When friends announced their newborn’s name, Eloise, memories of New York’s Plaza Hotel stiffened my spine. I’d erased all memories of the palatial turn-of-the-century landmark after Donald Trump bought her in the late 1980’s. I even dumped my co-memories of Eloise, an early literary heroine who lived in the Plaza without her parents.
In the early 1950’s, my mother took my sisters and me to live for a while in her childhood home in North Jersey. One day, we took a train to Penn Station, then a cab ride to the Plaza at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South. We drank coca-colas, went to the powder room and backtracked home.
The book Eloise was published in 1955, a few years after that memorable first trip to the Plaza. The protagonist is a precocious six-year old, though the book was written for adults. After its publication, my mother gossiped about author Kay Thompson as if she were the next-door neighbor. On the phone with each of her sisters, she’d giggle at Eloise cartoon antics. They all grew up in the shadow of New York, mocking spoiled high society children similar to Thompson’s Eloise.
Kay Thompson lived at the Plaza and wrote the idiosyncrasies of other residents into Eloise stories. Plaza kibitzers tittered about a wealthy widow who had her hair done cheaper in the men’s barber shop rather than the women’s salon. Thompson had Eloise get her haircut in the barbershop too. Eloise picks ribbons from the garbage in the service elevator, mimicking a reclusive countess who was known to pilfer through hotel trash bins.
Talk of the Plaza Hotel wafted through my childhood. I imagined myself living in the Plaza with my dog and turtle, like Eloise, getting into all sorts of fiendish exploits. My charlatan father often stayed there, or pretended he stayed there. I overheard him arranging to meet other business contacts in the Palm Court or the “coffee shop in the lobby,” as he satirically called it. When I was a teenager I lived with my father for a time in Manhattan. The Plaza was in the vicinity of my walk home and I’d often stop to use the powder room or meet friends in the coffee shop.
Once when I was around nineteen, I came out of an alcoholic blackout at 3:00 a.m. on the powder room floor in the Plaza. I had no purse, no money and was far from my New Jersey home. The bellman allowed me to use a phone in a small back office. I called Bernadette, a high school friend in the Bronx whom I hadn’t contacted in four years. She knew the bellman.
“Ask him for money and take a cab to my place.”
When I arrived, she made up a bed on her couch, gave me homemade chocolate chip cookies and milk. I tried to tell her what happened.
“No explanation necessary. It’s the home of Eloise after all. Anything can happen.”