Waldorf-Astoria – Famous Dinners, Balls, And Guests

The door of the Waldorf opened. A middle-aged man entered, a little excitedly, and went directly to the registry desk. The clerk behind the desk smiled and bowed. He, too, was excited. Bellboys, standing about, waited with anticipation.

The man who came in picked up a pen and put his name on a registry card, became the first guest of New York’s first great modern hotel.

The guest was Jonas B. Kissam, a son-in-law of Abner Bartlett, agent of the William Waldorf Astor Estate. He was not alone. With him were Mrs. Kissam and their daughter, Miss Grace Kissam. They were assigned to a suite of rooms. After them came Mr. and Mrs. Henry Rosener, of New York, and Mr. and Mrs. Robert Garrett, of Baltimore.

After that the new hotel’s registry was destined to be-come a Who’s Who, not only of the United States, but of the world. Presidents, kings, princes of the crown, later were to place their names upon the open pages of the book. If you go into the New York Public Library today you will find those pages and the names of the men and women who placed their signatures thereon.

You will not have to glance far down the registry pages to find after Mr. Kissam’s name the signatures of the first group of distinguished foreigners to occupy the specially arranged state rooms of the hotel. They included the Duke and Duchess of Veragua, the Hon. Christopher Columbus y Aguilera, the Hon. Charles Aguilera, the Hon. Marquis Barbolis and his son, the Hon. Pedro Columbus de la Corda. They comprised the official delegation from Spain’ to the World’s Fair in Chicago.

Soon after, they were followed by the Princess Eulalie of Spain and her suite. New York society was delighted with the princess and sought in vain to fete her. Finally, however, she gave a reception at the Waldorf. The most prominent women of New York, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago were invited. American and Spanish colors were entwined in every corner of the ball-room. The newspapers commented on the charm of the princess and of the other members of the delegation. They also went into rhapsodies about the good will that had been engendered between the two nations. Five years later, Spain and the United States were at war!

The next distinguished foreigner to invade New York and place his name upon the Waldorf’s register was the Marquis Yamagata of Japan, who arrived here in April, 1896. Aside from the many receptions and balls given in his honor, the most outstanding feature of his visit was a dinner arranged by his compatriots in the grand ball-room of the hotel. This was covered with festoons of Japanese colors of the finest silk, caught at intervals with small United States shields, flanked on either side by Japanese and American standards of silk. The dinner was a sumptuous one, typical of the well-established, fulsome dinner of the early ‘nineties.

Yet the visit of the Marquis Yamagata was of minor importance compared with the reception given to another gentleman from the Orient, who arrived in New York with a great deal of pomp and display a few months later. He was Li Hung-Chang, Viceroy of China, Prime Minis-ter, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Senior Guardian of the Emperor, Earl of Suh Chi, and Commander of the North-ern Army. All the same person. He was, in other words, one of China’s greatest men before the overthrow of the government and the uprising of a democracy which even to this day has not quite got its footing.

The visit of Li Hung-Chang–or “Mr. Li,” as he was called and as we shall sometimes refer to him hereafter—was a formal one. For that reason the United States, particularly Washington and New York, was excited. It was the first time that a foreigner of such political sub-stance had come to us from the mysterious, impenetrable Orient. We were still in our East-is-East-and-West-is-West stage commercially and politically, in that day, and any man of Mr. Li’s Eastern mystical caliber simply over-awed us.

During the entire week of his stay at the Waldorf crowds surged about the hotel, waiting for a glimpse of him. His parade up to the hotel from the American Line pier off Fulton Street, where he alighted from the American liner St. Louis, brought out a crowd close to a million —and comparatively speaking that was a bigger ovation than Lindbergh received.

Of course, ticker tape was missing, but our methods of greeting conquering heroes or visiting celebrities was slightly more subdued then and, thank Heavens, it was much less mechanical. For instance, the committee in charge of arrangements didn’t wait until the noon hour for a parade. It wasn’t seeking a public show. However, most of the offices closed, anyhow, and everybody that could afford the time lined the streets to see the Viceroy, the Prime Minister, the Senior Guardian of the Emperor, etc., etc. (all rolled into one) as he rode in plain view in the first carriage of the procession. Down in Chinatown there was celebrating of a most special and glorious sort.

