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Real-Life Eloises

Martha Camarillo Joey and Sally Betesh, poolside at their Mandarin Oriental address.

Photo: Martha Camarillo

Whether it's the room service, the daily maid service, or the celebrity guests, living—really living—in a hotel full-time sounds like a dream to most of us. Remember Eloise, who presided over the Plaza?The world's most precocious hotel resident was fond of running down the halls with her pets, wearing lettuce leaves on her head, and ordering room service all by her six-year-old self. Although she flouted the common rules of hotel etiquette, the fictional Eloise (as well as her creator, the entertainer Kay Thompson) was embraced by the Plaza, which made her part of the hotel's legend.

Hotel living—even if the hotel is a bit dodgy—sounds sybaritic. It sounds sexy. Perhaps this is because of a fixed image that comes to mind of Warren Beatty holed up in a penthouse suite at the Beverly Wilshire for years and notches and years. A friend's father visited him there once with his adolescent daughter in tow and called up, "Warren, put on your bathrobe!" over the house phone.

Hmm....House phones. Valet service. Shoe shines. Mini-bars. Charging food and services sounds so much cooler than paying for food and services. Bathtubs tend to be larger and, well, sexier. Rock stars trashing their luxurious hotel suites sounds more exciting than the same stars trashing their home kitchens and screening rooms. The Carlyle had a notorious underground passageway, it is said, to accommodate the visitors who came to see President Kennedy.

And now, of course, there are those Hilton girls.

At a reception for the new residents at the opening of the Ritz-Carlton New York, Battery Park condominium (adjacent to the hotel), everyone was told, "You're all Eloise." But the Plaza, sadly, is no longer the Plaza. It has been shuttered, its fittings have been auctioned off; it will one day be reborn as a condominium, one of the big trends in the hospitality world. (It's not unusual now to see hotels going up in the U.S. and elsewhere with both rooms for the night and private-residence components.) Still, when the Plaza closed, of course, we all had to come to terms with the fact that Eloise never really existed…or did she?

Wendy Carduner is the tiny, smart, black-haired woman who runs Doubles, the private club hidden away in the basement of the Sherry-Netherland hotel. She's the kind of New Yorker who speaks with authority and confidence. No time for questions if you already have the answers. So it is no surprise that Carduner knows a thing or two about New York hotel living. She spent her first 13 years on Central Park South at the St. Moritz Hotel (now known as the Ritz-Carlton), then moved with her family to the Sherry-Netherland, one block east.

When it comes to Eloise, she can relate.

"Our apartment was on the thirty-third, thirty-fourth, and thirty-fifth floors," she says. "Walter Winchell lived next door. We had a living room—with a dining table—a small kitchen, two bedrooms, and two baths. I shared a room with my older sister and our governess, thirteen turtles, one canary, and a poodle." (During Easter, the brood expanded to include a bunny rabbit and chickens.) "We had two terraces, and when we played handball the ball sometimes went over." And since their balconies overlooked the St. Moritz's upstairs ballroom, the girls could always get an excellent view of the banquets and weddings held there. Because Wendy and her sister were the only kids in the hotel, they made friends with the staff. It all sounds very, very Kay Thompson, except for a few details: Wendy was offended by Eloise's freshness and oppositional behavior, and, unlike the book's heroine, she cohabited with her biological family.

Why live in a hotel with a young family?

"My father liked having a late dinner, around nine or nine-thirty, and he enjoyed room service," Carduner says. "It worked for his routine."

In the 1950's and 60's, the St. Moritz had Manhattan's only elite ice-cream parlor, and Wendy enjoyed enough independence to go downstairs all by herself to Rumpelmayer's, where the soda fountain would provide her with a chocolate malted in a tall glass lined with whipped cream.

"It was great! The apartment was small enough to keep the family together, but big enough for us to have our own space," she says. Then, too, Carduner adds, Central Park was the ultimate backyard, contributing to the expansive feeling.

Life became more restrained for the girls when their parents bought an apartment at the Sherry-Netherland, on Fifth Avenue. Her mother decorated in beiges and various kings named Louis. "The dog was not allowed in our public rooms and we were not allowed to use fountain pens," Carduner says. Naturally, that law was just too tempting not to test. Right away, "I spilled ink all over the light-blue carpet. I thought, God has punished me for breaking the house rule. It was like living in a museum. My sister and I disliked it."

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