Hotel Elysée: The Tennessee Williams YearsPublished: February 28th, 2018
Guests of the Hotel Elysée have long praised the hotel for its attentive and caring staff, complimentary amenities, prime midtown location, and French country inn-themed décor. What many guests begin to realize as they roam the halls is the rich history that is associated with this nearly 100 year-old building. Just stepping into the lobby of the Hotel Elysée invokes a feeling of old-world glam. The hotel and the adjoining Monkey Bar have hosted countless luminaries throughout the years. Most recently, television shows such as “MadMen” and “Sex in the City” have featured the hotel and lobby bar. We dedicate this post to one of the hotel’s most famous residents; Mr. Tennessee Williams.
According to the synopsis of his life on Biography.com, “Playwright Tennessee Williams was born on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi. After college, he moved to New Orleans, a city that would inspire much of his writing. On March 31, 1945, his play, The Glass Menagerie, opened on Broadway and two years later A Streetcar Named Desire earned Williams his first Pulitzer Prize. Many of Williams’ plays have been adapted to film, starring screen greats like Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. Williams died in 1983.” His legacy is revered to this day and he is honored in the Hotel Elysée with a Presidential Suite named after him. In the suite, visitors get the unique experience of staying in a 900 square foot space that is larger than many Manhattan apartments. The beautifully appointed room features dining area, kitchen, living room area, and large bedroom with King sized bed, but the uniqueness of the experience comes from the memorabilia of this late great writer.
To fully appreciate the years that Mr. Williams spent at the Elysée, it is appropriate to understand the reputation the hotel had gained before, during and after his time there. As previously mentioned, countless show biz luminaries made their way through the front doors of 60 East 54th Street.
The year was 1936. A Turkish entrepreneur was making a fortune from street candy carts, an ice cream cone factory he owned, and a monopolized hatcheck concessions business that spanned throughout the NYC night club scene. The man was Mayer Quain, and his love for the nightlife brought him to buying the Hotel Elysée upwards of $400,000. After purchasing the bankrupt property, Quain added a bar in the lobby that began serving at 10:30AM, and concluded service at 4AM. The quaint watering hole sported a simple decor with just 4 stools, zebra-striped wallpaper, and monkey decals that reminded patrons that when they drank, they made monkeys of themselves. The featured entertainment was somewhat of a variety show with piano playing, singing, and some raunchy comedy. It wasn’t long before word of the Elysée and Monkey Bar spread among some of the right show people in NYC. Soon, the likes of the Gish sisters, Robert Benchley, Helen Hayes, Ben Hecht, Ava Gardner and a slew of lesser-known celebrities came to call the Elysee a home away from home. It was during this time that Tennessee Williams first graced the hotel as well.
In a New York Times article by Jean Nathan and published in 1994, Nathan writes of the reputation that the hotel had gained in Life Magazine. “Life magazine described it as a “a swank version of a theatrical boardinghouse.” Dorothy Kilgallen reported (with some excitement) that Ava Gardner had been spotted sunbathing on her Elysee terrace. And Walter Winchell was appalled by what he described as those ‘risgay [ sic ] ditties.'” It had become apparent that the Elysée and Monkey Bar were “the place to be” for Manhattan’s show biz crowd. Mr. Quain operated the hotel and bar until his passing in 1944. His family took over the business, and the notorious shenanigans continued. Tallulah Bankhead lived at the Elysée with her pets that included a mynah bird, monkey and lion cub. She once threw a party in the hotel that spanned 5 days and concluded with her hailing a taxi, wearing nothing but her mink coat. Perhaps for instances such as these, the hotel earned its moniker, the “Esylée” (easy lay).
It was the permissive atmosphere that continued drawing screen and stage personalities throughout the years. Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, and Joe DiMaggio stopped by more than once. Tennessee Williams moved into the hotel around 1968. He lived in what was known as the “Sunset Suite”. For the next 15 years, Tennessee would be a fixture at the hotel. It is rumored that he would often keep guests awake at night, banging away on his typewriter. However, he would never hear of the disturbances he caused as the Front Desk would be vigilant in not interrupting Mr. Williams, but instead, would move the disrupted guest to a room further away.
Tennessee Williams’s life is as captivating as it is tragic. From the 1960s onward, his works received several bad reviews from critics and to cope, he turned to drugs and alcohol. Biography.com cites a brief stint in rehab during 1969. When he left the hospital, he went write back to work in his suite. He completed his memoirs in 1975. In 1979, he was a victim of a gay hate-fueled attack by a group of teenagers in Key West, Florida. The autumn of 1982 saw the completion of Tennessee’s final full-length play, “In Masks Outrageous and Austere”.
In February of the following year, tragic struck fatally. On the morning of February 25, Tennessee Williams was found lifeless in his suite at the Elysée. There have been many speculations as to the cause of death, but the medical examiner attributed it to choking on a bottle cap. John Eucker, who was Tennessee’s assistant and companion at the time, was keen on preventing press from thinking the death was suicidal or AIDS related. In later years, those who knew him closely said his death was cause by seconal intolerance, a loss of willingness to live, similar to Michael Jackson’s reason for dying.
Many believe the oft-tortured characters in Tennessee Williams’s plays were a personification of the very mental anguish that plagued him for most of his life. However, his works can also be considered a reflection of his perseverance and triumph over such angst. Today, the Hotel Elysée honors Tennessee Williams with a 900 square foot Presidential Suite in his honor. Guests who have the opportunity to stay in this room are treated to old photos and writings of Tennessee. The adjoining Deluxe King room is perfect for when coming with a family. We hope to see you soon! Please feel free to ask for our Sales Department when booking one of our Presidential Suites. We’d love to welcome you into a step back in history!
By: Joseph Bode