The Best Hotel


MY first view of the corridors of Heaven (assuming that the experience is some day to be mine) may possibly prove more overpowering than my first view of those of the old Waldorf-Astoria. But as I look back across thirty-odd years to that prodigious morning, it hardly seems probable.

I pushed timidly through the revolving door to which I had been directed, on 33rd Street — and stopped in my tracks. I was standing on a blood-red velvet carpet in a silent and coldly glittering chaos utterly beyond my mind’s power to grasp: pink and lavender veined marble; snow-white statuary; gigantic palms whose fronds brushed the gilded cornices. I can still remember the shock with which I realized that those palms were ‘real’ — that is, actual living plants.

I turned to my left; and there, only a few steps away, was the huge newsstand at which I was to report. The two radiant beings in snowy shirtwaists, behind its counter, must be my new fellow workers.

My training began with suspiciously businesslike promptness, and was of the most severely practical character. To two young ladies who had probably danced most of the previous night away, I was little less than a godsend. Flush-faced and happy, I dashed to and fro; out in front and back to the closets; stacking books, draping magazines, dropping them and picking them up again; meekly demolishing an arrangement and beginning all over again when one of my preceptresses, lolling against the rear shelves, decided that some other way looked better.

Half an hour or so later a gorgeous male creature in cutaway and striped trousers, patent-leather shoes, wing collar, puff cravat, and gardenia’d buttonhole strolled up and as it were absent-mindedly drifted in behind the counter. He gave me an inquiring glance. ’New kid,’ said one of the girls. Not another word was said. The newcomer glanced here and there, peered into one of the closets, — neither girl paying him the slightest attention, and strolled away again, in what I was afterward to learn was the direction of the bar.

Several days later I learned that this was the manager of the stand. His first appearance was entirely typical of his peculiar method of ‘management.’ He was only in evidence for a few minutes a day, at opening and closing time, and he never attempted to exercise the slightest authority, even over me. As for my four youthful seniors, they were undisputed queens of the newsstand. Indeed, they were more than that. In their own estimation they were queens of the Waldorf — and queens could do no wrong.

I have never known anybody else bearing at least the nominal status of employee who did as completely as she pleased as those four girls did. They arrived, as a rule, fairly close to the time at which they were supposed to go on duty; but they contrived to do so with an air which said that it was merely out of courtesy to the girls whom they were to relieve, and perhaps partly because it was at the moment their pleasure to grace the hotel with their presence — never, certainly, from any sense of responsibility.

They might — and did — exchange broad chaff with John W. Gates, match quip for quip with Theodore P. Shonts and Foxhall Keene, and even fling sallies at August Belmont and Senator Platt, with no worse response than absent-minded silence. ‘Diamond Jim’ Brady was, of course, fair game; Lillian Russell herself seemed almost grateful to be treated as ‘just one of us girls’; if Harry Thaw was waited on in stony aloofness, it was not from any motive of respect.

At the end of my first week, indeed, it would not have surprised me to hear them proffer friendly pleasantries to Bishop Potter or Cardinal Farley himself, when one of those dignitaries passed on his way to some imposing banquet in the great state ballroom overhead. And if the Cardinal had turned his gentle face in their direction for so much as an encouraging glance, I am quite sure they would have been ready to meet His Eminence at least halfway.

But let Mrs. Ava Willing Astor, Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs, Mrs. George Gould, or a very few others stroll up to the stand and casually inspect the pile of current novels — instantly butter would not have melted in any of those four mouths. Nor did they venture any liberties with James J. Jeffries, ‘the Champion, when that great man occasionally swung past with his admiring coterie. Certainly he was, with the sole exception of Mrs. Oelrichs, the most formidable in appearance of all those whose names were mighty in that time, who still remain in memory from the days when all the world flowed past me and a surprisingly large percentage stopped to buy.

It was n’t very long, of course, before I was venturing a few liberties of my own. I entered the Waldorf with no more idea than a terrier pup of the world to which it was to introduce me; but no terrier pup could ever pick up new tricks as fast as an Irish-American girl just short of seventeen. Nor did any pup ever have, for all their seeming casualness, more exacting tutors, when it came to what they regarded as essentials. My most important lesson was, in fact, impressed upon me in a highly painful way. Very few things hurt worse than a kick on the ankle bone.

I had, after all, been brought up in the sturdy precepts of a grandfather who, though a penniless immigrant from County Cork, had fought his own way up to financial independence and a respected position in his new community, asking favors of no man. Consequently, when perhaps the second man I waited on handed me a twenty-dollar bill for a ten-dollar purchase, casually remarking, ‘Keep the change,’ I blushed and stammered, and was attempting to refuse — when agony shot through me. My mouth flew shut, and my hand, still clutching the ten-dollar bill, despite myself shot back and down to rub my outraged ankle bone. The customer strolled away.

