Along Came The Astoria
( Originally Published 1931 )
As New York and its tastes grew, the old Waldorf grew in influence and facilities. The city was expanding northward. Business, residences, and theatres were marching steadily and amazingly beyond the limits that had been set for them by cautious observers. When the hotel first was put up, people said it was too far uptown. Within a couple of years the Waldorf saw progress shifting up Fifth Avenue almost by its very doors. It saw the residential district disintegrate and disappear, crumbling be-fore the shops and the great department stores. The very tone of the avenue was changing. It was a place to shop, not a street in which to live,
Yet this change was so gradual that no one seemed to notice it. At about the time the Waldorf was going up there was not a single tradesman or merchant established on the avenue beyond Twenty-eighth Street. Indeed, brownstone stoops, in almost unbroken formation, lined both sides of the avenue from Washington Square to Central Park.
At Sixtieth Street, the Metropolitan Club—the so-called Millionaires' Club—was erected and became the "farthest north" in the way of clubs on the avenue. For a time the Union Club reigned supreme, but a division came when many of the members condescended to fight with hoi polloi who had attempted to haul down the club's flags. As the story goes, certain conservative millionaires of the club objected to such a vulgar display of brute strength and resigned—later to form their own dub.
Beyond the Metropolitan was another stretch of magnificent residences on the east side of Fifth Avenue. They represented all shades and schools of architecture. The avenue in those days was in all respects a residential street, undisturbed by the movement and sound of commerce. In the winter, padded by the soft snow, the only sound one might hear at the city's busiest hour of the day was the gentle and pleasant tinkle of the horse-car bells on the cross streets. In the summer there was only added the not altogether disturbing noise caused by the plop-plop of horses' hoofs upon the granite stones. Most of the time the avenue was empty. Pedestrians were few on weekdays, and one saw only the beautifully equipped hansoms pass through the thoroughfare.
But on Sundays the avenue was alive with color and movement. Then the people of the city, as well as visitors from out of town, flocked to the street to see the weekly parade.
They were never disappointed, for then one was able to view the latest styles, the smartest sartorial effects, the most daring innovations in dress. We must remember that the 'nineties inaugurated our national desire to be well dressed. In that paradoxical age, when the city, with a population of one and one-half millions, was emerging from its small-town atmosphere; when hotels were discontinuing the signs to "blow out the gas"; when servants were no longer considering the tip a personal insult—then, indeed, were we awakening to the necessity of dressing up.
There was something of a thrill in seeing a young lady with a dress just a little bit higher from the ground than usual. In fact, in one newspaper there was this shocking note: "Miss Daisy Miller, strolling on Fifth Avenue after the rain Sunday, was wearing one of those abbreviated skirts specially designed for wet weather, which she is trying to popularize. The skirt not only clears the ground, but does it by enough inches to expose the wearer's shoe top. The skirt seems practical, although a trifle immodest." Daisy's ambitions to popularize such a short skirt were doomed to failure for a long time, since the average woman refused to recognize a style that verged on indecency.
All this was a part of the life of Fifth Avenue. It was a street of homes and the residents of the thoroughfare emphatically opposed any change. They were immensely proud of their homes. So much so that for a time a popular custom was to issue privately printed booklets or even large volumes extolling the beauty of the residences. For instance, William H. Vanderbilt, who erected the palatial twin houses between Fifty-first and Fifty-second Streets (since demolished) , caused to have published several mighty tomes, each two and one-half feet wide by four feet long, setting forth the glories of the new mansions. Similar imposing volumes, though perhaps on a lesser scale, were published describing the homes of Henry Villard, Louis Tiffany, James L. Breese, and a score of others. In addition, the company operating the sight-seeing Fifth Avenue stages sold to their customers booklets describing the various homes on the avenue.
It was no wonder, then, that those who lived on Fifth Avenue sought to preserve their residential oligarchy. For a time they thought their homes were impregnable against the threats of commerce. But Franklin Simon came up as far as Thirty-eighth Street—and then a general assault by business all along the line followed. The rich fought in vain to head off the onrush of commercial establishments. Commodore Gerry, who led the fight for the residents of the avenue above Fifty-ninth Street, even op-posed apartment houses.
But he and the others saw the avenue's doom. Little by little business pushed northward and residences retreated farther north. All this, of course, threatened the Waldorf and, later, the Waldorf-Astoria. Later we shall see why the hotel (aside from its widespread popularity) was able to hold off this threat to its very life.
Meanwhile it had to contend with another important factor—the northward movement of the theatrical district. This had shoved up from Fourteenth Street slowly but inevitably beyond the barriers that a few years before had been proscribed by the would-be oracles of the city's geographical future.
