THE PLAZA: The Secret Life of America's Most Famous Hotel, by Julie Satow. Twelve Books, 384 pp., $29.
Built on the southeastern corner of Central Park in 1907, New York’s Plaza Hotel is an institution that provides a ready metaphor for the city, embodying its contradictions of glamour and grift, tradition and novelty, opportunity and exploitation. Author Julie Satow, who describes being taken to tea at the hotel’s Palm Court by her grandmother and getting married in its Terrace Room, holds a deep attachment to the hotel, which shines through her fascinating account of its history.
With an eye for the vivid and revealing detail, Satow zips through the Plaza’s first century, from its beginnings as home to Vanderbilts and other Gilded Age millionaires, and its survival through the pinch of war, Prohibition and the Depression. It’s the backdrop for tales of scandal, scamming and suicide — where F. Scott Fitzgerald frolicked in a fountain, the city’s first fleet of motorized taxi cabs parked and a Kentucky heiress named Clara Bell Walsh claimed to have invented the cocktail party. Naturally, there’s a long section devoted to the little girl one contemporary critic called the “Alice in Wonderland of the atomic age,” Kay Thompson’s stubborn and singular Eloise, whose cult floated the hotel financially throughout the postwar period.
Eloise proved no match for a man obsessed since childhood with the Plaza’s “feeling of opulence,” who borrowed heavily to buy it at the top of the 1980s market, and eventually drove it to its first bankruptcy: Donald Trump. His wife Ivana, the closest thing the Plaza has ever had to a female president, renovated the hotel to gold-leafed, red-carpeted splendor and restored the celebrity cachet it had lost since the Truman Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball. But their costly divorce, an economic downturn and Trump’s poor financial management sank his dream after just four years.
After Trump, the story of the Plaza goes global, becoming one of multimillion-dollar deals among conglomerates from Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Israel and India. In the mid-2000s, when the owners planned to turn most of the hotel’s interior space into condos and retail stores, it became the locus of a fierce fight led by preservationists and the hotel union. From the wash of details of the condo transactions, often conducted by shady shell companies, certain statistics stand out — notably the finding of the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes bureau that about 30 percent of all luxury real estate deals between 2016 and 2017 likely involved fraud or money laundering. Given the stories Satow tells throughout the book, it’s hard to share her judgment that this statistic is “unbelievable.”
The Plaza’s story is described at the outset as a microcosm of the development of global finance, with its gradual “decoupling of pedigree from wealth,” but the clear message of the book is that “pedigree” has always been an illusion. At worst, modern distaste for “foreign” ownership of symbolic American assets like the Plaza recalls the anti-Semitism of the 1920s, when Harry Black, the owner who built up the Plaza’s fortunes, lamented the influence of “foreign” (that is, Jewish) money men, who would take a “good old New England name” to obscure their origins. It’s disappointing for an otherwise astute book to imply that Black’s thinking is a failure of logic: that because he was himself an immigrant, and because his beloved nephew happened to change his name, he ought to have had more sympathy with his fellow market speculators.
But racism has its own ingrained and pernicious logic. While Satow does highlight several moments of overt racism at the hotel — staff directing African American guests to service elevators or refusing them admission at all — she tends to treat these as isolated incidents, rather than as evidence of the systemic exclusion that underpins the Plaza's “exclusivity.” To that end, the history might have been enriched with more attention to the voices of staff below the managerial level — the maids, bellhops and busboys who keep the hotel running and guard its most intimate secrets. The prostitutes who appear in the story, strolling the bar and public spaces in the 1980s and 1990s, would have been better treated as real people with stories of their own, rather than as problems for management and symbols of excess or tawdriness. After all, the buying and selling of sex is as integral to the history of hotels as pillow mints and complimentary shampoo.
In her epilogue, Satow describes revisiting the Plaza after learning its myriad secrets, her affection tempered by awareness of everything the hotel has witnessed and endured. Her history demonstrates that New York institutions are not invincible but will depend for their survival on knowledge, imagination and resistance to the whims of billionaires.