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The Plaza: The Secret Life of America's Most Famous Hotel

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Journalist Julie Satow's thrilling, unforgettable history of how one illustrious hotel has defined our understanding of money and glamour, from the Gilded Age to the Go-Go Eighties to today's Billionaire Row.

From the moment in 1907 when New York millionaire Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt strode through the Plaza Hotel's revolving doors to become its first guest, to the afternoon in 2007 when a mysterious Russian oligarch paid a record price for the hotel's largest penthouse, the eighteen-story white marble edifice at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street has radiated wealth and luxury. For some, the hotel evokes images of F. Scott Fitzgerald frolicking in the Pulitzer Fountain, or Eloise, the impish young guest who pours water down the mail chute. But the true stories captured in THE PLAZA also include dark, hidden secrets: the cold-blooded murder perpetrated by the construction workers in charge of building the hotel, how Donald J. Trump came to be the only owner to ever bankrupt the Plaza, and the tale of the disgraced Indian tycoon who ran the hotel from a maximum-security prison cell, 7,000 miles away in Delhi. In this definitive history, award-winning journalist Julie Satow not only pulls back the curtain on Truman Capote's Black and White Ball and The Beatles' first stateside visit-she also follows the money trail. THE PLAZA reveals how a handful of rich, dowager widows were the financial lifeline that saved the hotel during the Great Depression, and how, today, foreign money and anonymous shell companies have transformed iconic guest rooms into condominiums that shield ill-gotten gains-hollowing out parts of the hotel as well as the city around it.THE PLAZA is the account of one vaunted New York City address that has become synonymous with wealth and scandal, opportunity and tragedy. With glamour on the surface and strife behind the scenes, it is the story of how one hotel became a mirror reflecting New York's place at the center of the country's cultural narrative for over a century.

358 pages, Hardcover

First published June 4, 2019

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About the author

Julie Satow

2 books73 followers
Julie Satow is an award-winning journalist and the author of The Plaza: The Secret Life of America's Most Famous Hotel, out June 4, 2019

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5 stars
317 (19%)
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679 (42%)
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525 (32%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 211 reviews
Profile Image for Lorna.
629 reviews339 followers
August 1, 2019
The Plaza: The Secret Life of America's Most Famous Hotel was a delightful look at the Plaza Hotel in New York City from the opening of its first location in 1890 to the luxurious hotel it became when it reopened its doors in 1907 at Fifty-Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park. This is not only a well-researched history and biography of the famed Plaza Hotel and many of its famous residents as well as its investors over the years, but a remarkable history of New York City and America from the Gilded Age, the Jazz Age and Prohibition, through two World Wars, the bringing down of the World Trade Center and through 2018. If you love history, New York City, architecture, this is the perfect book.

"Great hotels have always been social ideas, flawless mirrors to the particular societies they service." -- Joan Didion

"America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history and there was going to be plenty to tell about." -- F. Scott Fitzgerald

"New York had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world,"Fitzgerald wrote of this period. "The returning troops marched up Fifth Avenue and girls were instinctively drawn east and north toward them--we were at last admittedly the most powerful nation and there was gala in the air."
Profile Image for Jill Hutchinson.
1,432 reviews105 followers
September 9, 2019
The iconic Plaza Hotel sits on the most prime piece of real estate in NYC........5th Avenue and 59th Street, overlooking Central Park and has prevailed for 112 years, through good times and bad. It was THE place to be seen and some of the very rich lived there year round and were pampered to a fault by the management and staff. Beautifully designed, it was the ultimate in luxury and a magnet for the rich and famous.

The author took 11 years to complete the research for this in-depth study of the life of the Plaza, talking with guests, residents, and staff, some of whom had been at the hotel for 50 years. The stories they told were fascinating and sometimes rather poignant. The Plaza thrived thought the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties and was the setting for some of F.Scott Fitzgerald's stories. With the Great Depression, business faltered and the owner of the Plaza, Harry S. Black, committed suicide after losing his fortune in the stock market crash. And so began the changes of ownership which have plagued the Plaza through present times. First, famous hotelier, Conrad Hilton bought it, then the Westin Hotel chain, then Donald Trump who drove it into bankruptcy, and then the billionaires of the UAE juggled it among themselves and currently is owned by the Qatar Investment Authority.

