Sets and the city
New York’s finest hotels are the perfect backdrops to life, art movies, says Graeme Blundell
THE big man is shouting to someone I can’t see. ‘‘ I’ll take you to the candy shop, you dumb-ass, and I’ll let you lick the lollipop.’’ There are rap musicians and their hangers-on all over the foyer when I arrive at the Trump International Hotel and Tower on Columbus Circle, overlooking Central Park. It is 2am, the night before the MTV Music Awards down the block at Manhattan’s Radio City. Sleek black limousines choke and clog the streets around the hotel and private security guards hover protectively over their jiving flocks.
Known more recently for his role in the television show The Apprentice , and his signature line, ‘‘ You’re fired’’, Donald Trump is the celebrity real estate developer who wears an edgy flamboyance as precariously as he sports his weird piece of seemingly velcroed hair. ( TV critics suggest that Trump’s other reality show should be called Extreme Hair Comb-over.)
Ubiquitous in popular culture, he would feel right at home in his own foyer tonight among the in-your-face musical poets occupying expensive suites upstairs. The property king is famous for his flashy, often abrasive style, but the flagship of his New York properties shows a surprisingly elegant restraint. However, on the night I arrive it’s decidedly groovy.
The music from the car stereos echoes through the Trump, a loud string of sighs and grunts continuously repeated over a series of thuds.
Guys who can only be rap idols hang with their female entourages in the oddly small lobby, dressed in capes and laden with gold, diamonds and cleavage, the bling catching the flashing police lights outside.
The room is handsomely panelled in Brazilian zebrawood, with only a desk for registration and a smaller one for concierge Carlos Freire who, it later turns out, knows every crime bookshop in town when I ask him for directions.
A gorgeous girl, barely dressed, wanders past me to a limo, her high heels clattering as she teeters from step to step. ‘‘ We’ll meet you at the next place and then we’ll move on to the one after that,’’ she half-sings into her phone.
On each of the two nights I’m here, I amtreated to extempore floor shows. Glamorous, sinuous dance-pop divas flirt and shimmy near the lifts in skimpy designer dresses, one caressing a small monkey as we push through for an early dinner one night. Small dogs in handbags, heads just visible, are a common sight.
Shiny and Star Trek -slick, this 50-storey tower of bronzed glass in the sky is a natural home for A-listers, musical celebrities and New York wannabes. It reigns over Central Park on Manhattan’s West Side, an area that was not known for its sophistication until Trump aggressively gentrified it.
The building is so futuristic I almost expect to see Spider-Man sailing from web-rope to web-rope like an urban cousin of Tarzan as he battles the Green Goblin on its facade.
Columbus Circle was a ghost town before 1997 when Trump and architects Philip Johnson and Costas Kondylis renovated the old Gulf & Western Building. They turned the office tower into a hybrid of luxury hotel and condominiums, now trophy properties on previously scruffy, quietly down-at-heel Columbus Avenue.
Penthouses in the property quickly went for millions (Bruce Willis is rumoured to own one), though Manhattan architects continued their belief that anything with Trump on it was ugly by definition. (Comedians joke that the reason he puts his name on his buildings is so the banks will know which ones to take back.)
Trump introduced a quiet revolution in the area long known as the city’s capital of sports bars and baby strollers. Slowly, the glamorous, height-restricted residential buildings, high-end shops and uber-expensive dining options have transformed the precinct’s streets.
Remarkably, little of the special spirit of an area conceived in diversity, and comprising so many architectural styles, was lost. Drawn from history, its connectedness remains, its streetscape loaded with three centuries’ worth of intriguing and unexpected incidents and personalities.
As I wander around the next morning, a long-time dedicated snooper, it’s possible to see the small embellishments on the facades, graceful robins carved in stone and laurels of leaves cut into the walls beneath large brown row-house bay windows.
I walk back to the Trump, a slow wander that reveals a fresh glimpse of a city that is, tantalisingly, never fully knowable, even though everywhere you walk reminds you of an old movie.
My room overlooks Central Park, a place that appears totally other-worldly in the context of Manhattan’s bustle, seemingly the last remaining tract of the city’s natural landform. In fact, the wondrous green carpet before me was entirely man-made through a strenuous cycle of blasting stone outcrops more than a century ago. The park was a new engineered form of art, rather like Trump’s hotel.
Central Park is a constructed environment closer in essence to a Hollywood film set than to Mother Nature. (Freire tells me more than 200 movies have been filmed here.)
My surprisingly understated room has high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows, all with telescopes for taking in the view and sumptuous marble bathrooms with spa baths. The quiet interior design offers the warm, inviting and intimate ambience of a toney private residence, unlike the hotel’s foyer during the past two nights.
As befitting a hotel renowned for its creature comforts, my room includes a European-style kitchen with elegant china, crystal glassware and Christofle serving trays.
One of the best reasons to stay at this hotel is the unique in-room chef experience: guests can enjoy the creations of globetrotting chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten served in their rooms.
With in-room dining this amazing it may be tempting to hole up, but the award-winning Jean-Georges restaurant is worth coming downstairs for: it’s a place that leaves you open-mouthed when not chewing.
Vongerichten’s cuisine is of choreographed delicacy: one effect defers to the next so quickly it’s impossible to remember what you just tasted. The atmosphere is relaxed, the service so attuned it’s barely noticeable, and Central Park seems to float in through the big windows.
