Growing up in a hotel didn't end with the Eloise books. Today in Manhattan there are many current and former Eloises. Lisa Birnbach met a few, none of whom (as far as she can tell) has ever poured a pitcher of water down a mail chute.
Martha Camarillo Joey and Sally Betesh, poolside at their Mandarin Oriental address.
| Credit: 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."

One woman on the board of the cooperatives at the luxurious Pierre hotel, up the block from the Sherry-Netherland, raised her children there and doesn't recommend it.

"Kids shouldn't have to be that well behaved all the time," she says. "Let them be kids." Thirty-three years ago, when she moved into the Pierre, "it was larky for the boys to live in a hotel. We moved there from a large duplex uptown that needed lots of staff. We entertained, and it wasn't worth the agony of changing help in those days. We wanted to get out from under the burden of the lifestyle—which is now obsolete." Even then, the Pierre was filled with cooperative apartments. Today, there are 80 co-op units and 202 "transient keys," as they say in hotel lingo.

"This is the best apartment hotel," the woman says with some authority. "You're not really stuck for help. A lot of people don't have private help in the building." Once a month the apartment dwellers get a heavy-cleaning crew to polish chandeliers and mirrors, wash windows—the works. Otherwise, on a daily basis, there is maid service, paper products provided, bed and bath linens, and turndown service. "When you walk in from a long, weary trip, your place is clean, your bed is turned down, and you call for food and the newspaper." It does sound heavenly.

Jeff and Lori Shapiro have lived downtown since the mid eighties, before the Battery Park neighborhood became particularly child-friendly. After they started having kids, they decided the neighborhood had a great family feel, "like the suburbs in the city," Lori says. They moved into the Ritz-Carlton Battery Park condominium. Jeff, a dentist, is on the board, and he just loves it here. "It's very heavily staffed compared to an apartment building," he says. The Shapiros take advantage of concierge service ("They go through Ritz training," Jeff notes), borrow tables and chairs, use the valet parking, and enjoy Sunday brunches at 2 West, the hotel's restaurant.

To the Shapiro children—Luke, 14, Jake, 11, and Sophia, 9—"it's just an apartment building, not a hotel," according to Luke. And indeed, the place is divided up like a Manhattan apartment (with big picture windows looking out on the Statue of Liberty, creating the sense of more space than exists indoors). It also feels more like an apartment building than a hotel in that there are three other families living there who send kids to the same Brooklyn private school the Shapiro kids attend. Ta-da! Their New York City sense of community remains intact. Lori has the last word. "By living in a hotel," she says, "I'm getting ready for assisted living."

It's no surprise that the writer and Lawyer Michael Rips (author of The Face of a Naked Lady: An Omaha Family Mystery) has hotels coursing through his veins. His great-grandmother owned the Miller Hotel in Omaha, which was actually a brothel set up for the cattle herders who came to the city's stockyards and slaughterhouses. Okay: in fact, Rips's great-grandmother was the madam of the Miller, and his father grew up there. On his mother's side, there were actual hotels (as opposed to disguised houses of pleasure), in Kansas City and Chicago. "So when I—quote—finally settled down," Rips recalls over coffee at an Italian café in the West Village, "I moved into the Regency, where God would live if he had the money." He pauses. "It was an addictive experience"—one he savored and stretched to five years.

After Rips married Sheila Berger, the couple moved to the Hotel Chelsea because, Rips says, "Sheila is an artist and wanted to be downtown amongst other artists." The contrast between the gleaming Regency on Park Avenue and the more, um, bohemian Chelsea on West 23rd Street could not be more pronounced. And yet.

Rips describes an "admission process," which begins and ends with proprietor Stanley Bard. "You need a recommendation. It's unpredictable. We all represent different aspects of Stanley's mind, and we all fit together." Interestingly, in complete contrast to my earlier presumptions, the Chelsea, battered and colorful, is one of the only hotels—and a non-condo hotel at that—with more than one family raising kids. At the moment, there are three families with young children walking through the lobby of the place where Sid Vicious, Virgil Thompson, Patti Smith, and Andy Warhol used to live. Why didn't Michael and Sheila relocate when their daughter, Nicolaïa, was born?"We were so anesthetized by that point, we didn't consider leaving," he says. The families are all interconnected, through ages, schools, or the novelty of growing up Chelsea.

