Tuesday, December 29, 2020

NetGalley ARC | The Plaza: The Secret Life of America's Most Famous Hotel

I received a free digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Rating ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I would give (almost) anything to have seen The Plaza in its heyday. I can't even imagine, all the glitz and glamour that went along with it. Just think - Eloise, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vanderbilts, and the like. I am a sucked for Gilded and Jazz Age splendor, and this book provided plenty of both, before reality came crashing in on Black Tuesday, 1929.

How amazing that this beautiful building could survive the Great Depression, yet all it took was a couple years of super shitty management in late 80s/early 90s to drive it right into the ground and forcing the owner to sell due to bankruptcy. I'd give you three guesses as to who that shitty owner was, but you'll only need one. He's the only owner in the hotel's grand history to completely fail at being its owner. (Full disclosure, I very quickly skimmed the two chapters detailing his ownership because, fuck that guy.) 

It does make me pretty bummed to read about it in its current state but I also understand that history rarely matters to those bent on making tons of money. At least the building is now on the National Historic Registry so that no further damage can be done to this beautiful relic.

The author, journalist Julie Satow, spent over a decade conducting the research that went into this fantastic history of one of the city's most iconic buildings. Satow talked to guests/residents, and staff members - many of whom have been associated with the hotel for several decades. She traces its beginnings, from the Gilded Age to its current incarnation - no longer only a hotel, but also in-part high-priced condos, high-end boutiques and eateries, and more.

The original Plaza opened in 1890, and in less than twenty years was demolished in order to make room for an even larger, grander hotel. It still sits on that site today, perched on 5th Avenue as a silent sentry, looking out over Central Park. The doors reopened in 1907 and its owner, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, moved right in, becoming the luxury hotel's first guest.

This book is a study in business as much as it is a cultural and social history of New York City. It is true that we get behind-the-scenes details on Capote's Black and White Ball, and we see the sheer chaos prompted by the first US visit by The Beatles. We see how the hotel promoted the life of luxury that the millionaires of the city were accustomed to and expected, but the author also discusses how the hotel has survived changing ownership, and how that ownership has adapted to allow that survival. As the customer base remained the same, needs changed over the decades and The Plaza was able to adapt to serve those needs.

Had it not been for some very wealthy widows during the 1930s, The Plaza might have closed its doors long ago. Even so, when owner Harry S. Black lost his fortune in the stock market crash, his suicide made the hotel available for purchase and it was taken over by Conrad Hilton. This was only the beginning of the rapid changes in ownership that would persist to the present day. Conrad unloaded the hotel into the hands of the Westin Hotels chain, then trump got his grubby little hands on it, and now it is owned by the Qatar Investment Authority.

I loved seeing the evolution of the hotel, and New York City. This will definitely be one of the stops we make when Eleanor and I travel there when she is older. Though the hotel has gone through many changes, parts of it still exist that were original to the hotel in 1907, such as the Palm Court. I would love to just wander into the hotel, set myself down in the lobby, and people-watch for hours.

This is another must-read for those who love NYC as much as I do. It is well-researched and engaging from start to finish. Highly recommended.


  1. let's hear it for the big t: another American icon destroyed! (i wish i could print what i really feel about that idiot)

    1. Feel free to be as honest as you want, you already know what I think of him!!

  2. I have read all the Eloise books. That is what your review made me remember. I can really see how the history of this iconic hotel is a history of America.

    1. I've never read them, but I might since finishing this one. Apparently the author who wrote the books was very upset that people thought they were children's books. She lived at The Plaza for so long, I wish I could live in a fancy hotel!

  3. Was this the hotel that they go to in Home Alone 2? If so, no wonder he who shall not be named made a cameo.

    1. Yep, exactly!! We all know he wouldn't have agreed to filming there if he couldn't get screen time...blech!


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