I looked up into the cold and angry eyes of the older girl who had kicked me.

‘Say, are you trying to gum the works?’ she demanded. ‘Want to spoil the graft? If you’re too high and mighty to keep that ten-spot, give it to me! I can use it!’

As she was, at that moment, the last person on earth for whom I felt like doing that or any other favor, it naturally followed that I kept the ten dollars myself. And, having kept my first tip, it was easier to keep my second; and easier still my third. Within a week I was as prompt and deft at gathering in cash tips as any of the older girls, and I am afraid as coldbloodedly accurate in measuring out my acknowledgments — an impassively murmured ‘Thank you’ for mere silver or even a small bill; a nod and faint smile for five dollars; and beaming gratitude only for ten dollars or more.

With that, my training in the ways of the Waldorf world ended. I had been there perhaps three months when I suddenly discovered that, in my employers’ eyes, that period was successfully finished.

By what observations Mr. Bascom had convinced himself that I had become capable not only of holding my own in that tumultuous atmosphere, but of assuming much more serious responsibilities, is still a mystery to me. I only know that I was summoned one day without the slightest warning, and was informed that a prize on which, I knew, many of the older girls had been longingly speculating was to be mine.

The new Hotel Plaza was shortly to open its doors, and I was to be transferred thither; and, what was more, I was to be in full charge of the stand.


On a proud day I strolled nonchalantly in at the door of the still-unfinished Hotel Plaza, commandeered a porter in my best Waldorf-girl manner, and set about putting my new domain to rights. The final touches were being given to the Plaza’s decorations. The lobby floor had not yet been laid, and we had to pick our way about precariously on plank runways.

As matters stood in New York at that time, the location of a great new hotel many blocks farther north on Fifth Avenue than anyone had gone before — more than a mile above the still-unchallenged Waldorf— was a venture of no little daring. And Fred Sterry, the Plaza’s proprietor, a born hotel man with a genius for leadership, made every one of us, down to the humblest, feel that we had an active share in it.

With that fellow feeling of shared discomfort and adventure to build on, he was able to create, in the Plaza’s staff, an esprit de corps finer, stronger, and more genuine than I have known anywhere else in my life.

It was not only something so new to me that I could not even have named or described it, but the contrast to the blasé and cynical indifference of the Waldorf made its effect on me all the more powerful. All that I knew was that almost overnight I found in myself an immense pride in and loyalty to the Plaza as an institution, and a conviction that it not only was the world’s finest hotel, but was soon to be its most successful.

At the same time, I was still young and graceless and greedy enough to exploit to the utmost my privileges as a member of the Plaza family. A surprisingly small amount of sheer, cheerful impudence won for me virtually the run of the hotel. The institution known as ‘hostess’ had not yet appeared to enrich American life, but by self-election I acquired a position in the Plaza somewhere between that of unofficial hostess and daughter of the regiment.

It was by grace of this assumption that, when the hotel at last was ready to begin its functioning, a gentleman who came in at the new main entrance and approached the desk found no one to receive him except a young woman with an enormous yellow pompadour and a pronounced snub nose, seated upon the desk top drumming a casual tattoo upon its marble face with a pair of French heels. (The yellow hair was entirely genuine. It is much less vivid now than it used to be.)

The newcomer’s evident amusement was a trifle disconcerting, and I suddenly realized that the newsstand, at which I was supposed to be on duty, was n’t even in sight from where I sat. But, not knowing what else to do, I remained where I was. I did stop kicking my feet.

There was a slightly strained moment of silence, broken by the gentleman, who inquired, with a barely perceptible trace of sarcasm, if I was the manager. Though by now uncomfortably aware of hot cheeks, I retained enough true Tyson-girl impudence to retort:—

’Yes — manager of the newsstand.’

‘Oh,’ said the stranger. There was another brief pause. ‘ Do you mind if I register?’

Still sitting on the desk, I reached out casually, swung the brand-new register pad around in front of him, and dipped and handed him a pen. It suddenly occurred to me that this was the first guest to register at the Plaza; my eager interest and curiosity were too much for my manners. I craned brazenly over his shoulder as he wrote, with a flamboyant flourish, on the first line, at the top of the page: —

‘Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt.’

At that moment, luckily, the clerk who should have been on duty all this while returned, and with some incoherent attempt at an explanation of the situation I fled.

Long afterward I learned from Mr. Sterry that Alfred G. Vanderbilt, when he engaged the entire third floor of the Plaza as bachelor quarters for himself, had stipulated among the conditions that he was to be the first guest to be permitted to register. He never once, thereafter, alluded to my own impromptu part in this ceremony. But for a long while his quizzical smile, whenever he passed my stand, could send the color to my face.

