A Childhood at the Taft Hotel
A medium-sized hotel sits on the corner of 51st Street and 7th Avenue in midtown Manhattan. In any other city, it might be considered a large hotel, but in its location just south of Times Square, gleaming steel skyscrapers dwarf it. I know I’ve passed by the Michelangelo Hotel thousands of times on my way to work, although I never could have told you the name of it. To me, it’s just another hotel I could never afford to stay in. But to Stephen Lewis in his debut memoir, Hotel Kid, it’s home.
In 1931, the Michelangelo is known as the Taft Hotel, and Stephen Lewis and his parents are permanent residents in a four-room suite on the 15th floor. Lewis’s father is the general manager of the hotel, which means he is very, very important—especially in the eyes of Stephen and his younger brother, Peter. Having a hotel manager for a father means free ice cream, fast elevator rides and room service on small rolling carts every single night. “My earliest recollection is of Peter eating in his high chair while I sat at a room service table in our bedroom,” writes Lewis. “Probably a sous-chef had pureed meat or vegetables for him. . . . It arrived on a table pushed by Harry the Waiter, who’d play with us for a few minutes before he lifted the snowy napkins off our sandwiches.”
While living in the Taft, Lewis and Peter must follow three house rules. Rule one: “Don’t disturb the guests.” Rule two: “Don’t go outside.” Rule three: “Don’t pester the employees.” These rules, of course, are sometimes broken. With a father making hotel rounds late into the night and a mother who rarely ventures outside the tiny hotel suite, Lewis and Peter are left to their own devices. Although they are watched by a handful of revolving caretakers, Lewis brothers are free to wander the hotel, run (quietly) down the hallways and take rides in the toy fire engine on the roof.
Hotel Kid features an oddly charming group of supporting characters. Lewis describes wacky patrons of the hotel with a Roald Dahl-like whimsy. “I remember a lady four and a half feet tall who walked through the lobby three times a day with a Chihuahua; a larger dog wouldn’t have fit in a thirty-dollar-a-month room,” Lewis writes. He remembers the smallest guest of all, “an actor who called the Taft home between engagements in a road company tour of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs . . . When we grew taller than he, he pretended not to see us, and we learned to stop saying hello.”
But Lewis’s mother is, by far, the most fascinating character of all. Within the confines of the hotel, Mother is the queen. When calling the kitchen, Mother makes as many substitutions as possible, even though the Taft menu specifically forbids them. “’A club sandwich on white toast, but leave out the third slice of toast. And toast the bread twice, do you understand? Crisp. Do you understand? Crisp, crisp, crisp, but not burned.’” Mother’s friends parade in and out of the hotel suite, eating elaborate room service dinners. “When she complained about her dinner, the waiter would look down at his feet, holding his napkin in his big red hands,” Lewis writes. “If he offered to bring another portion in just a minute or substitute something she might prefer, she’d say it would take too long or would decide when it arrived that she was no longer hungry.”
It would be easy to dismiss Mother as a stern tyrant, but Lewis writes with the sensitivity of a truly loving son. When Mother does visit outside world, she shades her face with a veil and walks with small, shaky steps. “She worried about low blood sugar, too, and carried gumdrops that she greedily chewed if she felt weak or shaky. Peter and I never ate the gumdrops,” he writes. Lewis successfully creates a complicated, delicate portrait of Mother, trapped her own self-inflicted prison. Under Lewis’s lens, Mother feels less like a raving hotel dictatress and more like the frail, tentative woman he knows her to be.
Although Lewis lives in the bustling center of midtown Manhattan, like his mother, he feels detached from the world outside the hotel. While the Great Depression slowly debilitates the city, the Lewis family opts to stay in the Taft, where every desire is immediately fulfilled. “Reality outside the comfortable cocoon of the hotel embarrassed us, ” writes the author. If not for the Taft, Lewis and his family could be living in shelters and standing in breadlines.
Even after the Depression has passed, Father is forever changed. “The Depression constantly played in Father’s head like some sinister background music, and he reminded us often of how much we would have had to pay for the food that we were served free.” When the Taft is sold, sold again, and sold a third time, Father seems to be the only one who senses the hotel’s imminent decline. After almost thirty years as general manager, he retires. Lewis, now an adult, must negotiate the outside world alone, without the doting Taft Hotel staff to assist him.
The final few chapters of Hotel Kid felt like a drudging death march, because I had a sinking feeling it would end with the destruction of the elegant Taft Hotel. In the seventies, the hotel and the surrounding area of Times Square fell into disrepair. In the eighties, the Taft finally closed, just as Father had predicted. In 1992, the property was acquired by Starhotels, who renovated it and renamed it “The Michelangelo.”
Lewis visits the Michelangelo while it is still under construction, hoping to rekindle a few of his childhood memories. Maybe he hoped that the new hotel, like a rising phoenix, would be more magical than the crumbling remains of the old, dilapidated Taft. Instead, Lewis is disenchanted. The Michelangelo has rented part of the hotel space to a T.G.I. Fridays restaurant. “There are no customers,” he writes. “Who’d climb a flight of stairs for a drink in Times Square? A bored bartender and a lethargic cashier let me wander. In the back, dishwashers eye me suspiciously. I look resentfully back at them. I think they may be in Father’s office.”
As Lewis tours the Michelangelo with the new general manager, he realizes that the Taft of his childhood now exists only in his mind. “He details for me his plans for voice mail, modems, and fax machines in all the rooms, while I gnaw the Taft like an old dog with an old white bone, flesh gone, gristle gone, taste gone, smell gone, only memory urging him on.” In Hotel Kid, Lewis manages to capture what a team of contractors and architects could not. He successfully recreates the opulence of one of Times Square’s finest hotels, and gives readers a key to the back entrance. We’re offered a four-room suite with astonishing view of Times Square, elaborate French dinners and a front-row seat to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And don’t forget the free ice cream.
Books mentioned in this column:
Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous Internet publications, including Travels.com, Livestrong.com and Trails.com. She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.