1940s Archive

Along the Boulevards

Originally Published October 1947

When, this month, New York's stateliest hotel, the Plaza (how many tarriers in its bars know that the two back-to-back P's of its monogram stand for the Park Plaza Corporation?), celebrates its fortieth anniversary, it will celebrate not only four decades of tangible survival in the world's most mutable community, but also forty years of triumph for tradition and good manners and the tranquil serenities of urban life as it once flourished universally in more gracious and happy times.

This, perhaps more than any other of its assets, sentimental and negotiable, is what has endeared the Plaza to so many people in whose lives the average hotel is simply a convenience. Its continuity with the enviable and almost irrevocably lost past is unbroken and secure. There has been no lapse in its legend, no suspension of its saga from that long ago evening in the autumn of 1907 when Fred Sterry threw open its doors with a dinner to the press whose menu of terrapin and woodcock, champagnes and noble Burgundies remains to this day a fragrant souvenir of how the reporters lived in the golden era of Richard Harding Davis.

Successive managements, culminating in the Plaza's present position as bright particular jewel of the chain of Hilton Hotels, have contrived to make the past an asset rather than a mortmain, and while its background and atmosphere derive from those happy Edwardian times, its plumbing and other tangible appointments certainly do not.

Whoever eventually undertakes to write a definitive chronicle of the Plaza and this department here and now nominates Gene Fowler for the office for what it may be worth, will be literally overwhelmed by the details of the available record. No hotel in history ever opened in such a blaze of felicitous publicity, and for many years, in an age when there was room in the public prints for a wealth of florid personal trivia, a play-by-play account of high life as lived in its august premises was as much a part of the daily papers as the weather or the market is today.

Aside from its splendors as a residence and citadel of formal society ranking those of any other hotel in Manhattan with the possible and reasonable exception of the St. Regis, a structure dating from the same era and partaking of a parallel time spirit but lacking the Plaza's proud location, the Plaza has been a secure and favored retreat of the gustatory muse. Its lapses from the grand manner have been few and those evoked by the urgencies—sometimes, if the truth be remarked, spurious—of war time. At the current moment its kitchen destinies are lovingly supervised by François Gouron, an executive chef of imagination and a lively interest in the individual tastes of the hotel's leading patrons, who can turn his hand to so delicate a confection as mousse de sole one minute and turn out a superb hunter's stew of bear meat the next. Next to its function as a stronghold of manners, the Plaza will be remembered as a bastion of good living in its every aspect.

Life may very well begin at forty, and in the graph of human progress a certain satisfying maturity may be said to derive from this date, but in the case of the Plaza, if its life is to begin in 1947, it may justifiably be remarked that it has had a notable head start.

Although this department monopolized somewhat more space last month than it is customary for the management to reserve to its use, and went through the motions of taking its annual oath of allegiance to San Francisco and the Palace Hotel in extenso, it still did not come to the end of its notes and memoranda on transcontinental North America as available to the cocktail-route reporter in the late summer of 1947.

This particular canto of our own special version of “America the Beautiful” had its inception as we rolled down Weber Canyon into the precincts of the Latter Day Saints aboard the “City of San Francisco,” and more particularly that section of the “City of San Francisco” whose dining-car steward is Wild Bill Kurthy, probably the greatest living salesman for five-pound T-bone steaks, chops not by the pair but by the dozen, stacks of little thin hot cakes more than a literal foot tall as the merest incidental to breakfast, and Niagaras of champagne on every occasion known to record and a few dreamed up special by Wild Bill Kurthy. People on the eastbound run of the “City of San Francisco” have been known to go right through Chicago and not stop until they were well in the hands of the specialists at Battle Creek, but they loved getting that way, and they made Wild Bill very happy.

Bill is the sort of dining-car steward who, if he really likes you, isn't happy if at Oakland Pier or the Northwestern Depot, as the case may be, you can get off the train without the aid of a section gang with block and tackle. Frail little old ladies of Whistler's Mother manners have been known to forego their breakfast habits of years which ran to a half glass of fruit juice and a slice of Melba toast and, rather than outrage Bill's sense of hospitality, put away his idea of an invalid's meal: six fried eggs, four outsized pork chops, four pots of coffee, a deckhand's fill of little thin hot cakes, and three kinds of fresh fruit served with chamber-of-commerce abundance.

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