In 1988's Big Business, Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin (twice each) play mismatched twins who converge on the Plaza Hotel for a fateful stockholders' meeting. The bedroom farce unfolds in replicas of the hotel's luxurious suites and plush lobby, amid two equally high-stakes outrages: the corporate espionage; and the $12.50 pancakes.
Relentless capitalism is nothing new to the Plaza, which provided Old World opulence to elite clientele when it opened in 1907; the first guest was a Vanderbilt. (An earlier, apparently less impressive Plaza was torn down in 1905 in favor of this taller, grander, French chateau-er version.) A pinnacle of refined excess, it pioneered amenities that became New York standards — like taxicabs. And over the last century or so it has survived economic highs and lows, a transforming skyline, and the social sea change that made money, not pedigree, the hotel's most important calling card.
In fact, Julie Satow argues in The Plaza that no other New York edifice has so directly reflected the city itself — the hotel's shift from old money to new business, the often-strained relationship between developers and unions, increasing globalization of commerce, and every generation's convenient interpretations of the past all mirrored the Big Apple.
Through personal interviews, first-person accounts, and established histories, Satow provides an energetic timeline that embraces the chaos of history: union members commit murder and also save the hotel from total conversion to condos; four decades of outside investors each snap up and then swiftly ditch the hotel; renovations are invariably greeted with horror before leaving their own nostalgic mark. (Except the Green Tulip, a Technicolor experiment that lasted less than three years. Even New York has limits.) 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, from the specifics of sugar rationing to Kay Thompson inventing the irrepressible Eloise.
Such larger-than-life figures abound, both in guest rooms and owners' offices. But at some point, it's impossible to ignore the distance between backroom billionaires and the employees whose jobs were regularly considered expendable. (It's especially egregious given the demanding clientele; customer service folks may shudder with familiarity when reading Kay Thompson use her little-girl Eloise voice to demand "hot hot hot" coffee from room service in front of press.)
Issues of race are often sidelined amid anecdotes of the rich and famous, but occasionally class tension takes the spotlight; it's particularly striking to read about the Hotel Trades Council's fight for severance for 550 staff laid off in the wake of a takeover, given the ease with which hundreds of millions was flowing over employees' heads. And Satow seems aware it's more fun to discuss flamboyant elites a century old than to contemplate modern inequalities of wealth; she recounts the many mishaps of condo development with a sort of grim glee in the chapter titled "Shell Game."
Still, nostalgia about the Plaza always manages to turn its excess into excitement, and the fact that it survived hard times endears the hotel even to those who can only dream of spending time there. It helps that New York has a longstanding tradition of turning the rich and famous into a spectator sport. Crowds gathered to gawk at guests in 1907; they gathered for the Beatles and Capote's Black and White Ball. These days, it might be more about taking your own photo in the Plaza, to feel rich and famous for a moment, and make yourself part of history.
Satow knows the feeling — she got married there. It's no surprise, then, that 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.
(The pancakes are $23.)
Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.