The Plaza’s many lives: How moguls, labor fights and a changing city shaped an icon

A new book details the history of one of NYC's most celebrated hotels
By Kathryn Brenzel | May 31, 2019 02:30PM

Like many projects today, the construction of the Plaza Hotel was complicated by a fight over the use of nonunion labor. What sets that conflict apart, however, is it resulted in a murder.

Before the iconic hotel topped out, ironworkers — angered by the developer’s use of nonunion laborers — attacked ex-police officers who were stationed on the site to keep the peace. One of the officers was thrown through a hole in the project’s unfinished floors and ultimately died from the injuries.

Though this particular incident in July 1906 was the culmination of a labor fight in extreme, the 100-plus year history of the Plaza offers a snapshot of different aspects of building and living in New York City, including union tensions, rent control, outsized egos and risky real estate plays.

“From its opening in 1907 through today, really it’s a mirror that’s reflected the city and the history of wealth and money in New York and even the country,” said author Julie Satow, whose book on the history of the hotel, “The Plaza,” debuts June 4.

Satow, a New York Times contributor, was interviewed by “The Liar’s Ball” author Vicky Ward about the new book at an event hosted by The Real Deal‘s publisher Amir Korangy on Wednesday. (Satow’s book is dedicated to her husband, Stuart Elliott, who is TRD’s editor-in-chief.)

The book details how the hotel has changed hands over the years and how it has weathered prohibition, war and absentee owners. As Ward noted, the book provides a detailed account of the hotel’s past, but it ultimately revolves around the people who have lived and stayed there, and who have developed a personal connection to the city landmark.

There’s a chapter about Donald Trump, who appointed his now ex-wife, Ivana, as the hotel’s president after buying the Plaza for more than $400 million in 1988. At the time, their marriage was “imploding,” Satow said, as would his union with the hotel a few years later. Another chapter details how Subrata Roy — the “Indian Great Gatsby” or, as Ward referred to him, the “Indian Trump” — spent the majority of his time as the Plaza’s owner in a jail cell in Delhi and how that impacted the hotel’s staff.

When the first guests arrived at the Plaza, a majority were checking in for good. Satow noted on Wednesday that the hotel helped shape how New Yorkers came to think about luxury living — long before Billionaires’ Row.

“The Plaza actually ushered in the concept of wealthy people living in apartments,” she said. “It suddenly became OK for New Yorkers to live in apartments, to live with other people and not at their own private mansions.”