It may well be New York City’s most famous hotel, but the Waldorf-Astoria began life modestly if exclusively, with a small entrance on Thirty-Third Street so that Fifth Avenue passersby wouldn’t give it a second thought. The brainchild of William Waldorf Astor, once the wealthiest man in America, the Hotel Waldorf arose on family real estate in 1893. Four years later, William doubled its size in partnership with his cousin, John Jacob Astor IV, by connecting it to John’s new Astoria Hotel. 

And there stood the Waldorf-Astoria until 1929 when, after four months of heavy demolition, it made way for the Empire State Building. The old hotel “did not go gladly,” quipped one observer. The new 40-story skyscraper hotel that opened on Park Avenue in 1931 would eventually close its doors as well, for renovation and conversion into condominiums, in 2017. 

In American Hotel, The Waldorf-Astoria and the Making of a Century (Rutgers University Press), David Freeland — who not only writes about New York City but leads walking tours around town — suggests that the hotel redefined social and cultural norms during the circuitous course of the 20th century. Even during the 1890s, while the guests who patronized its restaurant demanded ever-greater gastronomic feats, the hotel led the way with lavish nine-course meals. The Waldorf-Astoria captured the zeitgeist of the Gilded Age and the eras that would follow. 

THREE LEGACY-SHAPING VISIONARIES

The stature of the hotel owed much to a distinctive cast of characters who brought to bear a combination of cockiness and imagination, a good sense of which way the wind was blowing, and mastery of the burgeoning hospitality trade. Three men in particular built the reputation of the Waldorf-Astoria during its first three decades. There was George C. Boldt, a mild-mannered manager with a “refined, continental” sensibility, whose wife Louise admonished him to always consider “the woman’s point of view.” 

Then, during a luncheon at Delmonico’s, an agent for the Waldorf estate noticed Oscar Tschirky, an attentive, savvy Swiss-born waiter. He encouraged Tschirky to get in touch with Boldt, and before long Tschirky was ensconced as the Waldorf’s celebrity chef, publishing The Waldorf Cook Book in 1896. It was Tschirky who invented the Waldorf Salad. Behind the scenes he could be Napoleonic, writes Freeland, but to the public he was a welcoming host, known to generations of the hotel’s patrons. 

Finally, Boldt’s successor, Louis Boomer, brought the Waldorf fully into the new century. An efficiency expert and proponent of modern hotel management techniques, Boomer would support the establishment of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in 1922. It was Boomer who invited Edward Bernays, the “father of public relations,” to keep an eye on the Waldorf-Astoria and develop its brand.   

A CENTURY OF CHANGING MORES AND FORTUNES

As Freeland’s story unfolds, it appears that the year 1900 ushered in unprecedented change that would challenge the men who ran the Waldorf — indeed, all big-city American hotels. 

Still constrained by Victorian customs, managers were now guardians of morals, determining whether unescorted women might dine alone at any hour and unmarried couples were entitled to share a hotel room, and how to discreetly chase prostitutes and con men out of the lobby. Aided by house detectives, keeper of a “black book” that recorded the misdeeds of various guests, Boldt found himself in the position of social arbiter. 

Prohibition hit hotels hard, as guests swapped the bars and restaurants for speakeasies, and with the onset of the Depression, financial recovery took a long time. Hotel owners resisted New Deal regulations, fumed over labor strikes, and wriggled around the city’s placement of indigent New Yorkers in their best rooms. In 1945, the Waldorf was finally unionized, and four years later Conrad Hilton, having secured 68 percent of the corporation’s stock, became its president.

Surprisingly, the Waldorf never turned a substantial profit until the 1940s. Its busiest, most lucrative years came during World War II, when the Grand Ballroom and Starlight Roof began to set the pace for entertainment among middle- and upper-class white revelers. Through the ’50s, appearances by Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra, followed by Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Eartha Kitt and Lena Horne, cultivated “a distinctly Manhattanite brand of chic midcentury nightlife,” according to Freeland.

EMBRACING THE EVOLVING LUXURY CONSUMER

Much of the last half of the book delves deeply into the Waldorf-Astoria’s connections to Cold War diplomacy, the nascent Civil Rights Movement, and the imperative to raise AIDS awareness, particularly through onsite protests by ACT UP New York. 

It was always possible to live in and visit New York City without setting foot in the Waldorf-Astoria, which is why American Hotel is intriguing. Even without knowing the hotel intimately, we understood what it was, larger than life. The Waldorf represented the material culture of luxury of which its stylish guests were consumers.

Freeland’s new book offers a new perspective. While exclusion, discrimination and shoddy treatment of guests are woven into the histories of all American hotels, he argues that the Waldorf’s legacy is largely one of openness and acceptance. Its very symbolism enabled it to play a part in creating a more inclusive society.

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About David Freeland:

David Freeland is the author of the books Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure and Ladies of Soul, as well as American Hotel: The Waldorf-Astoria and the Making of a Century. As a historian and journalist, he has written for the Wall Street Journal, amNewYork, Time Out New York, New York History, American Songwriter, and other publications. He appeared in episodes of NBC TV’s Who Do You Think You Are and NYC Media’s Secrets of New York. Freeland lives in New York, where he leads walking tours and gives lectures on the city’s culture and history.