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Traveling In Style : THAT CARLYLE STYLE : New York Is Full of Luxury Hotels, but There's Nothing Else Quite Like the Fabled Carlyle--Remarkably Comfortable, Distinctively Stylish and Very Discreet

March 01, 1992|STEPHEN BIRMINGHAM | Birmingham is the author of "Our Crowd," "Real Lace," "Shades of Fortune" and many other books.

On a balmy Wednesday evening two years ago, three businessmen sat down for a dinner meeting in the Fortuny-silk-upholstered dining room of New York's Hotel Carlyle. One guest, half-jokingly, commented that he hoped the meeting could wind up by 10 because he wanted to watch the season's concluding segment of "Twin Peaks."

One of the dining room's staff must have overheard him. As the hour approached, and it became clear that the meeting would last much longer than 10, one of the hotel's assistant managers approached the table. "Excuse me, sir," he said, "but I've taken the liberty of inserting a blank tape in the VCR in your room and setting it for 10 o'clock on ABC. So you can watch 'Twin Peaks' at your leisure." This is obviously not the sort of service one would expect at an ordinary hotel. But the last thing the Carlyle has ever wanted to be is ordinary.

For nearly 60 years, the 38-floor, 426-foot-high Carlyle--with its sleek Art Deco lines and graceful tower (that doubles as a smokestack to accommodate wood-burning fireplaces in some of the grander suites)--has dominated the skyline of Manhattan's Upper East Side. Because it soars above its shorter neighbors, the upper floors of the hotel command breathtaking views of the city in all directions, including Central Park. (The hotel, at Madison Avenue and 76th Street, is one block east of 5th Avenue, which forms the park's eastern boundary.) In fact, the Carlyle's residents (there are 74 co-op apartments in the building, in addition to 183 hotel rooms and suites) feel that theirs is a better address than one on 5th Avenue, since they are spared nuisances that 5th Avenue dwellers complain about--the pungent odors that occasionally waft upward from Central Park Zoo and the periodic noisy, messy parades.

The hotel has always been something of an anomaly. Its construction in 1930 and 1931 was thought to be ill-timed. The nation was sliding into the Great Depression, and the market for luxury hotel rooms and apartments had already shrunk disastrously. Still, its builders blithely ignored hard times and spared no expense--bedrooms and bathrooms (some with views of the park) are oversize--and sacrificed rentable space in order to provide, on the tower's setbacks, rooms with spacious terraces and outdoor gazebos. The hotel's location was considered inconvenient, too--far from the Midtown department and specialty stores, even farther from the Broadway theater district--and the immediate neighborhood was downright tatty, with brownstones that had seen better days in an earlier century, grocery stores and inexpensive restaurants. Even the hotel's name was capricious. Thomas Carlyle, it seems, was the builder's daughter's favorite author.

Still, with its lush Dorothy Draper interiors, the hotel survived through a series of benevolent owners--including, for a while, the Rockefellers. For the first 18 years of its life, it remained something of a well-kept secret among the seriously but inconspicuously rich (through a period, it might be added, when it was considered unwise to be conspicuously rich). During the '30s and early '40s, the Carlyle became what was described as "the kind of hotel where mothers stayed when they were taking their children on tours of Eastern boarding schools," and there was even a period when it used the Social Register as a reference for guests seeking reservations. As recently as 12 years ago, the then-general manager overheard his reservations clerk say on the telephone, "No, I'm sorry, but we're fully booked on the 18th and 19th. . . . No, I'm sorry, we're also fully booked on the 20th and 21st."

When the conversation was concluded, the manager said, "But, George, we're not fully booked on those nights."

"I know," the clerk replied. "But we don't know those people."

The Carlyle is nowhere near as la-di-da about whom it accepts today. It has become a favorite New York hostelry for everyone from U.S. Presidents and foreign royalty to rock stars and members of the capricious aristocracy of Hollywood. The Carlyle has put up David Bowie, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Julie Andrews, Jack Nicholson, Anjelica Huston, Jack Lemmon, Prince Philip, Prince Edward, Princess Michael of Kent, King Hussein, Burt Reynolds and Leontyne Price.

Mike Nichols lived there for a while. So did Michael Milken, the junk-bond king. Hubert de Givenchy owns an apartment there as his New York base and, when he is not in town, shrewdly lets the hotel rent it out for him, keeping 80% of the proceeds for himself, the balance going to the hotel for acting as his agent. The designer has another arrangement with the hotel: Free samples of his toiletries are placed in all guest bathrooms.

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