Waldorf 14

Princes, Presidents, And Others

(Originally printed in 1931)


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It would be a task, not within the scope of this book, to set forth the numerous personalities that passed through the Waldorf. But not all of them were “significant” so far as this story is concerned. They simply stayed at the Waldorf to enjoy themselves.


There are a few, however, who will bear mention here, and my only intention is to refer to them casually and informally as they occurred to the minds of those who once provided them, if only for a few fleeting moments, with comfort and luxury. If you talk with Oscar, for instance, he will pluck from his memory passing incidents, unrelated to any sequence of events, He will speak of something that happened in 1920, and that will be a reminder of some important occurrence back in 1899.


When I began talking of Presidents, he said I ought to mention that 1919 was a remarkable year for the hotel because three Presidents were guests. They were the Presidents of Brazil and the then Irish Sian Fein Republic and President Wilson.


Speaking of Presidents, Oscar attended to the gastronomic needs of all the chief magistrates of the United States since the administration of William McKinley. He was acquainted with McKinley and his family before they went to the White House. They used to dine frequently at the Waldorf. Taft was a genial guest and his only insistent demand was that he never be served a dessert. He loved, however, baked apples. Whenever Taft arrived at the Waldorf-Astoria, Oscar’s first notice to the kitchen was to be ready to serve baked apples.


The tastes of Roosevelt, Wilson, Harding, and Coolidge were simple. Roosevelt, by the way, dined at the Waldorf even before he was President, and it was one of his favorite luncheon haunts. Coolidge was the guest of honor at the biggest dinner ever given in the old Waldorf-Astoria. That was in February, 1924. Oscar says a ton of chicken, 150 gallons of soup and a like amount of ice-cream were necessary. Two thousand four hundred and thirty covers were served in the dining-rooms by 323 waiters. One thousand persons assisted in various ways. For instance, 200 porters and housemen cleared the ballroom of tables after the dinner. They did this job, by the way, in twelve minutes. Seven dining-rooms were necessary to accommodate all the guests.


It is interesting to glance at the Coolidge menu in order to compare it with the past dinners already referred to in this book:


Canape of anchovies
Cream of celery with toasties
Celery Olives
Aiguilette of striped bass (Joinville)
Potatoes a la Hollandaise
Medallion of spring lamb, chasseur
Asparagus tips au gratin
Breast of chicken a la rose
Waldorf salad, mayonnaise
Venetian ice-cream
Assorted cakes Coffee
Apollinaris White Rock


Visiting royalty always was a problem for the hotel and arrangements to care for them involved many details, drilling of attendants, and redecorating of rooms. The government saw to it that royalty was placed under the special guardianship of a representative of the State Department. Mr. J. M. Nye was the gentleman selected for this task by the government and he always was on hand to supplement the efforts of the regular hotel officials and employees to make democracy safe for aristocracy. The moment he appeared in the Waldorf-Astoria it was the signal to prepare for the coming of a prince, princess, king, or maybe a duke.


When distinguished foreigners stayed at the hotel, the officials made a special point of providing the dishes they were accustomed to. They also would see that the waiters who attended to them were familiar with their language. Waiters sometimes were required to speak three different languages in the course of a week!


The visit of the King and Queen of the Belgians was an important occasion in 1919. New York, of course, waited to show the royal couple its affection for them and its admiration for their conduct during the World War. The Waldorf-Astoria, naturally, was anxious to make their stay a notable one, but it faced a serious situation. One of its corridors needed a new coat of paint and a little other redecorating. So a force of painters was hired to work day and night.


At first it was supposed the hotel would have a week in which to prepare for the coming of the distinguished visitors. Finding it necessary to redecorate also the long main corridor on the main floor of the Waldorf side of the house, the decorators were set to work there. Hardly had they put up their mass of scaffolding when word arrived that the king and queen would be at the hotel in two days.


It was too late to tear down the scaffolding, because part of the painting had been started. The job must be finished. So the decorators worked thirty-six hours at a stretch, taking time out only for brief rests and holding off beckoning sleep by constant gulps of black coffee.