Some people who live in Manhattan hotels might refer to the lobby dwellers of the Chelsea as "characters," but the lobby life holds enormous appeal for the Ripses. "We always add fifteen to twenty minutes lobby time whenever we have to be somewhere," Michael says. He describes how his daughter was once assigned a paper at school on the British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. Neither Michael nor Sheila was familiar with his work, so they suggested that Nicolaïa go downstairs and do some reconnaissance with the lobby people. "In half an hour she had pages of notes," Rips enthuses. "[Our apartment] is probably too small for us, but the trade-off is being part of the tribe of the people who are here. It's like a MacDowell Colony or a dorm, fostering collaborations."

One Regency resident prefers not to be identified, because he feels that women think there's something a little sleazy about a bachelor living in a hotel. "I'm not the guy who wanted the hotel life," he says. "I'm pathetically the guy who planned to stay here three to four months and now it's been years. I screwed up my real estate life, so to me it's an apartment with lots of extra doormen. I hardly ever use room service. To me, New York is all room service." It is notable that "room service" tops almost everyone's list of desirable hotel amenities, even though every imaginable type of cuisine at every level of taste and expensiveness is available through neighborhood delivery. Maybe it's the removal of room service—the not having to clean up afterward—that really whets everybody's appetite.

Of all the properties where James McBride has worked, the Carlyle is the first he's moved into with his wife, Alexandra, and six-year-old son, Sterling. On the road to being the famed hotel's managing director, McBride has made stops at Ritz-Carltons in Pasadena, Washington, D.C., and Hong Kong, as well as at the Grosvenor House in London.

"I never take the approach that this is my right. This is my job—I'm here to take care of my guests," he says over tea in his co-op apartment. "The key is it's a very residential building, with only two transient rooms on this floor."

There are 60 co-op apartments at the Carlyle, and 180 hotel accommodations, set in a family-oriented uptown neighborhood. Alexandra says that at first she was "concerned about how few kids lived at this hotel. It made me big on manners. Sterling greets the doormen, the elevator men by name. He visits the chef." McBride adds, "Sterling is a part of our success. The staff likes him and is watching him grow up. It's great for playdates; everyone wants to come here. Kids love the garbage compacting and visit the walk-in freezer. They see the workings of the back of the house and leave with shampoo samples." (Kiehl's, since you wondered.)

Sitting in their tasteful apartment, which blends hotel furniture with their personal belongings (all the art is the McBrides'), the family emphasizes their gratitude at getting to live in the storied hotel. "We know where our place is, completely. I know it's not my entitlement," the South African–born McBride says. "The hotel business is a lifestyle. We entertain four to five times a week. If I'm entertaining guests downstairs and Tony Blair arrives, I have to leave the table and greet him."

Alexandra notes that on "Sunday nights, as a treat, we do room service, but [otherwise] we keep cooking for Sterling. When Sterling was little, we stayed in a bed-and-breakfast in Kent, Connecticut, and Sterling couldn't believe there was no room service."

Young-man-on-the-move Joey Betesh and his wife, Sally, an NYU freshman, love living at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Manhattan's Time Warner Center—though they look more like kids who get to stay in Mom and Dad's pied-à-terre. The two grew up as neighbors in the Flatbush–Ocean Park section of Brooklyn, always enjoying coming into "the city." Married 11 months, at 31 and 19 they are the youngest couple at the Mandarin. The way was paved by Joey's father. "He gave us the money to invest in a city apartment," Sally explains.

