"You know The Waldorf Astoria is closing in March 2017 for three years?" I said to SE. He had recently purchased Frank Caiafa's latest edition of The Waldorf Astoria Bar Book and made it his personal bible. There were tabs in a variety of different neon colors spattered along the book's edges, wear in its binding where he had found and repeatedly remade cocktails he liked in particular. I of course wanted him to be able to experience their famed Peacock Alley bar before it closed…but I also wanted to see the legendary hotel for myself.
Neither of us had ever been, but had seen it in the movie Serendipity and of course had known for years that it's one of New York's most luxurious, iconic hotels.
A product of the affluent Astor family, the first iteration of the hotel was established in the late 1890s, with its second and current location opening in 1931 on Park Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets. At the time, U.S. President Herbert Hoover said from a White House radio broadcast that "The opening of the new Waldorf Astoria is an event in the advancement of hotels, even in New York City. It carries great tradition in national hospitality...marks the measure of nation's growth in power, in comfort and in artistry...an exhibition of courage and confidence to the whole nation…” Once the tallest and largest hotel in the world, the hotel is known for its classic Art Deco details, stone and marble columns, and gold and silver leaf accents.
It's strange, sometimes living in New York you either forget to or just don't visit some of the city's most famous or even most beautiful historical spots. In over six years here, I have never been to the Statue of Liberty, the Cloisters, the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum, and a host of other spaces. When a space has a deadline and you have a desire to get there, though, it's easier to make it happen.
"Why don't we go for your birthday?" SE asked.
"YES! PERFECT!" I said, delighted but amused I had not thought of it myself.
And even though I had known of the hotel's luxury for years, I still didn't know what to expect when we arrived on my birthday.
Hand in hand, we stepped through the building's silver and glass doors into its Park Avenue lobby. White floors accented with columns and a staircase led up to a mosaic tiled floor flanked by more staircases and two ballrooms and gilded lights shone white overhead. I don't remember either of us saying anything except a whisper of "Wow. It's so beautiful." And it was beautiful, elegant and palatial but not at all gaudy. It's the kind of place where you walk in and suddenly feel a little more elegant yourself, like there aren't scuffs on your leather heels and your bag isn't from Urban Outfitters. We seem to glide. I notice my gestures get smoother and more balletic, my voice softer. In my mind I am a version of myself I love, my laugh musical and not too loud, my steps authoritative and not clunky, with delicate manners, acerbic wit, and a cigarette holder dangling from my fingers. Dorothy Parker. Carole Lombard. Katharine Hepburn.
We find our way to Peacock Alley, through the Main Lobby's carpeted interior dotted with gold-leafed, black marble columns. There is also an Art Deco clock I will learn later is from the 1893 World's Fair, a two-ton, nine-foot tall salute to America and its presidents, the theatre, and Neoclassicism. Sidling up to the wood-paneled bar, we are greeted by bartenders in suits and ties, cocktail menus placed in front of each of us. SE orders a Robert Burns. The caramel-colored beverage, which comes in a martini glass, is made with "sheep dip blended scotch whisky, cinzano rosso sweet vermouth, benedictine liqueur, and emile pernot ‘vieux pontarlier’ absinthe." I choose The Peacock, which also arrives in a martini glass, but with its blend of "house-made cranberry infused vodka, marie brizzard apricot brandy, and fresh sour" is pink in hue. (Fun fact: though neither of our drinks were made with it, there are beehives on top of the hotel from which honey is procured. It's called "Top of the Waldorf" honey.) They're perfect, smooth and tangy, respectively. This moment of sitting in the bar in this hotel on my birthday is really all I wanted this year.
As usual, we chat with the people next to us and we find that one of them is Peacock Alley's chef, and the desserts are of her design. We order one, the lemon meringue pie, and it's a whipped, creamy dream. My spoon glides into it, past the fluffy meringue, into the creamy lemon filling, down to the soft crust, and into my mouth. Overhearing it's my birthday, the bartenders give us complimentary champagne (which, they say, they normally only do if you're guests at the hotel, but they like us). Bubbles ripple over my tongue. Is this a dream? Am I really sitting here in one of the finest hotels in New York next to a wonderful man sipping champagne on my birthday? We intake more luxuriant bubbles, more luscious spoonfuls of pie. I am near tears several times as I overhear myself thinking, "I don't have to wake up. I'm not sleeping."
As we're walking out onto Park Avenue, we're already trying to think of when we can return again before the building closes in March. It will be a one billion dollar renovation, I've read, where about 1000 of the hotel's rooms will be turned into condominiums (still, that leaves about 500 rooms leftover). I can only hope that the company that has purchased the hotel will preserve its gorgeous, historical Art Deco style so infinite others like me can come into the legendary space and be reminded that no, they are in fact not dreaming, that even a small slice of life can be and feel just this beautiful.