The Waldorf-Astoria is rightly regarded as one of the world’s great luxury hotels. A byword for New York glamour and opulence since it opened its gleaming art-deco doors in 1931, it has been home to such glittering names as Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly. It is the only hotel in America to have been the residence of three 5-star generals (Eisenhower, Bradley, and MacArthur), and every US president since Herbert Hoover has stayed there. No wonder owner Conrad Hilton called it “the Greatest of Them All.”
Hidden away around the corner on the Mezzanine floor of the Park Avenue entrance, out of sight to all the well-heeled passersby, sits an elderly and well used grand piano. It has a small brass plaque on it, which says “Some of the loveliest songs in American musical history were composed on this Steinway.” It once belonged to one of the hotel’s most famous residents, but now forgotten and unused, here lies the final resting place of Cole Porter’s piano.
The original Waldorf-Astoria started in the 1890s as two adjacent hotels run by feuding relatives of the Astor family; William Waldorf Astor and John Jacob Astor. Occupying the corner of Fifth Avenue on what is now the site of the Empire State Building, the quarreling cousins eventually put aside their differences, and built a corridor connecting their hotels. Giving rise to the hyphenated Waldorf-Astoria, the hyphen represented the illustrious “Peacock Alley,” the gilded corridor which was the place for the cities wealthiest and prettiest women to see and be seen.
The need to modernize saw the hotel move to its Park Avenue location in 1931, and was at the time, the world’s largest and grandest hotel. Three years later Cole Porter moved into his luxurious rooms on the 33rd floor. With six bedrooms, a marble entryway, and panoramic views of Park Avenue, Porter kept his apartment until his death in 1964. Already one of America’s pre-eminent songwriters and composers, Porter kept a 1907 Steinway grand piano in his apartment. Decorated with suitably elegant flowers, gilt edges, and inlaid carvings of partying Regency-era courtesans, it was on this piano that Cole Porter wrote some of his most loved and famous songs including Anything Goes, I Get a Kick Out of You, You’re the Top, and I’ve Got You Under My Skin.
An in-famous bon vivant, giver of lavish parties and writer of elegantly witty songs filled with sexual innuendo, one wonders at what exquisite cocktail evenings took place up on the 33rd floor around the piano which he named “High Society.” After Porter’s death in 1964, the piano remained in the hotel, and for 14 years it was lovingly played in the hotel lobby by Daryl Sherman, herself an elegant throwback to Manhattan’s once elegant nightlife. But a change of ownership in 2007 saw Sherman shown the door and the piano put aside.
Today Cole Porter’s apartment, 33A, currently rents for $150,000 a month and was, until eclipsed by the Astor suite at the Plaza Hotel, New York’s most expensive apartment. But the piano where he wrote, “You’re the top....you’re a Waldorf salad,” has been shuffled off to the side of the Mezzanine, where it sits unplayed and unnoticed. A forgotten relic of New York sophistication and a golden era, described in the words of its elegant owner, “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, but now, God knows, Anything Goes.” Including shuffling off an important American artifact.
Update October 2018: The hotel is closed for renovations until 2020.
Update July 7, 2018: The piano is now at the New York Historical Society, where concerts on it are being played on Friday evenings.