Meanwhile, at the Waldorf, frenzied preparations had been underway to receive the great Chinese visitor. Chinese flags and bunting were displayed all over the building, together with strange-looking dragons, so that you wondered whether Fifth Avenue really was Mott or Pell or Doyers Street. The New York Times, referring to the hotel’s appearance, said that Li Hung-Chang had transformed the Waldorf into a Chinese inn that might safely and appropriately be called “At the Sign of the Dragon.” It told of the imperial dragon and sun flags dangling in the halls, corridors, and dining-rooms of the hotel, while down in the kitchens in the basement, Chinese cooks (three of them, brought along with the Viceroy’s suite) were preparing Chinese food in Chinese pots and pans. Oscar’s tempting dishes, that week, at least, had to give way to bird’s-nest soup, shark’s fins and other delicacies of the Celestial Empire.

In the state apartments a scene unusual for an Occidental hotel was being enacted. Entered therein, after Mr. Li, his secretaries, interpreters, and his other assist-ants. A few moments later Consul-General Sze and members of the Chinese reception committee, all wearing their wide, flowing robes of black and purple silk, were ushered into the presence of the Chinese Pooh Bah.

The biggest problem before them, it seems, was the matter of the cooking arrangements. The Viceroy, you see, had brought along even his own stoves, specially arranged for cooking his favorite dishes. The cooks had been given a section of the kitchen, apart from the rest of the room. There were installed all their unique and puzzling cooking implements. But besides their own condiments they had to draw upon the Waldorf’s larders, which, fortunately enough, were sufficiently ample to take care of the needs of the Viceroy and his suite.

What the Waldorf employees soon learned was that they were to have no part in serving the Viceroy. The food was to be placed in the hands of a gentleman known as the Senior Guardian of the Son of Heaven only by those he personally recognized as one of his own race. Therefore, the cooks carried their food direct to their master.

The Occident, as represented by New York, was not quite used to the customs of the Orient, and so most people were surprised by the hours that the Viceroy kept, especially in gay New York. The most shocking thing was that he usually went to bed every night at eight o’clock. He almost adhered to it even on the night of August 30th, when a dinner was given in his honor by members of the American diplomatic and consular service to China.

The dinner was, as usual, an Occidental one. Even the members of the Viceroy’s staff tasted of American food. But Li continued to remain partial and loyal to his native land by having his cooks prepare him his favorite Chinese food. As in food, so in dress did Mr. Li refuse to go Occidental at an Occidental dinner. He appeared at the big table, set for seventy guests, in his blue robe, white-soled Chinese shoes, his yellow jacket, fastened by black frogs, a black satin cap crowned with corals.

After the meal proper: which ended at eight o’clock (just the time for the Viceroy to go to bed)—an interpreter rose and read his speech. Whereupon Mr. Li, smiling coldly, as was his habit, rose, bowed, and left the dining-room. There was nothing impolite about this. To Mr. Li, a great man in the days before China became a sorry and scrambled imitation of a republic, he did not have to make apologies. In his costume, which contrasted strangely with the superb Occidental surroundings, he strolled leisurely into the smoking parlor, bowed politely —and coldly—to the elegantly-dressed women that pressed about him, smoked his elaborate water-pipe (which some guests thought, with much horror, was an opium pipe!) and then rose and went to his rooms.

When he departed he politely left a memento of his visit. For every woman guest he ordered a great basket of roses. For attendants he provided gratuities that were beyond all their expectations. Yet, had they rushed up to thank him, I imagine Mr. Li would have smiled coldly.

Only to one little group did he seem to unbend and display his real generosity of spirit-Oscar and his two sons. The Viceroy adored children, as do most Chinamen, and when he met Oscar’s boys the apparent coldness—which is merely a manner that Occidentals do not understand—vanished and a broad grin came on his face. He talked to Oscar’s boys in Chinese and they had to depend upon an interpreter.