It is not the same Plaza of memory as it now houses luxury condominiums, a boutique hotel, and retail stores. Preservationists did succeed in having it placed on the Historic Register and parts of the hotel still remain the same as the first day, in 1907, when Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt became the first guest to sign the register. This is an interesting and well written history and is recommended.
Profile Image for Kathryn in FL.
716 reviews
July 5, 2019
The Plaza is sure to thrill the history buff and those with an interest in how the upper crust, wealthy have chosen to live over more than a century. It is an examination on how a successful business adapts to sociological changes and changes to financial cyclical seasonality. The Plaza experienced major transitions in services and delivery to accommodate the needs of its customer base, while its competitors failed to be adaptable. This would serve any marketing student with a greater understanding in target marketing and business service delivery; as it portrays The Plaza's ability to stay attractive and viable in the marketplace. There is also a bit of focus on the design and its construction for those, who are artistic flavor be it an architect, art enthusiast or someone who likes to build things.

There are many antidotes throughout the book that demonstrates its appeal. One situation spawned a television show!

The research was very thorough and a great many hours had to have been spent to provide a book rich in great detail. Sometimes, this detail seemed a tad to cumbersome for entertainment purposes. For someone wanting a bedtime read, it was a bit overwhelming. I would compare it to someone wanting a light snack and being served an 8 course meal.

The writing is delightful adding enough detail to bring pizazz to the stories. This book though full of personal and business insights is not delivered in an academic or dry nature, which makes for a book accessible to those without a business background. This would be a great gift to history buffs, lovers of the big city culture and those who cherish the New York City lifestyle.
Profile Image for Samantha.
1,586 reviews71 followers
December 24, 2019
This detailed history of the Plaza Hotel is a mixed bag for the reader, whose enjoyment of this book will be largely dependent on how interested they are in the minutiae of commercial real estate. (File me under: Not very).

There is some fascinating information in this book, to be sure, particularly the chapters that focus on the early history of the Plaza. I just wish the author had focused more on the architecture, design, and goings-on at the hotel rather than the intricate financial circumstances present each and every time the hotel was bought and sold.

For the record, Satow acquits herself well on that topic in addition to the other parts of the Plaza’s history which were of greater interest to me. The entire book is well-researched and the information always presented well. I just wish the primary focus of the research included had been closer to what is advertised by the publishers summary.
Profile Image for John Behle.
211 reviews28 followers
February 8, 2020
This well researched, deftly written and artfully narrated work was for me, a winter's week spent in escapism. Julie Satow weaves a tale that rolls and whistles like a glossy novel, but is a true backed-by-documentation (and great photos) chunk of social history.

Satow introduces the massive 1907 Manhattan building as a metal and stone skeletal framework for suspending the famed personalities, intrigue and modern 5th Avenue culture which bring that structure to life.

If you have never stepped foot in The Plaza, or strolled by on your way to Central Park, you've probably seen this grand lady in film. From "Barefoot in the Park" through "Crocodile Dundee" to "The Post" this landmark always shines as a setting. That copper clad roof crowns 19 floors of French Renaissance château-style marble, bronze and gilt power architecture.

Whenever I am in New York, I make a point to skip up the entry steps, say good morning to the doorman and front desk staff, saunter the lobby and people watch. Speaking of our modern culture of constantly buying things, there are oodles of high-end shops and eateries throughout to entice one to purchase. Been pining for those $1000 Fendi sneakers? Get 'em here at The Plaza.

The buzzing newsstand that once stacked newspapers yard high, I recall, is now a memory.

There are now separate common areas for hotel guests (includes us tourists as well) and the condo residents. The Palm Court, still holding court from 1907, is offering their "Valentine's Day Champagne Tea" this month. Per diner: $129.

I must highlight the narrator of the audio CD edition, Jefferson Mays. Mays adds his Tony Award-winning style to enhance Satow's prose.
Profile Image for Donna.
11 reviews3 followers
August 24, 2019
I have never been so thankful to finish a book! This was a very tedious read. I was being generous giving it two stars. It seems that other people enjoyed this book, but I would think only a historian or someone that is totally enamored of the Plaza Hotel would find pleasure from reading it. The book was loaded with so many facts, dates, numbers and details instead of entertaining stories about the people that stayed there. There were a few tales about the famous folks that visited or lived at the hotel, including the fictitious Eloise, but most of the time, I found my mind wandering, especially in the latter part of the book where those famous characters were nowhere to be found. I read this for a book club and can only hope the next pick will be a whole lot more enjoyable.
Profile Image for Susan.
632 reviews5 followers
June 9, 2019
This was a well written book and I am regretting that I never went to the Plaza in its heyday for tea or to see the Eloise suite. Lots of interesting facts about the construction of the building and I enjoyed reading about the guests and residents (Seriously? If I had the money I would live in a hotel!)
Amazing that the hotel survived the great depression but it took one egotistical man in the late 80s only four years to drive it into bankruptcy. You know who he is - he lives in Washington, DC now.
Profile Image for Karen Miles.
242 reviews9 followers
July 15, 2019
Reading a book about a landmark was definitely out of my comfort zone. However, I was intrigued to learn the history about the Plaza Hotel from the beginning till the present. I have seen the Plaza Hotel many times but have never entered the building.

