What do you do when you’ve fallen in love with a beautiful starlet but your wife won’t divorce you? If it’s the 1920s and you’re William Randolph Hearst, you build her a hotel, that’s what. That hotel is The Warwick and you’ll find it in Midtown Manhattan.
In 1926, William Randolph Hearst was one of America’s most influential media tycoons. His publishing empire encompassed over thirty newspapers and magazine titles such as the Cosmopolitan. You could be forgiven for thinking that a man that powerful could have everything he wanted. Indeed, that may well have been how he felt himself when he first set eyes on Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Marion Davies. Davies had found her way to Broadway thanks to her brother-in-law George W. Lederer, who was a well-connected theatrical producer. She was working as a chorus dancer when she caught Hearst’s attention in 1916. He was so smitten that it’s said he attended performances for eight straight weeks, reserving two seats – one for him and one for his hat. Davies couldn’t fail to be flattered by his attention. She was a talented comedienne and would go on to have a successful movie career; her first was a silent film called Runaway Romany, directed by Lederer, and she would go on to make over forty more, the vast majority produced and publicised by Hearst.
Even without her besotted mentor, she was destined to become a star, but when the two of them became romantically involved, they became the ultimate power couple. There was just one problem: William Randolph Hearst was already married. He and his wife Millicent had tied the knot in 1903 and had five children together. A devout Catholic, the deeply religious Millicent made it clear to Hearst that divorce wasn’t an option and never would be. True to her word, it remained that way until Hearst’s death in 1951 and the two of them led separate lives.
TWO WOMEN, ONE ROOF
But Hearst wasn’t prepared to give up Davies, the love of his life, scandalous though that was. It was inconceivable that she would be far from his side. She needed a base in New York; he was on the lookout for an investment opportunity. The answer was The Warwick, conveniently located on West 54th Street within shouting distance of the Times Square theatre district. Keen to make a start on the project, Hearst hired renowned architect Emery Roth. Born to a Jewish family in Austria-Hungary in 1877, he’d come to the US aged just 13 where he’d found a job as a draftsman in Chicago. He impressed architect Richard Morris Hunt so much that his mentor brought him to New York. There, he set about building a name for himself. His work on the residential Ritz Tower in 1925 propelled him into the limelight, and The Warwick Hotel would be one of several apartment hotels that he would deliver.
For Hearst, he designed a 36-floor building in the fashionable Renaissance Revival style. The first three stories would be clad in limestone and granite, with a brown brick used for the upper floors, gradually stepping back to finish as a tall tower. Though Roth was known for creating spacious lobbies, this one would be different: Hearst had specially requested that it be kept small to discourage the paparazzi and fans from bothering Davies. Contractors George B. Post & Sons would be responsible for the hotel’s construction: the total cost would finish up somewhere in the region of a cool $5 million. With the hotel interior fitted out to his exacting standard, Hearst moved his mistress into the top floor. She would remain there, off and on, until the mid-1930s. Davies retired from acting in 1937, after which she moved out west to be based at Hearst Castle, her lover’s sprawling estate at San Simeon on the California coast.
A CIVILIZED ARRANGEMENT
Over time, Millicent grew to accept the situation of her making, and an uneasy truce was called. Hearst supported her financially and Millicent even used The Warwick Hotel when it suited her, hosting functions and encouraging her friends to stay when they were in town. It was a civilized arrangement and one which suited both parties. As a respectable establishment, The Warwick was a popular base for other notable New York residents. Irving Berlin and his wife moved into the hotel in preference to keeping the apartment that they had at 29 West 46th Street. And when Hearst threw a party in honor of Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, the hotel was the obvious venue. Charlie Chaplin was among the partygoers.
Now as then, attention to detail is key when it comes to the fixtures and fittings. Today, eagle-eyed guests entering the hotel’s Randolph’s Bar and Lounge will notice a rosebud pattern in the carpet. It references a nickname Hearst used with Davies and also crops up in the iconic film Citizen Kane. The lead character in the 1941 movie is supposed to be modeled on Hearst and Susan Alexander on Davies. Friends of the actress said she was much nicer than the character Orson Welles created.
ART + FOOD
Randolph’s isn’t the only public space in the Warwick Hotel NYC to have an interesting back story. Its restaurant, Murals on 54th, takes its name from artwork commissioned by Hearst in 1937. Dean Cornwell was asked to create a piece for the walls of what was then called The Raleigh Room. Cornwell received a $100,000 fee to paint a scene in which Sir Walter Raleigh received a charter from Queen Elizabeth in 1584. But when the work was completed, there was a dispute over the bill and Cornwell painted some details into the mural that would have offended sensibilities at the time. One such alteration was to give the Native American bare buttocks. Some sources say that another part of the mural featured a man urinating on the monarch and suggest this is the reason why some of the artwork was covered for many years. Whether that’s true or not, the painting was restored in 2004 when the restaurant was refurbished and is a talking point for its clientele.
