Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The 1926 Warwick Hotel -- No. 65 West 54th Street

photo by Lyndon Jhackie

When the stage curtains opened and millionaire publisher William Randolph Hearst noticed a blonde, blue-eyed Ziegeld Follies chorus girl, his life would forever change.  It was the beginning of a long-standing love affair with Marion Davies that would alter the course of several well-known lives and the fabric of Midtown Manhattan.

Hearst was married with five sons.  Although his affair with the entertainer was public knowledge—she was his constant companion in the years to follow—his devoutly Catholic wife, Millicent, refused a divorce.

By 1926 Hearst’s publishing empire included 27 newspapers and nine major magazines like Cosmopolitan.   He now turned his attention to Midtown Manhattan real estate.    Among his first ventures was the construction of the 36-story Warwick apartment hotel at No. 65 West 54th Street.  It was located slightly east of the Times Square theater district and Marion Davis played no small part in Heart’s inspiration.   The entire top floor would be her apartment.

Contractor George B. Post & Sons collaborated with architect Emery Roth to produce a soaring brick and stone structure with red-tiled Tuscan towers high above Sixth Avenue.   The completed hotel, costing $5 million, rose 370 feet and contained 512 apartments.  It was touted as one of the two tallest apartment hotels in the world at completion.

The Warick was designed as both a residential and transient hotel and immediately began attracting celebrities from the entertainment industry—a tradition that would last for decades.  On July 1, 1927 The New York Times noted that “Mr. and Mrs. Irving Berlin have closed their apartment at 29 West Forty-sixth Street and will make their headquarters in town at the Warwick during the Summer.”

On June 16 Hearst threw a gala party for the nation’s newest hero, Charles A. Lindbergh, here.  Among those in attendance were the mayor, James Walker, and Charlie Chaplin.

Hearst and his right-hand man Arthur Brisbane continued buying up property between 54th and 56th Streets.  With the  Sixth Avenue elevated train soon to be torn down he recognized the desirability of the neighborhood without the noisy and dirty El.

He was well-acquainted with producer Florenz Ziegeld who was disgruntled with owner of the New Amsterdam Theatre, Abe Erlanger.   Hearst purchased the property on the corner diagonally-opposite corner the Warwick and bankrolled the new Ziegfeld Theatre.   Ziegfeld laid the cornerstone with much hoopla on December 9, 1926 and the curtain opened for the first time only two months later, on February 2.

The beautiful Marion Davies, seen here on a cigarette card, lived in the Warwick penthouse.--NYPL Collection

The venture was not merely about providing a good friend his own theater.  Hearst was aware that by establishing a major Broadway venue this close to the Warwick he would also attract hotel patrons. 

Millicent Hearst and her husband continued to have a "civilized" arrangement.  He supported her in a lavish lifestyle and she quietly let him lead his own life.    Even Millicent’s close friends recognized the agreement and were unafraid that by patronizing her husband’s hotel they would offend her.  The New York Times noted on September 24, 1929 that she had returned from California “accompanied by Mrs. John Guthrie Heywood.”  The article reported that Mrs. Hearst would go to “her country place Sands Point, Long Island.  Mrs. Heywood will be at the Hotel Warwick.”

In 1937 Hearst commissioned artist Dean Cornwell to paint murals on the walls of the main dining room of the hotel restaurant, The Raleigh Room.   For his $100,000 fee, Cornwell depicted Sir Walter Raleigh receiving the charter from Queen Elizabeth in 1584 as well as his landing at Roanoke Island.  When the artist and Hearst had a heated disagreement about his fee, Cornwell added images shocking to 1930s diners such as the naked buttocks of native Americans.

A promotional postcard highlighted the murals of the Raleigh Room.

That year Millicent Hearst herself used the Raleigh Room to host a large dinner for the benefit of the Musician’s Emergency Fund.   Among the guests were Mrs. Astor, Mr. and Mrs. Averell Harriman, Irving Berlin and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Doubleday and actress Elsa Maxwell.

Although long-term residents of the Warwick were often entertainers, socialites and others lived here as well.  Hungarian-born portrait artist Artur L. Halmi was a resident until his death in 1939.  Among the prominent Americans he painted were Muriel and Consuelo Vanderbilt, Mrs. Oliver Harriman, President William Howard Taft and Millicent Hearst.

