113 years of St. Regis Hotel: Jagger, Hitchcock and Dali at 200 yards from church door

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Travelogue by Robert Čoban

No woman or child was left on board this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward“, said a New York millionaire after he put his best suit on, ordered brandy and cigars for himself and his butler, and sat down in the lobby of the Titanic waiting for the ship to sink. Before that, he gave to one of the ship’s officers a note for his wife Florette, who was waiting for him at St. Regis Hotel in New York, that read: If anything should happen to me, I want you to know that I’ve done my best in doing my duty.” Benjamin’s mistress, the French singer Leontine Aubart, who was with him on the Titanic, boarded the lifeboat no. 9 with him watching over and survived.

The man who built the St. Regis Hotel eight years prior also ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean together with the Titanic on that fateful night in April 1912. One of the wealthiest men of his time, John Jacob Astor IV began building the luxury hotel in 1901 on the corner of the 5th Avenue and 55th Street. As a co-owner of what was then the most prestigious hotel – the Waldorf Astoria, J. J. Astor had a plan to open an even more luxurious and modern one. His great-grandfather, back in 1836, built the first luxury hotel in Lower Manhattan called the Astor House.

Pursuaded by his niece, J. J. Astor called his new hotel St. Regis after a lake in the state of New York, while the lake itself was named after the 17th century French missionary who was also known as a patron of travelers.

Since day one, the construction of St. Regis was riddled with controversy because the mansions of the Vanderbilt family and other wealthy New Yorkers, who did not want an 18th storey hotel blocking their light, were in the close vicinity to the construction site. Soon, the construction stopped because the hotel had a wooden staircase that was not fire resistant which, due to frequent fires at that time, was one of the most controversial issues in New York. The construction resumed after a year, and when the hotel was just about to be opened, the neighbours again did their best to prevent that. According to then laws, if a hotel or a restaurant had obtained a licence to serve alcohol, they had to be at least 200 feet away from a church. Back then, as it is also today, St. Regis was exactly across the Presbyterian Church on the 5th Avenue. Astor decided to move the entrance to the hotel from the 5th Avenue to the lateral 55th Street, and thus averted the problem.

JAPANESE PRINCE – THE FIRST CELEBRITY GUEST

The hotel was officially opened on 4th November, 1904. However, the attempts to close down the St. Regis persisted. According to the relevant regulation back then, the hotel owner had to have the approval of the tennats of at least 2/3 of the surrounding buildings to serve alcohol. William Rockefeller bought the next door land plot just to stop St. Regis from acquiring the needed 2/3.

What Astor did then was to buy another house next door and thus managed to keep his alcohol licence. The hotel’s good reputation suddenly grew when, in December 1904, it accommodated the Japanese Prince, Fushimi Sadanaru. Soon after, Corinne Robinson, the niece of the then U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt , chose St. Regis for her ball. Finally, St. Regis made history.

Eight years later, the hotel owner J. J. Astor died on the Titanic and most of his wealth was inherited by his son from his first marriage, Vincent Astor. On the Titanic, Astor was accompanied by his second wife Madeleine, who was 18 years his junior and pregnant at the time. Their son, J. J. Astor VI was born a couple of months after his father died, and was given the nickname the Titanic Baby.

The great prohibition era, after the First World War, hit hard the hotel business of the young Vincent Astor so he turned his father’s second hotel – The Knickerbocker – into a business building in 1920. In 1927, St. Regis was acquired by Durham Realty Corporation. In 1934, at the time of the Great Depression, Vincent Astor managed to buy back the hotel for $300,000. After he died, the licence to run his hotel was given to various people, and, in 1964, the building housing the hotel was barely saved from demolition because of the plans to build a corporate skyscraper in its place. In 1965, St. Regis was named a New York cultural and historic landmark and, as such, will always be positioned on the map of New York. Next year, the hotel was bought by Sheraton Hotels which promptly changed its name to St. Regis Sheraton. The hotel closed in 1988 due to renovation, and re-opened in 1991 under the old name – St. Regis. Following the reconstruction, worth $100 million, St. Regis became one of the most luxurious hotels in the world.

Soon after, Starwood Hotels bought the Sheraton hotel chain, and, in 1998, made a decision to establish an ultra-luxurious worldwide hotel chain called St. Regis Hotels & Resorts. In 2006, the 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th floor were transformed into St. Regis Residences while the rest of the building still served as a hotel. In 2013, the building was thoroughly renovated again, costing $90 million, with all the rooms and public spaces re-designed, and a restaurant and fitness centre built. In May 2016, it was announced that an investment fund from Qatar offered a billion dollars for the St. Regis hotels in New York and San Francisco. In the end, only the hotel in San Francisco was sold for $175 million.

 

DALI, GALA AND PET OPOSSUM

There were many famous guests at St. Regis. Salvador Dali, his wife Gala and their pet opossum stayed at the hotel every winter from 1966 to 1973. Other famous guests included Marlene Dietrich, Jacqueline Kennedy, John Lennon, Alfred Hitchcock… Also, Mick Jagger had his 30th birthday party here.

The hotel’s famous King Cole Bar appeared in many films, and is known for its mural Old King Cole, originally painted my Maxfield Parrish for Astor’s other hotel the Knickerbocker which closed down due to the prohibition. In 1932, the mural was transferred to St. Regis where it occupies a central place in King Cole Bar which opened in 1948 as the hotel’s trademark. After the prohibition ended in 1934, barman Fernand Petiot concocted the Bloody Mary cocktail here. Back then, it had a much more politically correct name of Red Snapper and was King Cole Bar’s trademark. In a James Bond movie Live and Let Live, Bond meets with Felix Leiter in this bar. In the movie Devil Wears Prada, the apprentice Andy enters the bar with an unpublished manuscript of the latest Harry Potter book. As I was sitting in this air-conditioned bar, listening to the soulful voice of Billie Holiday, drinking my Red Snapper and looking at grotesque figures on Parrish’s mural, I was thinking that I could easily spend an entire day here.

During my stay at St. Regis, I kept to my New York ritual – a 45-minute-jog in Central Park before breakfast, followed by a shower, and an American breakfast which cost a whopping $125. For that kind of money I could have eaten the seven-egg-Titanic-omelette and an entire lobster from Maine. The 24-hour-butler service, the bed in which you fall asleep immediately after your head hits the pillow, and friendly staff everywhere you go are just some of the things that make St. Regis one of the best hotels on the planet, apart from its impressive history.

The next St. Regis Hotel will be opened in Belgrade, in the central tower of the Belgrade Watefront development project.

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