She's decorated the apartment herself, in a contemporary style: "Our friends love it. They hang out here. It's cute." I wonder whether her apartment is a condo. "Is it?I don't know. Ask Joey. This is the North Tower. Jay-Z lives above us." Joey thinks one advantage of hotel living is "you never know who you're going to see. We've seen Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake in the elevator, and bumped shoulders with Brad Pitt. They are constantly redecorating and fixing up, like they had to the time Paris Hilton put her candy wrapper in a plant. Because it is a hotel, there are new people coming in every day, so there's a pressure to keep the maintenance up. We once cooked dinner and called for a housekeeper at 10 p.m. because we didn't feel like doing the dishes."

Sally jumps up to show the table and tablecloth the building sent to their apartment "in two minutes" for a luncheon she was hosting the next day.

For the Beteshes, this is the dream come true. "We used to come to the city and say, 'Imagine living here.'" But because they live on a high floor—the condos start on 64—the couple leaves every Friday afternoon in order to be with their families in Brooklyn by sundown. They never take elevators on the Sabbath—not even at the Mandarin Oriental.

Although hotels with significant residential components are on the rise around the world, living in hotels is still more common in New York City than anywhere else. Here, the Big Apple properties mentioned in this story—and what it takes to move in.

The Sherry-Netherland

One-bedrooms start at $1.4 million and require a green light from the board of directors to purchase. Rooms can be rented on a daily, monthly, or annual basis. 781 Fifth Ave.; 877/743-7710 or 212/355-2800;; doubles from $499.

The Pierre

Resales only, through brokers. 2 E. 61st St.; 800/743-7734 or 212/838-8000;; doubles from $600.

Ritz-Carlton New York, Battery Park

Apartments, occupying 800 to 4,000 square feet, were sold at prices ranging from $600,000 to $4 million; see broker Anita Wood (212/ 786-9779) for resales. Suites, starting at $650 per night, often host long-term guests. 2 West St.; 800/241-3333 or 212/344-0800;; doubles from $345.

Hotel Chelsea

Although none were available at press time, rentals run from $3,500 to $12,000 per month. 222 W. 23rd St.; 212/243-3700;; doubles from $225.

The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel

Asking prices begin at $450,000 for a one-bedroom to $16 million for a full-floor pad. Rentals of rooms and suites are available under the extended-stay program. 35 E. 76th St.; 800/227-5737 or 212/744-1600;; doubles from $550.

Mandarin Oriental, New York

Units, which cost from $2 million to more than $30 million for the penthouse, are sold out; resales through individual brokers. Preferred rates on rooms for extended-stay guests are negotiable. 80 Columbus Circle; 866/801-8880 or 212/805-8800;; doubles from $725.

The Sherry-Netherland

Situated directly across from Central Park in the center of midtown Manhattan, this grand-scale boutique hotel has a sumptuous feel, from its opulent lobby that was modeled after the Vatican Library to its intricate mosaic floors and manned elevators.Originally designed in the 1920s as residences, the hotel today features 50 classically decorated rooms draped in calm tones of white and beige accented with fresh flowers.Don’t miss the on-site museum-quality vintage jewelry store, A La Vieille Russie, whose friendly and encyclopedic staff will tell you colorful histories of each piece. There are also popular hair salons for women (Garren, a favorite of fashion editors) and men (the Emile Salon). Guests, as well as New York’s chic social set, flock to Harry Cipriani, the hotel’s restaurant, for its tuna tartare, trademark bellinis, and upscale European-tinged atmosphere.

The Pierre, A Taj Hotel, New York

The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel

The Ritz-Carlton New York, Battery Park

Set at the southern tip of Manhattan, this Ritz Carlton may be the only hotel in the city where you'll wake to the morning cries of seagulls. These simpler pleasures—light, quiet, views of the Statue of Liberty and passing ships—are the real reasons to stay here; the customary Ritz-Carlton crystal-and-marble formality isn't much in evidence. The 298 lemon-yellow and sea-green rooms—all with Frette linens and Asprey bath products—start at a spacious 425 square feet; those with harbor views have window telescopes. Abstract works by New York artists hang on walls throughout the hotel, while gently curving hallways and Art Deco touches allude to the cruise liners that once called at the adjoining harbor.

Mandarin Oriental, New York