That hoydenish opening of the Plaza’s career, however, was quaintly at odds both with the aims of its management and with the success which those aims from the very first achieved. There is a sense in which the opening of the Plaza was the first intimation that an age was passing — the age of the Waldorf and of all that it typified. The Waldorf itself did not yet even suspect what was happening. But Fred Sterry (and, I suppose, the men who backed him) had realized it, and had grasped the opportunity it offered.

He proposed to draw off from the older hotel the greater part of its most substantially wealthy, aristocratic, and therefore most permanently profitable clientele, and attach it to the Plaza. To do this the Plaza, he had determined, must from the first strike a much more exclusive and correct, a more expensively restrained note than the gaudy old place it was to supersede.

It is curious how consistently the contrast between the two hotels was expressed in their every detail. The Waldorf in exterior design was a magnificent hodgepodge of balconies, gables, domed towers (scarcely two alike), and mansard roofs, completely faced with the reddest of red brick and tile. The Plaza still shows its cool gray and green-roofed emulation of a French Renaissance chateau across the sweep of Central Park. The Waldorf’s colored marble, its gilding and red velvet, palms and marble statues, had seemed to all America the last word in luxurious magnificence. But even the older generation felt dimly the superiority of the Plaza’s cool green and white marble, its greater spaciousness, with no more than judicious touches of crystal and silver to relieve its corridors from severity.

Fortunately, after that first misadventure, I soon grasped the implications of my new position and began assiduously to take on the color of my environment. Within three weeks at most I should have been capable of greeting any of my former seniors at the Waldorf with an aloof and slightly amused condescension that would have overpaid them for their casual lordliness toward me in my apprenticeship days. Indeed, once the Plaza began to fill with its smaller but far more choice clientele, and the tips began to flow in across the newsstand counter with a quiet lavishness very different from the Waldorf’s exuberance, but in equally satisfying volume, I began to enjoy my butterfly stage to the full.


In my own mind, I was very much part of the world of the Plaza, and a far from unimportant part. With my newly acquired social perspective and my vast though still slightly unripe store of sophistication and worldly wisdom, I made the anxieties of the management with regard to the social status of our guests my personal burden.

It was becoming plainer every day that the Plaza had ‘caught on.’ The shrewd calculation that had gone into every detail of its planning, design, and construction had justified itself. The hotel was rapidly acquiring that mysterious but immensely valuable characteristic which I do not know any exact English definition for, and so must call cachet. And that is a thing not only extraordinarily difficult to capture, but even harder to keep.

Its possession by an institution open to the general public is only too apt to attract precisely those hordes whose arrival destroys the very thing that brought them thither. And yet a hotel is a commercial enterprise; it is no easy thing for it to turn away patronage that pays — and pays, as a rule, with extreme liberality. Moreover, the problem was a new one in the United States of America. Our management had little or no precedent to guide them in their efforts to cultivate that precise degree of snobbery which should prove most profitable.

That their plotting of their course, though in the event it proved amazingly accurate and successful, was attended by no small amount of personal worry and distress I can testify from personal observation. Their difficulties were acute from the very beginning, because not only had they acquired their newsstand girl and a considerable portion of the hotel staff by direct recruiting from the Waldorf; a very large share of the early guest list was drawn from that same luxuriant soil. And that soil in the social sense sprouted both flowers and weeds with the same light-hearted and impartial prodigality.

As much effort as could tactfully be made was exerted to cull only the choice blossoms, and discourage the migration of the weeds — at least the more brilliantly varicolored ones. On the whole it was successful. I was soon serving Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish and ‘ Tessie ’ Oelrichs as regularly and frequently at the Plaza as we ever had at the Waldorf. Mr. and Mrs. George Gould moved uptown, bag and baggage, immediately after the opening; and most of the more desirable among the lesser lights, of course, followed in the wake of these leaders.

But the full flavor of a crisis came with the descent upon us, quite early in our career, of a large section of what in the Waldorf we had learned to call the ‘horsy set.’ It was an open secret among the hotel staff that Mr. Sterry had observed their arrival with a marked absence of enthusiasm; he did not quite venture to decline their patronage, but he would vastly have preferred their room to their company. As it turned out, however, the fears that were excited by this particular invasion proved comically groundless. The event speedily demonstrated that chameleon characteristics are by no means the exclusive property of youthful newsstand girls. After a few weeks in the Plaza’s more rarefied social atmosphere some of the very folk whom I had remembered as among the noisiest and most carefree of the Waldorf’s patrons had become models of restrained propriety.

