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Back when the Plaza was the Plaza

March 20, 2010

Guests at an art student's ball held at the hotel in 1952.

Back When the Plaza Was the Plaza

Published in The New York Times on March 20, 2005

THE Plaza put me off marzipan forever. The hotel and I were formally introduced in the late 1950’s by my mother, who, holding securely to my white-gloved hand, regularly led me under the portico, up the stairs and into the lobby for afternoon tea at the Palm Court.

An indefatigable shopper, my mother often spent Saturdays with her two little girls in tow on a marathon spree from B. Altman to Lord & Taylor to Best & Company to Saks Fifth Avenue and finally to Bonwit Teller and Bergdorf Goodman, where looking for party dresses seemed interminable since the saleswomen only showed them one by one.

By the time we arrived at the Palm Court, my older sister, Terry, and I were too pooped to even think about misbehaving in that refined Baroque room. We removed our gloves, wiggled in our Mary Janes and wolfed down petits fours, though I’d be sick from the sugar rush later. To this day I can’t look at marzipan.

This part heavenly, part torturous tradition continued through the 1960’s and early 70’s. I still took tea at the Palm Court, but wearing Mary Quant striped jersey minidresses that my mother, fearing scandal, kept trying to tug down to my ankles.

The Plaza in 1982.

When I saw the headlines that the Plaza, as I had known it all my life, would be no more come April, I was immediately awash with weepy nostalgia. The hotel played host to so many of my significant moments: my first date, my first drunken evening (on Samoan Fog Cutters at Trader Vic’s), my first prep school make-out party, my first solo hotel stay, my family’s first wedding and eventually my first assignation.

True, the Beaux-Arts exterior of the building will remain, and there will still be a hotel within it, but one far smaller in size and stature. Though some of the public rooms may also survive, the plans of the new owners who bought the hotel call for the conversion of the bulk of its interior space into luxury condominiums and retail space. But for a native New Yorker like me, who once ran in an Upper East Side social stratum – one that viewed Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan” as a documentary not a drama – the loss I feel is less for the storied landmark on Fifth Avenue between 58th and 59th Streets than for a piece of my past.

My cliquish world consisted of the ladies and gents from Manhattan’s exclusive private schools and preppies down from New England boarding schools who played bit parts on weekends and holidays. Walking anachronisms, we continued traditions handed down from previous privileged generations: we met under the clock at the Biltmore, kissed on the St. Regis roof, came out at the Waldorf-Astoria and married at the Pierre. Yet we did all that and much more at the Plaza, because the hotel was woven into the fabric of our upbringing, as seamlessly as the tartan plaids of our school uniforms.

While children elsewhere went to the local malt shop or pizza parlor, our hangout had marble, crystal and gilt. The Plaza’s location was perfect for my scion set: a quick cab ride from Grand Central and Penn stations, where trains took us to the city from country homes and boarding schools; around the corner from Bonwit’s and Bergdorf’s, where we charged our wardrobes; the hub for all the parties and presentations that made up our pre-deb swirl.

A debutante is escorted at the Plaza in 1994 during the Piarist Ball.

Our high school years culminated not with proms but with coming-outs at the Infirmary and International debutante balls. In my era these were still glamorous evenings filled with the music of Lester Lanin and Champagne, though a night of heavy metal and marijuana was increasingly alluring.

I checked into the Plaza virtually at birth. It’s not an exaggeration to say the hotel filled my earliest dreams, since I’d fall asleep only after being read to about Eloise. Because of our family travels, I, too, felt at home in Grande Dame hotels – like the Biltmore in Palm Beach, where a toque-topped chef personally brought a glass of milk to my room every evening of my stay. My father always claimed that, like Eloise, my first words were “room service.”

When I was growing up, my gang’s local diner was Trader Vic’s at the Plaza. A typical evening out meant going to the Paris Theater, across 58th Street, to see an art movie and then inside the hotel for a pu pu platter. (It would be years before I realized that most films didn’t have subtitles, or that this restaurant served entrees.) I can attest that Trader Vic’s was the ideal setting for a first date between two sophisticated teenagers. There was so much loopy Polynesian tiki décor to make fun of that we never ran out of conversation.

My first make-out party was at the Plaza. The prep school boys would always reserve the same suite, on the same floor, so everyone would know where to go without too much fuss. It was during that unfortunate fashion era of hot pants. Mine were sienna suede, paired with a satin foulard blouse. This was the first and last time I and my Hewitt classmates summoned the courage to go out in short-shorts at night. When we saw the way those boys, from single-sex schools like Groton, stared at us and our outfits, we had the good sense to exit the Plaza as quickly as our Gucci’s could carry us.

