Walking up on Park, Madison or Fifth Avenues is like turning the pages of a glossy magazine such as Vanity Fair, page by page, block by block. Elegant ladies leisurely strolling out of their posh buildings outnumbered by their doormen,
dazzling designer stores like Valentino, Hermes, Gucci and Rolex, then Botox, the Park, the Met, and lots of over-groomed pets. In a city that never stops, some things never change. Welcome to the Upper East Side, home to the Carlyle Hotel.
The Carlyle was designed by architects Sylvan Bien and Harry Prince and opened in 1930 as a residential hotel.
This cream-brick art deco building, 40 stories high, with a towering Roman-Byzantine style campanile, topped with a green-and-gilt cap, overlooks Central Park like the towering “Cathedral of the Upper East Side”. The Carlyle is as striking and unique as much as it is often overlooked.
Every time I step into the lobby it is like stepping into a posh apartment building on the Upper East Side.
It feels more like a private home than a hotel. With its beautiful highly-polished black marble floors, its large paintings in a pearl-gray palette hanging on the walls and the splendid Baccarat chandeliers, you can feel an implicit sense of wealth that does not need to make itself explicit. What else is there to say? Well… a lot.
While the “cool” kids like the Plaza, the Savoy Plaza, the St. Regis and the Pierre–all of the same age– hang out in Midtown around Central Park South, the Carlyle is located on Madison Avenue and 76th Street which, for many New Yorkers, is considered more upstate than uptown.
Like the many hotels of its era, it went bankrupt only two years after opening, due to the stock market crash of 1929. It took the Carlyle up until the end of WWII to make a comeback as a fashionable destination.
Steve Jobs, Michael Jackson and Princess Diana walk into an elevator… It may sound like the beginning of a bizarre story or a funny joke but, it actually happened at the Carlyle.
There was silence at first, until Lady Di started humming the song “Beat it”. It is unknown how the ride ended but, I imagine that even a visionary like Steve Jobs could not have foreseen being squeezed into an elevator between the King of Pop and the Princess of Hearts.
There is a constant theme about the Carlyle, starting with the fact that it is the favorite hotel of many royal families: Danish, Norwegian, Spanish, but in particular the British. Maybe it is because the hotel is named after the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle, but for whatever reason, it continuously hosts the British Royals visiting New York.
Lady Diana who famously stayed at the Carlyle on several occasions, must have felt a connection with Lady Liberty who, as depicted on the New York State flag, often seen flying at the entrance of hotels, has her left foot treading upon a crown, representing freedom from the British monarchy.
Prince William and Kate occupied Lady Diana’s suite at the Carlyle during their royal visit to New York in 2014.
However, in 2019 foreshadowing what would later happen, Meghan Markle snubbed the Carlyle for her baby shower and chose instead to stay a few blocks away at the Mark Hotel, breaking the unwritten “Carlyle tradition” of the British family.
Although Harry Prince built the Carlyle, Prince Harry never stayed there. But there is no Brexit with the Carlyle, since the Brits also seemed to have overlooked the fact that the hotel was once the favorite of Carla Bruni, the beautiful Italian wife of French President Sarkozy, and for many years home to the French delegation while in New York for the United Nations.
The Carlyle was considered for years a home-and-office for many U.S. presidents starting with Truman, including Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and many others, so much so that during the presidency of John F. Kennedy it was called the “New York White House”.
The New York Times reported General Manager Samuel B. Lewis’s statement that although most of the Carlyle clients are Republicans, “They all clap when [Kennedy] comes into the lobby anyway”.
In fact John F. Kennedy owned an apartment on the 34th floor of the Carlyle Hotel (which you can spot because the breakfast nook sticks out of the north side of the tower) rumored to be the place where he secretly snuck in, through secret tunnels, actress Marilyn Monroe after she famously sang a seductively “Happy Birthday Mr. President” at Madison Square Garden.
The meeting of a celebrated artist and a famous president at the Carlyle brings to mind another president, Lyndon Johnson and another artist, Ms. Eartha Kitt.
But not much romance ran between the two of them. In 1968 Eartha Kitt was invited to a notorious luncheon at the White House hosted by Lady Bird Johnson. During lunch she openly criticized the Vietnam War, irritating President Johnson.
After that lunch, despite being at the peak of her career, she could not find a job anywhere in the US and was practically forced to expatriate to the UK.
Thankfully I would say, they never had to ride the elevator together in their favorite hotel, the Carlyle. Eartha moved back to the US in 1974; Lyndon Johnson died in 1973.
For many years Eartha Kitt was the shining star at the famous Carlyle Café and she once said, “when you have been through Johnson and Richard Nixon, everything else is a lark.”
There is no hotel in the city whose café and bar are as famous, if not more famous, than the hotel itself, with two exceptions: the Bemelmans Bar and the Café Carlyle.
The Bemelmans bar is decorated with remarkable murals depicting Madeline in Central Park by the Austrian–born American writer and illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans. And the legendary Café Carlyle is an elegant, cozy cabaret, with whimsical murals by two-time Oscar-winning art director Marcel Vertes, that still attracts celebrity guests as much as celebrity performers.
The Café, with the legendary performances of Elaine Stritch, Judy Collins and Bobby Short (who performed at the Carlyle for 36 years) has been “a must” destination since its opening in 1955. Let’s not forget the controversial Woody Allen, who still plays his clarinet at the Café Carlyle once a week.
He once said, “My one regret in life is that I am not someone else” … There are many that definitely agree. But despite or maybe because of all that jazz, The Carlyle still remains understatedly famous.
Few celebrities likely share Thomas Carlyle‘s view that “secrecy is the element of all goodness; even virtue, even beauty is mysterious,” but I was told of one guest who values privacy and discretion and just as the Carlyle Hotel itself, embodies beauty, charm and elegance. His name is Tom Ford.
It is no coincidence that he loves the Carlyle and it could be no surprise (or perhaps it is a surprise, that his full name is actually Thomas Carlyle Ford.
Former managing partner, Mr. Peck once said, “Practically everyone in the neighborhood on Park Avenue or Fifth who was ever getting divorced or separated stayed here.”
I was told that long-time residents and frequent guests of the Carlyle dislike and resist any change, so the hotel remained true to itself by skillfully managing to adapt to the new world and by updating itself without making any major changes since 1930.
This is its strength. The Carlyle prides itself on discretion and is notorious for its privacy, so much so that The New York Times called it, “The place of secrets,” but that was only until 2018, when the celebrity guests of the hotel such as George Clooney, Naomi Campbell, Lenny Kravits and others publicly “spilled the beans” in a much-advertised documentary, “Always at the Carlyle”.
After all, even the Carlyle Hotel had to succumb and pay its dues to a Madison Avenue that since 1920 has always been known as the metonym for advertising.
The Carlyle could not have existed, let alone prosper, anywhere else in the city but the Upper East Side, so when you are tired of the shenanigans of the Midtown “cool kids” and you feel the urge for a dry martini, come join the “Ladies who lunch and Royals, with Jazz and Cordials” at the Carlyle, a Rosewood Hotel.