Still there were, perhaps not exactly scenes, but what might more mildly be characterized as episodes. The most distressing of these, not only in its actual occurrence but in a painful afterrash of gossip and newspaper comment, burst upon us one afternoon in the Palm Room at teatime, with scarcely as much warning, and with something of the same general effect, as a highexplosive shell.

Mrs. Patrick Campbell even before her arrival had definitely been one of those guests regarding whom we had been rather on hot coals. It might not please her even now to know how narrow was the margin by which, when first she swept majestically up to the Plaza’s desk, she escaped being regretfully informed that no rooms were at the moment available. Naturally she had no inkling of this fact. But under the circumstances it was hardly a happy thought on her part, a few days later, to appear in all her statuesque beauty in the Palm Room at the height of the tea hour, and, having inevitably drawn all eyes to her, calmly produce and light a cigarette.

This, you must carefully remember, was in 1908 or thereabouts. No doubt many daring feminine spirits, at least in New York, were already trying, in the privacy of their homes, the taste of the sinful substance. But a cigarette publicly displayed in a lady’s mouth made her definitely a target of suspicion. Such conduct in our Palm Room was a horror unthinkable; that it should be Mrs. Pat Campbell who should thus repay our charity in admitting her within our chaste portals made it ten times worse.

I don’t remember which intrepid soul it was who, after a series of whispered conferences in which dismay mounted rapidly toward panic, finally volunteered to approach the lady and request that she extinguish the abomination. I am quite sure that his knees knocked together and that his first effort to convey his message through chattering teeth proved unintelligible.

He presently succeeded, almost in spite of himself, in making his meaning all too clear. And thereupon Mrs. Campbell shot upward to her full imperial height, dashed to the floor the cause of all the commotion, and stalked regally from the room. Within an hour she had demanded her reckoning and, with a jealous regard for all possible dramatic values in the performance, proceeded to shake the dust of the Plaza from her feet.

She left behind a hotel staff crushed, profusely perspiring, but on the whole relieved. In their innocence they had not yet grasped the full implications of the affaire Campbell. On the following morning they were cruelly disabused.

Among those to whom Mrs. Campbell poured forth her outraged indignation — in fact, I suspect, the very first person in whom she confided — was a gentleman named Axel Toxen Worm.

Toxen Worm may still be remembered here and there by a few lean and slippered pantaloons, though later geniuses have perhaps unfairly overblown his fame. He was widely known in his time as Tanbark Worm — a tribute to one of his most brilliant flights of fancy, involving this same Mrs. Patrick Campbell. (I should perhaps explain that this Worm, whom many besides the staff of the Hotel Plaza considered all too fitly named, was employed in the capacity of press agent by David Belasco, under whose management Mrs. Campbell had come to America.) This simple stroke of genius consisted in carpeting the street before the theatre in which Mrs. Campbell was playing with tanbark. Inquiring reporters were able to learn without too great difficulty that her exquisitely sensitive nerves demanded protection during her performances — that is, her stage performances — from the noises of street traffic. (This was a New York in which the principal street noise was still the ring of horses’ hoofs on asphalt.)

Given a gentleman of such alert and enterprising gifts as the confidant of her grievances, the ultimate result of Mrs. Campbell’s feud with the Plaza may readily be imagined. The effect on our jealously guarded social dignity was both painful and prolonged. But it was doubtless due solely to feelings exacerbated by newspaper headlines, of which it seemed as if we never should see the last, that certain dark and cynical mutterings were heard from time to time among us. Some embittered souls actually affected to question the complete spontaneity of Mrs. Campbell’s sudden craving for tobacco that fatal afternoon in our Palm Room. It is, of course, quite unthinkable that it should have had its origin in the fertile brain of Axel Toxen Worm.

Perhaps the painful aftermath of that quaint affair was indirectly serviceable to Elinor Glyn when, a few weeks later, she arrived in America for the first time and headed straight for the Plaza. I know that Mrs. Glyn arrived with an obvious intention, amounting to a grim determination, to live up — or down — to her advance reputation as authoress of Three Weeks (that ‘wickedest book of the century,’ which would to-day be considered practically a Sunday-school tract).

I also know that her violently carrotcolored hair and purple-shadowed eyes, her fluttering many-hued chiffons, and even her carefully calculated languishings and undulations, were endured by the Plaza without a murmur. The acute discomfort they caused found vent behind the scenes; but in public they encountered only a meek and exemplary courtesy which, I cannot help suspecting, owed much to the chastening effects of our encounter with Mrs. Campbell.

