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Hotels With A Past / The Travel Detective

Hotel With A Past: The Plaza Hotel in New York City

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When you think about iconic New York hotels, it’s hard to beat The Plaza Hotel. Several famous authors stayed there, such as Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Kay Thompson. Does that name not ring a bell? She wrote about one of the hotel’s most famous residents, a character Peter Greenberg grew up with: Eloise. Watch as Peter explores the history of The Plaza Hotel in New York City, a hotel with a past.

George Cozonis, Managing Director of The Plaza Hotel, explains, “Back in the day, the 1940s, there was a very famous performer, Kay Thompson, who performed at the Persian Room of the Plaza, the most famous nightclub in NY. She later learned to write books and also star in movies. So Kay Thompson in her spare time, when she was living at The Plaza and in between performances, came up with the story of Eloise, which is a six year-old little girl who lives in The Plaza and is very mischievous and always up to something and truly loves the luxury of the hotel. She orders room service and she runs around the hotel and meets guests and runs to Central Park with her turtle and little dog. That was 60 years ago. But Eloise, age six, still lives at The Plaza. We see her every day.”

Eloise wasn’t just a great children’s book. It was a statement to kids everywhere about fun, about freedom, and yes, about entitlement. Little Eloise, fictional character or not, owned The Plaza—from the ballrooms, to the Palm Court, to the kitchens to every hallway in the place. Who could blame Eloise for never wanting to leave? Located on the corner of Central Park South and 5th Avenue, The Plaza has always been one of the most luxurious—and recognizable—hotels in New York, if not the world.

Built to resemble a French chateau, The Plaza opened in 1907 as a hotel and a residence. The construction cost was $12.5 million dollars, which at the time, made it one of the most expensive structures in the city.

“It was designed by Henry Hardenburgh, who was one of the most prominent architects of luxury apartment building at the time,” Cozonis elaborates. “His charge was to create the most luxurious hotel in the world. Not only that, but the concept back then was to create a hotel for visitors, for transient guests, but also a residence in the city for the wealthy who had homes in the country so they wouldn’t have to maintain a full house in the city and a full house in the county. So when The Plaza first opened, it had hotel rooms, transient hotel rooms—and it also had luxury apartments. As a matter of fact, the very first guest who signed the register was Alfred Vanderbilt. His father, Commodore Vanderbilt, had a mansion right next to The Plaza. So he took an apartment here so he could live in the city when he was here.”

For over one hundred years, the hotel has been a magnet for the rich and famous.

“The Plaza has been the setting for many special moments involving celebrities, and some have been private moments and some have been very public moments,” Cozonis explains. “For example, Marilyn Monroe gave her first major press conference at The Plaza where her strap of her dress accidentally and strategically snapped. And it’s still remembered. The Beatles when they first came to America, they stayed at the Plaza.”

For many years, The Plaza continued to be a favorite hangout for one of The Beatles.

“John Lennon and Yoko Ono frequented the Oyster Bar, just the two of them,” Cozonis continues. “And one of the most famous, and I think most beautiful, photographs of them was taken at The Oyster Bar. And then you have those famous people who made The Plaza their home. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright when he was building The Guggenheim Museum, which is one of his masterpieces, lived at The Plaza. He oversaw the building, living at The Plaza for three years.”

The hotel has also been home to one of New York’s quirkier residents. Hungarian-born princess and painter Elisabeth Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy moved into the hotel in 1908 with an entourage of 12 servants, among them, a personal surgeon—and a menagerie of animals. The Plaza is still pet friendly, though the policy has changed a bit since then—but what has remained unchanged is the legacy of exceptional luxury and service.

Cozonis elaborates: “At the end of the day, we as hoteliers, hotel professionals, are here to make our guests happy. And when you cater to a clientele that is sophisticated, which travels a great deal, which is used to the best—that can mean anything. It can mean a great meal, served at bedside. It can mean an incredibly comfortable mattress. It can mean gold-plated faucets in the bathroom. It can mean beautiful mosaic tiles on the floor. But I think the most important part of luxury is the human touch. It’s the people who deliver an experience which is truly emotional, engages the senses and engages the mind and the soul.”

There’s no doubt that many iconic performers sang their hearts out in the once legendary plaza nightclub, the Persian Room. In its 41-year run, singers such as Bob Hope, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Liza Minelli, Eartha Kitt, Ethel Merman, and Lena Horne played the Persian Room. Miles Davis even recorded a live album there in 1958.

“So much has taken place in The Plaza and so many famous guests have stayed here that I think no matter what you are interested in you’ll find something exciting,” Cozonis continues. “Of course many people are excited by the movies. The Plaza has been featured in almost 40 movies, starting with North by Northwest, where Cary Grant was kidnapped out of the second booth of the Oak Bar. And much of the movie took place here.”

Other movies you might recognize include Arthur, Plaza Suite, Funny Girl, Sleepless in Seattle, The Way We Were, Home Alone 2, Almost Famous, and most recently, American Hustle. Of course, there are the film versions of the literary classics, including The Great Gatsby, and you guessed it—Eloise.

Cozonis elaborates: “Eloise is very important to The Plaza because I think every little girl in America grew up with Eloise. And every time a family stays with us, if it has young girls, but even mature women remember Eloise in the childhood and how they went to the Palm Court and have Eloise Tea. They connect to that in such an emotional way. I think that’s one of the ways that make Eloise so special.”

If the Friday afternoon Eloise High Tea in the palm court is not enough for you, there’s always the Eloise suite.

“The Eloise suite is one of the favorite suites we have at the hotel,” Cozonis explains. “It is decorated all pink and white and stripes and her clothes are in the closet. And it’s available for girls and their families to rent and it’s one of our most popular suites.”

Yes, even some of the fashion accessories—all pink, all Eloise. If you have any confusion as to whose room it is, it’s not yours. It’s hers. You’re only renting the place.

To see more segments from Peter Greenberg’s television show The Travel Detective, check out:

By the Peter Greenberg Worldwide team for PeterGreenberg.com