Royalty appeared at a crucial moment again with the visit of the Crown Prince of Siam, and, in 1902, when Prince Henry of Prussia, brother of former Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, came on a semi-official visit. The ostensible reason for his trip to the United States was to attend the launching. of the Kaiser’s American-built yacht Meteor near Staten Island. The more fundamental reason was to foster friendly relations between Germany and the United States. The Meteor, by the way, was launched on the 25th of February by Miss Alice Roosevelt, eldest daughter of the President and later wife of the late Speaker Longworth.

Behind all this, however, was something more than a mere ship launching or an official gesture of friendship. It will be recalled that after the victory of the American fleet, headed by Admiral Dewey, at Manila Bay, British, French, Japanese, and German men-of-war came into the harbor. It was supposed they were there just to protect their nationals. Perhaps they were, though many experts doubted it. All of them, however, observed naval etiquette except the Germans. The German cruiser Irene had dropped anchor at a certain spot without consulting the wishes of the commander in charge of the blockade. A few days later the German cruiser, Kormoran, equally indifferent, entered the harbor without any previous communication with Dewey. Dewey decided she must-or might be a Spanish ship using the German flag as a ruse. He signaled to the ship, but it paid no heed, so a shot was sent across her bows.

The fleets of the other nations began to realize that Dewey, and the country he represented, meant business. Yet the Germans maintained a belligerent attitude. It was because of this situation, which caused quite a popular uprising of feeling in the United States against Germany, that the nation cheered Joseph Bullock Coghlan, whose ship, the Raleigh, had been in the forefront of the battle of Manila. Captain Coghlan was the first of the officers who had participated in that famous battle to return home, and as a result a great dinner and reception was given in his honor. At this dinner he practically denounced Germany and the Kaiser and almost openly dared Germany to make one more overt act. It was a situation, I might add, that was somewhat parallel to the one early in 1931, when Smedley Butler, of the Marines, chastised Italy and Mussolini.

At this dinner to Captain Coghlan, however, those present expressed the feeling of the nation against Germany. The song “Hoch! Der Kaiser!”, satirically lauding the Kaiser’s boast of “Me—und Gott”, was sung with gusto. Presumably, feeling was higher than it might have been because it had not been forgotten that in 1900—two years before—Kaiser Wilhelm had made a New-year’s Day speech in which he let the world know, and particularly America, that the German navy was prepared to put itself in a place where it would meet any nation in the world. The statement, while discreet, was pretty direct, so far as Uncle Sam was concerned.

Meanwhile the Captain Coghlan dinner had aroused the German-speaking press in New York. It characterized the poem, “Hoch! Der Kaiser!” as bad humor. The German ambassador, Herr von Holleben, protested to the State Department and scathingly denounced the poem. The then Secretary of State, John Hay, criticized Captain Coghlan for his lack of good taste, and the Navy Department spinelessly reprimanded him. But the country in general remembered.

However, the arrival of Prince Henry was welcomed as heartily by America as was his reception over here applauded by Germany. The Waldorf, as the premier hotel of the day, was determined to reflect the open generosity and good will of the nation. Manager Boldt prepared for the visit of the prince long before his arrival. He drilled the servants, attendants, waiters, for the parts they were to play in a drama of hospitality that two nations—in fact, the whole world—was watching closely. On the day of the prince’s arrival, he was naturally confident that every-thing was in order. But something, as we shall see, happened.

The warship brought Prince Henry through the Narrows. Our own forts and ships boomed their formal salutes. It was a grand and splendid ovation. At length the prince arrived at the Waldorf. He began that brief march through Peacock Alley which other notables had made before and were to make later. Beautiful ladies and well-groomed gentlemen bowed or curtsied before him. The prince was pleased. His face flushed with happiness and pleasure. At that moment every newspaper in America and every journalistic cable to Europe was telling of the tremendous reception given to the Kaiser’s brother. Diplomats everywhere were watching closely; it was a vital, important moment in the relations between the two great countries.

But even as that slow stroll of Prince Henry through Peacock Alley began, an alarming call was received by Oscar. There was no hot water for the prince’s bath! The plumbing was out of order!

This was serious. You can well imagine what would have happened if word had gone out that the premier hotel of the world, which boasted of modern conveniences not dreamed of in Europe, should have failed in that most American of institutions—the bath. Even today Americans are proud of their plumbing. We were even more proud of it, especially in the big hotels, in the early part of the century. Europe envied us. But let the word go forth that the plumbing in America’s greatest hotel had failed in this vital hour—and Europe would have laughed.