Indeed, I am quite sure that it was not Mrs. Campbell’s theatrical background — or even her theatricality — which had raised the first doubts regarding her, but her marital adventures. We had in fact already begun to favor a slight admixture of the theatre (though only, of course, of its very cream) in our resident guest list. The feeling seemed to be that it gave the hotel more color and perhaps slightly offset a certain tendency toward stodginess which was beginning to show itself as a result of too much unrelieved wealth and ‘social position.’

Still, the true Plaza attitude toward these stage folk was accurately phrased by our cloakroom concessionaire one early morning. I had just had my first glimpse of Fritzi Scheff, all sparkle and gayety and fire, darting through the foyer from her morning ride in the park, pursued by a laughing, chattering group, and had asked him who it was.

‘It’s Fritzi Scheff,’ he replied primly. ‘You know — the young woman who is starring in Mademoiselle Modiste. . . . But then, she’s married to Mr. Fox, and he’s an author; and besides, they say he comes of a very good family in the South.’


Perhaps our management’s standards both of society and of propriety began to mellow, once our position became a trifle more secure. At any rate, not only did we accept Broadway’s then reigning musical-comedy star, but some of the definitely spectacular figures of the back-stage, lobster-and-champagne-supper circles of that day began to be seen with increasing frequency in our dining rooms and public halls.

The best way that occurs to me to illustrate the changing fashions in ‘men about town,’ as well as in other forms of ostentation, is to tell of my own experience with one of these serpents whom the management had gradually permitted to creep unscotched into our Eden. Just who first warned me against Jerome Sigel, I can’t remember. People were always warning me against each other in those days. But I do remember that this particular warning was repeated many times by many people, and with a shuddering emphasis that struck me at the time as incongruous with the absence of anything in the least alarming in Jerry Sigel’s appearance.

Villains then, as now, by rights should be tall, lean, and darkly handsome, and possessed of a sinister fascination. But this one was short and plump, indeed cherubic in face and person and pink-and-white of skin. His almost too faultless attire, and the meticulous perfection with which he was invariably barbered and manicured, were perhaps more in character. But the more I studied him — cautiously and furtively, from the shelter of my stand — the harder it became to reconcile what I was told of him with what I seemed to see. He radiated no sinister charm, but a naïve and almost childlike delight in his own conspicuous wellbeing and in the roses life was continually strewing in the path of the favored nephew, ward, and heir of Henry Sigel. How could this plump and genial little chap actually be a master of insidious wiles, particularly of the sort notoriously perilous to female virtue?

The thing that bewildered me most about Jerome Sigel was my early discovery that he was aware of his own evil reputation, and took an honest pride in it. He was pleasurably conscious of my horrified gaze as he went strolling through the Plaza foyer in the evening; so much so that he began encouraging it by casual soliloquies, addressed to no one in particular, but neatly pitched to reach simultaneously the ears of the girl behind the candy counter, the one in charge of the florist’s shop, and the one at the newsstand. The burden of these remarks invariably was speculation as to whether or not there might be any girl around that evening who would be willing to let him escort her home, and ‘struggle for her honor all the way.’

This was, of course, as even then I began dimly to suspect, both sarcasm and bravado. I had n’t yet learned what Jerry Sigel well knew. It was n’t any of the ‘Broadway crowd’ — or, as in those days of the first ‘Westerns’ we had learned to call them, the ‘rustler bunch’ — who ever made themselves seriously annoying or embarrassing to the newsstand and shop girls, the telephone operators, or any of the other young women employed in the hotel in capacities that threw them into contact with the guests. Perhaps it was due to nothing more than the fact that they had plenty of more easily acquired playmates; perhaps to contempt for the type of man who had neither the sense nor the decency to refrain from persecuting a girl whose job put her in a comparatively defenseless position. For whatever reason, Jerome Sigel and his kind actually left strictly alone the girl who had work to do.

The final precipitant of the chain of circumstance, I feel sure now, was my own overstimulated imagination. It was that which convinced me, on this particular evening, that the Master Deceiver had singled me out for a special sly scrutiny as he strolled, with seeming carefree aimlessness, about the corridors. And this in turn could mean only one thing — that he had at last devised a plan of such subtlety and ingenuity that with it he could encompass my downfall.

So extraordinarily subtle, indeed, was his plan, that it included a more frank approach than he had ever made toward me before. Immediately after his leisurely emergence from the dining room, he had wandered over to the stand to deliver, to myself and my even younger assistant, an airily phrased but extremely shrewd lecture on the economics of our job. Now that it is twenty-odd years too late, I often reflect that it is a thousand pities it was so completely wasted. The theme of his discourse was the duty we owed to ourselves to lay thriftily aside as much as possible of the cash value of the endless presents which poured incessantly into the hands of a Plaza newsstand girl — presents which, in fact, she literally could not refuse.