While the Hearst Corporation sold the hotel along with several of the Midtown properties in October 1944, it continued to be a favorite—either as a stop-over or residence—for Hollywood and Broadway stars.    Silver screen legends like James Dean, Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor stayed here and actress Linda Darnell leased a suite in 1950 as her New York home when not in Hollywood.

Darnell returned here in January 1951 to find her apartment ransacked.   Among the items stolen were jewelry and a mink stole valued at $3,000.

In the 1950s the Warwick was the New York base of the new sensation, Elvis Presley.   In a 1956 interview he conducted from the hotel he discounted the notion that rock and roll music contributed to juvenile delinquency.  “I don’t think that music would have anything to do with it at all,” he said.

In the same interview he admitted he would rather act than sing, “if I were a good actor—of course I’m not a good singer but if I were a good actor—I think that I would like that a little better.”

In February 1965 Loew’s Hotels purchased The Warwick.  After four decades the hotel was showing its age.    Designer Ellen Lehman McCluskey was hired to spruce up the somewhat dowdy interiors.  A six-month renovation involved 100 workers, 4,256 gallons of paint, 11,312 rolls of wallpaper and 23,478 yards of new carpeting.

Like Elvis had done, the invading British bands took suites at the Warwick and held their press conferences from here.   In August 1966 The Beatles hosted a series of press conferences during which they answered questions regarding the Vietnam War (George said “War is wrong, and it’s obvious”), the “more popular than Jesus” controversy (John scoffed “a lot of it’s just a lot of rubbish”) and the group’s sagging popularity.  When John was asked how he felt about the seeming loss pf fans’ attention, he replied “very rich.”  A year later it would be The Monkees who sat in the ballroom of the Warwick holding their press conference.

A 1970s poster depicted The Beatles at the Warwick Hotel.

In 1968 Faberge approached screen legend Cary Grant with a proposal to become the cosmetics firm’s “Good Will Ambassador.”  In return for occasional public appearances, the deal would give him a token salary of $15,000 with stock options, a seat on the board of directors and Marion Davies’ full-floor penthouse apartment.

Grant knew the hotel well—it is where he stayed early on in his career.  And it is possible that the offer of the apartment was the deciding factor.  Cary Grant accepted the deal.  He moved out of his apartment in the Plaza Hotel and into the Warwick.  He would stay in the remarkable space with its wrap-around terrace for twelve years.

When RCA flew a new rock singer to New York in 1971 to sign a contract, the record company wanted to impress him. It arranged a suite of rooms in the Warwick Hotel for the young David Bowie.   Reportedly Bowie looked out the windows of his apartment in the same building where Elvis Presley had once stayed and said “This is it, isn’t it?”  He knew that he had made it.

In 1980 the hotel was sold again and was renamed the Warwick New York Hotel.   During the several renovations since 1937 Dean Cornwell’s murals in the Raleigh Room had been painted over.  In 2004 they were carefully uncovered and restored.   In their honor the restaurant was renamed Murals on 54.

After nearly a century of serving the wealthy and celebrated, one famous resident was not so well-received by  New Yorkers.  In September 2011 Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad checked in.   The outspoken and outrageous president had been refused rooms in several Manhattan hotels; but the Warwick announced “We are ready to cater to the needs of UN delegates and other representatives in support of this official event.”

The hotel that had been used to throngs of paparazzi crowding Sixth Avenue to get a glimpse of movie and rock stars now found itself besieged with protestors.   Throughout the stay of the Iranian entourage groups protested and a nearby rooftop was lined with a NYPD SWAT team and snipers.

A year later, in September, the Iranian president and the accompanying upheaval would be back to attend the 2012 United National General Assembly.

By now the latest major renovation was completed.   A downstairs bar was now named Randolph’s, with a nod to the hotel’s creator.  Here the carpet is woven with stylized rosebuds—the pet name Hearst used for Marion Davies and the name of the sled in the movie “Citizen Kane” based on Hearst’s life.

Throughout the hallways black-and-white photographs of the screen stars and other celebrities who stayed here hand on the walls.  And not a few of them are of William Randolph Hearst’s true love, Marion Davies.

No comments:

Post a Comment