Other Voices, Other Rooms

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imageThe entrance to the Royalton remains the same.

It is seven minutes and counting before Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s reservation at 44 in the Royalton hotel, circa 1994. Akhmed steams a screaming-fresh cappuccino and cranes toward the entrance. No Wintour. He sets the first porcelain cup aside and blasts another. Again, Akhmed scans the blue carpet with a stripe of white flourishes down one side. The frothy cappuccino is recast over and over until he glimpses Wintour. She takes her seat and greets guests. Exactly then, he sets the final, brutally warm cappuccino at her banquette.

Only 13 years have passed, but lunch now at the Royalton recalls a lost enchantment of gimlets (up), rainbow-hued Nat Shermans, and slouching in general toward Babylon. When Philippe Starck redesigned the interior in 1988 for Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, the archetype boutique hotel wowed New York—from the slick, silver penstroke legs of the wing chairs to the circular vodka and champagne bar. Staffers were hunky, black-suited metrosexuals, long before the term had been coined.

image The Royalton’s 44 lounge, before its recent makeover.

Ten blocks south of Studio 54, lightning had struck twice; Rubell and Schrager, jailed briefly for tax evasion, had again established New York’s must-stop. The hotel launched Starck as the era’s mythic design guru. He was said to garage motorcycles in Tokyo, New York, and Paris. Allegedly, all three bikes could be started with a single key.

Like 54, The Royalton was a star magnet: Duran Duran, Dolce and Gabbana, Julia Roberts, Matt Dillon, Mick Jagger, Karl Lagerfeld, and Madonna slept here. Rooms were barely large enough to open the door without hitting the bed, and angled mirrors required shaving on one side and then turning the other cheek.

When Brian McNally (Odeon, Indochine) opened 44, pre-4 Times Square, “We all had lunch there,” says Vogue’s Candy Pratts Price.

“It was very much the company canteen,” says Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, “and inasmuch as Brian is one of my closest friends, it was more like the company kitchen for me.”

Twenty years later, thanks to a nearly inexplicable facelift, signed off on by former Morgans Hotel Group CEO W. Edward Sheetz, nearly all vestiges of the Starck design have now been erased. The executive has since resigned from the company. (His personal problems are breathtaking; on August 29 of last year, 23-year-old Michelle Lynn Hatchel was found dead of an overdose of cocaine and Oxycodone pills in his Las Vegas condo.)

Morgans Hotel Group hired Roman and Williams (design team Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch) to buff up the lobby with a more generic, masculine, international hipster bent, with broad, vitrinal fireplaces, Louise Nevelson-inspired screens, and a lot of trendy leather and brass; rooms have changed far less. “We have entrusted them with the unprecedented task of re-imagining Royalton’s historic lobby, bar, restaurant, and penthouses,” David Weidlich, Executive Vice President of Morgans Hotel Group, said in a written statement.

imageThe revamped lounge (with sharing bed).

“There was never any royalty at the Royalton,” jeweler-to-the-stars Kenneth Jay Lane says, enunciating grandly. “But Anna [Wintour] was always there.”

“I brought a model to lunch there, either trying to sign her or fire her,” says Ivan Bart, senior vice president of IMG Models. “All of a sudden, Anna walked in. She had such an aura, a presence. I just couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s Anna.’ I would bring Esther Cañadas, Bridget Hall, Carolyn Murphy, Angela Lindvall,” says Bart. “And I began to realize that Anna was just there every day.”

A high-placed former staffer recalls Wintour’s daily order: “Very rare burger, mashed potatoes, and nothing else, not a parsley garnish.” When Karl Lagerfeld would stay at the Royalton, for lunch and dinner, the source details, “he would order poached salmon tartare for an appetizer and a double portion of the same as main course. That’s all he ate.”

Says Lynn Hirschberg, a New York Times Magazine writer, who dined regularly at 44 when she was a writer at Vanity Fair: “You were engulfed by darkness as you walked in, but everyone was watching.”

“The long entrance corridor was like a runway,” recalls Vanity Fair scribe Amy Fine Collins.

“The celadon banquettes in the restaurant were gorgeously lit,” says Candy Pratts Price, now executive fashion director of Style.com. “Anna had the first banquette,” she says. “Tina [Brown] had a round table, [around] which she could almost pull the curtain, like a medical room.”

“And there was that long group table on the right when you walked in,” says Hirschberg.

“We used to have so many lunches there,” says Graydon Carter, “for people like Valentino, Helmut Newton, Gore Vidal. I remember the Vidal one—hugely combative, what with Dominick Dunne and Christopher Hitchens also at the table.”

“It was the first hotel designed with a fashion mentality,” says Donna Karan.

“It was well-populated with designers,” adds Hirschberg. “I went there with Helmut Lang. I remember seeing Isaac Mizrahi, Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein…”

Seating the A-list at 44 was a sensitive, politically-charged task that fell to owner Brian McNally, even if he was traveling. “Editors of magazines would sit there with three or four top fashion designers, and they would smoke close to a pack of cigarettes,” says a former staffer. “People would get furious if they didn’t get the right table.”