I think the different stories included about residents and the multiple owners (including Donald Trump) was fascinating. I would recommend this book to others who are curious to know how a landmark became to be an integral part of New York City.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,333 reviews
August 5, 2019
The author obviously worked hard to include a comprehensive history of the gorgeous building. I appreciate that and enjoy reading about NYC history through the lens of a regal building. I don’t like reading tabloids, though, and I can’t be bothered with celebrity. I think someone who enjoys reading People Magazine would be more enamored by all the name dropping. I wanted to hear more about the workers who are not known but exploited in keeping the place running. I found the last 100 or so pages about all the swindlers who bought the building only to destroy its reputation to be too boring. She didn’t seem to develop these stories as completely so it read like an annotated list of who’s who in real estate.
Profile Image for Mark Mortensen.
Author 1 book70 followers
September 2, 2019
I was drawn to “The PLAZA”, as in the early 1980’s I’d generally stay at the hotel a couple times a month on business. There were some great photos and a few interesting topics but the book was a bit of a tabloid and did not seem to follow a solid chronological path.
Profile Image for Jessica Ruff.
51 reviews3 followers
July 18, 2019
I was really excited to read this book, eager to learn more about the magical and icon Plaza hotel. While the book is well-written and taught me some about the history of the Plaza, it left me disappointed overall. The author seems to have researched the history of the Plaza a great deal, but reading the book felt like reading a gossip column that started in 1907 and ended close to present day. Sure, I want to learn about the people who played significant roles in the hotel over the ages, but I don't care who Donald Trump was having an affair with when he owned the Plaza. More of a balance between facts/details about the hotel itself and the surrounding social drama would have led to a more satisfying read. Another thought I had numerous times while reading--the tone of the book doesn't paint the historical landmark in a positive light. In fact, I wondered more than once what the author's goal was in writing this book? The short epilogue tries to paint the current hotel as a special and wondrous place as the author describes walking through the lobby and various rooms, but it was too little and too late at that point to salvage the overall tone of the book.
Profile Image for Becky Loader.
1,642 reviews13 followers
November 11, 2019
I must admit that I read this book because I was such an Eloise fan when I was a little kid. The Plaza certainly has had a star-studded, controversy-riddled, mess of a history. I enjoyed the bit about the golden age, but I certainly lost interest when Trump bought it. Ugh.
4 reviews
January 20, 2020
Fascinating read about the Plaza Hotel. Having grown up reading Eloise, I wanted to live at the hotel just like she did. Unfortunately Trump plays a large part, so I had to read about him too.
Profile Image for Jan.
4,418 reviews45 followers
August 16, 2020
It feels like a love song to the grand past of a once Grand Building that has evolved into a different time and incarnation. It's about all of the luminaries who stayed there and the impact they had on the hotel and on the public who adored them. And it's about the fascinating entertainer who embodied and wrote the iconic series of books about a young girl named Eloise and her home at the Plaza Hotel. I loved the walk through NYC history as viewed through the perspective of an iconic institution and it's patrons.
I requested and received a free ebook copy from Twelve Books via NetGalley. Thank you!
Profile Image for Rick Rapp.
597 reviews3 followers
September 1, 2021
Satow's history of the famed and infamous Plaza Hotel is well-researched and quite interesting. It is a mirror of the changes in society and wealth over the past century. She chronicles the ownership of the hotel from the beginning through the gaudy tastelessness of the Trump ownership (which ended badly for him) to an Indian Trumpish character who also spent and lost millions on the hotel. The current property is owned by a Qatar based group and after many years of upheaval, the Plaza seems to be on level ground financially and aesthetically. This is a worthwhile read for any fans of New York City and architecture.
Profile Image for Melanie Dotcity.
Author 3 books51 followers
October 7, 2019
I thought this was such an interesting read. A lot of history can be packed into a 112 year old building, as it turns out. Satow's descriptions made all of the disparate characters--from first owner Harry Black to the 39 widows to fraudster Subrata Roy, who went to prison without ever spending a night in the Plaza--come alive on the page. I saw someone complain that the book was too "gossipy." I didn't find it to be so. Yes, Satow includes things that are ripped from tabloids, but only because those people spoke to the tabloids about Plaza incidents. I found her telling of the Trump years to be quite even-handed.
Profile Image for Joe Zralka.
96 reviews3 followers
March 26, 2021
I was so excited to read this book which comes up on top of the list when you search the Gilded Age in our local library. Satow's well researched book shows the resiliency of the iconic hotel in the backdrop of NYC's tumultous history. The revolving door of The Plaza's ownership and its occupants was quite entertaining. Every chapter was filled with anecdotes from personalities of every era that makes this work a quintissential reference to the history and society of the United States starting with the Gilded age and beyond. I even borrowed the Eloise book because of this masterpiece.
Profile Image for BookRascal.
178 reviews1 follower
February 5, 2022
Thank you NetGalley for this book!

