The Plaza Hotel: A luxurious new book celebrates an architectural icon and its many strange guests

The Plaza Hotel, at the gateway between Midtown and the Upper East Side, operates as its own neighborhood, a fishbowl of wealthy characters and eccentric personalities enamored by the iconic structure’s great charms.

In Julie Satow‘s rich and generously detailed new book, the famous hotel seems to breathe oxygen, its many notable and unusual guests bringing vibrancy to its 112 year old halls. I’m tempted to call this book a biography.

The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel
Julie Satow
Hachette Book Group

Satow, a real estate writer and New York Times contributor, never treats the Plaza Hotel, a luxury accommodation that most of us have never stayed in, like an untouchable antique. In retelling its history, she always links it to the city at large, to the changing whims of the metropolis.

What made the Plaza so exceptional when it opened in 1907 was that its treasured exclusivity could be admired by the public. The wealthy classes, escaping the confines of Fifth Avenue mansion living, began gallivanting in hotels like the Plaza where their fashions and foibles could be spied upon by the world at large.

“The Plaza and its compatriots became preeminent places to show off, enjoy one’s wealth and cement one’s status in high society,” writes Satow. “At the Plaza you could march through the lobby in the latest fashion and be assured of appearing in the society column, the hotel hallways being clogged with reporters in search of gossip to fill the next day’s papers.”

Courtesy the Plaza Hotel

But the Plaza was not always filled with admirable or even friendly people, and sometimes likable people became irritable and weird here. The great Enrico Caruso once destroyed the hotel’s entire clock system in messy tantrum. So many wealthy dowagers lived at the hotel that they were at one point dubbed “the thirty-nine widows of the Plaza.”

The Plaza’s financial troubles paralleled those of the city at large, and the 1960s and 70s saw some dark times. They even evicted the beloved Eloise author Kay Thompson from her room. Madness!

And then Donald Trump arrives, purchasing his personal Mona Lisa (as he referred to it) in 1988. This accounts for his cameo appearance in the film Home Alone 2: Lost in New York which prominently featured the Plaza. It would cause the hotel some grief in later years.

“Once, a Plaza employee got in the elevator with a family decked out in bather suits and swim goggles. She informed the disappointed tourists that unlike in the movie, the real Plaza had no pool.”

Pictured at top: The Plaza Hotel in 1925 during its Gatsby period

Museum of the City of New York

I highly recommend the book! And for a quick history of the Plaza Hotel, check out our podcast from many years ago: