Imagine: you’re walking down a New York city street on a snowy evening. Locals breeze past in long coats and hats. There’s a chill in the air, but no matter: you’re heading for the rosy glow of a doorway. There’s a bustling scene beyond the glass. Are you picturing New York’s latest hot spot? No – you’re probably picturing somewhere a lot like the Carlyle Hotel.
Except, there aren’t many places like the Carlyle left. In a city where storefronts constantly open and shutter, the establishments that stand the test of time take on a near-mythical aura. For all their rarity, these are the places that feel most essentially New York.
Opened in 1930, the Carlyle Hotel New York doesn’t have a grand, glittering sign or a splashy red carpet. Instead, you enter through a revolving door watched over by a friendly doorman. If you’re a regular guest, he’ll know your name, and probably crack a joke. Like a good New Yorker, he won’t flinch when a celebrity comes through.
And come through they do. The Carlyle Hotel has hosted Paul McCartney, Elizabeth Taylor, Lucille Ball, the Rolling Stones, and Warren Beatty. Every President of the United States since Harry Truman has stayed at the Carlyle. Prince Charles and the kings and queens of Greece, Denmark, Sweden, and Spain have all been guests. A specialty suite – her favorite – is named for Princess Diana.
But the Carlyle Hotel New York doesn’t brag about its pedigree. In fact, you’re lucky to get a word out.
“I take the fifth,” says Managing Director Tony McHale in the 2018 documentary Always at the Carlyle. The famously tight-lipped staff keep their stories locked away. So we’re left to watch and wonder: What has happened inside the Carlyle’s walls?
Discretion is Key at The Carlyle Hotel
It’s not just the doormen who keep their secrets. There are concierges, housekeeping staff and bartenders who have worked at the hotel for decades. Who are the keepers of the most secrets? It might be the elevator operators.
Yes – in a charming twist, the Carlyle Hotel still employs elevator operators. One story goes that Princess Diana, Steve Jobs and Michael Jackson once shared an elevator ride. But what was said? The elevator operator won’t say.
It’s this dedication to discretion that keeps guests coming back. Pillowcases are monogrammed with each guest’s initials. Favorite flowers are left in the bedrooms. The staff feels like family. But while some families are known to gossip, this one keeps its lips zipped.
A Star is Born
It’s hard to imagine the Carlyle without the patina of age, but once it was new. The Carlyle Hotel New York was founded by a Polish immigrant named Moses Ginsberg. Ginsberg was born in 1885 and came to New York by way of London in 1896.
After a decade spent building apartments, he began work on a hotel to rival the great hotels of London. It was a challenging time – right after the stock market crash of 1929 – but he forged ahead. While he was only four-foot-eleven, he’s remembered for his big presence.
Ginsberg wanted to give the hotel the air of aristocracy. Ginsberg’s daughter Diana named the property after Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, whose work she studied at Cornell. The hotel’s very first guest was the composer Richard Rodgers. After a string of Broadway hits through the 1920s, Rodgers was at the height of his fame. He was the first in a long line of Broadway stars to stay.
Design for the Ages
The Art Deco-influenced lobby was designed by Dorothy Draper. While Draper would go on to become a world-famous interior decorator, the Carlyle Hotel was one of her first public commissions. Here, she employed design elements that would become her signature: black and white marble floors, classical busts and bold patterns. While the rooms are updated frequently to stay fresh, the Art Deco specialty suites and the iconic black and white marbled lobby stay true to her vision.
The lobby isn’t just a work of art: it houses art, too. The lobby is decorated with museum-quality paintings by Dutch artist Jan Baptist Weenix. The works were purchased by William Randolph Hearst and sold to the Carlyle. They have remained in the lobby since 1942.
Another famous site for design-lovers is the Gallery, set off the restaurant. The space was designed in 1989 by Italian architect and designer Renzo Mongiardino. Mongiardino has decorated some of the most iconic interiors in Italy, including the famous Gianni Agnelli Residence. The room is totally unique, with lush wallpaper inspired by the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. It’s the only room of its kind in New York.
The New York White House
In the 1950s and 1960s, no one epitomized glamour quite like John F. Kennedy and his sophisticated wife, Jackie. When they made the Carlyle Hotel their New York residence, the world started paying attention. The Kennedys owned an apartment on the 34th floor for a decade. When JFK was a senator in the 1950s, he was at the Carlyle so often that a direct phone line was installed. Once he was elected president, the Carlyle was called the New York White House.
What happened inside the Carlyle during the Kennedy years? It’s been the subject of much speculation, but no one knows for sure. (This is the Carlyle, after all.) However, some stories have come out as the decades have passed.