I was excited to read about the history of this famous landmark hotel. I am into history and especially excited to learn about this exciting place that helped shape New York city. Unfortunately I didn't enjoy this book. This is very dry and tedious even though it's well researched and written. I did enjoy the stories about the building of it but wanted more. More stories of the diverse and interesting people that stayed there would have been welcomed. In the end it bored me!
Profile Image for Deidre.
178 reviews6 followers
December 24, 2020
A great history of a great hotel. The story of The Plaza is about more than just one building, it's the story of New York City, of the ways that international finance plays out in the U.S., and more than a few loan cautionary tales added in for good measure. Satow does a brilliant job of making some of the more complicated details come alive through meticulous and thorough research.
Profile Image for Marilyn.
504 reviews
November 15, 2022
Never having stayed there, I didn’t approach this book with the weight of indelible memories. But the author paints them vividly, making this an interesting read, and a view of the hotel as a “conduit to culture and society.” Obscene wealth and greed adds another dimension, and it’s also interesting that in the process of researching history, the author uncovers illegal real estate deals that were not reported.
Profile Image for Charitykb.
122 reviews1 follower
January 18, 2023
Charming, fun and informative. Clara Bell Walsh and Kay Thompson sound like friends I missed out on making. Ice skating in an indoor basement restaurant, murder on the high steel beams….realized dreams and shattered lives. I truly enjoyed this read.
Profile Image for Joanne Clarke Gunter.
266 reviews45 followers
November 2, 2019
This was such an interesting, informational, and fun read for me. The Plaza has led one storied life since it was first opened at its current location in 1907 with Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt as its inaugural guest. This history of its owners, including Donald Trump who owned it and bankrupted it for the first and only time in its long life in the late 1980's and of the many colorful and unbelievably wealthy guests some who lived there for many years, sheds light on the lives of the rich and famous, but also on the many employees who dedicated their lives to making the Plaza one of the greatest hotels.

I stayed at the Plaza once in the early 1980's, but I'm sure I would only recognize the outside of it today. It has been carved up into multi-million dollar condominiums, a boutique hotel, and retail stores. It has been sold many times now, the latest in 2018 to the Qatar Investment Authority and
longtime Plaza aficionados are hoping the Plaza will be restored to its former glory.

A very good read if the subject interests you.

139 reviews
February 4, 2020
Audio version - The history of New York thru the evolution of the Plaza Hotel. Lots of trivia and of course Eloise.
Profile Image for Kate Merolla.
190 reviews1 follower
October 3, 2019
This book is a compulsively readable ‘biography’ of the iconic Plaza hotel.

Author Julie Satow’s research, storytelling, and personal connection(s) are fantastic! I’m just not sure that the book’s cultural criticism ever hits as hard as she intended.
36 reviews
April 14, 2022
Loved reading about the history of this hotel and the intriguing stories of some of its residents. Reading this enhanced my appreciation for historic buildings and the challenges of preserving them.
Profile Image for Debbie.
797 reviews57 followers
March 9, 2021
I have never been to The Plaza, but it is such a paragon of hotel history. I would have loved to have seen it in it's glorious days. This book was very interesting and well written.
Profile Image for Susie Stangland.
271 reviews13 followers
June 5, 2021
No matter where you live, this story will transport you both in time and place to one of the most iconic locations in New York. You will never think of it in the same way again. It is much more than Eloise and Kevin’s stomping grounds.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
30 reviews1 follower
January 23, 2020
What a fun read! I really enjoy nonfiction and biographies, and this was a great one. Full of interesting, exciting and sometimes sad anecdotes about the people who created and maintained, and inhabited the iconic Plaza Hotel over the years.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 211 reviews

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