The Most Famous Hotels in the World lists nine hotels in New York.
However, one remains unforgotten: The Drake. Hotelier and author Stan Turkel shares the history and some of his personal memories with us:
On a front page story in the Metropolitan section (October 6, 2013), the New York Times reported “Harry Macklowe Gambles Again: A developer known for wild swings of fortune builds a Park Avenue apartment tower a quarter-mile high.” On the site of the old Drake Hotel (demolished in 2007), Macklowe is building a luxurious apartment building which, upon completion, will be, at 1,398 feet the tallest residential tower in the Western Hemisphere. The apartments will be large, and very expensive, with an 8,255-square-foot six bedroom penthouse on the 95th floor being listed for $82.55 million, or $10,000 a square-foot. 432 Park Avenue was designed by the world-famous Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly.
The Drake Hotel was built in 1927. When it opened its doors in the “Roaring Twenties”, it boasted innovations such as automatic refrigeration as well as spacious, luxurious rooms and suites. Bing and Bing, noted builders, owned and operated the hotel for more than 35 years. In the early 1960s, entrepreneur William Zeckendorf acquired the hotel, added guest rooms and opened New York’s first discotheque, Shepheard’s. In 1965, Loews Hotel Corporation acquired the Drake and hired me to be their first General Manager. My recollections are, therefore, based on the two and a half exciting years that I served as GM.
The hotel’s restaurant was the Drake Room which opened in December 21, 1945. It was the pet project of hotelman Walter Redell (Cornell graduate from Cleveland). The Drake Room was a success from the start with its unique ceramic tree, great food, and impeccable service under the direction of Maitre de Nino Schiavone. Stars of the entertainment world, bankers and politicians made the Drake Room one of the most cosmopolitan rooms in New York. Redell hired the best salon piano player in town for the opening. Cy Walter remained the featured performer for six years. When I became General Manager, I brought Cy Walter back to the Drake Room and got MGM Records to produce a fabulous LP: “Cy Walter at The Drake,” with a cover photograph of Cy sitting at a Steinway grand piano on 56th Street under the Drake porte cochere.
One of the most famous dishes in the Drake Room was Steak Nino, a version of Steak Diane. Evidence suggests that Steak Diane was an American invention of the late 1950s when French cooking was all the rage. Jane Nickerson’s article “Steak Worthy of the Name” (New York Times, January 25, 1953), suggests three likely candidates in New York City as originators: the Drake Hotel, the Sherry-Netherland Hotel and the Colony Restaurant. The Drake’s Nino Schiavone claimed that he was the first to introduce Steak Nino to New York and, in fact, to the entire United States. Nino cooked the prime steak at tableside in sweet butter mixed with fresh chives and other seasonings flamed with cognac and sherry. Nino distributed nearly twenty-five thousand copies of his famous recipe all over the world.
The most famous and successful discotheque in Manhattan was Shepheard’s at the Drake which was open seven days a week for cocktails, dinner and supper with continuous dancing from 7:30PM to 3AM. Luncheon was served Monday through Friday and a special brunch on Sunday from noon to 4PM. At lunch there were fashion shows and for some years, a talk radio program featuring the Metropolitan Opera’s Mimi Benzell as hostess with famous guests.
We printed and distributed a card entitled, “How to Do the Newest Discotheque Dances at Shepheard’s in New York’s Drake Hotel” with step-by-step instructions to dance the Jerk, Watusi, Frug and the Monkey. Killer Joe Piro’s party was regular feature at Shepheard’s. The discotheque was so successful that patrons lined up on 56th Street and around the corner on Park Avenue to wait (even on the winter’s coldest nights) to be admitted where they paid a hefty cover charge to dance to disco music.
The Drake Hotel’s guest list included such famous classical musicians as Alicia del la Rocha, Artur Rubinstein, Dame Myra Hess and Glenn Gould. Also celebrities like Milton Berle, Leon Bibb, Paul Anka, Muhammed Ali (soft spoken and kind), Barry Goldwater and many more. On my office wall, the following framed note on Drake Hotel letterhead with a signed photograph is hung in a prominent location:
Dear Mr. Turkel,*
I was very touched by your remembering my birthday and sending me this lovely bottle of Moét et Chandon, which we drank with great pleasure. At the same time, I wanted to tell you that we find ourselves very comfortable in the Drake and are delighted with the service and attention we get.
* Prior to forming his hotel consulting firm, Stan Turkel was the Product Line Manager for Hotel/Motel Operations at the International Telephone & Telegraph Co. overseeing the Sheraton Corporation of America. Before joining IT&T, he was the General Manager of the Summit Hotel (762 Rooms), General Manager of the Drake Hotel (680 Rooms) and Resident Manager of the Americana Hotel (1842 Rooms), all in New York City.