Palaces Of The People

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The new Willard Hotel, which replaced the original one in 1902, slipped from the top rank by the thirties, surpassed by the stylish places that had opened the decade before: the Hay-Adams, the Carlton, the Jefferson, the Madison. By the early sixties the Willard had become a “dilapidated old firetrap,” according to someone who stayed there often. “The reason it stayed open,” he added, “was that it was about the only hotel in Washington that charged less than the government’s per diem for lodging.” After it closed in 1968, it was empty for nearly twenty years.

In 1986 the old hotel reopened as the Willard Inter-Continental, having been brought back from the very brink with a meticulous restoration. The guest floors were renovated to a modern standard, while the lobby, in particular, was returned to its late-Victorian formality. The reborn Willard is at the same time bracingly sure of itself and a reminder of the Washington of 1902, surprisingly small and slightly Southern.

The Mayflower is of a quicker pace, on the gallop ever since it opened in 1925. For a long time it was the biggest hotel in Washington—the guest-floor hallways are so long they show the curving of the earth, or so it sometimes seems—yet the Mayflower was overbooked throughout most of World War II. The mezzanine overlooking the lobby was commonly converted into a dormitory for desperate travelers.

A man named John Dasch arrived in Washington on a Thursday in 1942 and managed to get a room at the Mayflower, but only after he promised to check out by Monday. Dasch was certain he would. He was a Nazi saboteur, in charge of a group that had disembarked from submarines in Long Island and Florida about a week before. Abandoning the master plan, Dasch went to Washington to give himself up and to turn in the others. He had to spend more than a day in his room, calling various agencies, before anyone arrived to arrest him. All seven of his fellow saboteurs were captured, and six of them were electrocuted two months later.

J. Edgar Hoover was well known to have lunch at the Mayflower every day when he was the FBI director. One day he looked up and happened to notice Public Enemy No. 3 dining five tables away. Hoover calmly called his office and had the man arrested, leaving everyone else to wonder how a criminal could rank number three and not know enough to stay away from the Mayflower at lunchtime.

With six historic hotels of the first rank, and as many more of distinct interest, Washington must still be the mecca. But then there is New York City.

In 1893, when George C. Boldt opened the old Waldorf Hotel on Fifth Avenue, he graciously invited other hotelmen to the grand opening. Frank Case, later of the Algonquin Hotel, recalled that he and his friends were impressed with the facility but thought Boldt was a “damn fool” for lining the halls and lobbies with Oriental rugs. Smart hoteliers would never waste money like that. Finally Case was sent to ask Boldt what he would do when the expensive rugs wore out from all the crowds trampling on them. “I’m more concerned for fear they may not wear out,” Boldt said.

The turn-of-the-century history of almost anything or anyone is likely to include an episode at the old Waldorf-Astoria. Most notoriously, though, it was at the core of that Fifth Avenue “lobster society” that considered the cheapskate the only real sinner. Peacock Alley became the nickname (later copied elsewhere) for a wide hallway that rustled late every morning with expensive clothes and fresh gossip. The Waldorf also had a bar.

J. P. Morgan stopped in for his daily Manhattan, while John ("Bet-a-Million") Gates ordered milk and crackers. Manhattans and milk were available anywhere, of course, but special drinks concocted at the Waldorf’s bar commemorated what seemed at the time to be great events. Ninety years later a listing of these drinks is like a faint and scratchy recording of talk around the Waldorf bar: about war (the Santiago Sour, the Dewey Frappè, the Schley Punch, the Shafter Cocktail), about monetary issues (the Single Standard Rickey, the Double Standard Sour, and the Free Silver Fizz), hit plays (the Floradora, the Chanticleer, the Soul Kiss), scandals (the Bradley Martin), and other phenomena so obscure that possibly they were not great events after all.

In 1929 the old Waldorf-Astoria was demolished to make space for the Empire State Building. The new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel opened in 1931, two enormous, connected towers at home on Park Avenue. It is, as ever, at its best when it’s busiest, still seeming to judge itself on how fast the carpets can be worn out. They weren’t worn very quickly the first year, in the middle of the Great Depression; it is said that one night fewer people were registered in the 2,200 rooms than were playing in the orchestra on the Starlight Roof. The hotel gathered momentum, though, by thinking of practically everything. Eighty-six chefs trained in French cooking made one million meals in 1938, but there were always some guests who looked down on haute cuisine, and for them the hotel hired American women to serve up home cooking, made in a regular kitchen. The thorough and eminently practical Waldorf Manuals became standard texts in hotel-management schools, with tips like this, in the chapter on breakfast: “Anything lukewarm in the morning is an invitation to trouble.”