It is not amiss to consider briefly the Broadway theatre of that day, because it was a part of the history of the old Waldorf. It was a day when the matinee idol was in flower and crowds waited outside the stage entrances for men whose names will come in for mention presently and for such outstanding women as Maude Adams, star of "The Little Minister," or Mary Mannering or Ethel Barrymore or Janice Meredith. In those days the audiences were quite outspoken in their enthusiasms, in their hisses and huzzas and a heroic speech or gesture on the stage, or the rescue of a lady from a fate worse, but less final, than death found its response in a barrage of bouquets hurled from the audience. Often they landed on the head of the orchestra conductor, much to the discomfiture of the latter.
What chiefly damns this period in our theatrical history is that it started the so-called star system which has been appropriated with such gusto and absurdity by the motion-picture industry. Charles Frohman was its instigator, although it also had flowered somewhat at Daly's until John Drew left to star in a stock company with the support of Maude Adams. The star system, briefly, refused to accept Shakespeare's credo that "the play's the thing." It held, and still holds in the movies, that all you need is a star with a great following. It matters not what sort of a theatrical vehicle you supply him with—the main idea is to hitch any kind of a wagon to the star and the public will follow him or her just the same. It matters not that others in the show have done far better work than the star—only the star should receive the credit and the press blurbs.
The Waldorf age, however, was distinguished in the theatrical world by more than the star system. Frohman had come along to smash the power of the famous Daly and Lyceum stock companies. Daly's shows ran from old-time melodrama to the new school of musical comedy, with such specimens of the latter as "The Messenger Boy," "The Geisha," and "San Toy." The Lyceum stock company, on the other hand, was noteworthy for its presentation of such gems as "Sweet Lavender," "The Princess and the Butterfly," "Trelawney of the Wells,"
"The Charity Ball," "The Moth and the Flame," and "Lady Bountiful."
Frohrnan's Empire soon overwhelmed these and be-came foremost in popularity. Here the "problem play," with its clean-cut villains, ladies with pasts, and heroes without stain of sin, was carried on from the Daly days. Sometimes stars from abroad appeared under the auspices of Frohman or at Abbey's Theatre. At the latter place appeared such eminent foreigners as Mme. Rejane in "Mine. Sans Gene," John Hare in "The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith," Beerbohm Tree, as Falstaff, in "The Merry Wives of Windsor,'' and Mr. and Mrs. Kendal in drawing-room plays.
If this hurried glimpse of the theatre in the 'nineties does not seem germane to the story of the Waldorf, let it be remembered that it was, in a sense, a part of the hotel's life. The evolution of theatrical styles, ideas, and technique was accompanied by the movement of the theatre world uptown. This was significant, so far as the Waldorf was concerned, for it meant that theatre-goers might find it convenient to drop in at the hotel before and after performances. After-theatre suppers were quite popular at the Waldorf in those days. Their popularity continued until a decade or so ago, when the hotel found itself too far south of the theatrical district.
Fortunately, the northward migration of theatres in the 'nineties was not too fast or too far for transportation to keep up to it. True, the automobile and the subway were not then in existence. But the newly invented vehicle known as the trolley had by this time superseded the old, slow-moving horse car. There was little traffic congestion and a person riding a bicycle or in a hansom cab found it not difficult to move up the avenue with little delay. Indeed, one need not indulge in fantasy to suppose that it was possible to go farther and faster on a bicycle in Fifth Avenue in the 'nineties than it is in a high-powered auto-mobile today.
In the days of the Waldorf's beginnings, trolleys served the populace from the Battery to Harlem. Central Park West, at the time, was not built up—chiefly be-cause of the poor transportation facilities. In fact, one indignant resident up that way wrote to a newspaper: "Eighth Avenue has the longest trolley line, from Canal Street to 155th Street. Below Fifty-ninth Street the service might be called fairly satisfactory; above that line the inhabitants simply call upon heaven for vengeance."
The first "rubber-neck wagon," the forerunner of both our modern sight-seeing buses and the Fifth Avenue passenger bus, came into existence in the 'nineties. It was a stage that rumbled over the granite stones. Usually the stages were filled to capacity by the curious who wanted to get a dose view of millionaires' row. Eventually the operating company decided that rubber-necking was difficultin an inclosed stage, so seats were installed on the tops of the stages-the inspiration for the present-day double-deck buses.
These various transportation facilities helped the Waldorf immensely. Thus, even when the residential and amusement districts shifted uptown, people did not leave the Waldorf stranded. Instead, the hotel became the rallying point of society, and its living and dining facilities were taxed to such an extent that the proprietors began to look around for some way of expanding. Many clubs, then springing into existence—including the Southern Society, the Ohio Society, the Sphinx Club, the Geneva Society—caused a new addition to the hotel in 1895, and even that was not to be enough to take care of the big annual features, not the least of which was Horse Show week.
Six red-brick homes in Thirty-third Street, adjoining the Waldorf on the west, were razed and a five-story extension was erected. The chief feature of this addition was a ballroom on the main floor. This was a thing of fresh beauty in New York and was one of the features that attracted New York society, revolutionizing the old conservative method of giving private balls. Debutante parties were soon transferred from private homes to this ballroom, and later, as we shall see, some historically famous public dinners were to be given there. The compelling murals that graced the walls were by Low, the ceiling by E. H. Blashfield, who, together with Simmons and Turner, decorated the smaller Astor Gallery—the most beautiful room of its kind, perhaps, in the New York of that day.
Next to the ballroom was the Oak Room. That was a popular gathering-place, also. It had big, broad fireplaces in which logs crackled cheerfully throughout the day and late into the evening. Guests gathered there to read or to smoke. On winter nights, while sitting in this room, gazing into the fire or reading, you would have been surprised to find a waiter approach you and offer some hot baked potatoes with butter. It was just a complimentary touch that made the guest purr to himself with satisfaction, especially when he discovered that the potato contained a surprisingly generous amount of butter.
Even this new addition to the Waldorf was not enough to meet the demands made upon the hotel. There was but one avenue of expansion left: the home of Col. John Jacob Astor, cousin of Waldorf. The colonel had inherited the house at Thirty-fourth Street, but he was not entirely in sympathy with his cousin's hotel plans. When the Waldorf began to tower over his town house on the other half of the block he felt that the neighborhood was running down and said as much. There was to be, ex-claimed he, "a glorified tavern" next door. What also annoyed him was the fact that the old A. T. Stewart house across the street had been leased to the Manhattan Club of that decade and Col. Astor did not relish the sight of "politicians" watching his home from the club windows.
But the financial success of the Waldorf was probably the chief factor in convincing Colonel Astor to negotiate with Boldt. In the spring of 1895 the Astor home was torn down, and a few months later a hotel which, jointly with the Waldorf, was to rise sixteen stories high, was well under way.
Astor decided to call it the Astoria. At first the "New Astor" had been suggested-in order to distinguish it from the famous old hostelry in lower Broadway. Then the Schermerhorn was temporarily considered (why, I have not been able to find out). But the Astoria eventually was selected, and this, presumably, was in honor of the little town of Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. It was there, a Pacific Coast trading-port, that the first John Jacob Astor of social importance founded the great family fortune.
Astor, in his agreement with Boldt, insisted that, while a joint-hotel plan was to be carried out, the Astoria was to be built separate from the Waldorf, and he made the provision that should there be a disagreement in the future, a stone wall would be erected to separate the two hotels. This latter contingency never arose.
If the original Waldorf caused a sensation in the town, the new "hyphenated hotel," the Waldorf-Astoria, was a marvel that outshone anything in the way of luxurious progress New York had seen up to that time. It actually had 1,000 rooms, and there wasn't a hostelry in the world that big. Other hotels were springing up, challenging the supremacy of this new giant, but they were like the nouveaux riches floundering in the same drawing-room with an old and stately dowager.
It was this new combination that caused Harper's Bazaar to say, more than three decades ago:
"One of the most striking features of New York today is the large number of great hotels which have sprung up as though by magic in the last few years, lifting their heads high over the dwellings of the city as though threatening the complete extinction of the house and home life, still surviving under their gloomy shadows. From Union Square to the uttermost limits of Harlem they tower—vast, diversified, and innumerable. Some whose names were but a few years ago synonymous with the greatest luxury of the city are now lost sight of in the overshadowing crowds; for hotels have their day and pass, like all things terrestrial, from poets and Presidents to bonnets and butterflies.
"There is one among these vast new caravansaries which, for the present at least, is the fashion of New York and the Mecca of the visitors—for nowhere in the world, with the possible exception of Shepheard's in Cairo, has any one hotel come to play so important a part in the social life of a great city as does the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. All the other hotels in the city are almost entirely given over to the stranger within our gates, but here is the chosen gathering-place of New York society, which comes here to see and to be observed.
