Hotel Gramercy Park is a documentary I should have enjoyed more than I did. While I was unconvinced early on that the subject matter was all that interesting, it turned out to have a lot more substance to it than I anticipated, and to delve into areas I normally would want to learn more about and think about. Plus, it’s not like it’s poorly done just as filmmaking goes. It’s nothing special, but it’s a competent, straightforward effort.
Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood for it when I watched it. I experienced it as OK, when I have to think I normally would respond more favorably to a documentary like this.
The film tells the story of—not surprising, given the title—the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan. Built in the 1920s, the hotel is on a prime piece of real estate—even as Manhattan goes apparently—where you would expect something ultra-expensive and exclusive. But for most of its history that is not what it has been. It has been locally famous and kind of a “hot spot” in its own odd way, but not in the sense of being only for millionaires.
From 1958 until fairly recently it was owned and operated by the Weissberg family. The Weissbergs lived on the premises, and it was very much a family operation, giving it the opposite of a corporate feel. It was in some ways shabby and rundown—again, at least compared to what you’d expect in a location like that—but also eclectically charming, artsy, and surprisingly homey.
Throughout its history, it has been the kind of hotel that’s part apartment building (i.e., people live there full time, year round, for years or decades), and part conventional hotel/motel (i.e., visitors stay for a night or a few nights). Plus with a popular bar and restaurant (or multiple, I’m not sure), it drew plenty of people beyond those actually living or staying there.
And a wild mix of people it was. Amongst those living in the hotel, there were “ordinary” people, but at least judging from those interviewed for the film there were a disproportionate number of colorful eccentrics. It wasn’t all that expensive to live there—again, especially compared to what you’d expect in Manhattan—and I take it there was some kind of rent control, because the residents who lived there for decades don’t come across as people who have stratospheric net worths. They’re just regular Joes and oddball characters.
There were also a high number of artist types, and perhaps a surprising number of celebrities for a place that was in some ways not much above a dump. But maybe not so surprising in some cases, in that it drew plenty of rock musicians and other artists either before they were really big or when they had more fame than money. Or maybe in some cases they had huge amounts of money but just preferred to stay in some cool, weird place rather than an ultra-luxury chain hotel.
Interviewees in the film praise what a “live and let live” kind of place it was, where people did what they wanted and weren’t hassled about it. Which mostly meant a lot of drug use, if that’s what you were into. So you had famous stars, junkies, unknown artists, and just regular residents all thrown together in a bizarre and mostly happy mix.
Humphrey Bogart got married there. Joseph Kennedy and his family, including the future president as a child, stayed there for a few months. Babe Ruth and Jimmy Cagney were regulars. More recently, Paul Shaffer lived there for years. Bob Dylan, Madonna, Bob Marley, Deborah Harry, David Mamet, David Bowie, Matt Dillon, the Rolling Stones, and countless other notables and celebrities either lived there, stayed there regularly, or spent a night there over the years.
I think I would have liked living or staying at the hotel. I have mixed feelings about the celebrity angle; I’m not a huge worshipper of people just for being famous, and it’s not like I have fantasies of partying with these people or something, but it would have been kind of cool to ride the elevator down from your hotel room/apartment and stroll through the lobby and see Mick Jagger or Babe Ruth or Andy Warhol or whomever hanging out.
But the rubbing shoulders with celebrities thing is only part of it. Really it’s the whole mix of people, being in constant contact with famous folks like that, but also artists, hustlers of various types, tourists, gays, hipsters, hot women, entertaining eccentrics, and so on, where you really wouldn’t know from day to day who you were likely to interact with or observe except that it would probably be someone weird or interesting.
I kind of see it as a microcosm of New York itself in that way, which is why I have some fondness for the city (though I’ve spent only a minimal amount of time there), and a big part of why I loved living in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
I’d say there are three main threads of Hotel Gramercy Park. One is this reminiscing about its eclectic heyday. A second is the story of the Weissberg family. A third is the renovations and changes that have created a new Gramercy Park Hotel.
The Weissberg family is compared to the Kennedy family in the film, in the sense of being cursed with so many tragic events. There’s speculation how much of it may be related to the environment of growing up in the hotel, with all the crazies and junkies and fast crowd and such.
But over the years, they experienced heroin addiction, cancer diagnoses at a young age, drug overdose, suicide, and bitter intra-family disputes over money and the hotel, among other things. The family members who are still around and who are interviewed in the film seem to have made their peace as best they can with it all and gotten on with their lives, but the family really went through a lot.
In fact, one thing they eventually went through is losing the hotel itself. When the patriarch hotel owner died, the taxes on the inheritance of the hotel were more than the remaining family members were capable of paying without selling the hotel itself, which is what they ended up doing.
This leads to the next stage of the Gramercy Park Hotel’s history, which is a complete makeover led by hotelier Ian Schrager and artist Julian Schnabel.
An interesting angle on the renovation is that although it is so extensive as to be only one step short of knocking the place down entirely and rebuilding it, a few of the residents choose to remain living there through all the noise and chaos. In part I suppose that’s for sentimental reasons, but I’m sure a big part of it is that what they’re paying is rent-controlled, and they don’t want to lose that. The new regime offers them money and assistance in finding another place to live, but they turn it down, and legally I guess there’s no way they can be forced to leave.
Certainly there’s controversy surrounding the changes and the relaunch of the hotel. Really, though, it’s not the simplistic good versus evil thing it could have been if it was a matter of turning it into a Hyatt or Marriott or some corporate thing. Schrager is interviewed at length in the film, and he’s something of a character himself, probably someone who would have fit in quite well at the old Gramercy Park Hotel. The Schrager/Schnabel vision for the place is classy but still artsy and offbeat.
Of course it won’t be as charmingly rundown as in the past, and most of the middle class and below people (other than the handful living there in rent-controlled rooms) will presumably drop out of its mix of people, but it looks like it’ll still be a place with a disproportionate number of celebrities, artists, and eccentrics.
So somewhere in between what it used to be and the corporate nightmare one could imagine it becoming. Which understandably isn’t going to satisfy those who fell in love with it as a homey, family-run dump frequented by rock stars, but it could be a lot worse.
In what will probably be taken as the funniest sequence in the film, Schrager in an interview notes that one person who will not be welcome in his hotel is Paris Hilton, as he regards her as the quintessential bad influence on girls and young women, including those in his own family. We are then shown all the celebrities, hipsters, and gawkers arriving for the big reopening blowout party. Paris Hilton is one of them, and she is told upon seeking entrance that “Your name is not on the list.” Since these are words she likely has never heard in her life, the stunned Miss Hilton is then shown on her cell phone, no doubt frantically trying to get through to someone to correct this obvious error.
It’s cute, but kind of silly too. I seriously doubt Paris Hilton is somehow worse than countless other of the celebrities and other guests who are welcomed with open arms to this party. I’m sure 80% or more of the people at this gathering are rich, superficial, drunk snobs. She just happens to have a little bigger name and so makes for a convenient target to insult.
I’m glad Hotel Gramercy Park exists to document a unique establishment that was one of the myriad important elements over the years that has given New York its character.