It’s been a blissful “fall” day in New York City.
The summer-like sun has been beating down as if the Yankees are destined to win the World Series. The trees in Central Park are turning rustic reds and glorious golds.
And the world’s most famous ice rink, at the Rockefeller Centre, is already open in October.
But tonight, our group is severely divided as we prepare to enjoy pre-theatre cocktails and dinner at “the Knick”, aka “the Grande Dame of Times Square”.
Should we risk the autumnal chill to dine at St Cloud Rooftop Bar, with its complete view of the Times Square Ball?
(At precisely one minute to midnight every December 31, the ball begins its 60-second plunge signalling the start of another New Year – making St Cloud one of the most exclusive places on earth to celebrate the annual battle between hope and experience.)
Or settle for a warmer ambience at the five-star hotel’s signature restaurant, Charlie Palmer at the Knick (run by one of America’s best-known celebrity chefs)?
Eventually we strike a compromise. In other words, the women decide.
Champagne and cocktails on the roof (apparently most celebrity NYE guests come prepared with their faux fur coats), followed by Charlie’s angelic menu downstairs. (And my “New York rib eye” was the best steak I’ve ever eaten.)
Sadly, our group does not contain a single celebrity.
Nor can I spot them at any adjoining tables.
Yet “the Knick” – real name, the Knickerbocker Hotel – was the first luxury high-rise hotel built in Midtown as the social focus of Manhattan suddenly leapt further north.
It’s dwarfed now, but in 1906, when the heritage-listed beaux arts building opened, it was one of the tallest buildings north of Wall Street.
Financed by John Jacob Astor IV, it was also directly across Broadway from the Times Building – former headquarters of The New York Times – which had been completed a year earlier (and led to Longacre Square being renamed Times Square).
Astor, a mega-millionaire, pitched the Knick at his own social ilk. There were 556 rooms, plus luxurious bars and restaurants for pre- and post-theatre enjoyment which led to the Knick being nicknamed the “42nd Street Country Club”.
Alas, the original Knick was sunk by an iceberg. Famously, Astor was the richest passenger to die on the Titanic in 1912. His son Vincent continued to run the Knick (through legendary manager James B. Regan) until Prohibition was introduced in 1919.
The following year, the Knick was turned into an office building.
However, it reopened as the Knickerbocker Hotel in 2015, after a $US230 million redevelopment which saw the historic facade kept intact, while the interior was completely gutted. (There are now 300 rooms including suites.)
Please spend time surveying Saints & Sinners, the whimsical mural Molly Crabapple was commissioned to produce for the Knick’s reopening.
Her artwork is dominated by an enormous martini, (incorrectly) said to have been invented at the Knick. Regan poses with John D. Rockefeller on the rim of the glass as giant bottles of gin and vermouth are poured in to create a Manhattan masterpiece. The flaw is that Rockefeller was a teetotaller.
Crabapple selected far more sinners than saints for her mural, but each has a connection with the Knick.
Athletes? Do they get any bigger than boxers “Gentleman” Jim Corbett and Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world? Or baseball legend, Babe Ruth, traded from the Red Sox to the Yankees at the Knick.
World culture? In 1910 alone, the hotel entertained three legendary figures whose names survive the passing of years.
Italian tenor Enrico Caruso lived at the Knick from 1909, singing impromptu concerts from his balcony. Composer Giacomo Puccini resided here during the production of The Girl of the Golden West, his follow-up opera to Madame Butterfly.
And Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova was a fellow guest while dancing at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Naturally, given today’s fascination with fake news, you’re after some goss on Hollywood stars? Does it get any bigger than “America’s sweetheart leaves husband for swashbuckling superstar”?
In 1915, Mary Pickford, 23, met future husband Douglas Fairbanks while living at the Knick. Both were married, but as Crabapple says, “that didn’t stop them from hitting it off”.
In 1918, Pickford signed a contract at the Knick making her the the first million-dollar movie actress in Hollywood.
The Knick is that kind of hotel. It has been a celebrity centrepoint of so many chapters of US history. Take the Jazz Age.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) met his wife Zelda while both were writing short stories as residents in 1919.
Sure, the current reincarnation of the Knickerbocker Hotel remains unashamedly elitist (in terms of what it might cost you).
My tip? Visit in February or March when NYC prices plummet.
Knickerbocker Hotel, 6 Times Square (42nd Street and Broadway), see theknickerbocker.com
Charlie Palmer at The Knick: theknickerbocker.com/dine/charlie-palmer-nyc
St Cloud Rooftop: theknickerbocker.com/dine/st-cloud
SEE A SHOW
Scores of “Broadway” theatres/ comedy clubs are within a 10-minute walk.
Steve Meacham was a guest of Singapore Airline and NYC & Co.