‘Orchids are very beautiful,’ said the man who probably bought more of them than anybody else in New York, lounging at his ease against our counter and emphasizing the points of his discourse with gestures of a plump, white, and manicured hand, ‘but they’re not as beautiful as they are expensive. You’ve no idea how much my respect for your intelligence would rise if I caught you calling a boy to take them quietly back to the florist’s shop to be credited to you for cash.

‘If you want a few roses or carnations or violets to take home to your mother, get them from the Greek over on Columbus Circle, for about one twentieth of the money they’ll allow you here on the orchids.

‘As for the rest of the money, the savings bank is a wonderful institution, with which you should be better acquainted. It will prove a better friend to you than all the guests of this hotel put together.

‘Let us now proceed to the subject of candy. You, young woman, are perhaps seventeen. Neither your figure nor your complexion has yet given you the slightest cause for worry. But unless you send back about ninety-nine per cent of the candy I daily see being showered upon you and collect the cash for it — also to be added to your savings account — they soon will.

‘Silk stockings, now, are something else again. How many pairs of silk stockings does one girl really need ? It’s hardly for me to say; but it would surprise me to learn that any girl who’s not in the show business requires more than twenty-four pairs at any one time. Why not send the rest back to the stores they came from, and get credit for them?’

That was a home thrust; I had, out of curiosity, counted up my supply of stockings — all presents — not long before, and had found I had seventy-six pairs. But the only thoughts for which my mind really had room just then were compounded of discomfort and distrust at the audacity of this ‘notorious rounder’ in thus forcing his unwelcome conversation upon us; and in public, too! He should have realized that it was as much as a girl’s reputation was worth merely to be seen in his company. That his advice was not only shrewd but well-meant and sincere, that he might indeed be inspired by a genuine liking, free from the slightest taint of self-interest, for ‘that kid at the newsstand,’ was of course the last idea that could have entered my head.

Perhaps, too, sheer fatigue and acute physical discomfort played their parts in my inability to concentrate upon his words of counsel. For in those days I took extremely seriously what seemed to me almost, a sacred obligation: this was to be at all limes, and at whatever cost in physical agony, attired in a manner worthy of my position as queen of the newsstand in New York’s smartest hotel. And if you cannot remember what it entailed to be a properly costumed and smart young business woman of 1908 or thereabouts, you need only to consult the ‘Gibson girl’ pictures and the A. B. Wenzell magazine illustrations of that unhappy, far-off era.

How those high, whalebone-stiffened Medici collars, pinned to the thick rolls of hair behind your ears, could itch! And how often you simply had to step back out of sight behind a stack of novels and force your fingers, or at least a couple of lead pencils, down under your belt, to produce a momentary after-illusion of relief from the dull torture of stays which since before six o’clock that morning had been gripping your silly wasp waist like an iron girdle straight out of the Inquisition!

But not even eighteen unbroken hours of bodily torment were able to drive my growing apprehensions from my mind as midnight and the close of my tour of duty drew on apace. I still caught glimpses, every now and then, of Jerome Sigel, casually in evidence here and there in the far vistas of the foyer. That he might actually be loitering there for other reasons, and with other matters on his mind than the fiendish intention of forcing his unwelcome escort upon me when I left for home, never entered my self-important young head.

And then, perhaps fifteen minutes before the crucial moment, came a providential diversion. In through the 59th Street entrance and across the foyer to the hotel desk came hurrying the Mephistophelean figure of Florenz Ziegfeld.

I did not know then what I learned long afterward: that the long and intimate friendship between Jerome Sigel and Florenz Ziegfeld was a rarely sincere one, and much to both men’s credit. Still, it had its practical side also, based chiefly upon Ziegfeld’s appreciation of Sigel’s gifts as a combined barometer and thermometer in the forecasting of the probable popular appeal of his new theatrical offerings. ‘Flo’ Ziegfeld had, if possible, even less confidence than most creative artists both in his own critical judgment and in his own estimate of the commercial possibilities of his productions. But he had learned by repeated tests that Jerome Sigel’s reactions matched, with uncanny accuracy, the norm of the Ziegfeld audience.

But nothing of this was suspected by the various younglings like me, who observed with trepidation the practical inseparability of the ‘heartless rounder’ and the ‘sinister producer,’ and their apparent growing fondness for the Hotel Plaza.

On this particular night Ziegfeld paused scarcely live seconds at the hotel desk before turning and heading, with that queer catlike bounding gait of his, straight for the newsstand. This made things worse. Obviously the night clerk had told him that Mr. Sigel was not in his room, and had probably suggested that I might know where he was to be found. At that very moment, as though to confirm the insinuation, out from behind a column barely ten steps away popped Jerome Sigel himself. Ziegfeld seized his arm, and the two, deep in low-voiced talk, walked away together toward the Palm Room.