Manager Boldt and Oscar talked this over hastily. Under no circumstances must such a condition be allowed. The Waldorf-Astoria boasted, not only of its cuisine, but of its readiness to meet an emergency. It met this one in singularly efficient fashion. An order was issued quietly but determinedly to the employees. They were organized into a regular old-time “fire brigade.” They formed a line from ready hot-water pipe faucets directly to the state apartments. The water was placed in pails and sent up. Every available employee was inducted into this special service. Pail after pail, pail after pail, of hot water was thus passed up to the prince’s rooms.

Prince Henry, smilingly acknowledging the bows and curtsies of the ladies and gentlemen who lined Peacock Alley, was unaware of the tremendous effort being made in behalf of his comfort. The happy ladies and gentlemen were unaware of that terrific fight to meet an important emergency.

But the prince strolled through the admiring throngs even while the pails of hot water were being passed up to his rooms by the anxious employees. Finally, when the prince reached his suite and was ushered into his private rooms, an attendant was able immediately to say:

“Your bath is ready, Your Highness.”

That night a great dinner was held in honor of Prince Henry. It was given by the New York Staats-Zeitung. Gastronomically, as well as socially, it was important at the time because the papers marveled that the food served included 200 quarts of soup, 7,200 oysters, 500 chicks, 450 pounds of fish, 2,000 pounds of beef, 600 ducks, and innumerable gallons of coffee.

But so far as New York society and the Waldorf were concerned, it is unlikely that these affairs surpassed in splendor the Bradley-Martin ball, which took place on the night of February o, 1897. This ball is already familiar social history. Yet it was so vital a part of the early history of the Waldorf that it deserves a place in this book.

Besides, any temptation to minimize this event vanishes in view of the recent statement by Charles Hanson Towne, one of New York’s bon vivants, that the Bradley-Martin ball, in the light of present-day social triumphs, was a rather dreary affair. Mr. Towne compares it unfavorably with a party given not long ago by Joseph and Clara Fargo Thomas. He speaks of a tall, raftered room, with its minstrel gallery and the guests wearing costumes of the Italian Renaissance: the cardinals, ladies-in-waiting, dukes and duchesses of the Italian court, the Bishop of Padua with his train of acolytes, monks, nuns, kings and queens, pages and court jesters and dancers. Heavens! a page from Boccaccio even was read from “an embossed volume, especially printed.” And he says that the distinguished people included the Eleanora Sears of Boston, the Wideners and the Garretts and others from Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Perhaps he might better have compared the Bradley-Martin ball or the Thomas party with the cotillion given by Mrs. George Jay Gould in 1910, the occasion being to announce the engagement of her daughter Marjorie to Anthony J. Drexel, Jr. The favors at that party reached a climax of costliness. They were all the work of a noted jeweler. During one figure of the cotillion, led by Phoenix Ingraham, jeweled and enameled pins, charms, and rings were given to the women, and, as we are told by no less than the famous Mrs. Van Rensselaer, scarf-pins and scarf-holders to the men. There were also other souvenirs of golds and precious stones. This was perhaps a grander party than Mr. Towne’s Italian Renaissance affair. Surely he knows that costume parties, as elaborate as any pen can describe, are quite common affairs.

It would seem that Mr. Towne ought not to feel quite so sadly about the Bradley-Martin affair. It remains today about the most important party in our social history, if for no other reason than that it marked the first real indulgence of New York society in public splendor on the grand scale. At the same time the ball defined and extended the social lines of the city. Instead of the “Four Hundred” there were nine hundred guests present. Their names were kept secret until the very night of the affair.