"During the week of the Horse Show the rooms are so crowded with the Rockaway and Westchester sets and other horse-loving people that they overflow into the ad-joining cafe, which is brightened for the time by the unfamiliar spectacle of bonnets and flowers and gay silk wraps within its walls. The cafe is a great gathering-place for New York men from half past five until seven in the afternoon and any unusual disturbance, such as a panic in the Street, or a rumored war with England, brings them from their clubs in shoals to discuss the situation, to suggest financial remedies, or to listen to Colonel Storm, from Texas, who proposes to enlist a battalion of Waldorf volunteers, which he cheerfully consents to command during the few weeks which, he thinks, will suffice for the utter annihilation for the British Empire."
Precisely why Harper's Bazaar or Colonel Storm or anybody else should have been so concerned about Great Britain at the time is something too vague for the present generation to be concerned about, at least here. Besides, we later were to be involved in a war with Spain and the Waldorf-Astoria was to share a little in the reflected glory of our victory in that war.
In the planning of the ballrooms and other public rooms in the new combined hotel nothing in the American concept of what we might call refined luxury was left out of consideration. The Astor Gallery was an exact replica of the Soubise ballroom in Paris, in the style of Louis XV. It was here that Turner and Low and Simmons showed their mastery in the art of mural painting to their best advantage.
Their talents-some art critics might say their genius were also on display in the rooms on the second and third floors. But the great ballroom was the most imposing feature of the decorations. It could be used either as a hall for public banquets or a theatre in which 1,500 persons might be comfortably seated. There even was a portable stage, equipped with the necessary appurtenances for public and private performances.
It was in this ballroom that over a period of more than thirty years some of our greatest artists appeared. One night it was Emma Calve; another night, Caruso or Madame Melba, Nordica, Eames, Edouard de Reszke, Pol Plancon. Then the Harvard, Princeton, and Yale glee clubs and such amateur dramatic organizations as The Strollers, gave performances there. Concerts, dinners, or balls occupied the great room almost every night.
But none of them piques the pleasant memories of the past as do the charming concerts given there by two famous leaders in music. One was Anton Seidl The very year the Waldorf-Astoria opened he began a series of concerts in the main ballroom. They were patterned after the court musicales of Germany and Austria, and the audiences that came to hear the concerts represented the topmost rung of the social ladder.
And no wonder, for Anton Seidl was on the topmost rung of the musical ladder. He has been called the most important conductor of German opera that ever became resident in America. He began his career as conductor of the Metropolitan Opera Company's orchestra in 1885. Under his lead German opera achieved permanency in New York and even in smaller cities. He brought a comprehension of Wagner to us and he was an apostle of the new school who made clear much that had been obscure and doubtful in America's musical appreciation.
For instance, false readings, careless performances, slighted rehearsals, and bad stage management all had sometimes reduced a Wagnerian performance (in the good old days) to mere cacophony. Such defects he speedily eliminated. Aside from all this, he was a friend of Wagner's and twice had been a conductor at Bayreuth.
An old list of box-holders who attended Anton Seidl's concerts in the later 'nineties contains such names as W. D. Sloan, J. P. Morgan, George J. Gould, Mrs. H. A. Dimock, John Jacob Astor, George L. Rives, Mrs. J. A. Bostwick, Harry Payne Whitney, Anson Phelps Stokes, Percy Belmont, and Jacob H. Schiff.
When we talk of high prices for entertainment let us look over the cost attached to attending twelve of these concerts. If you wanted a single seat on the ballroom floor you would have had to pay sixty dollars for the season. For a box the price was $350 for the season.
New York was astonished at these prices, of course. The newspapers questioned not only their reasonableness, but also, as one journal said, the good judgment of "keeping people away by a ticket that is too high in price for music-lovers to jump over." Yet, whether they were music-lovers or not, they did manage to get over the hurdle. True enough, the concerts might be doubly labeled social affairs, which may or may not have anything to do with musical appreciation, but there never were empty seats at the Seidl concerts.
The florid Seidl regime in the Waldorf-Astoria was followed by the Musical Mornings of Mr. Albert M. Bagby. I believe the latter achieved considerable reputadon throughout the world, but his chief contribution was to music appreciation in New York.
Bagby was as colorful in his methods as was his career. He was a pupil of Franz Liszt and when only a youth em-barked temporarily upon that hazardous and frequently unappreciated career of writing music criticisms. Then he began giving lectures on music and they were so popular —and so fashionable—that in 1890 Mrs. Julia Ward Howe became interested. She invited Mr. Bagby to ad-dress the Town and Country Club of Newport—and that started his career.
