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Vol. LXV, No. 44
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
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(Photograph © Alfred Wertheimer, all rights reserved)

The Hotel as a Work of Art, a Show Business Museum Complete With Murals

Stuart Mitchner

The plan is for a trip to New York, dinner with friends, a Saturday night birthday treat at a special hotel, and a Sunday morning preview tour of the Metropolitan Museum’s new Islamic galleries.

Then along comes a freak October snow storm, the storm without a name. The story’s all over the six o’clock news: New Jersey’s a mess, Christie’s declared a state of emergency, the power’s out in Princeton, and after a call to our neighbor, we’re told that huge limbs from the sweet gum tree have fallen across the driveway. We’re in a panic. If we turn around and go home, we lose the cost of the room and a night in the city, not to mention the delays on New Jersey Transit and the risk of driving home from the Junction at night with trees bringing down power lines. So, we stay at our nice hotel, take a cab driven through the gusty streets by a mad Russian raging all the way to 115th Street. He says he fought in Afghanistan, America stinks, everything but Russia stinks, and the long ride begins to feel like a scene in an old movie from the days when Russian exiles drove cabs in Paris.

As it turns out, the only thing the freak storm really deprives us of is the morning visit to the Met that was to have been the subject of this art review. Not to worry. Our hotel, the Warwick, is a work of art, a show business museum haunted by the stars who lived and loved and partied here. Better yet, the ground floor restaurant has some of the most colorful murals in the city. We’re living on the 16th floor of the 36-story love nest William Randolph Hearst built for Marion Davies and her friends on West 54th Street. Our windows look out on the ghost of the Ziegfield Theatre where Show Boat ran for a year and a half while the star, Helen Morgan, lived at the Warwick, as did Mr. and Mrs. Irving Berlin. The theatre went up in 1927, a year after the Warwick itself was built. Like so many Manhattan gems, the Ziegfield was razed in the sixties.

The Love of His Life

Above the desk in our room is a small shrine to Marion Davies. Another, larger shrine faces the elevator, as seems to be the case on almost every floor. Is there any other hotel in the world that so tastefully and thoroughly does honor to the memory of a show girl/movie star/kept woman? Hearst would approve. It’s a tribute to the man and the love of his life. But it’s Marion’s charm and beauty that light up the place. Unless you check out YouTube, it’s not easy to see her in action these days, unless you don’t mind settling for impersonations, like the ones by Kirsten Dunst in The Cat’s Meow and Melanie Griffith in RKO 281.

The images in our room include a film we saw on TCM, Marion as a Dutch girl named Tina in The Red Mill, made in 1927, around the time she moved into her specially designed floor at the top of the Warwick. Tina bustles delightfully about in a pair of clogs, wherein lives a mouse named Ignatz, who pokes his head out of a hole in the toe. Ignatz is cute but Marion is cuter. You can tell by the way she moves that she’s learned from Chaplin, who adored her sparkle and wit and beauty. Hearst’s suspicions about an affair between the two forms the plot of The Cat’s Meow. Davies was much more the comedienne than the glamour queen, and her forte was mimicry. One of the funniest ever send-ups of Garbo is the one in Blondie of the Follies, where she plays Garbo to Jimmy Durante’s John Barrymore in a travesty of the love scenes between the ballerina and the baron in Grand Hotel.

The King

The largest image in the Marion Davies shrine shows a mysterious, regal figure standing before the hotel’s front entrance. It’s one of those tinted painterly photographs. At first I thought it was the King, but no, the shadowy figure is wearing high-heeled boots, and it’s not the Earl of Warwick, nor Sir Walter Raleigh, who can be found in Dean Cornwell’s murals in the ground floor restaurant, Murals on 54. By the King, I mean Elvis Presley, of course. Out of all the fascinating, massively enlarged Al Wertheimer photographs in the Michener’s “American Icons” show, the one I spent the most time in front of showed an overcoated Elvis on a chilly March night in 1956. He’s standing at the front entrance, under the Warwick’s marquee, as if he were any other kid from the provinces feeling just a bit daunted by the posh hotel he’s about to enter. Other photographs show him lounging in his room reading fan mail. The rooms he lived in during his New York visits in March and August of that year comprise what is called the Hollywood suite. You have to think that true fans of the King, perhaps including Bill Clinton, have gone out of their way to sleep where Elvis slept.

The same could be said for fans of Cary Grant, who lived at the Warwick for 12 years in Suite 2706, now called The Suite of the Stars.

Speaking of Elvis fans, the Beatles lived here, too, on New York visits in 1965 and 1966. The entire 33rd floor was reserved for them while down below their fans mobbed 54th Street, held back by a regiment of police. It was in the second-floor Warwick Room that the Beatles held the press conference where John Lennon tried to defend his “We’re More Popular Than Jesus” remark. Paul McCartney has a co-op in the building adjacent to the Warwick, by the way, perhaps a sentimental nod to the glory days. You can see photographs of the Lads from Liverpool on your way up the stairway to the second floor, along with pictures of other sometime residents like James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, and Elizabeth Taylor. Last fall someone was here whose photo is unlikely to grace the walls of the Warwick. In the words of the New York Post, “President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s six nights in New York featured a secret sit-down with militant minister Louis Farrakhan and members of the New Black Panther Party Tuesday at the Warwick Hotel.”

Murals for Breakfast

Sunday morning we were sorry to miss the Met, but a delicious, seriously expensive buffet breakfast surrounded by Dean Cornwell’s murals made up for it. Storybook images for a storybook hotel, the vivid, brilliant, stylized figures reminded us of Howard Pyle’s illustrations for the Knights of the Roundtable. Cornwell completed the work in 1938 and reportedly received the sum of $100,000. The murals depict Sir Walter Raleigh receiving his royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1584 and then landing at Roanoke Island. Looming over the diners, the largest mural shows the Queen providing Raleigh with a patent granting him title to any lands he might discover in the name of the crown.

Behind that classic illustrated book charm lies a tangled tale, for once the work was near completion, Cornwell and Hearst fell out about the question of that immense fee. Hard to believe that in the late 1930s anyone would quibble about a hundred grand. The artist accomplished his revenge with diabolical panache by painting obscene images into the murals, one of which had to be covered for 40 years. The concealed mural apparently included a man relieving himself on the Queen while another courtier, egad, did the same to Sir Walter Raleigh. Some retouching took care of the problem, though you can see hints of what Cornwell was up to if you use your imagination.

Checking Out

Waiting for the elevator with some other departing guests, everybody lugging their luggage, and no one is even looking at the soft-focus portraits and still photographs of Marion Davies, the old-fashioned girl, a perfect fit for the term used to describe her on a Warwick Hotel cocktail napkin that refers to the newspaper magnate and his “longtime paramour.” I’m tempted to play the docent and tell my fellow guests how undated and fresh and funny W.R.’s paramour is in films like Going Hollywood and Cain and Mabel and as the French spitfire in her first sound film, Marianne. “She was wonderful,” I want to say. “Game, funny, charming, and bright. Like what she said in The Times We Had when recalling a ‘scathing review’ of her performance in Cain and Mabel: ‘He said I should be washing dishes. Little did he know that I loved to wash dishes, and I liked to dry them, too.’”

Oh, and she was known as the practical joker who once got President Calvin Coolidge drunk. Really. Plied him with wine he thought was fruit juice. No wonder Chaplin adored her.

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