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The St. Regis Hotel New York: Astor’s Lasting Legacy

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Step off New York’s 55th Street and through the revolving door of the St. Regis Hotel at 6 pm on a weekday and you’ll witness a historic ritual that began over a century ago. It’s a tradition started by the hotel’s founder, John Jacob Astor IV, when he opened the doors of the St. Regis Hotel New York in 1904.

With the appropriate degree of ceremony, Director of Restaurant Operations Heyaz Colabavala sets an ice bucket containing a bottle of Veuve Clicquot on the long table that stands between the King Cole Bar and the hotel lobby. It’s important that the bottle is placed upturned in an ice bucket so that it is perfectly chilled. A young vintage should be selected so that the amount of pressure on the cork is just sufficient. Colabavala brings a small curved sword, known as a saber, to the table and removes its sheath. This “Sciabola del sommelier” bears the inscription “La Grande dame” just below its intricate bronze handle.

Those witnessing the ritual are often surprised to learn that the blade is blunt, but there’s no need for it to be sharp. The edge of a spoon can perform the same feat, though to do it with style, a saber is a must. At the St. Regis Hotel, it’s important to get things right, so only a saber will do. At six o’clock, the foil is painstakingly taken off the neck of the bottle so that every last speck is removed. The wire cage is unscrewed and discarded. A heavy curtain is drawn just beyond the table and Colabavala asks his guests to clear a space in front of it.

Just as in tennis, when players bounce the ball before they serve, preparation is key. Colabavala rubs the saber back and forth against the bottle’s seam to ensure just the right spot is selected.

“You take this saber and you hit it right there,“ he explains to a rapt audience. “Once you hit it right there, the bottle opens up.”

Carefully he points the bottle upwards, at an angle of between 30 and 45 degrees. On the count of three, he brings the blade of the saber up swiftly and hits the neck at its weakest point. If done correctly, the pressure inside the bottle will finish the job. The cork, plus an inch or two of glass, will fly neatly from the bottle, and the champagne can finally be poured. It does, with a satisfying pop, and Colabavala fills the glasses, his work done.

The ceremony that’s come to be associated with the St. Regis Hotel New York is thought by many historians to have begun with the French leader Napoleon Bonaparte. In those days, champagne bottles were sealed with cork and wax and there was no foil or cage. Bonaparte and his cavalry, the Hussars, were fighting the Napoleonic Wars all over Europe. Whether he won or lost, Napoleon famously opened a bottle of champagne and using a saber was the quickest and easiest way of getting to the bubbly.

“Champagne: in victory, one deserves it,” he’s thought to have said, “in defeat, one needs it.”

John Jacob Astor IV, like Napoleon, is still remembered long after his death. One of the richest men in America, he was thought to have a net worth of almost $87 million when, eight years after opening the St. Regis Hotel, he boarded the RMS Titanic. His wife, Madeline, had fallen pregnant while they were traveling and both wanted the baby to be born in the USA, cutting short their trip. Astor loaded his wife onto a lifeboat. Asking if he could accompany her because of her condition, his request was denied. He almost made it to safety. As he clambered into the last lifeboat, he spotted two others. Sources disagree as to whether they were ladies or children, but whichever is true, the outcome’s the same – Astor gave up his place. Half an hour later, the ship went down. The body of John Jacob Astor IV was recovered ten days later and is interred in the graveyard at Trinity Church.

Astor wasn’t the only one on that fateful maiden voyage with a connection to the hotel. Another wealthy businessman, Benjamin Guggenheim, was also on board. He traveled with his mistress, French singer Leontine Aubart, while his wife waited for him in New York at the St. Regis Hotel. Once Aubart had boarded the lifeboat which would take her to safety, Guggenheim and his valet sat themselves down in deck chairs in the foyer of the Grand Staircase sipping brandy and smoking cigars. They too would go down with the ship.

When Astor began building the St. Regis Hotel in 1901, he could have had no idea of the tragic end that would befall him. Back then, he was the co-owner of the Waldorf Astoria, which would later be demolished to make way for the Empire State Building. Hotel building was a family tradition; in 1836, his great-grandfather had opened the first luxury hotel in Manhattan, the Astor House on Broadway between Vesey and Barclay streets. John Jacob Astor IV dreamt of a hotel even more luxurious than his predecessor’s.

His new hotel needed a name. At the turn of the 20th century, New York’s super-rich elite spent their weekends in the Adirondacks. There, in luxury timber cabins and lakefront villas, they enjoyed leisure pursuits such as fishing, hunting, tennis, and golf. Up there, far from the pressures of the city, the Astors rubbed shoulders with the Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, Cabots, and Guggenheims. It was logical, therefore, that this happy place would be the inspiration for the name of Astor’s new hotel. He found it, appropriately, at St. Regis Lake. Fittingly, it was named after a 17th-century French monk, Francis Regis, who was known for his hospitality to travelers.

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Construction didn’t run without a hitch, however. Despite being on friendly terms, the likes of the Vanderbilts weren’t pleased to discover that their fashionable 5th Avenue address would be sullied with the opening of a hotel, particularly a high rise of 18 stories which would block out the light. The Bureau of Buildings halted building work for a time in 1902 after it was discovered that the wood used inside the hotel wasn’t sufficiently fireproof to meet regulations. The following year, work was halted again after a lawsuit filed by residents of nearby mansions concerned about the impact of blasting required to excavate the foundations for such a tall structure. The ruling went against them and once again, construction recommenced. In a last-ditch attempt to protect their privacy and light, the hotel’s neighbors discovered a legal loophole which they hoped would prevent it opening for business altogether. Local laws at the time prohibited any establishment with a liquor license from opening less than 200 feet from a place of worship. The St. Regis Hotel New York occupied a site right across the street from the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. Undeterred the hotel’s lawyers argued successfully that as the front entrance to the St. Regis was around the corner on 55th Street, the rule was irrelevant. They won their case and the door remains on 55th Street rather than 5th Avenue to this day.

