1940s Archive

Along the Boulevards

Originally Published April 1949

If any further evidence were needed that the days of the good way of life in New York are over and that the world of Manhattan is grown gray from the diseased breath of economic necessity, it comes unhappily to hand in the passing from the scene of the Lafayette. With the exception of a very few landmarks and institutions such as the Plaza Hotel, the horsecab rank on Fifty-ninth Street, a few fine houses in Chelsea, and the oasis of security represented by Gramercy Park, the Lafayette was the last stronghold of the old times in New York, the last vestigial trace of a civilization as different from the yahoo tumults of today's commercialism as must have been life in the Athens of Pericles or in Elizabethan London.

The Lafayette, as operated by the Orteig brothers after the death of their father, Raymond Orteig, was just about the last link between New York's sordid and mannerless present and its gracious past of only yesterday. Gone before it, some of them victims of prohibition, some of Manhattan's rigged real estate values, were the hotels of legend, the Knickerbocker, the Manhattan, the Belmont, and the Murray Hill.

Once, before the memory of this department, the Lafayette was the equivalent of San Francisco's Palace and was the origin and starting place of valiants out to do the cocktail route of the town. The route, according to reminiscent gaffers whose eyes light up at its memory, ran from University Place in a vaguely northerly direction to the Hoffmann House, the Holland House, the old Waldorf in Fifth Avenue, Sherry's, Delmonico's at Fifth and Forty-fourth, the St. Regis, and, ultimately, the Oak Room of the Plaza, still a goal for pious observers of tradition and ritual. If, after the achievement of this northern terminus, strong men were able to continue into the night, they reversed their trail toward Shanley's, Bustanoby's, Rector's, Martin's, and Churchill's, but this extension course was for the heroes only. Because it started in the mellow and proper precincts of the Lafayette, this course of honors was known to informed New Yorkers as a "literary evening."

In a somewhat later generation in search of the boons and usufructs of beautiful letters, this department remembers similar literary evenings through the Mermaid Taverns of Boston: LockeOber's, Parker's in School Street, the Bell in Hand, the Touraine, the Vendome, the Tavern, St. Botolph and Harvard Clubs, and eventually, the ultimate retreat of the muses: Precinct Station 16 in Boylston Street, Sergeant French on the desk. Breakfast could be sent in from the handily adjacent Racquet Club. But no matter … far away and long ago.

The last few weeks of its existence the Lafayette enjoyed a boom in business which must have warmed the heart of the management. Old friends of a carriage trade seldom seen abroad nowadays in New York revisited its portals once again to live for a moment in the happy times of the turn of the century, to drink their cocktails in the stone-flagged café. Its ancient and expert French waiters in their proper short jackets and white aprons padded about under mountainous trays of such house specialties as squab guinea hen in casserole, moules marini-ère, broiled baby turkey, and a rich assortment of dessert soufflés, black coffee, and aromatic liqueurs. The ancient tranquillity of the Lafayette was unbroken until the very end, and its memory will be one of serene and gracious Sunday nights among the entrees, of the mature satisfactions of three-hour luncheons ending with an adjournment to the bar, there to prepare for dinner, and of cool summer evenings when the Ninth Street windows were rolled down to admit the casual, drowsy sounds of a casual, drowsy city.

Any valedictory to the Lafayette must by implication be a valedictory to a way of life nowhere again to be achieved in New York and elsewhere in the United States to be found only in parts of San Francisco and New Orleans. There is hope that something of the Lafayette's essence and personnel may be carried on by a restaurant being even now planned in an uptown location by members of the staff. It is a project which can have only the good will of many and many old patrons, and this department will endeavor to keep posted on the progress of the plan. But the Lafayette itself must exist among remembered souvenirs of gentle and gracious things and a thousand golden moments in a New York which has been extinguished with the gas lamps and has ridden into the night with the victorias and "hansum kerridges" which once were a commonplace on its boulevards.

Although, as readers of GOURMET no doubt are by now aware, this department is frequently articulate on the subject of railroad travel as one of the assets of the good life to which the magazine is dedicated, it is our duty to report that so far as travel in the Deep South is concerned, the railroad service generally available is just about the best advertising the air

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