The arrival of the royal couple was in keeping with old traditions. They brought with them to the hotel a suite of forty persons—quite like monarchs of old. The royal baggage consisted of 16o pieces. The queen was accompanied by her maid and secretary and even her lady-in-waiting, the Countess Chimay, who, of course, had her maid—and so it went. In the party also were representatives of the United States State Department and the Belgian ambassador, Baron de Cartier. Three elevators were devoted exclusively to their service, the Thirty-third Street doorway became their private entrance, and the entire upper floor of the hotel was given over to their use. For their convenience, a group of half a dozen cooks was set aside to meet the wishes of those who had particular tastes in food. Private telephones were promptly installed. King Albert never ceased marveling about our telephone system. He was particularly amazed by the ease with which long-distance connections were made. In fact, when he later reached a San Francisco hotel, he called up the Waldorf-Astoria by long distance, just to say “Mello!”


Due in part to these special arrangements, few New Yorkers realized that it was King Albert who flew over their city early every morning during his stay. He is an expert aviator and a daring one. Concerning Queen Elizabeth, one should listen to Oscar:


“She had a nice word for the elevator girls and was always taking flowers to the hospitals, to the soldiers. And just when she was leaving the Waldorf-Astoria she whispered to me that the service was the best she had received in any hotel in the world.”


The Belgian monarchs were followed by the Prince of Wales. His royal residence, however, was the British war-ship, the Renown, which was anchored in the Hudson River off Eighty-sixth Street. It was his headquarters, also. However, he had an opportunity to dine at the Waldorf-Astoria and there again special telephone facilities were installed for private use. He was entertained twice at dinner in the great ballroom of the Astoria side of the house.


One dinner, an elaborate affair, was given in honor of the heir to the British throne by a group of British societies. Present also at the dinner were General Pershing, Elihu Root, former President Taft, Viscount Grey of Falloden, and the British ambassador.


At a second dinner to the prince, given by the late Henry P. Davison and Mrs. Davison, the Prince of Wales and Oscar had an interesting conversation about a chair.


“When Mrs. Davison accompanied the prince into the dining-room,” says Oscar, “I walked in front to escort them to their chairs. The prince saw a large, regal arm-chair, all decked out in royal purple. He looked at me and said: `Oscar, if you do not mind, please take away that chair. I’m–I’m afraid it’s too big.”‘ So it was removed and a regular-sized dining chair was offered him.


Then, as Oscar was about to leave, the prince bent toward him and said: “Thanks, awfully. This is comfortable.”


General Pershing was feted during his stay at the Waldorf and later he reviewed the Twenty-seventh Division from a balcony of the hotel. His parade with the First Division was one that drew out three million people, who roared their welcome. It was a parade greater than others that had passed by the hotel years before: the Grant Memorial Procession, the St. Patrick’s Day parades of days gone by and the night pageants of the Barnum and Bailey circus.


Another hero who was feted at the Waldorf was Sergeant Alvin C. York, captor of 132 Germans and one of the most decorated soldiers of the World War. How the bellboys tried to have the honor of carrying his blanket roll, trench helmet, and pack up to his room when he marched over to the Waldorf-Astoria’s desk and added his signature to the rolls of the great!


For that matter, Peacock Alley was alive with khaki in 1919 as the boys came trooping back home. Oscar thinks of it, strangely enough, in contrast with that day in April, 1912.


“Never before in all its history,” he says, “did the hotel witness such dramatic scenes as were enacted in the corridors and lobbies when survivors of the Titanic arrived. They were accompanied by relatives who had hurried them from the Carpathia’s dock. So packed and jammed was the hotel that it was difficult to find room to move around in.”


In the first party to arrive was Mrs. George Wick, of Youngstown, Ohio, whose husband, one of the wealthiest citizens of the Ohio city, went to his death after seeing
that his family had been placed safely on board one of the Titanic’s lifeboats.


There were other famous guests and events in the history of the hotel: the Crown Prince of Siam, the Crown Prince of Abyssinia, and Prince Carol of Rumania; Admiral Dewey, the hero of Manila Bay, who for dinner always called for plain soup, a fish, a good roast, coffee, and cheese; Bob Fitzsimmons, the heavyweight champion, who gave Oscar his Great Dane, Yarrum. (Oscar offered him $1,000, but Bob declined and the journal, commenting upon his refusal, said with awe: “But what is $1,000 cash to a man who can make as much as $30,000 in one fight!”)


There was General Gomez who from the Waldorf spoke over a telephone to Cuba—the first time that feat was achieved. In this connection, the Waldorf had established a high reputation as a user of telephones. It was the first hotel to place the telephones in every room, and also was one of the earliest establishments to erect a wire-less station on its own roof.


Other names. . . . Prince Carol of Rumania, who traveled incognito, but who was recognized by every-body in his official capacity; the Maharajah of Kapurthala, Prince Poniatowsky of Russia, Prince de Talley-rand Perigord, and Prince Casimir Lubomirski of Poland, all of whom invaded the hotel with imposing suites.


More names . . . President Epitacio Pessoa of Brazil, President Diaz of Mexico, Don Beltram Mathieu of Chile, Don Ignacio Calderon of Bolivia, Don Chamorro of Nicaragua, Dr. Carlos M. de Crespidos of Cuba (Do you give up ?) , Lord and Lady Decies, Sir Robert Borden, Premier of Canada; Cardinal Mercier, Sir Thomas Lipton, Count Boni de Castellane, Signor Marconi, and the Duke of Veragua. Lloyd George and Lord Balfour dined there, so did Vivian, Marshal Foch, and Ambassador Jusserand.


Great conventions, such as the annual meetings of the American Newspaper Publishers’ Association and the directors of the Associated Press brought men of national and international importance to the hotel. There it was, too, that the Society of the Pilgrims entertained the tragic Lord Kitchener in 1910.


Indeed, if a hotel register could talk, the dignified silence of the New York Library would be shattered by a babble of ten million voices in all tongues. For down in the well-guarded vaults of the Library are more than three hundred volumes comprising the register for the thirty-five years of the old hotel. Autograph collectors and handwriting analysts would find the well-known seventh heaven of delight in the volumes of this register, an international directory of a third of our century.


There are still more names: “W. F. Cody, Nebraska,” dated July 17, 1894. You recall the beloved white-haired “Buffalo Bill” of circus fame. In the same year: Charles Frohman, the inevitable; William Allen Butler, founder, the Lawyers’ Club; Nat C. Goodwin; Mr. and Mrs. John Drew; Lillian Russell; “Diamond Jim” Brady, first-nighter, man about town, what-will-you-play?; Henry Watterson, journalist (“only the newspapermen really call me `Marse Henry”); Alexander Graham Bell; John L. Sullivan (“Just look at that muscle, will you?”) ; Mary Pickford, from curls to Kiki; Crown Prince Gustav Adolf of Sweden; student as well as prince.


Nothing could be more typical of the unique hospitality of the hotel than the welcome it gave to Anton Lang and his band of Oberammergau Passion Players as recently as 1923. Although not unused to the bizarre and spectacular, these players, in their quaint Bavarian costumes and uncut hair, were an experience the Waldorf took great delight in and enjoyed to the fullest. The guests never were tired of watching Lang with his Christ-like aspect—for he had been the “Christus” in the Passion Play drama for twenty years. Usually you saw him chatting with Andreas Lang, the “Peter” and Guido Mayr, who was “Judas.”


How the Passion Players came to stay at the Waldorf is recalled as an interesting phase in the hotel’s history. Following the World War, starvation descended upon Oberammergau, and an American committee was formed to bring the leaders of the cast to this country for a series of exhibitions of their handiwork. The idea was to secure all the money possible for the starving people and thus save the Passion Play for Christianity.


A representative of the American committee, of which George Gordon Battle was the national chairman, and Gov. Alfred E. Smith was New York State chairman, called on the Waldorf officials and sought cooperation. But the names on the committee didn’t mean as much as the cause. Orders were given that Anton Lang and his companions were to be given a magnificent suite on the Thirty-third Street side of the hotel.


Probably the most dramatic moment of their stay at the hotel was their arrival. They came in the main entrance on Thirty-fourth Street and the police had to dear the way for them. A great crowd was on hand. As Anton Lang passed by a hush descended upon the throng. Involuntarily men took off their hats and stood in reverence.


