Non-fiction Review: The Plaza, by Julie Satow

book coverOverview

Journalist Julie Satow’s thrilling, unforgettable history of how one illustrious hotel has defined our understanding of money and glamour, from the Gilded Age to the Go-Go Eighties to today’s Billionaire Row.

From the moment in 1907 when New York millionaire Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt strode through the Plaza Hotel’s revolving doors to become its first guest to the afternoon in 2007 when a mysterious Russian oligarch paid a record price for the hotel’s largest penthouse, the eighteen-story white marble edifice at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street has radiated wealth and luxury.

For some, the hotel evokes images of F. Scott Fitzgerald frolicking in the Pulitzer Fountain, or Eloise, the impish young guest who pours water down the mail chute. But the true stories captured in The Plaza also include dark, hidden secrets: the cold-blooded murder perpetrated by the construction workers in charge of building the hotel, how Donald J. Trump came to be the only owner to ever bankrupt the Plaza, and the tale of the disgraced Indian tycoon who ran the hotel from a maximum-security prison cell, 7,000 miles away in Delhi.

In this definitive history, award-winning journalist Julie Satow not only pulls back the curtain on Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball and The Beatles’ first stateside visit — she also follows the money trail. The Plaza reveals how a handful of rich dowager widows were the financial lifeline that saved the hotel during the Great Depression, and how today, foreign money and anonymous shell companies have transformed iconic guest rooms into condominiums that shield ill-gotten gains, hollowing out parts of the hotel as well as the city around it.

The Plaza is the account of one vaunted New York City address that has become synonymous with wealth and scandal, opportunity and tragedy. With glamour on the surface and strife behind the scenes, it is the story of how one hotel became a mirror reflecting New York’s place at the center of the country’s cultural narrative for over a century.

Review

Disclaimer: Although I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher, the opinions below are my own.

What makes a building special? Is it the architecture? The people who spent time in it? The events that took place in it? Or is it a combination in all three? The building in New York City most synonymous with the name isn’t the first incarnation of it – the first Plaza was opened in 1890 – but it’s the one that’s lasted the longest and has the stories to tell. It was built towards the end of the Gilded Age. Its first guest was a member of the famed Vanderbilt family. Despite an extension being built shortly after World War One, it appears it was mostly all downhill after that.

Julie Satow, a journalist who has long covered Manhattan real estate, has written a book about a hotel and apartment building that seems to have long been slightly behind the times and out of step with the world around it. In a chapter called “The Thirty-Nine Widows of the Plaza,” she tells of the genteel ladies who took up long term residence in the building. These ladies would gather in the foyer and had strong opinions not only about the direction of the hotel but of those who passed them by. Thanks to rent control agreements, successive owners could not charge them market rates or evict them, these women were indirectly, and partially, responsible for the loss of building income. Without much needed funds, the building gradually faded in its splendor. Satow scatters stories of other players in the Plaza’s history throughout her biography. Some are positive, while others are scandalous. They’re about residents, visitors, guests, owners, and staff, and all are beguiling.

What struck this reader is that The Plaza is also a representation of the New York City’s fortunes. As went the city so went the hotel. There are the highs of the Jazz Age and the lows of the near bankruptcy of the 1970s. There are the details of questionable financial decisions by both city managers and the building’s owners. It would seem the only reason the property is still standing is because of increasing preservation efforts put forth by afficionados.

Can the history of a physical property evoke emotion, or is it only the history of the people connected to it that make it so? The Plaza is evidence of the former. The story of how the Plaza decreased in value due to the Great Depression, and was eventually sold for the first time, made this reader sad. What can become of a building whose time has apparently passed? She now sits on the edge of Central Park, observing those around her like one of those thirty-nine widows, and is currently closed due to the pandemic. How much longer can she survive?

Rating

4/5

Product Information

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (a publisher of Hachette Book Group)

Publication Date: 02 June 2020 (paperback)

Information

Pages:   384

About Sally M

I'm all about books, history, rail trails, craft beer and wine, and dogs! I'm a Partner with Trades of Hope: my paid job empowers women around the world out of poverty, helping them raise their families, and rebuild their lives after abuse and human trafficking.
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