The Hotel Taft was once the biggest hotel in Midtown Manhattan, but it never had 2,000 rooms, as advertised, and to claim that it was located both in Times Square and at Radio City (as the matchbooks and postcards did) was a stretch.
But Stephen Lewis, who grew up there with his brother, Peter, when their father was the hotel’s general manager, learned a lot about virtual reality long before the phrase was coined. When he caught his father in those inconsistencies, Mr. Lewis recalls in “Hotel Kid: A Times Square Childhood” (Paul Dry Books), “He patted me on the head and explained that it was advertising.”
“Illusion is as necessary to a hotel as a passkey,” Mr. Lewis writes. “Growing up, I learned that not everybody who smiles is happy. Not everyone who says ‘Thank you’ is grateful. Not every waiter who dances in pain to your table crying, ‘Careful, sir, careful. Plate is very hot!’ is holding a warm plate.”
After a career in educational publishing, Mr. Lewis moved to Santa Fe, Calif., where he wrote freelance magazine articles on food and travel. His book was published in 2002, but I only recently discovered it, and it’s just too charming not to share.
The book begins with a time warp, Mr. Lewis’s return visit to the hotel, now the Michelangelo, that had been his home.
In 1931, the family moved into a four-bedroom suite on the 15th floor overlooking the roof of the Roxy Theater. Room service or the downstairs Taft Grill provided meals. There were other perks, too, like great views of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or of Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
He remembers the Sixth Avenue El, which crossed 53rd Street to connect with the Ninth Avenue El (“nothing grinds, squeals and clatters louder than an el”), and attending Public School 69 on 54th Street (where exercise was limited to walking in a circle slowly for fear of injury).
His father drafted a plethora of rules in an employee handbook (including four pages about “Never fire a chef for stealing unless you can find one who doesn’t steal”). The boys’ mother was more imperious. She yelled at almost everyone, except for Robbins the Package Boy.
For a few years, his grandparents lived in the hotel, too. They had divorced.
“Although they lived on different floors, Mother was terrified that Harry and Esther would meet in an elevator or the lobby,” Mr. Lewis writes. “Esther had not spoken to Harry in 40 years. Mother needn’t have worried; Harry rarely left his room.”
“Hotel Kid” reads like raw material for a TV sitcom. Stephen’s mother hires a Columbia student, Bob Lax, to tutor the boys and to teach them baseball. He sometimes brought along his roommate, Tom Merton. (“Both tried to explain eternity to us,” Mr. Lewis writes, but “food is the first gift, after life itself, and it shouldn’t be hard to understand its magic.”)
There was always plenty of it.
“In ‘The Seven Storey Mountain,’ Tom Merton wrote about how his college friend ‘was living in the Hotel Taft tutoring the children of the manager, and having access to an icebox full of cold chicken at all hours of the day and night,’” Mr. Lewis recalls.
“If a potential saint, in a spiritual autobiography compared by Archbishop Fulton Sheen to ‘The Confessions of Saint Augustine,’ finds free chicken worth mentioning,” Mr. Lewis adds, “I suppose I shouldn’t be too hard on myself.”
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