As Julius Caesar divided Gaul, 44 was sliced into three arenas: First was the green room, with the green chairs. “That’s where you wanted to sit,” says the ex-staffer. Banquettes were the power tables. Then there were those seatings next to the banquettes, and in order of descent, the third-and fourth-tier tables. Anyone could basically sit in the blue room—“anyone,” meaning nobodies. A major newspaper dubbed the tables in the lobby “Siberia.” The term now defines any unfit area in a Manhattan restaurant, from Michael’s to The Waverly Inn. If you sat in 44’s Siberia, “We didn’t know you,” sniffs the ex-staffer.

One observer witnessed the fall of a certain magazine editor-in-chief; too many martinis at endless lunches. “You have to understand that people were sucked in there. This editor felt like he was at the center of the universe,” the source says. “He would stay until 7, 8, 9 o’clock at night, when he presumably ought to have gone back to the office. Eventually, he was fired.”

The staff, and their dress code, played into the charade as well. “The Royalton marked the transition from disco to hotel,” says Amy Fine Collins. “They really had the first staff to be hired for their looks.”

Graydon Carter remains more than familiar with a former staffer. “There was one kid, a barback, who had a lot of charm and hustle. His name was Dana Brown, and I hired him to be my assistant. He’s now a senior editor at Vanity Fair, and flourishing.”

Says actress Julianne Moore, “My husband, Bart [Freundlich], was the first hot-guy doorman.”

Says Freundlich, a film director, “I was a doorman for two years, on and off, both day and night. Justin Kirk, the guy on [Showtime’s] “Weeds” now? He worked there with me and my brother, who is now an architect. Justin and I worked shifts together, but they wouldn’t let you work shifts together as a family, because they thought you could pull off a heist.”

“Karl Lagerfeld, all the fashion people, were always nice to Bart,” Moore says. “But the thing about Bart is, even today, he’s really good at carrying bags. I’m good at dishes. I can serve. But Bart, he can organize it and get it into the car.” Jonathan Morr, the manager of 44 in its heyday between 1992 and 1995, gets credit by many for the restaurant’s impeccable service. Currently opening a satellite BondST sushi bar in Los Angeles to his NoHo mainstay, Morr came to the Royalton via the Stanhope Hotel on Fifth Avenue, where he courted tough power customers like Imelda Marcos.

“One day, in the afternoon, Karl Lagerfeld was sitting by himself at a table at 44, pondering the lobby,” recalls Morr. “And he said to me, ‘You know, Jonathan, this lobby is so brilliant that it will take people another 25 years to realize the genius.’ Well, Philippe Starck was coming to the Royalton the next day. And I told him what Lagerfeld had said, and he said, ‘What does he know? He’s just a German sausage.’ That was Philippe’s sense of humor.”

Starck’s design carried over to the men’s loo in the lobby, a particularly popular stop for actors and editors going over their lines, as well as for the sheer spectacle of it all. “There was a long urinal,” explains Daily News columnist George Rush. “And, opening night, I remember the bathroom being full of men who didn’t know if they were washing their hands in the urinal or pissing in the sink. I was flummoxed myself. It was just a little too cool to be functional.”

Says Ivan Bart, “I remember peeing next to Matt Dillon and trying not to look.” Mickey Boardman, who pens the “Mr. Mickey” column in Paper magazine, showed similar restraint in a loo upstairs. “I was interviewing Stephen Dorff in his suite. I loved him at the time,” says Boardman. “And I remember going into the bathroom to take drugs. His dirty underwear was sitting on the hamper. And I remember thinking, Oh my God, Stephen Dorff’s underwear is right here, and I can do anything I want with it.”

imagePhilippe Starck in the round vodka bar of the Royalton Hotel, October 1988.

The hotel was a nightclub of sorts, a concept now mirrored in countless new boutique inns, in which musicians and celebrities—from A-list to Z-list—felt compelled to be a part of the scene. Many took rooms for all-night benders and dalliances. “It was a hotel. But you had the feeling that you had never left the night club,” says Interview magazine’s Paige Powell, Andy Warhol’s closest friend when the hotel opened.

Heatherette designer Richie Rich, then night-life diva Susanne Bartsch’s assistant, used to moonlight babysitting Ian Schrager’s kids. “The ’90s were so different,” he says. “There were big celebrities everywhere. And I loved what we used to call the little round ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ bar [the enclosed vodka and champagne emporium within the lobby]. I saw Madonna in that little bar, and I was just like, Woo! And she just waved back. She was just having a cocktail with these cute little Puerto Rican boys.”

Of the vodka bar, Bart says, “I’m in a sexy business, and it was sexy to have a meeting there.”

Simon Doonan, Barneys’ creative director and a New York Observer columnist, says, “I don’t drink, but in that glamorous, tufted, turquoise room, I kept thinking, I want a magnum of champagne.”

