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Cole Porter’s Former Hotel Might Be Called ‘The Top’

The starchly coiffed woman disappeared into the Waldorf Towers elevator, just beyond the small salon that serves as the lobby. “She could pass for Margaret Thatcher,” I whispered to a New York City friend.

No one of inherited rank--or hard-earned celebrity stature--would seem surprising at this most private arm of the legendary Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Kings and ambassadors are regular guests.

The Towers, long guarded as something of a sophisticated traveler’s secret, occupies the 28th through 42nd floors of the renowned Waldorf. This charming hotel within a hotel has its own small entrance on 50th Street, around the corner from the Waldorf’s familiar Park Avenue facade. Over the past six years, all of the Towers’ 106 suites and 85 rooms have been renovated, restored and refurbished to mark its 60th birthday. Chandeliers shimmer; marble and mahogany gleam.

For years I had assumed that the Towers were mainly for resident guests, those who live in grand apartments on long-term lease. I knew that the intrepid traveler Lowell Thomas had called it home, as had Cole Porter and his piano.

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Even many regulars at the Waldorf-Astoria remain oblivious to the little hotel at the top. After all, there is no public bar or restaurant to attract crowds. A discreet elevator links Towers guests with a corridor hidden just off the Waldorf-Astoria lobby, where there is fanfare aplenty.

“Only about 25% of our guests are permanent,” said Peter Wirth, executive director of the Towers. “But their number may be growing. In the 1990s, people again want to use money for their own comfort. They don’t buy an apartment just for investment.”

Among the lessees are Mrs. Douglas MacArthur and Ambassador and Mrs. Walter Annenberg, whose flats have similar floor plans.

Then there are shorter-term regulars--sultans and princes and sheiks--who may come for a month and stay three.

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A favorite suite for royalty is the Presidential Suite, a 3,100-square-foot spread on the 35th floor, complete with four bedrooms, a living room, dining room and kitchen. Because it was not occupied, Wirth let me peek inside.

The marble entry hall is more than ample for official receiving lines. The view of Manhattan is dazzling. The furnishings include a trove of American antiques and historic memorabilia: the personal desk of Dwight Eisenhower, a rocking chair commissioned for John F. Kennedy. When the President is not in residence, corporate chiefs vie for this space at $4,000 a night.

A favorite suite for the rich and/or famous is the Royal Suite, which was thus designated to accommodate Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip when a Saudi prince refused to budge from the Towers’ Presidential digs. Before its royal christening, the suite had been home to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who came to New York after his abdication in 1936 and their subsequent marriage.

New Yorkers compare the Towers to The Carlyle, the Lowell, the Mayfair Regent. Yet the relationship between the bustling Waldorf-Astoria--with its banquets and debutante balls--and the more intimate Towers reminded me of two splendid London hotels combined under one roof: the sparkling, with-it Savoy and its stately home sibling, the Connaught.

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On the afternoon of my departure, Peter Wirth was in the lobby. “How do you handle royalty and heads of state when it comes to elevators?” I asked.

He smiled. “We put one elevator on manual and they call us and say, ‘The president is coming down.’ Then we send the elevator directly to them. Protocol matters can be tricky. We always want to have the correct flags flying for heads of state--and we want them right-side up. We want to avoid having international enemies meet in the lobby or the garage.”

And was that Mrs. Thatcher? I asked.

He nodded. “But she did not stay in the Royal Suite. It was occupied by the mayor of Taipei.”

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