The calm, elegant ambience of the Trump allows me to dispel any preju- dices I may have had towards the developer. It’s now easy to appreciate why someone would be willing to sell their soul for the chance to become the master builder’s apprentice on a crappy TV show. Let’s face it, the guy has chutzpah, that so-New York quality of unbelievable gall.
A couple of years ago, when the new Time Warner Centre was being built, housing the Mandarin Oriental and surrounding half of adjacent Columbus Circle, Trump hung a sign from his hotel. Barely visible from the street, it was aimed at residents across Columbus.
‘‘ Your views aren’t so great, are they?’’ it read. ‘‘ We have the real Central Park views and address! Best wishes, The Donald.’’
You can’t imagine the owners of the Plaza Athenee on the Upper East Side across the park, where I stay next, needing to boost their product so crudely. It’s a gorgeous hotel with atmosphere to burn that gets it right with a firm grip on old standards and tonguein-cheek decorum, beginning with its distinctive bright red street canopies.
Nestled amid genteel residences on 64th Street, between Park and Madison avenues, this haven, so European in style, speaks of a more refined time and place than the Trump.
I walk in from the street to handpainted murals and plush, exotic carpets. The lobby is a fantastic display of Italian marble floors and crystal vases holding giant floral arrangements. There are Rousseau-style murals, potted palms, burnished chandeliers and authentic Louis XVI furniture.
But before you think the over-the-top opulence of the Athenee makes it seem unreachable, visitors are welcomed in the finest European tradition. The hotel provides the only sit-down registration in New York (though it’s common in Europe and, increasingly, Australia). Much like its sister hotel in Paris, this palatial pile is as good as it gets, the kind of place where patrons dressed to kill, and pose.
Dozens of models, haughty and moody-looking, are idly lounging for a magazine fashion shoot in the bar. The atmosphere suggests a time when men practised looking debonair. And for a moment I wish I were wearing a fedora instead of a Boston Red Sox cap.
It feels as if I have stepped into that ‘‘ long-lost world’’ John Cheever rediscovered when collecting his short stories: ‘‘ When the city of New York was filled with a silver light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from the radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.’’
My suite is compact and luxuriously appointed in that cosmopolitan style the Upper East Side has so stylishly appropriated. The curtains are weighty, like musical stage cloths, in chocolate and fawn, the light fittings are antique brass and the thick, green, patterned carpet absorbs all noise.
It’s as though, for a moment, I’m a character in Edith Wharton’s TheAgeof Innocence during the sumptuous golden age of old New York, when society people ‘‘ dreaded scandal more than disease’’ and few things were more awful than an offence against taste.
The Plaza Athenee is the kind of place where you may wake to hear your companion walking around quietly.
‘‘ Oh, I love you,’’ she says. ‘‘ What did you say?’’ you mutter. ‘‘ Quiet, you. I’m talking to the room.’’
Housekeeping leave notes on guests’ pillows at night, titled Thoughts for Pleasant Dreams. Even the minibar is stylish, filled with velvety Grey Goose, Belvedere and Chopin vodkas: all the trappings of a New York TV night in.
Such vodkas are the ultimate ingredient in martinis in New York bars, as I quickly discover during the next few days in a city where mixologists are the new style tsars. The Athenee’s bar is the chic, amber-lit Bar Seine, the hippest after-
in, work cocktail hangout in Manhattan and the only watering hole with an allleather floor. Its decor is North African with a little Parisian sophistication folded in. Animal print fabrics cover the seats, and the walls and ceilings have ornate, Moroccan-style flourishes.
Consumed in the right circumstances, a cocktail can work wonders, a fantasy of clean lines, pared-down efficiency and elegant simplicity. The specialty of Bar Seine is the crystal cosmo, a mix of Absolut Citron, Cointreau and white cranberry juice, garnished with a lime wedge. Prop up a stool by the cosy counter and you may find yourself sipping a martini with Jack Nicholson or Sarah Jessica Parker. Scenes from Sex and the City were filmed here, though it’s just as reminiscent of the Upper East Side’s ‘‘ ermine-infested haunts’’, as described by one 1949 guidebook writer.
According to Michael the barman, this elegant joint is perfect for illicit liaisons, too. And at that moment a man who looks like the world’s oldest gigolo steers his partner, a very elderly but game woman in a copper-coloured cocktail dress, on to the small floor, dancing to some Nat King Cole sweet croon, executing sweeping patterns that embrace the entire area.
Back in my eighth-floor room, I discover the windows actually open. I look out over the roofs of the adjacent apartment blocks, stretching down to the centre of Manhattan. It looks like Oz after dark, another world of strange steel shapes, columns, spires and chimneys lit by neon. The rooftop water towers, sturdy on their wooden stilts, as New York as bagels or yellow cabs, glow from charcoal to black.
As novelist Paul Auster writes in The New York Trilogy , tracing the thoughts of his protagonist, Daniel Quinn, a mystery writer: ‘‘ New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighbourhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost.’’
In my case, it was probably a case of too many crystal cosmos. Graeme Blundell was a guest of Air Tahiti Nui and Leading Hotels of the World.
Moving images: Below from left, SpiderMan would be right at home climbing the Trump’s towering edifice; breakfast alfresco at Hotel Plaza Athenee; living room at the Trump; Bruce Willis dies hard again in Manhattan; above, a smiling doorman in front of Trump Tower
European sophistication: Hotel Plaza Athenee on the Upper East Side oozes charm