Hedonism was integrated into every square foot of the space. When interior designer Jeffrey Bilhuber first spotted the antler chandeliers in the lobby, he quipped, “This is the horniest hotel in New York.”

A noted Hollywood leading man is said to have met “boyfriends” through bellmen, some of whom, legend has it, also knew how to locate off-market pharmaceuticals.

“My late husband, who looked like David Janssen, had the room next to Julia Roberts,” says photographer Caroline Torem-Craig. “Roberts was holed up there after she broke up with Kiefer Sutherland, right after she nearly married him. She would have on a bathrobe and would just come out in a bathrobe to pick up her breakfast and go right back inside. And one morning she came up to my husband and said, ‘Do you mind if I just sit and chat?’ And she told him the whole story about Sutherland fooling around, and that it made her so crazy that she just couldn’t marry him.”

Designer Rich says that he and “all the freaks like [transsexual manqué] Amanda Lepore” used to do their makeup and toenails in the penthouse before Christmas dinner or New Year’s Eve. “And Michael Alig [the convicted club-kid murderer] would show up with a posse. We’d try to kick [Alig] out, because he would ruin the party with all these nasty Special K addicts.”

Paper’s Boardman recalls a refreshing lack of security at the hotel in this pre-9/11 era. “There was little or none. I was going to someone’s room, and Keanu Reeves was in the elevator. A friend of mine was obsessed with him. I called her, she met me, and she ended up talking to him in the hallway.”

It is surprising they could even see him. “The hallways were cramped and dark,” says Paige Powell. “It was the place to stay for awhile. But then people thought that the rooms were too small, and there was not a great deal of privacy.”

True, the hotel had its glitches, and many critics attacked its so-called function-follows-form design. But few are pleased with the latest developments in the lobby below. “I think it’s a shame,” says Andre Balazs, the owner of such distinct hotels as the Chateau Marmont and the Mercer. “The Royalton lobby was a design icon,” says Balazs. “If you have the patience and perspective, you don’t rip great design apart—you wait.”

The architect Richard Meier concurs. “It’s so sad. I used to have lunch there. I just don’t understand.” The outcry in the design community about the gutting of Starck’s vision has been so vocal that Ian Schrager and Philippe Starck refused to comment further on the project for this story. But Starck’s initial public reaction, in an interview with The New York Times, was, “If you’re lucky enough to own an icon, you shouldn’t kill it.” And Ian Schrager mentioned to the same Times reporter, “we would have kept the Royalton’s DNA.” A source on Starck’s team told BlackBook, “We are all sad about it, too.”

For interior designer Richard Mishaan, however, the redo was a minor windfall. “Before the renovation, they began to sell some of the furnishings, original pieces by Starck which have never been issued,” he says. A consignment shop in Sag Harbor sold Mishaan key pieces. “I bought three of the tables from the bar,” he says. “They were, like, $2,300.”

Pre-Starck, the Royalton had been decidedly dowdy. “It had gotten quite shabby,” says Slaves of New York author Tama Janowitz. “When I would visit the New Yorker offices, it was this seedy place a few doors down. A character out of a John Cheever story would stay there if he had missed the last train for Westchester.”

image The lobby’s cast-bronze fire trough.

But long-term regulars describe a second downward tailspin in recent years. One advertising power player says, “It hasn’t been the white-hot heart of anything for years.” Ivan Bart, who lunched at the Royalton during Fashion Week, says of his experience, “I missed the glory days.”

There are those who are enjoying the changes. “Most guests love the new lobby,” says a Royalton breakfast club diehard. “But they’re thrown by the restaurant [now named Brasserie 44 and Bar 44].”

Brasserie 44 is decorated with ’60s-modern webbing, strung on frames overhead. “The lighting is way too bright,” says the breakfast clubber. “And there are all these extra tables and chairs. And they butched up the lobby. I think they wanted it to appeal to Wall Street boys, with dark woods, teak and leather, and a fireplace.”

David Weidlich, of Morgan’s Hotel Group, stated that designers Roman and Williams have “created a timeless design that pays homage to the visionary heritage of Royalton.”

A press release by the designers reads: “We drew on influences as varied and diverse as modern Africa, mid-century Brazil, and contemporary Scandinavia… our goal was to design a space that transcends place and time… a place where both Kofi Annan and Iggy Pop could go.”

To be fair, Starck is currently building a series of “SOS Boutique” hotels for the SBE group. By contract, he would have been unable to participate in an update of his design.

The Roman and Williams renovation was revealed this past October. The wrap party, with Sarah Jessica Parker hosting, for the film version of “Sex and the City,” was held in the new lobby. Designer Zac Posen threw a TeachersCount benefit in the new space. “I liked the flames,” he says, referring to a hearth design component.

It may in fact have a second coming. And New Yorkers have a way of accepting what they cannot change. But, says another veteran lodger, “It was soft and girly before. But people liked it. There are plenty of Marriotts, but there will never be another Royalton by Philippe Starck.”