At first, after that triumph, he set up studios in West Fifty-seventh Street, which, even in those days, was well on the way toward being New York's best imitation of the Rue de le Paix. There he began giving Monday-morning lectures on the history and appreciation of music. His audiences usually consisted of ladies.
It happened that just about that time, when the Waldorf-Astoria opened, Boldt was trying to devise some way of creating further attractions for society. The thought of weekly musicales appealed to him and he suggested it to Mr. Bagby. The latter was flattered by the offer, of course, and he moved into the Waldorf. Every Monday morning the grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, year after year was filled to capacity, not only to hear Mr. Bagby's lectures—perhaps not merely to see and hear the great artists of the day—but to be seen at what had become one of the ultra-fashionable functions of New York.
There occurred dramatic moments at the concerts, lectures and other meetings in the ballroom, really not dramatic but amusing. We might single out, for instance, the old Entertainment Club, an organization that held meetings at the hotel to study topics of the day. I am sure that any survivors of that club who may chance upon this will smile at the recollection of the following incident.
In March, 1906, society was in a state of turmoil as a result of the resignation of Mrs. Rhinelander Waldo, that dowager mother of the then Deputy Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo. Mrs. Waldo had a high claim to social recognition, but she resigned suddenly from the club because she resented the suggestions made by members that her dress was not suitable for a lecture on Alaska!
The question involved, it seems, was whether a low-cut gown which might have been worn with propriety at the opera or ball should be worn at an intellectual feast. Look at the statement Mrs. Waldo gave out, if for no other reason than that it sheds an interesting light on how fiercely and conscientiously fashions in clothes were regarded in those days:
"It was intimated to me that the club was displeased with my attire," Mrs. Waldo said. "I was informed that the president of the club had received thirty-three letters from young women who took exception to the cut of the gown. So I wore a black shawl over my shoulders at the next meeting and the remark was made to me that it could not be very warm, that I was trying to imitate Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and that I was getting to be `actressy' in my manner. The next time, I didn't appear with a shawl, but did wear a blue gown—then I received scores of complaining letters."
New York echoed to that incident for some time, but Mrs. Waldo held her ground and the Entertainment Club held its ground. I'm not sure just who won, so far as the public's silent verdict was concerned. But if I'm not mistaken, Mrs. Waldo since has been vindicated in her assertion that gowns worn at any public evening function should be the result of the individual woman's judgment and should not be guided by dictatorial rules that frown upon private taste. Today it is quite inconceivable that, because a woman appears at a lecture (given in the evening, of course) in a delicately cut gown, she should be censured and, on the other hand, admired if she appears in a similar gown at the opera!
Meanwhile, there were other interesting features at the Waldorf-Astoria, one of which was the carriageway. What was desired by the management was an indoor driveway—the first, by the way, in hotel history. This was not possible in the original Waldorf because of the lack of space.
But it was installed with the addition of the Astoria. About 7,000 square feet of space was given over to the carriage turn within the walls of the hotel, in the Thirty-fourth Street facade of the Astoria. This was a thing of pride with Boldt, but eventually he had to eliminate it. The long wheel base of the modern motor-car gradually rendered that showy feature of the hotel out-of-date. Besides, at first the automobiles could not negotiate the driveway turn and, when they could, the horses that still defiantly drew carriages through became frightened at the automobiles.
The automobile, in those early days, was not merely a challenge to private transportation, but to the sensitiveness of individuals and communities. It was a time when, as Life said in 1901, "A man who would now win the parvenu's bow must belong to the automobility." And there was such a thing, or class, as the automobility. People at first laughed at the automobile, as they say, but later they frowned upon it. Many people at first thought the automobile was a transient plaything which, like a small boy's Christmas toy, would soon be forgotten. But increasing accidents changed their attitude. A number of pedestrians were killed; frightened horses, running away, caused other deaths.
As a result, newspapers began to agitate against the automobile. One enterprising editor published a cartoon, showing a driver of a buggy firing upon a passing auto-mobile that had spilled him. This drawing was headed, "Must we take the law in our own hands?" Still another newspaper produced a cartoon which showed the horse passing the broken-down automobile.
Laws came into effect. Central Park, just before 1900, was barred to horseless vehicles. Later the State of New York passed a law which fixed the maximum rate of speed at ten miles an hour in villages and cities and twenty miles an hour in other places—highways, and such.
But all this was a symbol of inevitable change. Indeed, many customs changed in the history of the Waldorf-Astoria. It, like every home and every institution in the United States, had to face problems of a semi-moral nature, of a social nature, and of an economic nature. But the hotel moved with the times, as we shall see, even though it remained, like a dowager, a stubborn and defiant symbol of a glamorous but passing age.