Heaven, notoriously protective (as Marie Dressler was even then busy proclaiming from a Broadway stage) toward the Working Girl, had obviously offered this one slim chance of escape from the Pursuing Villain. For the first time in my business career I gave my employers short change in my working hours by at least ten minutes. I cleared the counter in a single sweep, locked the cabinets, snatched hat and coat and gloves, and scuttled as inconspicuously as possible along the wall to the 59th Street entrance.

Big Tom, the great-hearted ancient in gold-braided grenadier uniform who acted as carriage man, was still on duty; indeed, the late after-theatre supper rush was almost due. Big Tom was a friend of mine; he too had been at the Waldorf, and he loved to talk of the Ireland from which both he and my grandfather had come — and to which, only a few years later, he returned, with $30,000, the fruits of years of thriftily saved and conservatively invested tips.

Pausing only to whisper to him to tell anybody who might ask that I had gone east across Fifth Avenue, I scampered westward, preferring to run all the way to Columbus Circle for an Eighth Avenue car rather than wait in the dangerously bright lights of the hotel entrance for the usual Fifty-ninth Street crosstown one.


Just west of the hotel, where the Plaza Annex now stands, was a huge old-fashioned apartment house, built on the same luxuriously stuffy scale as those tremendous and ancient monuments of the Haircloth Sofa Age farther west, the once-famed ‘Spanish Flats.’ Scurrying past its iron-grilled plateglass door, I glanced casually through it — and stopped dead.

At that instant a huge clot of greasy flame had gone floating down the open elevator shaft at the rear of the dimly lighted hall, sending orange flickerings over the tapestried walls and glinting on the empty suits of armor on either side of the vestibule. Sheer horror held me paralyzed, though for an instant I could not even grasp what it was that I had seen. But in the next moment there was an eruption of sparks; and then from below roared a great serpent of flame that shot straight up the shaft, throwing out oily black curls of smoke that filled the hall and vestibule.

Then I came to myself with a gasp, whirled, and ran back toward the hotel, calling frantically for Tom. The terror in my voice brought him in a stumbling run to meet me. He took one glance into that door and the cyclone of flame in the elevator shaft. As ho turned there was a roar, and a tinkle of falling glass as the fire burst from one window after another, four and five stories above our heads. Huge billows of black smoke cut off the sky, then swooped in a sudden down draft and wrapped us in choking darkness.

‘Get clear, miss! Get clear!’ shouted Tom. ‘I’m afther calling the firemen!’ And he was gone.

The smoke pall lifted. Some instinct led me to run on westward, toward my home, and then to bolt like a rabbit into the first doorway on the far side of the burning building.

Fifty-ninth Street was already in an uproar. A moment, earlier it had just begun to flow smoothly with prancing horses, broughams, barouches, and hansom cabs, interspersed with the already numerous motor cars, and the sidewalk in front of the hotel was becoming a glistening river of silk-hatted men and jeweled, fur-wrapped women. In one wink it was turned into indescribable confusion. Policemen plunged among the panic-stricken horses, struggling to clear the way for the fire engines, which were already heralded by screaming siren and madly clanging gong.

Somehow, by a series of miracles, the street was cleared and into the open space charged the fire engines and the long centipedes of the ladder trucks, jumping the curb as they deployed across the whole width of the street. Green patrol wagons with clamoring gongs dumped platoons of big brassbuttoned men in blue who flourished night sticks and, adding hearty Irish curses to the uproar, shoved hamlike hands into haughty faces and well-fed stomachs. They eventually contrived to push back the solid mass of the crowd to a safe distance.

All the while a badly scared and completely fascinated girl crouched in her doorway refuge, far inside the fire lines. She saw the firemen run squirrel-like up the sheer face of the building, climbing one scaling ladder and unfastening, as they climbed, a second ladder from their belts to hook over a still higher window ledge, and go on without a second’s break in the ascent.

As one after another the climbing men disappeared, there was a pause. Then from the vast crowd in the street went up a sort of awe-struck moan. The firemen were coming back. One after another their burly figures appeared upon the window ledges, and in their arms or over their shoulders were white shapes. Back down the ladders they came, but gently now and carefully.

As each new figure, in its turn, appeared at a window, that same huge inarticulate sound — a vast ‘O-o-oh!’ that had in it more of awe than sympathy — went up from the huge crowd. And through and under it, through the crackling roar of the flames and the hiss and splash of water, you could hear the thumpa-thumpa-thumpa of the engines.

Somewhere far off a chime rang its changes; a big bell tolled one deep note. But it was a tap on my shoulder that at last broke the spell.

