A real estate reporter delves into the history of one of New York's most iconic buildings—the once illustrious hotel that is now a mix of condominiums and retail space—that defined our understanding of money and glamour, from the Gilded Age to the Go-Go Eighties to today's Billionaire Row.
This thoroughly researched, extensively documented romp ... spins an intriguing tale, smoothly integrating more than 100 years’ worth of social, economic, and cultural facts and minutiae. [Satow] deftly navigates through topics such as architecture, menus, labor disputes, parties, balls, civil unrest, jewel heists, suicides, city politics, high-end financial maneuvering, and lots and lots of great celebrity gossip ... the narrative never flags ... Readers will happily soak up period details and take notes on how the stalwart staff dealt with class snobbery, prohibition and gangsters, wartime privations, the turbulent 1960s, wealthy dowagers, blushing debutantes, persistent groupies, omnipresent prostitutes, and brawling Indian billionaires. This is social history at its best: thoughtful, engaging, and lots of fun.
A great hotel is a theater of dreams, and Julie Satow, a journalist who covers New York real estate, digs deep into the forces that took the Plaza from a living center of aspiring social connection tied to the fortunes of American high society to its present status in an atomized era of pitiless transactional globalism ... At its humming height, Satow tells us in one of her dazzling fact riffs, the Plaza employed a staff of 1,500, “including 50 each of chambermaids, housemaids and bell boys; plus 200 waiters, 75 laundresses and 25 porters ... Satow, of course, offers a pungent chapter on the Plaza’s most popular literary avatar, Eloise, and her creator, the volatile diva Kay Thompson ... It’s galling to have to admit that Trump is the owner who leaps most vividly from the pages of this entertaining history, just as he does from cable TV ... The other great character in this teeming cast is not a billionaire but a union leader. Peter Ward represented the 35,000 bellmen, doormen, banquet waiters and maids who made up the powerful New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council. By the time he enters the story, we’re thirsting to hear more about the downstairs life of the Plaza. I wish Satow had dwelt more on the lives of that pyramid of toiling housemaids, laundresses, bellhops and waiters who kept the Titanic afloat. Just as the flashy museums and universities of the United Arab Emirates are built on the backs of abused migrant workers, the Plaza’s luxury was underpinned by many decades of exploitation.
Through personal interviews, first-person accounts, and established histories, Satow provides an energetic timeline that embraces the chaos of history ... The details are dramatic — whether charming or staggering — and though the game of investor hot-potato gets complicated, there are plenty of colorful asides that ground the story in particulars ... The Plaza reads like the biography of a distant relative as much as the history of a landmark building; the hotel feels alive to anyone who loves it. It's a wild and sometimes vicious life, but so affectionately told that you might come out of the chaos still wanting to visit the old place, after all.