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The Carlyle Hotel Never Stops

What is it about this Upper East Side grande dame that continues to enamor the society and celebrity sets nearly 90 years after it opened? Novelist Andrew Sean Greer checks in for a louche weekend to find out.


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“It isn’t done for a gentleman to be trapped in the middle of Park Avenue,” I was once told by a friend’s gracious mother. “It shows lack of forethought.”

And yet here I was, bag in hand, standing in the median of Park Avenue as the taxis whizzed by and Upper East Side dogs considered my plight from the curb. Here I was, having thought myself the very height of fore-thought—I had even changed in the airport bathroom into a jacket so that I could arrive properly at my destination, the Carlyle Hotel.

I had flown in from San Francisco for the weekend to check in to not only one of the most storied places in New York but also newly one of the coolest. Recently, I had read about a party at the hotel where Zadie Smith sang and Lady Gaga played the piano. I had heard of Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray’s filming a musical in the café. I knew that George Clooney and Mick Jagger were habitués. And I had never been. Straightening my jacket, I finally entered the Carlyle. I would not step outside again for three days.

The carlyle began as the dream of shipping and real estate magnate Moses Ginsberg, and after the Crash he paused before the building went up on 76th and Madison and asked his son, “Do you think we should stop?” They did not, and alas, in 1931, a year after it opened, the hotel went into receivership. But not before Dorothy Draper decorated the lobby in black and white marble, the halls in classical motifs, and the rooms in bold florals. Over the years, as owners and managers came and went, the Carlyle developed an elite, if slightly stodgy, reputation, attracting a boldfaced clientele, including Ingrid Bergman, George Gershwin, Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diana, and Jack Nicholson. A new documentary, Only at the Carlyle, out early next year, manages to hint at some of the hotel’s juiciest stories (Kennedy! Monroe!) while still keeping its guests’ secrets. (Even George Clooney and Anjelica Huston stay mum!) Everybody seems to have a Carlyle story: accidentally mooning Nancy Reagan in the lobby, reuniting Warren Beatty and Elaine Stritch in a suite before the latter’s death, coming across Daryl Hannah and Neil Young over breakfast.

Until my stay, everybody but me.

In the elevator, my first night: a lovely young pair—she in a white jumpsuit, he in a blazer with a pocket handkerchief—who invited our semi-sober group to share a bottle of champagne in their suite. My friends, a lovely blonde comedian and her equally charming husband, had joined me earlier in the night for drinks at Bemelmans, the Carlyle’s famed bar, where we had all been fooled by the resemblance of martinis to water. (I blame Javier, the bar manager who suggested them, as well as the bartender, who made them so well.) And then those friends had insisted on seeing my suite. And then, in the elevator, we felt obliged to try the champagne; our hosts also wanted to show us their suite’s piano. He played it beautifully and loudly. Security was firm but understanding.

I awoke late but refreshed. A young magazine editor joined me for hamburgers in the Gallery, where we talked with an elderly couple who had lived in the Carlyle for years, and with a young couple visiting from San Francisco. We all got into a conversation about which museums to visit—and was there a bar worth visiting nearby? The elderly couple considered the question and gave a hesitant yes, but then gestured to the door to Bemelmans and asked, “Why?”

In the elevator that afternoon: wedding guests holding bubble wands who dragged me to their reception on the second floor.

That night, Javier saved me a seat at Bemelmans. The crowd was lovely: the rocker chick in black leather consoling her friend over a breakup, the college friends in their 20s who involved me in their discussion of sex, the young man with red glasses and a puff of prematurely gray hair who admired my jacket, announced, “We share the same taste!” and invited me out for a cigarette. I responded, “I don’t smoke,” and vowed not to step outside the Carlyle. “I try not to as well,” he replied.

In the elevator: Tom Selleck.

These days, another generation has discovered the Carlyle: John Mayer, Chris Martin, Katy Perry, Harry Styles. Perhaps they are seeking the privacy and classic service that on the West Coast is found at Chateau Marmont. While more accessible to the public, the Carlyle, like Chateau, has no “palm court” or grand open space, but instead a series of stepped and sunken rooms, high-backed banquettes, and dark corners. You could never “meet” someone at the Carlyle. They wouldn’t know where on earth you were. The upper Gallery? The lower Gallery? Behind a shimmering bottle of wine at Bemelmans? “The Carlyle stays the way italways was—and everything about it was done exactly right in the first place,” said Wes Anderson, a frequent guest. Or as Waldo Hernandez, the hotel concierge for five years, put it when I asked him about the younger clientele: “Once you’ve been to New York and don’t need to be seen, this is the place to stay.”

And then there is the café, the intimate space where Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson used to listen to Bobby Short. Woody Allen still performs there each Monday night with the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band, but other bookings now include Dianna Agron, Mandy Gonzalez, and Duncan Sheik. They are bringing new listeners in, a modern crowd taking over from the generation before.

And then there is the service....

It isn’t done to invite five friends for dinner if you have run out your expense account. This was where the Carlyle staff came in. I am certain they have had more bizarre requests in their time, but my question to Kimberly from room service certainly brightened her voice. “You’re cooking in the suite? Yourself? Well, let’s think of what you need.” I ran down my list, and then Kimberly tried to think ahead. “You don’t want to find yourself out of something just as they are arriving, so how about dessert forks? Napkins? A bucket of ice?”

What can you cook in a hotel room? I made a quick plan and the groceries were delivered to my room. Rudys brought the pots and pans and seemed highly amused at my endeavor—“You do know how to cook, don’t you?” Then the ice. Then the guests: a chic, young writer; a wry and distinguished novelist; a documentary filmmaker leaving the next day for Greenland; a well-known French photographer. All of them busy New Yorkers, but each canceled plans for a chance to come to the Carlyle. Even the magazine editor I’d seen for lunch returned all the way from Crown Heights—an hour-long trip. One way. But New Yorkers are always thrilled to come to the Carlyle. I think, perhaps, because it feels like a place that is truly New York.

Also, I presume, they had never visited a suite.

Did I mention I had a dining room, a living room, and a kitchen all done in chrome and brown leather? My guests took photographs, especially of the robes embroidered with my initials. (This is an honor usually reserved for beloved visitors.) We ate caprese salad, fettuccine mimosa, a salad, and a cheesecake. They left by midnight, and the kitchen was a mess. I would like to publicly thank room service.

I fell onto the bed. I had done it. I had been pampered and shared champagne with fellow guests and met security and eaten lobster thermidor and amused Rudys and cooked a goodbye party in my suite.

So was I yet a gentleman?

They say the black marble in the lobby (the original by Draper) is kept to such a shine that dogs refuse to walk on it for fear of falling into an abyss. My fear, after three days without sunlight, was that I would not see my own reflection.

Indeed, after I checked out, I found it unbearable. To be in the garish sun, lit by the reflections off cabs and shopwindows. How I longed for the soft lighting of the Gallery to take away my cares.

“I think the gentleman was before me.”

I turned and saw a beautiful older lady in a striped dress and pearls gesturing for me to take the taxi that had pulled up. For a moment she was Ingrid Bergman. The light changed to the New York of another time. Bobby Short was playing. And then the vision faded. Ingrid Bergman became just another elegant guest of the Carlyle. I said the taxi was hers, and she smiled and entered.

Isn’t that what a gentleman would do?

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