On May 19, 1962, a fundraiser for the Democratic party was held at Madison Square Garden. It was ten days before JFK’s 45th birthday and a celebration was in order. What happened next would go down in history: Marilyn Monroe shuffled out on the stage in a fluffy fur coat. Once she reached the microphone, she shrugged off the coat to reveal a slinky nude dress covered in sparkles. Then, she purred the most famous rendition of “Happy Birthday” that has ever been sung.
From there, we only have rumors. But it’s said that after the party, Ms. Monroe entered the Carlyle Hotel to meet the president via a network of hidden tunnels. Today’s staff claim to know nothing of hidden tunnels, but former bellman Michael O’Connell famously said “Kennedy knew more about the tunnels than I did.” The bellmen certainly have their secrets.
One fact is substantiated. Kennedy’s former intern and mistress Mimi Alford wrote in her memoir that her last meeting with the president was at the Carlyle on November 15, 1963. This was just a week before his assassination in Dallas.
After the president’s death, Jackie lived in the Carlyle Hotel with the children for ten months. Once she moved out to her own residence on Fifth Avenue, she often returned to the Carlyle for lunch. Her typical order? A cobb salad with a gin and tonic. The Kennedy family’s fondness for the Carlyle Hotel NYC continued. John F. Kennedy Jr. often rollerbladed into the hotel and dined at a back table. Sadly, his last breakfast was at the Carlyle before his fateful flight to Martha’s Vineyard on July 16, 1999.
While out-of-towners come to stay in the hotel, New Yorkers come to the Carlyle’s Bemelmans Bar.
The place is pure class: bartenders in red jackets, plush banquettes and some of the best martinis in Manhattan. Even more famous than the martinis, however, is the mural that covers its walls.
In 1947, a mural was commissioned by Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of the famous Madeline books. Bemelmans agreed to do the murals. In lieu of payment, he asked that his family could stay at the Carlyle Hotel for the duration of his work. (It ended up taking 18 months).
The drawings depict whimsical figures – some policemen, some rabbits or dogs – going about their day in Central Park. You’ll see the park’s famous monuments, the characters from Madeline and a self-portrait of Bemelmans, cocktail in hand.
Bemelmans isn’t just iconic for its walls – it’s also famous what’s happened inside them. One of the bar’s most famous figures is the former bartender, Tommy. Tommy retired years ago, but guests still ask for him. He’s filled with stories he refuses to divulge, but he does tell one in Always at the Carlyle.
It was very early in his tenure at Bemelmans – just months after he arrived from Ireland. Tommy was 17 years old and at his bar was Harry Truman. Not knowing the protocol, he called the president by his first name. The boss overheard and called him over. He said, “He’s Mr. President to you! You won’t be here long.” Hearing this, Mr. Truman asked to see the manager. He said, “I told this young man he could call me by my name.” That was the day Harry Truman saved Tommy’s job.
A Music Icon
The Upper East Side was hardly a nightlife hub in the 1960s. If the Carlyle Hotel aspired to be a hot spot – and it did – they needed someone special. Enter Bobby Short.
Bobby Short was born during the Depression and started playing the Chicago club scene when he was just 10. Bobby learned the craft from jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Earl “Fatha” Hines.
In 1968, after years playing the clubs, he landed a biweekly gig at the Café Carlyle. He soon became an Upper East Side icon, attracting an A-list clientele of politicians, socialites, and movie stars. He was invited to play at the White House when President Nixon hosted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
He was such a piece of the fabric of the neighborhood that the corner of Madison Avenue and 76th Street was named after him. He is quoted as saying, “I’m no big star. I’m a star in this town.” And he was. Bobby Short continued to dazzle crowds in the Café until his death in 2005.
Today, Café Carlyle is still an intimate hub for extraordinary acts. The Café has hosted iconic performers like Tony Bennett, Elaine Stritch and Eartha Kitt. In more recent years, Bill Murray filmed a Christmas special here. Alan Cumming recorded an album at the Café Carlyle. Woody Allen still plays on Mondays.
A New Generation
The Carlyle has aged, but it has never lost its swagger. In fact, it has managed to attract a new generation of A-listers. The Carlyle has become the place to stay for guests attending the Met Gala, the most prestigious party in the fashion world.
As the Metropolitan Museum is just a few blocks away, the Carlyle hosts a “who’s who?” of Hollywood royalty. Guests like George and Amal Clooney, Naomi Campbell, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Rihanna and Cara Delevingne make the Carlyle their base.
Hollywood royalty aside, true royalty still stays. In 2014, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge stayed at the Carlyle on their first trip to New York. One might assume that William and Kate stayed in Princess Diana suite, but no one knows for sure. This is the Carlyle, after all. Would you expect anything less?