By Beatrice Williams-Rude in BlackTie Magazine
The Plaza: Where one can gaze at the stars over Central Park, or those in the lobby
Whether for vacation, delectation or arm chair fantasizing, “Inside the Plaza”: An Intimate Portrait of the Ultimate Hotel is an irresistible bon-bon, a must-read.
Note for the uninitiated: The Plaza Hotel, described as “the largest French chateau in the world,” occupies the southwest corner of 59th Street and Fifth Ave., directly across the street from Central Park. A playground for the privileged, it’s the fairytale-like castle where Eloise lives, the rich romp, the royals relax, and the arrivistes/wannabes disport themselves.
It’s where Truman Capote held the fabled “Black and White Ball” for Katharine Graham, where Neil Simon set “Plaza Suite,” and who can forget Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford in the final scene of “The Way We Were”?
This chronicle of a unique Gotham institution is by the estimable Ward Morehouse III. It’s rich in history – to be relished even by those who think they aren’t interested—and awash in familiar names and unfamiliar anecdotes: J. Edgar Hoover, as few have seen him; JFK and Jackie; JFK and Judith Exner; Onassis and Jackie; Onassis and Maria Callas (as only Jackie Susann knew and told, albeit thinly veiled, in her posthumous novel, “Dolores” and now is revealed openly in this tome) and the lavish lifestyles – even by Plaza standards – of visiting Middle Eastern potentates.
In this engagingly written and carefully researched delicacy, Ward has created a mélange of morsels to be savored. It’s an ideal vacation or travel book because no matter where it’s opened, there will be a fascinating vignette that can be understood without having to refer back to anything else. Lost your place? No matter. Open anywhere and enjoy.
While this is first and foremost a fun read, there’s also much that illuminates. The hotel is part of the history of New York — really, in many senses, of the world—and the anecdotes provide a glimpse into the private lives of the literary (F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, playwright Ferenc “The Play’s the Thing” and “Liliom” Molnar, Neil Simon, Gilbert Seldes, among others), the legendary (including Gertrude Lawrence, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Cary Grant, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and The Beatles), Powerful pols ( Jimmy Walker and John Lindsay among them) and the notorious (Sam Giancana). Almost a footnote: “Fosse and Niles” in 1950. The “Fosse” is dancer and later to be acclaimed choreographer and director Bob Fosse. “Niles”? Mary Ann Niles, the first Mrs. Fosse! (It was my pleasure to work with “Spooki” Niles in “The Pajama Game” years later, and Bob Fosse attended a performance.)
There are pages of fascinating photos including particularly lovely shots of JFK and Jackie, Marilyn Monroe and Angie Dickinson. Also, of a very young Mia Farrow with her mother, Maureen O’ Sullivan.
One can make a game of trying to identify those in various shots who are not named. In a photograph of the author’s parents, distinguished drama critic Ward Morehouse, Jr., and actress Joan Marlowe, there in profile is someone apparently animatedly speaking to them, and I wager that someone is movie star Jane Wyman (the first Mrs. Ronald Reagan). The upturned nose is the clue.
There’s no one better qualified to write a biography of a hotel than Ward Morehouse III. He grew up in posh hostelries all over the globe, as his myriad books on the subject attest. He lived at the Plaza first with his parents, then with his father and stepmother.
As a child he got to know the nooks and crannies and revisits them as he guides the reader on a virtual tour. This volume is an updating of his 2001 effort, so there are all manner of new facets to be observed. He got the know the staff of old, and remained in the loop as the newcomers arrived. He apprises us of their functions and how the hotel actually works. The kitchens are particularly interesting, given the five restaurants on the premises.
The author takes us through the changes in ownership and what each wrought. But throughout, it’s the clientele that captivates.