By taking up residence in a series of upscale hotels, the eternally childlike performer Elaine Stritch, for one, found a welcome escape from reality. Here’s a chronicle of the myriad rich and talented guests for whom a long-term check-in was the ultimate luxury. By Alexandra Jacobs
In the go go middle years of the last decade, our family would sometimes rent out our Brooklyn brownstone through a service called Oneﬁnestay, which is a little like a high-end version of Airbnb. Personal papers and possessions would be hidden away, keys copied, and our bathrooms stocked with matching towels and little soaps to maintain the illusion that this was not someone’s loved and lived-in residence. We would return from our own vacations to a clean home and a cheque.
Alas, the gravy train screeched to a halt when a pair of renters complained that “the children’s rooms were quite cluttered and disorganised,” there were ﬁngerprints and smudges on the walls, and there was pilling fabric o n our parlour sofa. “Are they kidding about the couch?” I asked my husband incredulously, reluctant to relinquish our short-lived but lucrative roles as hospitality moguls.
As it happens, I’d been thinking about the distinction between homes and hotels. I had worn that upholstery bare researching and writing a biography of the entertainer Elaine Stritch, the woman who was said to put the ‘broad’ in Broadway. She was famous for a marathon career that extended from the last days of vaudeville to the dawn of YouTube and a brash personality she distilled into both telegrams and Twitter. Her dear friend Hal Prince, the theatrical producer and director, put it mildly: Stritch was “a hotel girl”—a super-resident of storied accommodations. The demanding, often drunk, and eventually diabetic Stritch never really settled in to any dwelling of her own. Beginning in the 1970s, she preferred to stay for extended periods in establishments that included the Chateau Marmont and the now-defunct Ambassador in Los Angeles; the Hotel Chelsea, The Regency, and The Carlyle in New York City; and The Savoy in London.
At the last of these she cohabited in high style and highballs with her husband, the English-mufﬁn scion John Bay, extending their honeymoon suite for close to a decade before they returned to America . “I don’t know if I really have any home,” Stritch once said, rather poignantly. “ I don’t know where home is.” She had felt stiﬂed by her comfortable upper-middle-class upbringing in suburban Detroit. Hotels permitted her to be strange—and perpetually youthful.
Having a long-term resident is “like having a big child,” said Frank Bowling, a seasoned hotel manager now at the Montage in Beverly Hills. Bowling ﬁrst met Stritch when she was a raucous guest and he was the evening manager at the Connaught, in London. (She joked that she “Connaught face the bill” and subsequently switched to The Savoy.) “Some of the long-term guests kind of feel they have proprietary rights over everything, and they’re not shy about telling you.”
The echt long-term hotel resident is Eloise, the incorrigible young guest at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, from the children’s books by writer Kay Thompson and illustrator Hilary Knight. Stritch had somehow skirted the Plaza, but she was the very essence of a grown-up Eloise. She ran through the Carlyle’s lobby with sparklers when Barack Obama was elected in 2008. She sang into the courtyard of the Chateau while rehearsing the play The Time of the Barracudas just before John F Kennedy was shot. And at The Savoy, she was often accompanied by her dachshunds Adelaide, named after Adlai Stevenson, and later, Bridget. “The Savoy doesn’t take dogs, but Elaine didn’t care,” Prince remembered. “She’d walk around with Bridget’s head sticking out of a bag. Bridget was the pet of the hotel.”
The Savoy’s American Bar was Stritch’s living room; room service, her kitchen; Covent Garden, her backyard. In exchange for favourable terms, she would work mentions of the hotel’s name into the script of Two’s Company—the television series in which she was then starring. Living alone at The Carlyle well into her 80s, Stritch partly earned her keep with popular cabaret gigs in its cafe.
With such arrangements, Stritch joined a long tradition of accomplished adults who have felt more comfortable and settled in hotels than in homes of their own. Perhaps the most notorious was Howard Hughes, the film producer and businessman who lived in virtual seclusion at The Beverly Hills Hotel in the 1940s, reputedly watching movies with only a pink napkin over his nether regions. A decade earlier, the designer Coco Chanel had taken up long-term residence at the Ritz in Paris, festooning her suite with flowers, sketches, and the odd Nazi.
The shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis moored himself at New York’s Pierre during his marriage to Jackie. That elegantly Frenchified property has housed co-op apartments since the 1930s, and retail entrepreneurs Christopher and Tory Burch commandeered two adjacent ones overlooking Central Park—until their divorce in 2003, after which Christopher retreated to the homier Carlyle.
But it’s not just the very wealthy. Actors, writers, and musicians have all found inspiration checking in to a hotel for a spell. The fresh linens are a fitting metaphor for the blank page, the daily fresh start with a new audience. The rooms are a simple retreat from noise (and a good setting for substance abuse). The oversight of an attentive staff, personalised yet discreet, can seem vastly preferable to the intrusion of family and friends. And they can find a community of other creative types, too. At various times, the Chelsea has been home to Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, and Madonna, among countless others.
Of course, the friction-free life of a hotel can have its dark side. At the West Hollywood Hyatt, Keith Richards once threw a television set out of a window—such goings-on earned it the nickname ‘Riot Hyatt’. Occasionally, someone is carried out lifeless, like the playwright Tennessee Williams, who choked on a plastic bottle cap at New York’s Hotel Elysée, or Nancy Spungen, the girlfriend of punk rocker Sid Vicious, who was stabbed to death at the Chelsea. Regrettably, such incidents tend to add to the romance of a hotel’s reputation.
Bowling remembers when travellers from the Continent would come to London for ‘the season’—for events like the Chelsea Flower Show, tennis at Wimbledon, and the Ascot horse races— arriving with maids and trunks, like Undine Spragg in Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel The Custom of the Country. “That was a way of life,” Bowling said, one that more efficient travel has eradicated. “Young people live on their phones,” he sighed.
Indeed, with the omnipresence of the prying smartphone, celebrities are more likely to seclude themselves in gated estates than mingle with the public. Some of them are even using Onefinestay and its ilk. But where is the fantasy, the mystery, the sense of welcome? “Coming home every night to ice in the bucket on the bar, clean sheets, fluffed-up pillows on the chair and sofa, curtains drawn, messages in longhand slipped under the door,” as Stritch rhapsodised, is “not a bad deal. Not bad at all.”