Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Waldorf Gallery

My conference hotel was across the street from the Waldorf-Astoria on Park Ave. I’d been to the Waldorf before, to attend a different conference about three years ago, but last week I had occasion to venture into it again. It’s sophisticated or pretentious; luxurious or decadent; opulent or extravagant; or some Waldorf salad of all of those things. Take your pick.

It’s possible to bypass the lobby of the Waldorf by entering at the garage door on 52nd Street, walking by busy attendants in hotel uniforms and clusters of guests loading or unloading from a steam of cars, taxis and long limos. No one stopped me when I entered a small waiting room featuring a window at which you can check your bags, no questions asked.

I’d read about this tucked-away little service on the Internet, and decided to try it. On Friday after checkout at the Pickwick Arms, I had an appointment at 660 Broadway, and didn’t feel like carting my bags around or trusting them to the Pickwick. Sure enough, the Waldorf staff at the window took my bags and gave me a claim check, no questions asked, not even a sideways glance. Maybe it helped that I was wearing a suit.

When I returned later for the bags, I braced myself for a stiff fee, but there was none. I got this very convenient service for the price of a tip.

Instead of leaving by way of the garage, I headed for the Lexington Ave. entrance down a corridor that also connects to some employee spaces, along with the Bull & Bear steakhouse, where I’d enjoyed an expense account dinner a few years ago.

Heading down the corridor, I noticed a series of large black-and-white photos, framed and hanging on the walls as if this were a gallery. I suppose it was a gallery, one of the more obscure ones in a city of galleries. All of the photos sported famous people who’ve stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria, sometimes shown at ballroom functions, and other times in the act of arriving at the hotel. Each photo had a label.

My favorite was “Chairman Nikita Khrushchev” in an undated image, but presumably it was September 1959, his only visit to the States that I know of (“Khrushchev’s due at Idlewild”). Except that the famously bald pate of that red tsar wasn’t visible. Instead, you see the car that took him into the Waldorf, an enormous black thing with huge fins and twin US and Soviet flags caught in mid-flap. I looked as hard as I could to see what kind of car it was, but couldn’t tell. Its New York license plate was very easy to read, however: 9N 3389.

The Waldorf also sees fit to display photos of John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, together as candidates in 1960 (probably at the time of the fourth debate on October 21, which was in New York); President Johnson; the King of Thailand; the last Shah of Iran; Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly at their engagement party; and Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie performing at the Starlight Roof.

The Starlight Roof is still around, according to the Waldorf’s web site, but it’s described as a mere meeting room. “Providing a dramatic backdrop for award presentations, stockholders' meetings and annual conferences, The Starlight Roof is synonymous with success,” it says. Uh-huh. Somehow a PowerPoint presentation don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.


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