-American, was not exempt: “Many hotels will not permit a tenant to employ colored servants. Such a case came to light only recently,” it noted, when the Plaza refused to allow a young African American girl to attend to her white boss.54
Even as racial discrimination persisted among both hotel workers and guests, some managed to squeeze through the color barrier. Emmita Casanova was an African American beauty and a showgirl in the famous Ziegfeld Follies. Adventuresome from the start, Casanova ran away from college with the football team’s star quarterback. She then moved to Europe, where she “gave the Continentals a treat, leaving behind a hubby with two children.”55 When Casanova returned to New York, Florenz Ziegfeld took notice of her and cast her in his theatrical revue. She was “the most exotic girl,” whose eyes had “the sensuousness of the lotus flower,” rhapsodized Walter Winchell, the famous Broadway columnist, in a review that claimed the light-skinned Casanova hailed from Cordova, Spain.56
While Casanova was performing at the Follies, she met the son of the African American composer and violinist Clarence Cameron White, and the couple married at the Plaza. “Emmita Casanova, show girl in ‘A Night in Venice,’ is authority for the statement that she will marry William White, a lawyer, today at the Hotel Plaza,” read a notice in the New York Herald Tribune.57 Days later, the couple’s race was revealed, causing an apparent scandal. “Married in the Plaza hotel, news of the couple’s wedding ‘broke’ on the first pages of metropolitan daily newspapers, which were totally unaware that they were Negroes,” reported the New York Amsterdam News.58
While racism remained a persistent problem, one barrier that hotels faced would soon be removed. During these years, the will to overturn Prohibition gained steam as proponents of repeal argued that the law was not only unenforceable, but it had given rise to violent gangsters and bootleggers. In 1933, thirteen years after it was instituted, Congress ratified the Twenty-First Amendment, repealing Prohibition. Despite the ongoing economic downturn, or perhaps because of it, guests needed a respite from the doom and gloom. Now that serving alcohol was legal, hotels quickly offered it up as a salve.
Immediately following Prohibition’s repeal, the Plaza converted a shuttered corner of the hotel at Fifty-Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue into the Persian Room. The nightclub was decked out with a twenty-seven-foot bar, and the hotel lavished nearly $1 million in today’s dollars on designs. Joseph Urban, a Viennese painter who had made a name creating sets for Ziegfeld’s Follies, designed the interior, with window drapes made from rich red velvet, upholstered chairs in a brighter shade of the same hue, and room accents in the unusual color of Persian blue. The painter Lillian Gaertner Palmedo heightened the ambience with five wall murals, portraying “in luminous colors the pleasures of dancing, singing, hunting, eating and drinking in Persian fashion.”59
This was the start of “Café Society,” with crowds flocking to small nightclubs, paying 55 cents for a sip of gin and $3 for a full dinner to forget about their troubles. The Persian Room, where guests could watch Tony and Renee DeMarco ballroom dance while listening to the handsome bandleader Eddy Duchin, proved to be a major money-earner for the Plaza.60 It was also a hit with the fashion crowd. On the Persian Room’s opening night, photographers snapped the socialite Lucile Harris in a turban headpiece, a nod to the room’s theme, and soon turbans were all the rage in the Fifth Avenue boutiques. The department store B. Altman & Co. rolled out dresses “in colors taken from the murals in the new Persian room of the Plaza Hotel,” while reporters from Women’s Wear Daily duly noted how dresses of black velvet and silver lamé, fur stoles, and short hair crowded the club. One daring guest attracted gasps when she slid across the Persian Room’s dance floor in a dress “slit about six times and irregular in length so that the longest slit on one side revealed the leg right up to the knee.”61
During this period, the Plaza’s ballroom also continued hosting glamorous parties, albeit in smaller numbers than it had before the Depression. Many events were charity fund- raisers, such as the oddly named “Fun and Frolic” benefit for “crippled children.”62 A popular series of lunches benefited families devastated by the Depression, with wealthy Plaza patrons “adopting” families for $15 a week. One needy family of six, who counted four children ranging in age from five months to four years, lived together “in a cold flat with hardly any food in the house,” reported one newspaper. “Because of their previous comfortable standard of living, both parents are on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The gas has been discontinued and the babies have milk only when relatives, who are doing all they can to help, give a few cents.” The luncheons raised more than $3 million in today’s dollars.63
Eventually, the economy began to dig itself out of the doldrums, pulling the Plaza along with it. While in 1933, the Plaza posted a loss of almost $708,000, by 1935 that loss had shrunk to $562,000, and by 1936, the hotel showed a loss of less than $135,000.64 As the years went on, it looked more and more likely that the Plaza would be one of just 19 percent of the country’s hotels to make it through the Great Depression without declaring bankruptcy. Yet, while it now appeared the Plaza was a survivor, its parent company could not claim the same.
