Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Hotels in the Family


Our family has enjoyed a few relationships to the hotel industry, one direct and two peripheral. They produced some interesting anecdotes.

My father’s biggest client when he was a partner at the public-accounting firm of Katz, Wagner & Company was Pick Hotels. As a side note, despite his probably having the second highest GPA of all accounting majors in the Class of 1938 at the University of Illinois – Thomas A. Murphy, who would become chairman and CEO of General Motors, likely had a higher one – he could not be hired by a then Big 8 firm because they didn’t employ Jews. Pick Hotels’ 45 properties included the Congress in Chicago, Lee House in Washington, D.C., Fort Shelby in Detroit, Mark Twain in St. Louis, Nicollet in Minneapolis, Fort Hayes in Columbus and Belmont Plaza in New York City.

 
The Lee House, Washington, D.C.

 Dad’s auditing work frequently took him to Columbus, so much so that the firm wanted him to start an office there (he declined). While working at the Fort Hayes (not named for the Ohio State football coach) in the 1950s, he often found OSU football players on the hotel’s payroll but only saw them dining on free meals. It galled this U of I grad when his alma mater was sanctioned for penny-ante cash payment for transportation home while Woody Hayes sanctimoniously boasted about his clean program.

Hotel Fort Hayes, Columbus, Ohio
 
On occasion my mother accompanied dad on his business trips. Once, while in Detroit with her friend Dort Finder, they found a mysterious doorway in the back of their Fort Shelby hotel room. It lead to a passageway to a former speakeasy, no doubt using liquor zipped across the river from Windsor. In October 1947, a year after their marriage, they traveled to Washington, D.C. (note: tourist today don’t dress like in the photo below) and New York City, where they watched the Illinois-Army game at Yankee Stadium. Mom didn’t remember anything about the trip, other than he was surely in D.C. to audit the since-demolished Lee House.

 Dad and Mom, Washington D.C., Oct. 1947

Mom and dad were particularly happy after the Picks acquired the Belmont Plaza at 49th St. and Lexington Ave. For our first trip in 1961, we were put up in the two-bedroom Ming Dynasty Suite, which had just been vacated by Gypsy Rose Lee. Our next trip was in 1965, after which dad had left Katz Wagner for private industry. The room at the Belmont Plaza, with outdated thick Venetian blinds, was the type mom said, “You rent to jump out the window of.” Either the price was right or it was comped. It’s now the swanky W New York; when walking by last July, I was tempted to ask about the Ming Dynasty Suite.
 
The Belmont Plaza, New York City

One of dad’s first cousins, Rosalie Wolfson, married a hotel magnate, Nathan Goldstein. With Arnold Kirkeby (his mansion was the Clampetts’ home in “The Beverly Hillbillies”), they owned such prestigious properties as the Blackstone and Drake in Chicago; Sherry-Netherland, Hampshire House and Gotham in New York City; Warwick in New York and Philadelphia, Kenilworth in Bal Harbour, Florida; Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills; and Nacional de Cuba in Havana. My parents were married in the Blackstone in September 1946, and our rehearsal dinner was held at the Warwick in New York in 1973. Family stays also included the Lee House, Gotham (now the Peninsula) and Warwick. Goldstein also owned The Regency in New York, the originator of the “power breakfast” in the 1970s. I had my version of the power lunch with Rosalie in 1988 (http://brulelaker.blogspot.com/2011/12/power-lunches.html).

Husband and Wife, The Blackstone Hotel, Sept. 3, 1946
 
On our first trip to Florida in 1957, we visited the Goldsteins at the Kenilworth, which Nate’s company was in the midst of purchasing from Arthur Godfrey. At that time, the hotel had a No Jews policy, which no doubt had something to do with my parents’ consternation with my brother and me (age 8) tossing stuff off the balcony. In our defense, we had never been on a balcony before.

The Kenilworth, Bal Harbour, Florida
 
The Goldstein relationship led to the last meeting with another family in the business, some 55 years ago. Rosalie was in Chicago visiting family, and my mother joined a group for lunch at the Drake. Abe Pritzker of Hyatt Hotels recognized Rosalie and stopped by the table to say hello. Sorry, we don’t receive any family discounts at the hotels.

I am related to Pritzkers going back three and four generations (they married quicker and thus there’s an additional generation between mine and Thomas-Penny-Jim/Jennifer-J.B’s). My great-grandmother Chaia Schwartzman, wife of Abraham Nachman, and Sophia Schwartzman, wife of Jacob Pritzker, were sisters. Upon the birth of my brother and me, my parents received either a telegram or letter (the story varies on who tells it) from Abe Pritzker stating that he’d gone back 100 years and found we and his grandchildren were the only sets of twins. I don’t know for sure who the others were (that’s another story). Unfortunately, in the zeal of housekeeping, my mother tossed out the correspondence.

Jacob and Sophia Pritzker
 
My uncle Adoph had an interesting anecdote about the founding of Hyatt Hotels. When on the cruise of the Amazon in his early 90s (no, not the 1990s), he met a woman whose late husband was in the hotel business and knew Nate Goldstein. She told Adolph about an interersting assignment. Jay Pritzker had a contract out to purchase the Hyatt Hotel at Los Angeles International Airport in 1957, which would be the first property in the chain. According to her, the owner, Hyatt Robert von Dehn, was an alcoholic and wouldn’t return the contract. Because the man knew von Dehn, his one and only task was to get the signature on the contract and return it to Chicago. He did, and the rest, of course, is history.

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