CARY GRANT AND FRIENDS
Though there’s been a steady stream of visitors and residents since the 1920s, Marion Davies’ name is not the only one to be synonymous with The Warwick Hotel NYC; another is Cary Grant. The veteran actor was born Archibald Leach in Bristol, England, in 1904, arriving in the USA at the age of 16 and fetching up on Broadway two years later. After a successful screen test, Grant signed up with Paramount Pictures in 1931 and made Hollywood his base. A clutch of box office hits followed and he shared screen time with all the big names of the time, Marlene Dietrich and Mae West among them. Though there were hiccups along the way, further accolades would follow with movies made while Grant was under contract to RKO and Columbia Pictures. Movies like The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story and Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious resulted in critical and popular acclaim. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for the 1941 movie Penny Serenade, though he didn’t win. Grant would be nominated for None But the Lonely Heart three years later but would again lose out, finally gaining the recognition he deserved in 1970 when the Academy presented him with an honorary award for a lifetime’s achievement.
By the late 1940s, he was one of Hollywood’s best-paid stars and hot property. After a short career break, the 1950s would be even more successful. In 1955, Grant starred opposite Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief; two years later he made An Affair to Remember with Deborah Kerr and The Pride and the Passion with Sophia Loren. Next up he starred opposite Ingrid Bergman in Indiscreet and in 1959, he teamed up again with Hitchcock in North By Northwest. Grant retired from the screen aged 62, but had won the hearts of a nation, and beyond. He epitomized the allure of Hollywood and exuded an effortless elegance.
SUITE 2706 AT THE WARWICK HOTEL NEW YORK
Grant’s immaculate image, meticulous attention to detail and gentlemanly demeanor brought him to the attention of cosmetics firm Fabergé. Ever the shrewd businessman, he agreed to become a Good Will Ambassador for the company. At the time, Grant was residing at the Plaza, a few blocks to the north. Fabergé knew the package they offered need to be good to entice him. They came up with a deal: a $15000 salary with stock options, use of a private plane, a seat on the board and, best of all, Marion Davies’ penthouse at The Warwick Hotel NYC with its west-facing, wraparound terrace. It was a coup for the Midtown hotel. For twelve years from 1950 to 1962, the by then naturalized American citizen occupied Suite 2706, which the hotel now refers to as the Cary Grant Suite. Over three decades since his death, his name continues to be associated with the style and glamour of a bygone age, something the Warwick Hotel New York is happy to perpetuate.
A TELEGRAM FOR ELVIS
Along with the movie stars came the legends of rock and roll to the Warwick Hotel NYC. Tucked away in a corner of the lobby is a faded print of a telegram. It reads:
“DEAR ELVIS CONGRATULATIONS ON A WONDERFUL JOB WE THINK THAT YOU TURNED IN A REEL (sic) SENSATIONAL PERFORMANCE BEST TO YOU AND THE COLONEL OSCAR DAVIS AND TOM DISKIN EL DORADO HOTEL SPARTANBURG”
The telegram was sent to Elvis at The Warwick Hotel New York after his first national television appearance on the Jackie Gleason Stage Show on 28th January 1956. The colonel to which the telegram refers is Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager. It might seem odd, at first, that the telegram isn’t displayed more prominently, but in a hotel that’s seen as many celebrity guests as The Warwick has, perhaps even the King is not as big a deal to the hotel’s archivists as you’d expect. There’s a photo during the rounds online, one from the same year as the telegram. It shows Elvis one evening on a deserted pavement in front of the hotel. It wouldn’t be long before such solitude would be a distant memory for the music legend. Another snap, this time of Elvis reclining in his suite reading fan mail, is an indicator of things to come.
MUSIC MANIA AND THE BEATLES
A few years later, it would be the turn of The Beatles to command attention at The Warwick Hotel NYC. By that time, Hearst was long deceased and Loew’s Hotels had just purchased The Warwick. The Fab Four were regular guests at the hotel from 1965 to 1970, using the place as a base whenever they were in New York to make a TV appearance or perform live. They also conducted press conferences from the Warwick Hotel New York. Fan site The Beatles Bible reports that during one 1966 interview a journalist asked:
“Do any of you ever get tired of all this hocus-pocus, the press conferences, the screaming girls, the crowds, and decide that you would like to just sit back on your fat wallets and forget the whole thing?”
John Lennon replied:
“Well, when we feel like that, we take a fat holiday on our fat wallets. And then you get fed up with that and you feel like coming out and doing this.”
Reading “David Bowie: the Golden Years” by Roger Griffin, it’s apparent that the hotel’s stellar pedigree when it came to the music industry was a key tool in signing new talent. In 1971, Bowie’s manager, Tony Defries, used it to good effect when the time came for Bowie to sign for RCA, booking him into the same suite that The Beatles had occupied while on tour six years earlier. The following day, Bowie signed a recording contract with RCA at their offices on Sixth Avenue. Lou Reed later met up with Bowie at the hotel and they listened to each other’s music, equally impressed with what they heard. The tracks would form Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory, released by RCA a few months later. The opener, a catchy tune called “Changes” would become one of the artist’s best-loved songs, as would the fourth, “Life on Mars”.
Today, the Warwick Hotel NYC goes about its business in a quiet and unassuming manner. The only hint to its colorful and celebrity-ridden past is found is you make a right after entering the lobby to walk up the carpeted stairwell. Lining the stairs are a series of framed photographs, a who’s who of those whose presence enriches The Warwick’s star-studded history. Taking pride of place is a black and white photograph of a smiling Marion Davies adopting a flamboyant, look-at-me pose. It’s apt, of course. If she’d never caught the eye of William Randolph Hearst, this place might never have existed.