What would NYC be without martinis, Babe Ruth, and F. Scott Fitzgerald? A poorer NYC, for sure; but The Knickerbocker Hotel proves that, if anything, NYC is anything but poor (posh even) and is a hub that unites these three seemingly disparate NYC reference points.
Firstly, the name: Knickerbocker. This seminal name that the hotel shares with NYC’s home basketball team is a fictional family name from a satirical history that Washington Irving wrote about the foundation of NYC in 1809, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker. Irving had created something of a hoax in local newspapers to drum up interest prior to publishing his first book – he published some missing person ads for the fictional Diedrich Knickerbocker, supposedly a Dutch historian of NYC who had mysteriously gone missing from his hotel. Irving then placed another notice in the same newspapers from the ostensible hotel manager that stated unless Mr. Knickerbocker settle his bill, the hotel threatened to publish a manuscript the historian left behind in his room; and so readers who had followed the missing person ads and the hotel owner’s notice were primed for Irving publishing his satirical history under the pseudonym “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” and the name has become a nickname referring to all Manhattanites ever since.
Although John Jacob Astor IV would eventually assume complete control over The Knickerbocker Hotel, it was originally designed by a Philadelphia-based development group on land leased from Astor and construction began on the French Renaissance-style building in 1902. By the time the developers went financially under in 1904, they had completed the exterior of the building but had not started on the interior; and so in 1905 Astor hired architectural partners Trowbridge & Livingston to complete the interior (they had just finished Astor’s other NYC hotel, the St. Regis Hotel in 1904, located at 2 East 55th Street on 5th Ave.) The hotel doors were opened for guests on Oct. 24, 1906. By the way, this John Jacob Astor (the IV) is the same Astor who would famously go down with the Titanic in 1912, after which his son, Vincent Astor, would inherit the hotel.
The Knickerbocker arrived at 42nd Street roughly around the same time as the New York Times was moving into its new office building at 1 Times Square (the paper actually lent its name to the “square” which had previously been known as Longacre Square.) This was also when the subway lines were first being excavated and laid down throughout NYC – there is now a sealed-up door in the Times Square subway station that opened into a corridor leading guests into the hotel’s lower restaurants and bars. The door still retains an engraved plaque with the name “KNICKERBOCKER” on the lintel. (The door is located at the far eastern end of Platform 1 for the shuttle to and from Grand Central Terminal in case you want to go looking for it.)
For the first dozen years or so after opening, the Knickerbocker was very popular with the well-heeled. International opera megastar Enrico Caruso was probably their most famous resident – from a second-story balcony, Caruso led a crowd on 42nd Street in a rousing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the “false” Armistice Day of Nov. 7, 1918 (this was a “false” Armistice because a press executive forged an editor’s name on a cable from Europe falsely claiming the Germans had signed an armistice; this led to widespread jubilation in NYC even though the Germans would not sign an armistice until Nov. 11th.) There is now a Caruso Suite in the hotel where he used to stay.
Another famous entertainer who also stayed at the Knickerbocker was all-around showman and composer George M. Cohan; among the over 300 songs he published are such standards as “Over There,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Yankee Doodle Boy,” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.” From the hotel corner at Broadway, you can walk just a short three blocks up Broadway to see a statue of Cohan honoring him as the consummate Broadway star.
Amusingly, one person who didn’t get to stay at the Knickerbocker was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ father, John V. Bouvier III – he was thrown out of the hotel in 1919 for “overenthusiastic skipping.” And this wasn’t anything like skipping the bill or a euphemism for something – the hotel “detectives” actually objected to him physically skipping through the lobby! (Apparently, he was drunk.)
The Knickerbocker’s bar was a hot-spot in the noughts and teens of the 20th century; in fact, urban legend has it that the hotel bartender, Martini di Arma di Taggia, introduced a concoction of gin and vermouth aptly named “martini” to hotel guests, among them the oil baron John D. Rockefeller who sang the drinks praises to all his Wall Street friends. (Perhaps – but there is a recipe published for a “Martinez” earlier than the hotel opening so the drink’s origin is disputed, besides which Rockefeller was a teetotaler.) At any rate, martinis and other drinks were in such high demand at the bar by the rich and famous that the hotel became nicknamed “The 42nd Street Country Club.” It was here that Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees for the kingly sum of $125,000 in 1919, starting the notorious “curse of the Bambino” that would afflict the Red Sox until 2004. And sitting at the bar now and then and then again was F. Scott Fitzgerald and his future wife, Zelda; the Knickerbocker gets a mention in Fitzgerald’s novel This Side of Paradise:
“The Knickerbocker Bar, beamed upon by Maxfield Parrish's jovial, colorful "Old King Cole," was well crowded. Amory stopped in the entrance and looked at his wrist-watch; he wanted particularly to know the time, for something in his mind that catalogued and classified liked to chip things off cleanly. Later it would satisfy him in a vague way to be able to think "that thing ended at exactly twenty minutes after eight on Thursday, June 10, 1919." This was allowing for the walk from her house— a walk concerning which he had afterward not the faintest recollection….”
Perhaps the most enticing feature of the hotel was the commissioned mural by famed illustrator and painter Maxfield Parrish that was painted above the hotel bar and mentioned in Fitzgerald’s novel. The mural depicts “Old King Cole” and Astor reportedly wanted the King to bear his likeness. Parrish (being a Quaker) was initially reluctant to paint a mural in a bar, but when offered what was then a seductive $5,000 for painting the mural, he accepted the offer. Astor and Parrish reportedly had testy interactions with one another and Parrish famously got a little bit of a dig in at Astor’s expense: King Cole supposedly does resemble Astor as requested but with a sour expression, and the two jesters that flank him are said to be laughing at the King because he just farted (flatulence among the opulent! Well, I never!!)
Like so many hotels, clubs, and restaurants in the early 20th century, The Knickerbocker Hotel succumbed to the onslaught of the Prohibition era and closed its doors as a hotel in 1921 and refashioned itself as an office building for nearly a century. The Parrish mural was moved to the St. Regis’ King Cole Bar in 1932. From 1940 until 1959, Newsweek magazine (also an Astor holding) had their offices in the building and it acquired the name “The Newsweek Building” during that time. Like so much of NYC in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the building fell on hard times and passed from hand to hand variously outfitted as office space and apartments. With the eventual renewal of Times Square in the past couple of decades, the demand for high-end hotel space has returned to 42nd Street and in 2014 it reopened as the Knickerbocker Hotel with complete interior renovations done by Gabellini Sheppard (the design firm that famously restored the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center.) If you’ve got $500-$700 to blow on a night’s stay, check it out (soundproof walls guarantee the hustle-and-bustle of Times Square won’t disturb your sleep!)
To learn more about The Knickerbocker Hotel and other fascinating addresses along 42nd Street, consider booking a river-to-river walking tour today!