New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel is closing today for what are being euphemistically described as “renovations.” In fact, the hotel in whose upper stories Herbert Hoover and Douglas MacArthur once lived is going to be turned into a warren of luxury condos, and while it’s said that some of the building will continue to function as a hotel after it reopens, there is some doubt as to whether that particular promise will be kept. If I had to bet, I’d say that the Waldorf is destined to go the way of the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room, where I used to see all the great cabaret artists and which is now…well, I’d rather not talk about it.
I have a sentimental attachment to the Waldorf, having written a play that’s set there. Alas, I only stayed in the Waldorf once, forty years ago, on my first visit to New York City, a week-long school trip that I later described in a memoir of my small-town youth:
Not long after I came to William Jewell College, I went on a week-long pilgrimage to the Emerald City, courtesy of Richard Harriman, the worldly professor of English who ran the college’s concert series and who took a lucky handful of students to New York every December. That was the week I went to the Café Carlyle to see Bobby Short, but that wasn’t all I did, not by a long shot. Rummaging through my mother’s cupboard the other day, I found a manila envelope full of souvenirs of my visit to New York. There was my program from Harold Prince’s Broadway production of Candide; there were Lincoln Center and Radio City Music Hall and Mikhail Baryshnikov, fresh out of Russia, soaring across the stage of the Uris Theater; there was a memorandum scrawled in an unformed hand on Waldorf-Astoria stationery (when you traveled with Mr. Harriman, you traveled first-clss) telling where I had eaten dinner each night. The food I ate dazzled me as much as the sights I saw, for I had been raised on Kraft Dinner and Chef Boy-Ar-Dee pizza in a box, and the act of ordering vichyssoise from a haughty waiter at “21” very nearly made me swoon.
I confess to remembering nothing in particular about the room in which I stayed, which seems to me forgivable, since I had a whole lot to remember about that week. I’m sure I’ve stayed in fancier hotel rooms since then. Still, the Waldorf has always held a special place in my imagination as a touchstone of elegance—and, believe it or not, as the one and only Manhattan hotel in which I’ve spent the night. I stayed with friends on my next two visits, after which I pulled up stakes and moved to New York for good.
True or not, I like to think I started—and ended—at the top.
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Fats Waller and His Rhythm perform “Lounging at the Waldorf” in 1938: