Boomer Takes Command
( Originally Published 1931 )
The latter period of the Boldt regime marked a distinct change in New York conditions that affected the Waldorf. When the hotel first was erected people said it was "too far uptown." Eventually it became the hub of the city's social life. That marked the peak of its importance and availability.
But the moving years brought certain barriers to its progress. Many new and fine hotels sprang up. But they were not necessarily competitors of the Waldorf. That hotel had its own particular appeal. What hampered it, however, was the fact that these other hotels had chosen locations more adaptable to the new social and business needs of the city. For instance, the Plaza, on Fifty-ninth Street was in a place where people might dine or have tea and still be happily contiguous to their homes and to the shopping district at the same time. The same is true of the Savoy and other hotels that had gone on "uptown."
Meanwhile the Waldorf-Astoria found itself barred by certain conditions of traffic. To get to the hotel from the upper Park Avenue or Fifth Avenue district was difficult. Those who once thought of "dropping in" at the Waldorf began to realize it was too far out of the way to "drop in." In other words, the location of the Waldorf and not the hotel itself brought on a great problem that later was to result in the abandonment of its Thirty-fourth Street site and a relocation in the heart of the residential district and, at the same time, in a place easily accessible to the shopping, theatrical, and business areas of the city.
Boldt, of course, realized a certain amount of reorganization and readjustment in personnel and methods would be necessary to overcome the handicap. He made them. Thus, in spite of the serious handicaps of location, old-fashioned furnishings, traffic conditions, and the movement of the "smart" set up town the Waldorf, be-cause of its enormous good-will and intrinsic merit, continued to attract a fine class of patronage. Notwithstanding the building of a great number of hotels during the past twenty years, many of which were designed to cater to guests of the Waldorf, the gross business of the hotel suffered only a comparatively small diminution.
In addition, a vast increase in travel to New York, owing to the business of war, helped tremendously during 1915 and 1916 and the hotel got its share. Soon it was enjoying prosperity once more. But there soon came an-other catastrophe in the hotel's history—the death of Mr. Boldt in December, 1916.
Although not in the public spotlight as much as you might suppose, Boldt had been the spirit behind the Waldorf-Astoria. There can be no doubt about that, What is more, he had a wide acquaintance, a personality that kept old friends and made many new ones. This, of course, was one of the most valuable assets of his hotel. It is the same today. If a patron feels he has lost a certain intimate touch with the hotel in which he is staying (and unfortunately that is sometimes the case) there is a danger that he may move to another or not return to the one he first favored. The passing of George Boldt meant the passing of that "intimate touch" to scores—hundreds —of patrons of the Waldorf-Astoria. Boldt was the personality of the hotel; therefore his death was a very threat to its life.
His son, George, Jr., while conscientiously following the ideas and ideals of his father, had no particular interest in hotel work. He admitted it frankly and after three years withdrew from the management of the hotel.
But what of those three years? It was during this period that the hotel's standing was in peril. Luckily, however, it had several employees of uprightness, personality, and intelligence who saw to it that the tradition of the Waldorf-Astoria did not vanish. Oscar, of course, was a beacon light to attract the public. We already have told of his important place in the hotel's history. But there was another man the public was not apt to hear so much about but who was very much responsible for keeping up the morale of the staff and the interest of the guests. His name was Augustus Nulle.
If I have referred only casually to Mr. Nulle before in these pages it is simply because I have sought to place him in his correct relation to the sequence of events. As Boldt's secretary, for instance, he was not as important as he was in the role of managing director. As the man who had so much to do with keeping the Waldorf-Astoria a going institution at a time when there was danger of it being obscured by the sudden onrush of antagonistic events, he played an important part.
Mr. Nulle's apparent affability hides an authentic driving force. He has the mood of the philosopher, quiet, restrained, genial. But when he speaks it is with the incisive assurance of a man who keeps facts at his finger tips.
For five years he was private secretary to Mr. Boldt and in that capacity he had a powerful groundwork in hotel management. It was no wonder that he later became chief steward, then purchasing agent, managing director, and, eventually, secretary and treasurer of the Waldorf. If the public knew little about him it was because his business was not so much to be known to the public but to know the hotel and its ramified problems. If a hotel is like a well-governed city or great industry, then Mr. Nulle was entitled to be called business manager.
It was the spirit of the men who lived and worked through that period that kept the hotel high in the minds and the hearts of the public even though catastrophe faced them. Indeed, it might have meant catastrophe but for these men. You may quote the adage that the world can do without any single individual or that no man is indispensable. That is not true.
At any rate, it was fortunate that about that time there came a sudden change of events to bolster the prestige of the hotel.
Just a block away, at Broadway and Sixth Avenue, had risen, only a few years before the war, a huge new hotel. It was called the McAlpin. It was a daring competitor of the Waldorf-Astoria and its director was Lucius M. Boomer. He was born in Poughkeepsie in 1878, the son of Lucius S. and Bertha (Sterling) Boomer, both of early American New England lineage. He was educated in public and private schools and at the University of Chicago.
In 1897 he entered the hotel field with the Flagler Hotel System at the age of nineteen. That was exactly four years after the old Waldorf opened its doors. Eight years later, at the age of twenty-seven he was appointed manager of the Royal Muskoka Hotel, Muskoka Lakes, Canada, a famous summer resort of the Dominion. He later opened and directed, or had charge of, a number of resorts and city hotels. In association with Henry Merry he ran the Hotel Taft at New Haven. The late Charles P. Taft, who was largely interested in the New Haven house, became a backer of the Hotel McAlpin and brought that enterprise to Mr. Boomer's attention. In its size and scope he saw an opportunity and the necessity for the development of novel ideas, hitherto quite foreign to the business of hotel-keeping. He was placed in charge of the McAlpin. It was the largest of the metropolitan hotels when opened and presented many serious new problems.
Under his direction it became a successful enterprise. It was partly through Mr. Boomer's vision in furnishing (he always liked furnishing and organizing best), planning, and directing, partly through a system of cost-accounting which he had instituted. The purpose of the latter was to recover some of the huge wastage incident to the operation of American hotels. This was particularly characteristic of the Waldorf-Astoria because of the lavish scale on which Mr. Boldt operated his kitchens and dining-rooms.
Among those greatly impressed with the foresight of the McAlpin manager was General (later Senator) Cole-man du Pont, It was he who visualized the reincarnation of the Waldorf-Astoria under Mr. Boomer's direction, So he said one day to Mr. Boomer:
"Boomer, I will take over the Waldorf-Astoria if you will run it."
Boomer agreed. The Boomer-du Pont Properties Corporation, a holding company, was organized. In 1918 Mr. Boomer became president of the new corporation which took over the Waldorf-Astoria. Later he purchased an-other Boldt Hotel, the Bellevue-Stratford in Philadelphia. He had charge of the Claridge when it was the great restaurant of Times Square, of the famous Willard Hotel in Washington and the Windsor, in Montreal. Eventually he became directing head of Louis Sherry's, the president of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, on upper Fifth Avenue, and also president of The Savarins, the well-known restaurant chain.
There was something of sentiment, as well as business, by the way, in his connection with Sherry's, No one who pretends to know his New York will fail to include Sherry's in any list of the city's great restaurants. But the days of Sherry's, Delmonico's, Jack's, Mouquin's and others seemed to have been numbered with the arrival of prohibition. For a time Sherry's held forth in its own building at Forty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue. There it was one of the social and gastronomic centers of the city. But business encroached upon Fifth Avenue, swept aside homes and old landmarks until eventually even Sherry's had to go. It was homeless.
Mr. Boomer reorganized the restaurant of that famous name, helped build a new home for it, covering the block front in Park Avenue, between Forty-ninth and Fiftieth Streets. So it stands there today in its dignified eighteen-story building, a reminder that it has not passed, evert though other days, other times, have passed away forever.
In this connection, it is important to pause a moment and study Sherry's and its cousin, the Sherry-Netherland, because the original Sherry's was, in a sense, the genesis of the modern Waldorf-Astoria idea in hotel apartments accommodations.
Through Sherry's was developed a new idea in luxurious apartment living in New York—living, you might say, with elasticity. The Sherry-Netherlands Hotel took this up on a more pronounced scale.
The old Sherry's, and the new one at Three Hundred Park Avenue paved the way for what we now recognize as the "new way of living" in New York. It combined the best features of modern hotel life with those of modern apartment-house life. That is to say, it provided utter freedom from care as to the procuring of food and other supplies, the hiring and supervision of servants, seclusion and privacy.
But to get back to Boomer and the Waldorf-Astoria. He it was who fused new blood into the hotel's life, It was not the Waldorf-Astoria property, however, that he and General du Pont first bought, but the lease and contents, which they purchased from the Boldt estate. Contrary to what many believed, Boldt never had been the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria itself, only a lessee. The ground and the buildings still were owned by William Waldorf Astor and the estate of John Jacob Astor, who had lost his life some years before in the Titanic disaster.
The advent of Boomer and du Pont changed things for the Waldorf-Astoria. To society, which had revered the hotel and to old New Yorkers who had cherished its memory, it was like somebody coming in with a bag of gold when the house was, figuratively speaking, to be seized for mortgages. The hotel, indeed, was in danger of losing its sentimental value and that is everything in a hotel like the Waldorf-Astoria. Now things were not simply to be changed, but to be revived.
The prestige which George Boldt had gained for the hotel was strengthened. Indeed, many patrons who had wandered away came back and the Waldorf-Astoria again became the great center for news and for big events it had been in Boldt's day. Look back on the year 1919, whose important visitors already have been mentioned, and it will be seen how interest in the Waldorf-Astoria was renewed. Many of the world's great notables were entertained. Oscar was on hand, as usual, with his smile. Most of the veteran heads of departments and members of the staff remained. Except for certain structural, financial, and other changes, the guests discovered that every-thing was pretty much the same as it used to be. They looked around a bit, thinking, perhaps, of other days, and decided to come back. They found an old familiar welcome.
But to achieve all this a tremendous program of readjustment and expansion had to be undertaken. Prohibition, finance, social values, and the restless movement of the population uptown all had their part in the problems of Mr. Boomer and his associates. How he met them provides an interesting side-picture of New York's progress in the decade 1919-29.