The city was excited about it. The newspapers printed columns, some of them even devoting a large part of the front pages to elaborate descriptions of the plans and preparations. The Commercial Advertiser exclaimed: “There is a great stir today in fashionable circles and even in public circles. The cause of it all is the Bradley Martin ball, beside which the arbitration treaty, the Cuban question, and the Lexow investigation (they were investigating even then!) seem to have become secondary matters of public interest.” Some of the more sensational papers talked of public dissatisfaction with the ball and even wildly reported that bombs had been placed near the Bradley-Martin home in Twentieth Street. It was all exciting. For that reason the hosts had to engage police protection:

The Bradley-Martin ball, which was to place a social approval upon individuals who sought entrance into the best circles, faced its chief test in competition with the presentation of “Martha” at the Metropolitan Opera House on the same night. “Martha” was, in that day, perhaps the most popular of operas and usually drew out the most brilliant audience. Ordinarily it might have been possible for the guests to attend the opera and later the ball. But the ball was a costume affair. Naturally it would have been out of the question for the guests to occupy the grand tier, parterre, and orchestra in costumes that would have seemed too grotesque for an opera. So to the consternation of the Metropolitan there was a small and unimportant audience at the presentation of “Martha.”

In the place of the opera, elaborate dinners were given at the Waldorf and in private homes, and among the prominent hostesses were Mrs. John Jacob Astor, Mrs. William C. Schermerhorn, Mrs. Ogden Mills, Mrs. Philip Rhinelander, Mrs. Henry Sloane, Mrs. Henry Paris, Jr., and Mrs. Livingston Ludlow.

Mrs. Bradley-Martin herself appeared in an Elizabethan costume gown of black and flame color, in an impersonation of Mary Stuart. The newspapers of the day said the jewels she wore were worth more than $60,000. Miss Anne Morgan went as an Indian girl and Mr. Welling as a chief. Because he could not sit in a closed carriage with his high head-dress, Mr. Welling had to ride to the ball in an open victoria, while people on the streets cheered him.

Three bands played, a Hungarian band, the Twenty-second Regiment Band, and another Hungarian band from the Eden Musee. The guests began the ball with quadrilles. Unfortunately, this ball marked perhaps the peak of popularity for that graceful square dance in American social life. Let us look into the files of the old Sun, for there we find this description of the ball:

“The quadrilles, the great dancing feature of the evening, began as soon as the guests arrived. The first was the quadrille d’honneur, organized by Mr. John Jacob Astor. Those who took part in it were Mrs. Bradley-Martin and her partner, Mr. John Jacob Astor. They were at the head of the quadrille. At their side, second in importance, were Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish and Mr. Robert Van Cortlandt. At the opposite end were Miss Gerry and Mr. J. Townsend Martin and Mrs. Whitney Warren and Mr. Lispenard Stewart. The side couples were Mrs. Orme Wilson and Mr, Harry Lehr, Mrs. Lee Taller and Mr. Craig Wadsworth, Miss Lena Morton and Mr. Center Hitchcock and Miss Madeline Cutting and Mr. J. J. Van Alen.

“In Mrs. Baylies quadrille dance were Mrs. John Jacob Astor, Mrs. Ogden Mills, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., Mrs. Henry Sloane, Miss Edith Morton, Miss Van Rensselaer, and the Messrs. Alfonso de Navarro, H. D. Rob-bins, Worthington Whitehouse, and others. The debutantes of that winter, in another quadrille, included Miss Josephine Brooke, Miss Evelyn Sloane, Miss Alice Babcock, Miss May Van Alen, accompanied by the Messrs. J. D. W. Cutting, William Sloane, Robert Livingston, and G. Beekman Hoppin.”

The quadrilles were followed by what the Sun calls “general dancing,” and then supper was served. After the supper the newer dances were in evidence—the waltz, the one-step, and the two-step. As yet the fox-trot was unknown.

The Bradley-Martins gave another party dater—a formal dinner marking their departure from the United States for England, where they took up their residence. This dinner, although not as promiscuous a function as the costume ball, was socially as important. Only eighty-six persons were invited and they were supposed to represent the cream of New York society.

The manner in which the newspapers viewed the dinner helps us to understand even more than ever how we were then becoming conscious of, and excited by, our wealth. It was pointed out with much awe that the dinner cost $116.28 per plate. And, as the New York World said, in the group of guests were eighty-six persons whose total wealth was “more than most men can grasp.” There were a dozen men who had $10,000,000 or more, and twice as many with $5,000,000. Of the forty men present, said the World, not half a dozen were not millionaires.