Anton Lang spoke a certain amount of English and was almost able to read the menu; the others might have been in difficulties but for the foresight of Oscar. He assigned several waiters who spoke German to their table. When Anton Lang reached his rooms he said, viewing all the magnificence, “But this is all too great for us! We cannot pay the money for it.” He insisted that he and his followers leave, but they were assured that the cost was nothing. Then he called his men about him and told them, in excited German, that New York was a place of good people. The Passion Players, I think, carried away with them that impression in spite of the rush, the roar, and the efforts to exploit them.


The Oberammergau players gave their exhibition at the Grand Central Palace during the last three weeks of 1923. Twice a day they would proceed from the Waldorf to the palace and return. Each time they would walk down Fifth Avenue, and by the time they reached the hotel they would have a thousand or more people as an escort.


Socially, the Waldorf-Astoria held its extraordinary position until the day its key was turned in the main door for the last time. Probably the most vivid example of this unique social prominence was the fact that the annual Charity Ball was held there for more than a quarter of a century. Beginning with the old Academy of Music in 1857, this outstanding event in New York’s social history never had a real home until it moved to the Waldorf.


In the program of the ball for 1925 it says: “It was not until the ball was taken to the Waldorf-Astoria that it seemed to have secured a permanent home. For more than twenty-five years it has been the great annual social event and is likely to remain so for some time to come. The five great ballrooms allow a sweep of space for the dancing and the time-honored grand march is at its best advantage there.


“There are those who have said that the roster of the Charity Ball is the history of New York. This is not far from the truth. The grand march, with its traditional or-der of precedence, may well be likened to a pageant of the city’s social history. The Governors of the State for generations have led the march and have been followed by the oldest families of the city. Undoubtedly it is true that those who have made the history of the great city that was once the tiny village of Nieu Amsterdam have always been found in the grand march of the Charity Ball.”


The night of the ball was always a crowded moment for the Waldorf-Astoria. Preceding and during the affair there were always many private dinners and receptions taking place in the various suites, and it was one night when the Waldorf-Astoria might well have used the “SR0” sign.


A list of patrons and patronesses gives us some idea of the new social state of things. Some of the names, looking back on the early, distant social affairs at the Waldorf, are familiar, many strange. There is nothing more tiresome, I know, than having to wade through a list of names. It is usually a space-filling subterfuge. But for those who have read of other names in this book it provides an interesting comparison. It gives us some idea (not entirely accurate, because it is not complete) of how society has changed in family names and how many great names have persisted. Here are a few:


Mrs. Sherwood Aldrich, Mrs. Frederick H. Allen, Mrs. Grosvenor Atterbury, Mrs. James H. Benedict, Mrs. Harry H. Benkard, Mrs. Jerome N. Bonaparte, Mrs. Vernon H. Brown, Mrs. Harry C. Cushing, 3rd, Mrs. Andre de Copper, Mrs. Ernest Fahnestock, Mrs. Hamilton Fish, Mrs. Elbert H. Gary, Miss Angelica L. Gerry, Mrs. James B. Haggin, Mrs. Edward. S. Harkness, Mrs. Colgate Hoyt, Mrs. Ernest Iselin, Mrs. William Adams Kissam, Mrs. James Lees Laidlaw, Mrs. Thomas W. Lamont, Mrs. Lewis C. Ledyard, Jr., Mrs. Robert R. Livingston, Mrs. Langdon P. Marvin, Mrs. Dwight W. Morrow, Mrs. William Church Osborn, Mrs. Howland Pell, Mrs. Frank L. Polk, Mrs. Philip Rhinelander, and, Mrs. Percy Rockefeller, Mrs. Henry H. Rogers, Mrs. Thomas Fortune Ryan, Mrs. Benson B. Sloan, Mrs. Louis W. Stotesbury, Mrs. Willard Straight, Mrs. Charles R. Swords, Mrs. Henry W. Taft, Mrs. Augustus Van Cortlandt, Mrs. Reginald C. Vanderbilt, Mrs. Henry Villard, Mrs. J. Watson Webb, Mrs. Beekman Winthrop, Mrs. Vincent Astor, Mr. John E. Berwind, Mr. James B. Clews, Mr. J. Sergeant Cram, Mr. Gates W. McGarragh, Mr. Schuyler L. Parsons, Mr. W. Emlen Roosevelt, Mr. Lispenard Stewart and Mr. Malcolm D. Whitman.


Names they were all a part of the Waldorf-Astoria tradition, the ingredients that made it a famous name in itself.

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