Harry Black’s U.S. Realty & Improvement Company, the first skyscraper trust, had cut its stock dividends in 1914, but resumed payments during the heady Jazz Age. In 1931, it once again began slicing its stock dividends, until it finally stopped issuing them altogether. The Savoy-Plaza, which Black built at the peak of the Roaring Twenties, causing Bernhard Beinecke to shake his head in dismay, went bankrupt. Other U.S. Realty & Improvement properties soon followed suit. “The condition of the hotels of the country, in general, shows that they have ceased to be profitable ventures,” R. G. Babbage, a faithful deputy to Black and his successor at U.S. Realty & Improvement, wrote in a letter to shareholders.65 Investors were fleeing the company as its stock traded at just a fraction of its high, the share price now fluctuating between the teens and the single digits.
In 1936, R. G. Babbage retired as the company’s president and Edwin Beinecke, Bernhard’s son, who had worked over the years in various roles at the company, succeeded him. It was perhaps fitting that Edwin, who had moved with his family into Black’s penthouse at the Plaza, should now take over his real estate trust.66 But while Edwin may have been a logical heir, he was unable to stem the company’s losses. On the day he took the helm of the U.S. Realty & Improvement Company, the stock was trading at $9 a share—three years later it had hit a low of $1.67
By 1942, with the national economy rebounding, U.S. Realty was in worse shape than ever. The company began shedding its assets, dismantling the skyscraper trust that Black had so carefully erected. It sold buildings and subsidiaries and, finally, offered up the George A. Fuller Construction Company to bidders. The sale of the original firm, which had been started by Black’s father‑in‑law and was the foundation on which Black had built his unprecedented real estate conglomerate, was a moment of brutal defeat. It was also the final blow for U.S. Realty’s most prized property.
The Plaza had always been under the same ownership, stretching for more than three decades. But thirty-six years after Vanderbilt walked through the doors to become its first hotel guest, the Plaza was finally sold. This would be the beginning of a journey that would see the hotel pass from owner to owner as if in a game of hot potato. Over the next century, famous and ambitious men would try leveraging the Plaza’s name for their own gain, slowly chipping away at the institution’s once-impervious facade, incrementally damaging it until it was almost irreparable.
For this first handover, Conrad N. Hilton, an up‑and- coming hotel magnate, took ownership of the Plaza. Hilton paid a measly $7.4 million to U.S. Realty, a 40 percent discount off the Plaza’s original $12.5 million price tag.68 By then, Edwin Beinecke had resigned, relocating to England to serve as an executive at the Red Cross.69 As for the once-great U.S. Realty & Improvement Company, it retreated to a small headquarters in the village of Flemington, New Jersey. In 1944, with just four properties to its name, the original skyscraper trust filed for bankruptcy.70
1. Lucius Beebe, “This New York,” New York Herald Tribune, April 8, 1939.
2. “Sunday Inspiration,” Washington Post, May 19, 1917, citing the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
3. “Cocktails from Nursing Bottles at ‘Baby Party,’ ” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 30, 1916; “Sunday Inspiration,” Washington Post, May 19, 1917, citing the St. Paul Pioneer Press; and John Ayto, Movers and Shakers: A Chronology of Words That Shaped Our Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 61.
4. “Her Own and Hotel’s Jubilee,” New York Herald Tribune, March 10, 1957.
5. “Bells in Honor of Bride’s Name,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 31, 1905.
6. “Walsh Arrested, Freed by Mayor,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 1, 1906.
7. “Society,” Detroit Free Press, October 14, 1906.
8. “St. Louis Society’s Rival Stars,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 5, 1911.
9. Town Topics 90, no. 17 (October 25, 1923).
10. “Obituary,” Railroad Age, April 13, 1929; and Town Topics 90, no. 17 (October 25, 1923).
11. “This New York,” Atlanta Constitution, August 25, 1940.
12. “Plaza to Fete 50‑Year Tenant,” New York Times, March 10, 1957.
13. “ ‘Broadway’ Ed Sullivan,” Washington Post, November 28, 1935.
14. “This New York,” Atlanta Constitution, August 4, 1940.
15. “New York Day by Day,” Austin Statesman, Dec. 31, 1935; and “Report to the City Judge,” Austin Statesman, February 22, 1931.
16. “On Radio,” New York Times, March 21, 1957.
17. New York Herald Tribune, February 15, 1937, 6.
18. Sam Irvin, Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 190; “Dining Out,” Post Standard (Syracuse, New York), July 18, 1949; Marie Brenner quoting Hilary Knight, Vanity Fair, December 1996.
19. “Hungarian Princess Travels with Menagerie of Wild Pets,” Detroit Free Press, June 21, 1908.
20. Marquise de Fontenoy [pseudonym for Frederick Philip Lewis Cunliffe-Owen], “Artist Princess and Her Chasseur,” Washington Post, March 18, 1909.
21. “A Protégé of Royalty,” New York Times, July 12, 1896.
22. “It Just Looked as If Gwendolyn Had Laid an Egg,” Daily Boston Globe, January 6, 1937; “Gives Lion to Princess,” New-York Tribune, April 18, 1911.