John Jacob Astor IV would have been proud of the hotel he left as his legacy. He spared no expense when it came to furnishing the building, importing crystal chandeliers from Waterford in Ireland, Louis XV furniture from France and sumptuous tapestries and rugs. A telephone, unusual at that time, was installed in every room and Astor the inventor devised a rudimentary form of air conditioning which would be a blessing in the city’s hot humid summers. In all, he spent over $5.5 million dollars, a ridiculously huge sum of money in those days. Today, many of the fixtures and fittings that he signed off can still be seen in today’s St. Regis Hotel, such as the marble staircase leading from the lobby and its ornate painted ceiling. His beloved collection of leather-bound books has been preserved too. Antique furniture, sumptuous wall coverings and extravagant soft furnishings please today’s discerning guests as much as they did those very first visitors.

Ironically, one of the most famous installations at the St. Regis Hotel is a hand-me-down, albeit one from another luxury hotel. Gracing a wall of the famous King Cole Bar is a colorful mural. Painted by Maxfield Parrish, it originally hung in the Knickerbocker Hotel. It cost Astor $5000, a generous fee for a young artist such as Parrish, but for that price, he demanded that Old King Cole be the subject of the painting and that his own face be used for the king’s. Reluctant to give up control but encouraged by his father, who was well aware of the influence a man like Astor could have, Parrish finally agreed. The cheerful character was an instant hit when it was unveiled in 1906. It even garnered a mention from F. Scott Fitzgerald in This Side of Paradise. He wrote:

“The Knickerbocker Bar, beamed upon by Maxfield Parrish’s jovial, colorful Old King Cole was well crowded.”

When the Knickerbocker Hotel shut its doors in 1920, a victim of Prohibition, the painting was placed in storage. It wound up for a time in a museum in Chicago before being returned to New York where it found its way to the King Cole Bar in the St. Regis Hotel in 1932. Apart from a brief period of absence while it was being restored a few years ago, it’s been there ever since. The bar is famous as the birthplace of the Bloody Mary cocktail. Astor’s son in law Serge Obolensky met bartender Fernand Petiot while in Paris and was served a vodka cocktail. Impressed, Obolensky persuaded Petiot to come to New York to run the King Cole Bar. In 1934, Petiot recreated the cocktail he had served up in Paris, but Americanised it with a dash of Worcestershire sauce, some salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon. But the cocktail’s name was considered too uncouth for such a high-end establishment, and so the Bloody Mary became the Red Snapper.

The St. Regis Hotel has always been a magnet for the moneyed and the famous. The first Royal guest to stay at the hotel helped to smooth the ongoing problems with its socially prominent neighbors who were terribly unhappy with the encroachment of commercial properties into what they thought of as their private residential district. Legislation in 1904, when the hotel opened, stated that to be able to serve alcoholic beverages, it had to gain the approval of at least two-thirds of the immediate neighbors. But those who made their home in Vanderbilt Row, as that part of 5th Avenue was called, were still not playing ball.  Money gets what money wants. William Rockefeller bought the adjacent building just to thwart Astor’s plans. Astor played a war of attrition for two years before finally convincing a senator to exact a change in the law to exempt large hotels from the policy.

But any concerns the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and the rest might have had when it came to lowering the tone of the area were eased significantly with the arrival of Fushimi Sadanaru, a member of the Japanese Imperial family. By the time he left two weeks later, the rich and powerful of Vanderbilt Row had begun to see the St. Regis Hotel a little differently. A few days later, a niece of President Roosevelt enjoyed a debutante dinner dance at the hotel. Its new found acceptance was cemented by the decision of Mr. and Mrs. William Vanderbilt to move into the hotel for the winter.

The 1910 census records Frederick Steinway, of the famous piano manufacturing family, as a resident at the St. Regis Hotel. A succession of celebrities followed, including Marlene Dietrich, Jacqueline Kennedy, John Lennon, and Alfred Hitchcock. Liza Minnelli, Dustin Hoffman, Tony Curtis, Vidal Sassoon, Tony Bennett, and Frank Sinatra have all graced the hotel with their presence at some point or another. Mick Jagger held his 30th birthday party at the St. Regis. Even fictional celebrities are represented. James Bond met his American counterpart Felix Leiter there in Live and Let Die, a nod to the days when author Ian Fleming stayed there himself. But perhaps the most colorful character to stay for extended periods was the Spanish artist Salvador Dali.

“Dali… is… here!” he would cry.

From 1934, Dali would occupy suite 1610, bringing his wife Gala and an entourage of associates and pets, the most unusual of which included an opossum and Babou the ocelot. The eccentric Dali was a difficult guest, making outlandish requests on the hotel staff, such as demanding they deliver 5000 black ants. Yet he would delight waiting crowds with his showmanship, meeting visitors astride a 7ft chair balanced on the backs of four turtles visible in the window of his room. He famously met Andy Warhol at the St. Regis Hotel New York several times, on one occasion tying him up to a spinning wheel, dressing him in an Incan headdress and pouring paint on him.

But though Dali is most associated with pranks and high jinks, it might just be mural artist Maxfield Parrish that has the last laugh. You see, Old King Cole is known as the flatulent monarch. Some say if you look closely at the monarch in the painting, you can see that he’s not quite seated properly and that the jesters that surround him are reacting to a bad smell. Parrish denied it, of course, but a persistent urban myth holds that it’s revenge on Astor for being so controlling about what should feature in the painting. Why not pop in next time you’re in New York and take a look?

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