The Plaza played host to another rite of passage in my world: the pre-deb Gold and Silver Ball. Along with other elementary school graduates of Barclay’s dance classes, I segued into this annual formal dinner that kicked off the start of Christmas vacation for teenagers from every decent Northeast day and prep school. I recall the Plaza ballroom filling with our high-pitched squeals of delight as we greeted one another, no matter if it was 24 hours or an entire semester spent apart. Rumor always had it that after the Gold and Silver a few daring couples would make like Scott and Zelda and jump in the fountain in front of the Plaza.

Speaking of drunk and disorderly conduct, in my day if you dressed like a grownup – Brooks Brothers suit and tie for the guys, Pucci head to toe for the girls – you were treated like one, complete with alcohol. At Trader Vic’s my dates and I ordered from a lengthy menu of drinks with crazy combinations of liquor and even crazier names. It was at the Plaza that I imbibed my first Samoan Fog Cutter. And my second. And my third. All I tasted was sweetened orange juice, not the mix of rum, brandy, gin and sherry sure to drop-kick me. But when I stood up to go to the powder room, I swayed. Thank God it happened at the Plaza. Just knowing I had to put one foot firmly in front of the other to make it through the lobby kept me from falling down or getting sick and thereby risking Social Siberia.

There was the New Year’s Eve my boyfriend and I thought we’d have to spend apart because my family was going to Barbados, and his to Stowe, Vt. But bad weather and great timing got us together at the Plaza. I wore a long gown and full-length black velvet cape, and he a tuxedo and cashmere overcoat. We didn’t have reservations, but for a small cover charge at the Palm Court we had hats, noisemakers and a place to dance for hours. When we kissed at midnight, it was, and remains for me, the definition of romantic.

The first time I ever stayed in a hotel by myself was also at the Plaza. My parents had always made my hotel reservations, but I needed to come down from Wellesley College for a weekend without their knowledge, and where else was there but the Plaza? I loved that the creature comforts were purposefully uncreative. The faux French furnishings were unremarkable. The bathroom nondescript. The room service arrived on silver trays with domed servers that made a comforting thunk when laid on the table. Butter pats were reliably imprinted with the hotel crest. And there were the familiar menu favorites like vichyssoise, sole meunière and pêche Melba.

In 1973 my family had my sister’s wedding at the Plaza. Terry was no bridezilla who makes a wedding planner’s life miserable. That was my mother’s task, but even she couldn’t rattle the unfailingly polite man who organized every detail. Back then, before Donald Trump and Joan Rivers complicated the process, a Plaza wedding was supposed to be a simple affair, with everything done the way it had been for the last 50, even 75 years. At my sister’s wedding, a tasteful number of guests, never more than 125, spent Saturday night in the Terrace Room for a black-tie dinner. Now Terry has passed down to her two daughters the 14-karat miniaturized Plaza Hotel charm she received as a memento.

I never had a big affair at the Plaza. I made my debut at the International Debutante Ball in the Waldorf-Astoria, and my wedding took place at the Pierre. (Though there was such a long wait before I walked down the aisle that I was later told guests placed bets on whether I had fled to the Plaza.)

But I did have a small affair, my first assignation, at the Plaza in 1983. He was a well-known person and famously (if unhappily) married, so a certain amount of secrecy was called for. The Plaza proved the flawless demonstration of total discretion. No one ever looked you in the eye. In the lobby, the elevators, the hallways, the rooms, everyone cast their gaze downward, as if on constant alert to avoid tripping on a stray Louis Vuitton.

Not that every experience I had at the Plaza was pleasant. My worst is still the time I was asked to leave the Oak Bar. A date had suggested it as a point of rendezvous. When I arrived, I took a seat at the bar as I waited and thought about ordering a kir royale, but asked for a ginger ale. A man from the hotel walked over and said: “We don’t allow unescorted females in here. You’ll have to wait outside.”

I was shocked. I remember going to the front desk and asking to speak to the hotel manager. In a voice shaking with rage, I said something along the lines of: “Are you telling me that this hotel, where I used to go to tea with my mother, where I had all my dates and attended pre-deb balls, where my sister had her wedding, won’t let me have a drink by myself in the bar? Have you never heard of equal rights or women’s liberation?”

I don’t think I waited for a response before I stalked off, vowing never to return.

But of course I did. Though it wasn’t by choice. In 1984, during the New York presidential primary, I was a correspondent for Newsweek covering the Democratic candidate, Walter F. Mondale, when his campaign booked everyone traveling with him into the Plaza. Most of the entourage and press were wowed by the surroundings. Not me. I was stunned to find not just that Trader Vic’s glow was gone, but that the hotel and my room were in near disrepair. I realized then that mine was the last generation able to know the Plaza the way we were.

Nikki Finke is a Hollywood columnist for LA Weekly.

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