As to the women : “There were gowns that spoke of Paris ransacked. There were diamonds enough for an emperor’s ransom and to spare. There were enough diamond crowns to fit out all the crowned heads of Europe and have some over for Asia and Africa. There were necklaces worth $100,000 apiece on several throats. It was a delirium of wealth and an idyll of luxury and magnificence.”

Senator Chauncey M. Depew was there. He and Mrs. Bradley-Martin sat directly in the middle of one side of the oval, and Mr. Bradley-Martin and Mrs. Kernochan, on the other side, facing them. As a prime social indicator of the day, let us glance at the names of some of the guests:

Mr. and Mrs. L. Townsend Burden, Mr. and Mrs. Edwin T. Baylies, Mr. and Mrs. William Watts Sherman, Mrs. Burke Roche, Mrs. James P. Kernochan, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Wetherbee, Mr. and Mrs. Adrian Iselin, Mr. and Mrs. Lucius K. Wilmerding, Mr. Julien T. Davies, Miss Davies, Mr. George R. Fearing, Miss Evelyn Bur-den, Miss Josephine Johnson, Miss Daisy Post, Mr. and Mrs. William A. Duer, Mrs. Charles A. Post, Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs, Mr. and Mrs. Clarence H. Mackay, Mr. and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, and Mr. Creighton Webb.

Well, magnificent as the Bradley-Martin farewell dinner was, it appears it was surpassed by one given by Randolph Guggenheim, then president of the Municipal Council, in February, 1899. The Herald called it “New York’s Most Costly Dinner,” declaring that it set the mark above the famous Lackmeyer dinner of 1873, which always had been spoken of as the most expensive feast ever served on Manhattan Island.

Yet Oscar is of the opinion that the Guggenheim dinner ranked with the best of them. There were forty guests, served at a cost of $250 each. Nightingales sang in a grove of rose trees which had been uprooted for the occasion. The guests passed into the banquet-hall through a grape arbor and they had only to reach out to pull bunches of the fruit, for which their host had paid several dollars a bunch. There were blue raspberries from a hot-house, grown especially for this dinner. A rare vintage, bottled before the French Revolution, was opened. The center of the table was a pool, in which were reflected masses of orchids, acacias, lilies, and American Beauty roses. For the men favors were jeweled match-boxes; for the women, jeweled vinaigrettes, perfume-boxes, and boxes for snuff so popular then.

Here was the menu for that $10,000 dinner for forty:

Buffet Russe

Private wine Oyster cocktail

Amontillado Lemardelais la princesse Pasado Green turtle

Boliver

Columbine of chicken

(California style)

Roast mountain sheep with puree of chestnuts

Jelly Brussels sprouts saute New asparagus with cream

Sauce vinaigrette

Mumm’s Extra Dry Fancy sherbet

Mat & Chandon Brut

Diamond-back terrapin

Ruddy duck

Orange and grapefruit salad

Fresh strawberries and raspberries Vanilla mousse

Bonbons Coffee Fruits

One paper, commenting on it, exclaimed that “Oscar expresses the joy and triumph of this affair. He has officiated, not at a cavatine, not at an intermezzo or a symphony, but at the heroic masterpiece.”

So impressed and overawed was the public by this dinner that one newspaper, the Evening World, even went so far as to show what the $10,000 could buy. I am outlining a few of the things suggested here as an indicator of costs and salaries in those days. The Evening World said that $10,000 could pay the average wages of eighteen New York workingmen for a year, pay the average wages of 6,240 workingmen for a day; support a family at average workingmen’s wages for fifteen years; build a handsome modern brick cottage in Flatbush; buy a suit of decent clothes and a new pair of shoes for 1, workingmen; pay the salary for a year of two United States Senators; pay the wages of a Cabinet Minister; buy half a ton of coal each for 7,000 families buy 3,000 barrels of good rye flour.

But what the $10,000 did accomplish was one of the most famous meals in New York’s history.

But dinners and banquets were not all that comprised that exciting early period of the Waldorf’s history. ‘What also made the hotel famous were the personalities of its guests. There were three men, especially, of international prominence, who used the Waldorf as the base for activities that grasped the attention of the world.

Their names were John W. (“Bet You a Million”) Gates, Baron Komura of Japan, and Philippe Bunau-Varilla. And not the least of these was Gates.