23. “Princess Bars Out American Duchess,” New York Times, April 26, 1910.
25. “Inability to Spend Million a Year Annoys Princess,” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1910.
26. Eve Brown, The Plaza, 1907–1967: Its Life and Times (New York: Meredith Press, 1967), 100; “Two Views on the $1,000 Wardrobe of Mrs. Wilson,” Washington Post, February 26, 1913.
27. “Indict W.S. Bennet on Princess’s Notes,” New York Times, July 12, 1917.
28. “Parlaghy Horses Get a Reprieve,” New-York Tribune, December 17, 1914.
29. “Care Free, Princess Entertains ‘At Home,’ ” New-York Tribune, March 2, 1916.
30. “Princess So Ill Sheriff Orders His Picket Away,” New-York Tribune, August 29,
1923, 7; and “Royal Honors Mark Burial of Needy Princess,” New-York Tribune, September 2, 1923, 10.
31. “It Happened Last Night,” Newsday, June 10, 1954.
32. Brown, Plaza, 155–56.
33. “Wright Revisited,” New Yorker, June 16, 1956.
34. From Salomone’s unpublished memoir. From the story titled “Plaza Sweets,” in the chapter titled “Permanent Guests.”
35. “Ladies’ Quips Enliven Plaza’s Golden Party,” New York Herald Tribune, March 11, 1957.
36. Ira Henry Freeman, “Plaza to Fete 50‑Year Tenant,” New York Times, March 10, 1957.
37. “Mrs. Clara Bell Walsh Dies; Lived 50 Years at the Plaza,” New York Herald Tribune, August 14, 1957.
38. “Beinecke Dies; Headed Board of Plaza Hotel: Official, 86, Helped to Found Hammond Chain, Which Included Copley- Plaza Hotel Chairman,” New York Herald Tribune, December 21, 1932.
39. “Mrs. EA Strong Leaps to Death at Plaza Hotel,” New York Herald Tribune, April 12, 1940.
40. “Removal of Pulitzer Fountain Considered; So Broken, It Is Held to Mar Plaza Square,” New York Times, August 22, 1928.
41. Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 439–42.
42. David J. Jacobson, “What’s Ahead for the Hotel Industry?” Harvard Business Review 24, no. 3 (1946): 339–55.
45. United States Realty and Improvement Company consolidated company annual reports, 1911–13, 1915, and 1919–42.
46. Thomas Ewing Dabney, The Man Who Bought the Waldorf: The Life of Conrad N. Hilton (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1950).
47. Ibid., 171.
48. “A More Perfect Union,” Robert Kuttner, American Prospect, November 28, 2011, http://prospect.org/article/more-perfect-union‑1.
49. “Hotel Men Ratify Union Agreement,” New York Times, December 28, 1938.
50. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Handbook of Labor Statistics, 1947 ed.; Bulletin No. 916, p. 89.
51. PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/blackpress/news_bios/afroamerican.html; and “Urban League Forces Opening in Hotel Union,” Afro-American, April 15, 1939.
52. John H. Thompson, “How Is the Race Faring in Union Organizations Which Have Spread Throughout Industrial Plants?” Chicago Defender, September 30, 1939, 13.
53. “Organize New Hotel League,” New York Amsterdam News, July 22, 1939, 5.
54. “New York Like Atlanta; Opens Back Doors, Freight Elevators to Insult Patrons,” Afro-American, July 29, 1933.
55. Ralph Matthews, “Looking at the Stars with Ralph Matthews,” Afro-American, March 26, 1932.
56. “Glorified by Ziegfeld,” New Journal and Guide, July 25, 1931.
57. New York Herald Tribune, September 6, 1929, 14.
58. “Prescription for Love,” New York Amsterdam News, February 19, 1938.
59. Brown, Plaza, 76; and “Hotel Plaza Plans New Cocktail Room,” New York Times, January 31, 1934.
60. Brown, Plaza, 79.
61. “At the Persian Room Opening—Fur Capes and Silver Lamé Gowns,” Women’s Wear Daily, September 26, 1935.
62. “New Year’s Eve Dance to Aid Crippled Children,” New York Herald Tribune, December 14, 1936.
63. “Women Get $174,297 for Needy Families,” New York Times, March 11, 1932.
64. “U.S. Realty Reports Net Loss of $535,633 for Year to December 31,” Wall Street Journal, January 16, 1937.
65. “Dry Law Called Hotel Bane,” New York Herald Tribune, April 24, 1932.
66. “Beineckes Take Black Home,” New York Herald Tribune, October 28, 1930; and “R.G. Babbage Resigns as U.S. Realty Head; Beinecke Succeeds Him,” Wall Street Journal, June 18, 1936.
67. Stock prices from New York Times, June 18, 1936; and from New York Times, July 18, 1939.
68. “Purely Gossip,” Wall Street Journal, November 5, 1943.
69. “U.S. Realty President,” New York Herald Tribune, October 20, 1942.
70. “U.S. Realty Moves in Reorganization,” New York Times, February 2, 1944.