‘You’ve had about enough of this,’ said a familiar voice. ‘Too much. It’s time for you to go home.’

It was Jerome Sigel. That lurking shadow of mischief had gone from his face. He looked tired and troubled.

‘Thank you, Mr. Sigel,’ I said, trying hard to keep the quaver out of my voice. ‘I don’t know how long I’ve been here. I must go right home.’

‘Yes,’ he said, and the impish light was reawakened in his eye. ‘And I am going to take you there. Let’s go get a cab.’

‘Oh no, no, no, Mr. Sigel,’ said I hurriedly, suddenly emerging, under the stimulus of an older fear, from the trance which had held me for an hour. ‘You need n’t; you really need n’t — all I have to do is to get a car right here, transfer at the Circle, and go straight up to 104th Street. Mother will be in the window watching every car that stops. She must have been waiting for an hour. She will be horribly worried. Please, I’m all right, Mr. Sigel — thank you so much.’

‘A cab will be much quicker,’ said Jerome Sigel decisively. ‘Don’t be silly.’

He fairly bundled me, still protesting, but more faintly, into a taxicab — where I promptly dived into the far corner like a rabbit into its hole. If I could, I would have burrowed under the cushions. It was, as a matter of fact, my first experience with a taxicab; and here I found myself, late at night, alone in one with a man — and the man, of all the predatory males of New York City, was the notorious Jerry Sigel!

That monster of iniquity, grinning like a roly-poly hyena, promptly proceeded to burlesque my actions, shrinking back as far as possible into the opposite corner and holding his cane, gripped firmly in both hands, as a defensive barrier between us.

‘One-hundred-and-fourth Street and Central Park West,’ he called to the driver.

To my utter bewilderment he failed to add, ‘Drive through the park.’

I wedged myself more firmly into my corner. Obviously the omission of that standard device of the predatory, against which I had so many times been warned by more experienced fellow workers, could only cloak some still deeper and more dangerous design. But there were in those days equally standard defensive tactics for imperiled female virtue. My hand went up to my head and fumbled for the reassuring knob of the long skewer which held in place my flat, wide-brimmed straw ‘soup-plate.’

A chuckle came from the sinister figure in the corner.

‘Well,’ observed Jerome Sigel, ‘getting ready for a Battle for your Honor may at least help you to forget that horrible business at the fire.’

Following that first observation, he spoke exactly twice more during our three-mile ride. The lights at each successive street corner revealed his cherubic countenance beaming placidly, in amiable self-satisfaction mingled with friendly concern, upon me. For an abandoned villain he bore a puzzling resemblance to a Boy Scout in the midst of his good deed for the day.

Once he called my attention to the beauty of the sky line of Fifth Avenue, across the park, and the delicate tracery of the trees against the sky, both of them silhouetted by the wavering glare of the gas plants along the East River. I preserved a stony silence.

Presently he suggested that I might prefer to have the cab trail a northbound Eighth Avenue car, and let me out just behind it as we came to 104th Street, so that I might appear to have descended from the trolley and thus conceal my guilt in having been brought home in a cab by a man. My rejection of this artful proposal exploded with all the abrupt vehemence of a firecracker, and brought a loud laugh from him, which had scarcely died away when we drew up before my home.

Jerome Sigel sprang nimbly out; had I been a duchess, I could not have been more ceremoniously handed down to the sidewalk. I waved to Mother, anxiously awaiting me in the front window, as I had known she would be. He gallantly raised his hat to her, preceded me to the outer door, opened it, and bowed me into the vestibule.

As I turned to forestall any attempt on his part to follow me further, I discovered that he was already halfway back down the front steps. He paused on the sidewalk, leered impudently up at me, waved a taunting finger, and called out: —

’That’s the time I fooled you, little girl!’

It really did not take very long, after that night of the fire, for the realization to penetrate my prejudice-encased young skull that I had played the vain and conceited fool, and had given Jerry Sigel a wholly unnecessary amount of amusement at my expense.

Naturally the first effect of this was to make me still more furious with him, which, equally naturally, still further increased his amusement. But this gradually gave place to a more wholesome humility, out of which I emerged with a better understanding of Jerry Sigel, and, somewhat to my own surprise, a genuine liking for him.

We eventually arrived, in this manner, at a wholly comfortable footing of mutual banter, accompanied on his part by various small friendly attentions. I remember that he presented me with a book of tickets for rides in the taxicabs of the Mason-Seaman Company, in which either he or his uncle had an interest, his accompanying comment being that, having personally subjected me to thorough test, he knew now, and would if necessary assure my mother, that I could be trusted in any taxicab.

  1. ‘Working Girl,’ in the May Issue, described Irish Harlem of the early 1900’s and Mary Doyle’s first job. — EDITOR